My mother’s Thai cooking wasn’t bad for me; American fad diets were

WW’s food director reflects on how growing up Thai in America warped her concept of health and wellness—and how she's changed that for the better.

It’s 6:30 p.m. by the time I get home from basketball practice. My mother is prepping dinner in the kitchen, as she does most evenings after work. She is a talented cook, famous among friends and family for whipping up delicious, complex dishes. The scent wallops me as I cross the threshold. Our New York City apartment is fragrant with sizzling aromatics, just shy of eye-stinging.

Moments later I scramble to the table for dinner: beef green curry with sautéed morning glory and jasmine rice. I eat the food robotically, cleaning my plate. I don’t appreciate the creaminess of the coconut milk, the tenderness of the beef, the pops of astringency from the special mini eggplants my mom sources from a tiny slip of a Thai grocery store downtown. I don’t register how the crisp, hollow stems of the garlicky greens provide a vegetal respite from the curry’s rich complexity. On some level, I don’t want to be eating this food at all. I’m 16 years old, and all I want is a plain boiled chicken breast with lettuce, dressing on the side.

I’m convinced my mother’s Thai cooking is standing in the way of me becoming my most fabulous self. Restrictive low-carb and low-fat weight-loss fads are all the rage right now, and our family recipes are filled with forbidden evils. Most of our meals are served on a base of white rice or noodles. My mother uses peanut oil for stir-fries, and full-fat coconut milk—never “lite”—in curries. I’m resentful of her culinary steadfastness: Didn’t she get the memo that carbs and fat are bad for you?

With a potent cocktail of teenage hormones and insecurity surging inside me, I absorb the Western messages about my Thai background’s famous foods and turn them against myself. By now I’ve developed a sense that my body is overweight—and that this is the only thing that matters—even though I am a three-season athlete and nothing is actually wrong with my health. I flip through fashion magazines and see stories touting 30-day salad diets, wishing I too could lose “those last 5 pounds.” I don’t look a thing like Katie Holmes or Sarah Michelle Geller (though, to be fair, that Wednesday night WB lineup was hella good).

It will take me years to realize that my diet and my body are not the problems. Right now, I can’t see any of the good in how I eat—the variety of fresh vegetables tucked among the rice and noodles, the reliance on lean protein sources like seafood, chicken, and eggs, and the more modest servings of red meat. Worst of all, I can’t appreciate that my mother’s home cooking is a daily love letter to our family. Western bias is scrambling the message.

In fact, without even realizing it, my mother is imparting valuable lessons in her defiance of dominant norms. At 16, I’m learning those lessons even if they’ll take a decade to sink in. Someday I’ll grow up to be a culinary professional who develops food content for all kinds of palates and cultures and needs. I’ll come to see that no single group holds the answers to a healthy diet and that the path to wellness looks different for everyone. Sooner or later, it’ll click for me: The culture that defines and enriches your identity should be what guides you on your own journey toward healthful, joyful eating, not some article about “bikini bodies.”

In time, I’ll watch as Western food culture catches up to some extent and becomes a bit more inclusive in recognizing the value of diverse cuisines, from Thai to Turkish. I’ll laugh when certain familiar foods and ingredients—kombucha, turmeric—attain buzzy status as they’re “discovered” by Westerners and cherry-picked by pop-culture trend chasers. I’ll see we still have work to do in celebrating the true scope and diversity of healthy eating.

Overwhelmed by my teenage feelings, it’s hard to picture myself as an adult making curries at home just as my mother did. But I will. I’ll patiently sear the curry paste until the spice in the air stings my eyes. I’ll boil the full-fat coconut milk until it separates. I’ll add extra Thai chilies along with fragrant, citrusy makrut lime leaves purchased at my mother’s favorite little market. I’ll feed my family with love and confidence—and be grateful to my mom for showing me how it’s done.

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Sherry Rujikarn is the Food Director at WW International, where she oversees cookbooks, recipes, and general food content. She has spent her career developing and testing recipes, identifying food trends, and teaching home cooks about all things cooking-related, including meal planning, ingredients, prep tips, and entertaining. Follow her on Instagram @sherryrouge for a peek into her delicious world.