Tanya Nguyễn, the owner of Chuminh Tofu on 12th and Jackson.

A Conversation With Tanya Nguyễn

Thanh-Nga Nguyễn (who usually goes by ‘Tanya”,) the owner of Chuminh Tofu, is nothing short of a local legend. While running the famous deli in the heart of Little Saigon for nearly a decade she has built up a reputation as one of the best vegan cooks in the city — but what keeps visitors coming back goes far beyond the food.

I first met Tanya nearly two years ago when she visited a small gathering of Buddhist meditation practitioners in a friend’s living room. As she seated herself in our circle, this small stranger’s calm, loving presence was immediately palpable. It was as if the air’s very composition changed, making it easier to smile than do anything else. “She carries herself with so much mindfulness, she must be a monastic,” I thought. It was the only explanation for the way I felt. Though she’s not in fact a nun— Tanya expresses the core of that spiritual path: Devotion.

Tanya gives every second, every breath, to the world around her. She is tireless in her generosity. Anyone visiting Chuminh can testify to this, whether it’s the way she cooks with deep mindfulness or how she gives full-hearted attention to anyone who walks through the door. Tanya never gives anything less than her total effort into the practice of loving action.

I interviewed Tanya in late Autumn of 2020 for an article that was published in the International Examiner about the community aid work she’s involved in, including the consistent effort to offer free meals to her neighbors on 12th and Jackson every Sunday morning and her fundraisers for flood victims in Vietnam that raised over $26,000. During our nearly hour-long conversation we discussed her early life, the deli, veganism, generosity, and many other topics.

Tanya is a busy woman, and while this interview wasn’t initially intended for publication, it felt like something of a crime to keep her stories to myself. Below is the full transcript of the our whole conversation (posted with Tanya’s blessing of course,) with minimal editing.

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Nathan: So I’d love to hear your story about yourself. If you could give the Tanya origin story, and especially what led you to opening up Chuminh Tofu…

Tanya: Yes, so I came here in 1994, with my mom, my dad, and my little sister. At the time I was in medical school. I was in my third year. I decided to give up and go with my Mom and Dad. Because they were old and my sister was only 11 years old. So I would play a very important role here.

Tanya sitting outside the Burien Ace Hardware for this interview.

So I gave up school, I came here, but I still wanted to become a doctor. So I decided to take an ESL class, because I did not know any english. I went to South Seattle Community College.

In 1995 my mom and my dad decided to make tofu, because they had a tofu business in Vietnam. They did it in the kitchen. They made a small amount and they sold to people — and the people liked it! So they asked them to open [the business.] They said “Oh your tofu is so good!” But [before opening] it took some time because we did not have the money. It took some time until 1997 or 1998 — until they officially opened a tofu factory.

I went to school and I was helping them, I did both. I transferred to UW because I wanted to be a doctor. I registered for the biochemistry major and I got accepted in that. And I studied and graduated in 2002. And I got accepted to work at the UW at the Zoology Department. I worked there for 4 years. But my dream was that I wanted to be a doctor. But to be honest I don’t like research (laughs) I don’t want to just sit there. So I quit.

I went full time at the tofu factory, and then one day I realized I wanted to be a vegetarian too. But it’s kind of hard with a busy life! You cannot cook, so sometimes it’s off and on, off and on, you eat what you can.

So because we make tofu, it’s easier if you have a restaurant or something, and everything is cooked from tofu! So that’s a good advantage for me, so I decided to open a vegetarian restaurant. The original factory is on MLK but [for the restaurant] I found a good location now in the International District.

We opened at the end of October of 2011.

I have a passion for tofu. I love tofu — because I worked with tofu when I was like 5 or 6 years old and I have a lot of ideas. With tofu you can create a lot of things. It’s like universal, like I say, a universal absorber. It gets along with anyone (laughs) it can absorb any flavor. It’s good at adaptation.

Just imagine if you go to live with a family that’s a totally different culture but you can enjoy yourself and get along with them and make it beautiful, tofu is the same. (laughs)

I recall you had a recipe that your parents had to find in the US?

The traditional tofu… my parents, nobody taught them, they taught themselves. When you work with traditional tofu it’s bland, nothing. But when you work with it you can create another recipe with a different flavor. There’s a lot you can do with that. You can have fun with tofu.

You do amazing stuff, the pork substitute, people are very impressed with it, all across the board!

I am very happy about that too and I feel so blessed that we try to make it and it’s successful. I’m very happy. We make tofu balls, roasted pork, and the vegan mayonnaise. I’m so grateful, like everyone loves it.

I was curious too about the name Chuminh.

The name is because Chu mean’s uncle, because we write in english it’s Chu, and it’s like “Uncle Minh.” Minh is my fathers name so that means Uncle Minh.

Do you still manage what the factory does?

