Food, ritual and secrecy: Anh Nguyen examines Vietnamese traditions today

The Kitchen God Series sees the photographer enter the intimate spaces young Vietnamese people in New York, asking how they’re maintaining (and reforming) tradition.

3 July 2024

“Food is the most universal language that unites people,” begins Anh Nguyen. “And yet it carries unspoken codes of conduct that can serve as insight into a culture.” It’s this fact that forms the basis of the New York-based photographer’s recent project, The Kitchen God Series. Using the culinary rituals she grew up with as a lens, Anh explores how young Vietnamese people living in New York are maintaining tradition, but also the ways in which they’re reforming it, finding new ways of expressing their culture and carving out their own paths. By removing traditions from their original context Anh documents the “in-between” space that she, and many others of her generation who move away from home, exist within.

The series is named after one ritual in particular: the process of preparing food for the kitchen gods on the 23rd day of the 12th month, before Lunar New year. “The tradition involved preparing an elaborate offering table, burning three joss paper outfits for the gods to wear, and preparing three red carp fishes for them to ‘ride to the sky’,” says Anh. “On this day, the kitchen gods, who normally reside in our homes, go off to the sky and report on the status of the family from the previous year.”

It was something Anh would perform with no question; such rituals were “second nature” to her. But after moving from Saigon ten years ago, and having now lived in the US for nearly a decade, Anh found herself interrogating her cultural expression. “I’ve begun to re-evaluate how I value my culture — what I have carried on and what I’ve left to question. Removed from its original context, traditions inherently become conceptual and open to interpretation.”


Anh Nguyen: The Kitchen God Series (Copyright © Anh Nguyen, 2024)

Anh began to consider what a kitchen god would see if they looked into her life, before herself adopting the role of a “kitchen goddess”, entering the lives of other young Vietnamese people who had made New York their home. “It began with going into people’s homes and observing the features of their homes that represent their cultural identity and what that reveals about their feelings towards traditions,” says Anh. Developing the idea of ‘being watched’ (by an all knowing, all seeing god) Ahn also wanted to convey a sense of intimacy, excavating the most internal of spaces. “I thought about all the things we keep hidden from our families being so far away from them – something only a kitchen god would know,” says Anh. “In this way, the still lifes serve as a way to photograph the ‘unspoken’. They represent repressed emotions and pieces of identity not shared with our families.”

The Kitchen God Series does feature some shots of food, but they’re far flung from your typical food photography shots. One shows a group of young people cheersing across a table weighed down by a feast, a slightly unnerving edge added by the intense gaze of all sitters directed at the camera. Or there’s the image with a cracked quail’s egg seeping from an open mouth, which directly references a Vietnamese creation myth involving 100 eggs. “In this instance, the eggs are a symbol of birth and rebirth. The holding of it in the mouth, with the dripping, also hints at an erotic undertone that’s hidden throughout the series.”

Many images, however, feature no food whatsoever, an absence that Anh says is to highlight “the opposite of nourishment, which is a sense of desire or yearning, to represent the pieces of ourselves we don’t share with our families”. The image Two Babies, is used to hint at queerness; while in the image Body Hair, stomach hair has been shaped into a heart shape – here, Anh uses a “typically non-Asian feature” to suggest interracial relationships. It’s this palpable sense of distance and secrecy that Anh sees as being a vehicle to express her own “shame and guilt around the expression of sexuality and desire”.

While The Kitchen God Series deals with complex topics and deep emotion, through her playful, high-exposure style, Anh aims to also create a sense of humour and joy. “I think the generational responsibilities I, and many people my age, face can become a heavy burden – maybe the only way to accept it is to find the joy in it,” says Anh. “This is how I think my generation is finding a way to make traditions part of our lives but also carve our own paths.”

GalleryAnh Nguyen: The Kitchen God Series (Copyright © Anh Nguyen, 2024)

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Anh Nguyen: The Kitchen God Series (Copyright © Anh Nguyen, 2024)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature and History, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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