Bridging cultural divides and raising awareness, one box at a time
July 02, 2021
When it came to learning how to cook, Beatriz Aurelio-Saguin ’16 (Psychology) started small.
Her first cookbook was full of cookie recipes, which she used as a child to bake treats for her father. “I was so proud I could read it and cook the recipe at the same time,” she said.
That intersection of family and food is where Aurelio-Saguin, known to friends and family as “Bea,” finds herself today. She is the co-founder of Tuk Tuk Box, an online company that sells subscription-based food boxes featuring Southeast Asian cuisines.
The company has shipped around 2,000 boxes across the United States and Canada, but is also community-focused: It grew out of Aurelio-Saguin and co-founder Christy Innouvong-Thornton’s nonprofit work on behalf of Southeast Asian communities, and aims to use food to bridge cultural divides and raise awareness of issues facing people of Southeast Asian descent.
“It’s creating a table for all of us to sit at and say, ‘Hey, we're Southeast Asian, this is what Laos is, this is what Indonesia is,’” Aurelio-Saguin said. “Then after that, ‘Here's a meal. Learn about the meal and then here are the disparities’” our communities face. “It’s an opening.”
Aurelio-Saguin credits Sacramento State with providing her the skills to run Tuk Tuk Box and with giving her a space to learn about her own Southeast Asian heritage.
Born in Florida and raised primarily in the Bay Area, Aurelio-Saguin is the daughter of immigrants from Indonesia and the Philippines. Growing up, “food (was) our love language” and provided opportunities for her big family to gather together.
When she graduated from high school, she initially intended to enroll at UC Irvine. But her father, who is in the military, was deployed to Afghanistan, and her mom wanted her to stay close. Sac State, she said, was the perfect middle ground: Near home, but far enough that she felt like she had gone away to college.
The decision paid off. Sac State and particularly the Full Circle Project, with which she was involved though not an official cohort member, gave her a space to explore her cultural heritage.
“Sac State is where I learned a lot about being Southeast Asian,” she said. “Getting to know who I was culturally and discovering myself on campus was one of my biggest memories.”
Originally a biochemistry major, she switched to psychology after her cousin, a UC Davis psychology student, suggested she take a few classes. She also began working as a peer health educator with the Student Health and Counseling office, which exposed her to the field of public health.
In addition to her work with Student Health and Counseling, Aurelio-Saguin was a member of the Student Health Advisory Committee and the Delta Epsilon Mu pre-health co-ed fraternity, where she met her now-husband, Daniel Saguin.
Following her graduation from Sac State, she earned her master’s in public health from the University of San Francisco, and is working on a master’s in global health from Northwestern University. She continues to be involved with the Full Circle Project, often conducting cooking demos.
After earning her master’s, she spent time working in childhood trauma prevention at Dignity Health and as a health educator at Sac State. She still works for Dignity part-time doing car seat education, but last fall, Tuk Tuk Box became her full-time gig.
The idea for Tuk Tuk Box stemmed from Aurelio-Saguin and Innouvong-Thornton’s prior work with a food education nonprofit and partner organization called Courageous Kitchen, an organization in Thailand that supports vulnerable children in Bangkok. They would teach cooking and job skills to refugees being settled in the United States or Thailand while also raising money for Courageous Kitchen. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, such face-to-face operations were no longer possible.
In September, they pivoted to a subscription food box service as a way of continuing to serve the Southeast Asian community. It is, as far as Aurelio-Saguin knows, the only subscription-based food service highlighting this group.
“Christy was already sending kits out. As soon as the pandemic hit, people were like, ‘I can't get to the grocery store, I don't know where to go, because of the lockdown,’” she said. “So she started sending ingredients out to folks and we thought, this could be our way to both raise more money for Courageous Kitchen but also talk about Southeast Asia and talk about our community.”
Southeast Asians are often rendered invisible by the grouping of all people of Asian descent into one demographic category, Aurelio-Saguin said. As a result, statistics showing high levels of income or education for “Asians” can mask poverty, health disparities, war trauma, and other underlying issues within the Southeast Asian community.
“Tuk Tuk Box was kind of my way to start bridging that gap and talking about why there's these issues or who we are, because if people don't know our food, how would they really know who we are?” she said.
The company sources ingredients from local Southeast Asian grocers and farmers to build boxes such as “Legacies of War x Southeast Warrior,” which helps support an educational and advocacy organization working to address the impact of conflict in Laos during the Vietnam Warera, and “Hill Tribe Snack Box,” which contains ingredients sourced from Hmong and Mien hilltribe small businesses in Sacramento.
The company, which continues to support Courageous Kitchen, has been featured in national news outlets including New York magazine and Buzzfeed as well as locally in the Sacramento Bee and on Good Day Sacramento.
For people outside the Southeast Asian community, she hopes the boxes introduces them to a more diverse array of Southeast Asian flavors and foods, opening the door to a better understanding of the communities and the challenges they face.
And for people within the Southeast Asian community, she hopes the boxes can help bring down barriers between groups, creating a larger community that can speak with a louder voice when it advocates on its own behalf.
That community includes her family, like her father. His family fled Indonesia before he was born, and he wasn’t able to tap into his Indonesian heritage until later in life.
“I think about my parents and my grandparents and their struggles and how it would have been so nice for them to have a table that was already ready and welcoming them when they came here,” Aurelio-Saguin said. “By creating Tuk Tuk Box, I'm creating this table that my parents never saw, that my grandparents never got to sit at. I'm creating it for future generations.”