Yes, yes. We love it.

I can say that I am in love with tofu! I never, never get bored.

Chuminh’s hot bar. (Photo by The Intentionalist)

I’m curious too, you talked about this earlier, can you tell me about becoming vegetarian, or vegan?

At the beginning I did not know about veganism. The majority in Vietnam are vegetarian. I don’t think we are educated to know about veganism. So as long as you don’t kill beings, you can drink milk, you can eat eggs, you can eat honey, as long as you don’t hurt them, then you can use them.

Because in Vietnam you do not see people torturing animals. You can raise chickens and you can take their eggs and eat from them. The idea is that we take care of them and they take care of us. So I think it’s mutual, they can run around and we can feed them so there’s no torture in there. So that’s why we’re more vegetarian.

When we opened, the customers began educating me and showed me that here nowadays people torture the animals for their profit, for their benefits... I think that that’s wrong. For example a hen cannot move anything, and others are on top of each other, but they still have to lay eggs. Not only naturally, but they force them to make more eggs than normal. So I think that’s wrong, so that’s why I decided [to be vegan.]

Actually the Vietnamese food, even if it’s not vegan, it can be easy to be vegan. So the transition from vegetarian to vegan food that I make is not difficult.

For us being vegan, we have to be careful. We have to combine the mind too… You need to be relaxed and not be angry. Flexible!

For example, if you decide not to eat meat but — this is Buddhism — an animal died because of an illness or because it’s getting old or because of accident. So now the food is there, you don’t want to waste it. You can rescue it for a lot of people. You can use that. Don’t be “Not I’m a vegan, I don’t eat it!”

Tanya carrying the signature hot meal and eggroll’s that she’s been serving guests every Sunday morning for free over the past two years.

I think that’s what made me surprised by your answer. Because I’m used to the “American way” of being vegan. Which I think is more about, you know, no meat as a rule. But you’re talking about “no violence” as a rule. They crossover a lot, but they’re not the same.

It’s all about your mind. It’s about being relaxed and open, and flexible. Everything, if you do it with love, then everything will be ok.

I hope that eventually people can understand that. Then in that way when you open the door for veganism then more people will come, they will feel more relaxed, it’s not obligation. They come at their own pace.

I know veganism is the love that we have for animals, for ourselves, for the environment, but we have to combine the heart and mind. If we want harmony together then it can be beautiful.

When we opened, the customers began educating me and showed me that here nowadays people torture the animals for their profit, for their benefits… I think that that’s wrong. For example a hen cannot move anything, and others are on top of each other, but they still have to lay eggs. Not only naturally, but they force them to make more eggs than normal. So I think that’s wrong, so that’s why I decided [to be vegan.]

So I’d like to pivot the questions to people, and how we treat people. I’m curious for you, why is it important for you to be generous and to help people out?

I think when I do that (act generously) it’s a way to practice, myself. You know everyone has a Buddha inside. You have a Buddha inside too. That is the way that I think when we practice. To be a better person, it’s just like, to find out who I really am.

So when I treat other people well, it just reminds me that I need to practice like that.

For example, you have a diamond and the diamond sits there for a long time and gets dirty. Life makes our diamond dirty. But our mind creates a different thing. When we see something we create a different mind. So if you remember to clean it every day then some day it will be so bright. If you forget it, if you don’t do it, it gets dirty again. If you are mindful, you clean it every day, you will make it shine more, and more, and more!

So part of that ‘shining’ is remembering your body but also remembering other people too and how you can help them?

Exactly. We help each other.

Not only do I give them kindness… but I also have their kindness. When I do that it’s both ways. It’s not only one way, I give to them and I accept too. I receive too. And actually I receive more than I give! (laughs)

So actually it’s a very big reward. It’s just like, when you plant one seed then you have a tree, one that’s beautiful with lots of flowers and fruit. That’s what I have. I give out one seed but I have in return so much love from people. I’m very grateful.

I think you’re teaching a lot of people how to do that too.

What was it that made you want to start doing Sunday food giveaways?

I think it’s the same idea; that I’ve been blessed… So many years I’m doing things with my life, and I see a lot of people not as fortunate as I am. I see some people, because of some very small reason… they got caught. And they don’t know what to do to get out of that. And for me and my ability, I don’t know what to do, and I cannot do a lot, but what I know is I can cook. I can make food. So at least I can bring a little happiness for them. So maybe with that they can move on a little bit. Maybe help them a little bit. So that’s why I first thought about doing [Sundays.]

Can you tell me about when you first thought, “I can do this every week?”

I think about… almost two years now. So when I just think about that and how I’ve continued [doing] Sundays, I feel so happy!

I talked to my son and my husband and said “If I pass away the first thing I really want to do is to continue to do Sunday.” Just make it traditional for Chuminh Tofu. So if you can — do that, please do that. If we survive, if we’re still there, Do it. If I’m not here anymore, make sure it’s still there.

