Butter Tea & Banana Soup, A Collection of Recipes and Stories

Posted on February 27, 2013, by Ann Wright, Half the Sky Movement

In a cookbook written by the students of Asian University for Women (AUW) in Bangladesh, you will find recipes for kebab, Afghani noodles, leek ravioli, a range of curries, butter teas, carrot soup, banana soup and so much more. These are favorite recipes of the young women who attend AUW, reflecting their diverse nationalities from thirteen countries across Asia. The cookbook, Butter Tea & Banana Soup: Food as Identity, is more than just a book of recipes, however. All the women who participated have also shared a description of the personal significance of the recipe to their identity, family and culture. Jamie Mittleman was inspired to create the cookbook after teaching and mentoring at AUW.

Jamie was aware of many of the challenges facing women and girls before college, but it was the book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and a 2008 New York Times Op-Ed by Nicholas Kristof, “Terrorism that’s Personal,” highlighting the use of acid attacks to subjugate and intimidate women that made these challenges especially real for her.


Jamie Mittelman holding a copy of Butter Tea & Banana Soup: Food as Identity

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn were commencement speakers at her graduation at Middlebury College the same year. “They told us two things,” Jamie says, “to get out of our comfort zones and not to worry about the big picture –– but instead to focus on helping a few people.”

Emboldened by their words, Jamie headed off to Bangladesh –– having never been to Asia –– to teach English at AUW. Jamie contracted dengue fever after one semester and was forced to return home. Though she was thousands of miles away, she wanted to share the stories of the women at AUW in a unique way. Jamie explains that she was influenced by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s ability to “use storytelling to spread a message, and secondly, to use an empowering tone through writing and photographs that capture women as leaders and not victims.”

Having witnessed the students at AUW cooking together in the dorm’s kitchen and bonding over their shared desire for a broader selection of menu items in the school cafeteria, Jamie and now former provost, Mary Sansalone, agreed on the idea to create a cookbook that would use the shared love of food to connect the young women and highlight their stories. All of the students were invited to submit their recipes and stories with assistance from the teachers and Dean at the school’s writing center. Jamie edited all of the stories and tested the recipes. “I had to go through and make the recipes because sometimes the students would write a ‘grandma’s pinch of’ rather than the number of teaspoons,” Jamie says.


The students in a circle with Jamie, shot taken from below

The book uses “food as a conduit of identity for women to celebrate who they are,” Jamie explains. The pages are littered with bright eyed, young women, who share stories that range from funny to poignant. They include stories like those of Saren Keang from Cambodia whose favorite recipes are beef soup with burning papaya and another beef vegetable soup. Her narratives include a lighthearted description of her mother’s soup business in Cambodia and the realization that her father could out cook her mother in a soup making competition, as well as a powerful anecdote titled “A Girl is Like This” about others’ expectations of how she should behave as a young woman and her desire to break those stereotypes.

Jamie hopes that featuring these young women in the book will boost their sense of self-esteem and their value in their communities. “The women are often the first in their families to go to college. So when she goes home, for example, and shows her father and her community this book, it will show that she is valued. Many people don’t see the value in female education and it takes something concrete for them to recognize it.” Each student now has a copy of the book that they can keep and share with others.

Some of the women are from countries and ethnicities that have been at war or experienced tense relations, and Jamie also hopes that the cookbook will be another “drop in the bucket” in bringing together students of different cultures and highlighting their shared traditions. She gives the example of tensions between Tamil and Sinhalese students who enrolled at AUW during the civil war in Sri Lanka and between Indian and Pakistani students. Lastly, Jamie hopes the cookbook will serve as the foundation for some new and more diverse options at the school cafeteria.