The entrance of Chuminh Tofu

You’re healthy and you’re eating very well so I think you’re good for a long time! Hopefully this article can be part of that too. I want other people to know that… I don’t want to put you on a pedestal and say that this is so different [from what other restaurants are doing.] It is different, to be honest. Not that many other places are doing this. But I wonder how other people could do something similar too?

I think the reason lot’s of people don’t know [about how to help people] is because life is too busy, they did not think about that. They get caught in the moment but I think a lot of people if they knew how, they would do that.

I think so, it seems to me actually that it’s less hard than one would think it is if they didn’t see someone else doing it.

They can learn by example. (Laughs)

Can you tell me about the first Sunday that you did?

The first Sunday,… I wish that we had a picture! We were so busy we never thought about like “Oh… We’ll do something later to remember.” I think the first Sunday we served about 50 people. We gave out notices first.

Did you have volunteers already? Did you enlist people that you talked to?

No. Actually we had the son of one lady who is sick. I’d been helping them so I also told him “Oh we should do this, maybe if you feel better and be less stressed.” His mom was sick. So I had him, and I had another friend of mine, she’s Vietnamese… and I think that’s it! And then us at Chuminh.

So we set up the table outside. And we started cooking and bringing food out. And we started asking for people to come. It was wonderful. I think we served on that day 50 people!

50 people that’s wonderful. I also asked my husband about people who did not know that we were serving food, so we also put the food in the truck so he drove around and we gave it to people. So that was the tradition for 1 or 2 months, then we started to have volunteers. That’s when he stopped doing that.

Each Sunday The Eggrolls take a group photo after distributing meals. From left to right is Joe, Julie, Tanya, Khoa (Tanya’s son), Linh, and Leslie.

How did the volunteers get involved?

I think when people see, when the customer saw and they started asking, “Oh you’re doing this! Can we volunteer?” And I think that’s beautiful! It’s natural. They come and I told them “Yes, yes of course!” And I’m so happy!

I interviewed a few other volunteers and everyone has their own story, you know? I’ve got my own story of meditating with you, and Jonny Fikru has his own story of leaving his credit card and coming back.

Yeah Jonny is unique too. He was kidnaped! When he came he did not plan to stay. Now he’s stuck. (laughs) I’m so grateful. I feel like I have a party every day at Chuminh. I love it the feeling of having a party, when people come laughing, hugging, and going home with gifts. I love that.

Do you have any special stories of a person who has told you how much they appreciate the food and telling you how it’s helped them out?

I don’t remember specifics, but a lot of people when I cook in there people say “Thank you Tanya and god bless you!” “Thank you for doing that!” and, “We love you!” I think that is my medicine, that is my happiness. It feels wonderful. (deep pause) There’s no value, no words can describe how happy, how rewarding it is to do this.

I talked to my son and my husband and said “If I pass away the first thing I really want to do is to continue to do Sunday.” Just make it traditional for Chuminh Tofu. So if you can — do that, please do that. If we survive, if we’re still there, Do it. If I’m not here anymore, make sure it’s still there.

I am curious about the business side of it for Chuminh as well. Did you worry about how it may be harder with money to do something every Sunday? And how do you deal with those worries?

For Sundays I’m not worried because we make tofu, so I don’t have to go out and buy it. I think that’s the good part. Even if the restaurant is closed then I can cook tofu.

But right now it’s slower than the beginning of Covid. Very slow. Even the online orders are slow too. Right now I’m worried about paying rent. Paying for employee, all those things. So right now I’m afraid. If it continues like this I’m worried.

I didn’t know it was hard like that. But it makes sense. It’s hard right now for a lot of businesses.

To be honest I am still very grateful, because a lot of businesses closed down, but we survived. We never closed. Even thought it’s been up and down but we’re still hanging there. We’re still alive. Yes, so I think [it’s important] to just be optimistic and be happy (laughs) So I think we’ll be ok. Together we’ll be ok.

Some people told me that I should sell online. But I don’t know [how to start that.] Hopefully we’ll be ok. Don’t worry. Especially because we have the tofu manufacturing.

Is that business good still? Is that going ok?

No, it’s slow too. I think because we make tofu to sell to the restaurants and now restaurants have closed and there’s no dining, so it affects it all together.

I hope that I can get approved for a grant. There’s a grant I already applied for. That’s the thing I’m really grateful for. Just like you, they all worry for us. They say “We will come more often and we will let our friends know.”

Do you think that doing what you do on Sundays has helped out? The fact that people see that you are doing and helping support neighbors. Has that made a positive impact on business in general?

Yes I think when we’re doing [this work] it’s like we’re creating a positive energy. Around that, everyone feels happy. Just imagine if you’re in an environment with positive energy, everyone’s happy and calm. Of course! Of course it has a very good impact.

On Sunday the more we feed the happier I am. (laughs)

What do you think about the way that the Eggrolls have changed. We’ve started to give away socks, cookies, gloves, bags…

And masks!

We’ve given a lot of new stuff to people. And it’s kind of changing in a way and taking on a new form every week almost. It’s growing differently, you know? The same amount, just 5 people, but how we’re helping people out is different. How have you seen that change and what do you think about how it has changed?

Tanya in the Chuminh Kitchen holding a sign that states “Free Meal for Anyone who’s hungry or homeless” (Photo by Kathy Zamsky)

I think the more we give out the more they appreciate it. Because with what we give out to them, it’s nothing. For us, for example, maybe we have a pair of socks. We can use them, we can wash them, and we can reuse them. We can use that pair of socks for a long time. But for them maybe we give them and they cannot wash them and they have to throw them away. Because of that, we give them the masks, but maybe they use once or twice and then they cannot use them again, and they’ll need it again and again. If we continue, it depends on the season. Like the cold, it’s good if we can give them something to keep them warm like a hat or anything. I think if we can do that, that’s wonderful.

It depends on the season too. If it’s warm maybe we won’t give out the socks. But the cookies. Kathy, you know Kathy (the lead volunteer) right? Kathy is wonderful, she makes sure they have cookies. (laughs)

I’m very grateful. And I’m sure that I am blessed in my life that I’ve met all the wonderful people that I can learn from. Always I can learn something that the person I’m with. So always I appreciate that. Even my employees, they’re wonderful. I think it’s like a circle, with you guys, my employees, everything around me, make it, shape it. It all shapes the deli.

It’s so beautiful.

I think there are other businesses, and they want to help people around them, but maybe they don’t know how. Or maybe they’re afraid of doing it wrong or they’re afraid of committing too much, or doing something in a way that’s not sustainable… For a business that doesn’t know how or is afraid [to start supporting neighbors] what would you tell them?

If I talked to them, I would say “Be yourself.” You need to trust you, trust yourself, and just give out the love. I think with love you can calm anything down. Because the very first thing is that you yourself have to be calm first. And then that will affect others. You have to have confidence, don’t be afraid, you have a lot of love out there. It’s like the ocean. On top of the ocean the waves are strong and powerful and we’re scared, but that’s only the surface. Deep down it’s very calm and beautiful and peaceful.

And that’s like us too, because life makes us so busy and hurried. Everything is chaotic, and we forget. We think that we don’t love each other. But deep down in there, when you can stop for a moment, you can see that we have so much love. And we have so much trust in each other. With that you can change other people too.

It’s like, you have many keys You want to open the door. But you don’t want to open that door? Then don’t use that key. So in that way you have to be mindful. When you want to do something, what key do you want to use? What word do you want to say? Or what attitude do you want to give to them? So I think with that if you are mindful then you’ll be ok.

Just do it! Don’t be afraid of commitment or not. Just do it until you cannot do it anymore, [if you can’t anymore] that’s not your fault. If I can talk to them then I’ll say that.

If a business was curious about doing something similar, would you want to talk to them?

Of course! And I can help them too! (laughs)

I’d be very happy if they want to do that. I’m ready to help them.

Actually around Chinatown, the International District right now. I know that every Friday there’s a group of people who work with the food bank. And they go there and they pick up stuff and they go to the [senior] housing and they help people.

Yesterday or the day before they also gave out food! They came to me and already they had given away maybe 30 or 40 meals and they said, “Can I buy some rice from you?” and I said “You take as much as you want! You don’t have to pay.”

Tanya hugging her dog, Bagheera.

I think something that’s special about you’ve been doing, what we’ve been doing together, is the consistency. A volunteer told me that since he’s been involved it’s been every single Sunday without fail. Can you tell me why consistency is important to you?

Because now people expect it. I’m thinking about the expectation from them. They may be just so disappointed if they come and we’re not open that day. [Thinking about that] is so sad.

Some people expect, maybe on a Saturday, I imagine that someone’s hungry and they think “I cannot find food” But they think “Tomorrow I can go to this place, and I can have something hot to eat.” So maybe with that thought it will help them survive to the next day. To help them keep moving on. So that’s why we cannot fail. We cannot say, sometimes people say “Oh if you want to take a break you should close the restaurant.” But on Sunday we have to be open.

We think that we don’t love each other. But deep down in there, when you can stop for a moment, you can see that we have so much love. And we have so much trust in each other. With that you can change other people too.

By Nathan Bombardier

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Seattlogue

Seattlogue

Lifelong Northwesterner working in affordable housing development. Catch me (safely) interviewing community members, working in my garden, or staring at birds.