Food trumps hate

Tapestry Suppers aims to combat intolerance, one meal at a time

Lalita Kaewsawang was 10 years old, and obsessed with chicken fat rice.

Growing up in Nonthaburi, Thailand, she'd return to the same street vendor over and over, watching him make khao mun gai, a deceptively simple yet technically challenging dish. She offered to wash dishes for an hour just to be able to watch him pour chicken stock into rice at the exact right moment.

Kaewsawang and her story, from a food-obsessed girl in Thailand to the owner of a pop-up in Santa Cruz, were highlighted at a recent lunch in Mountain View hosted by Tapestry Suppers, a local organization that seeks to amplify immigrant voices and culture through food.

Danielle Tsi, a freelance photographer and food writer from Singapore, started Tapestry Suppers in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. She felt unnerved by the increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric around the country and wanted to do something about it. It made her reflect on her multicultural upbringing in Singapore, where she was surrounded by people from different religions and races, reflected in the cultural mashup that is Singaporean cuisine.

"Food is a very big part of our culture and my sense of identity," Tsi said. "It made me realize that it's a really accessible way to bring people together, and it was a really accessible way to transcend the differences that seem to be very prominent and very rigid and imposed arbitrarily.

"We all need to eat," she said, "and everybody loves good food."

Two months after President Donald Trump announced a travel ban on Muslim-majority countries in early 2017, Tsi held the inaugural Tapestry Suppers event in Palo Alto. The lunch featured shrimp spring rolls, banh mi sandwiches and a Vietnamese refugee who resettled in Paris 10 years after the fall of Saigon. Ticket proceeds were donated to the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid organization.

It was clear from that first lunch, Tsi said, that the people who showed up were yearning for connection outside of social media and polarized political debates.

So, she kept going: a high-tea event put on by a molecular biologist from Chennai, a lunch prepared by three women from different regions of Italy, a traditional Persian feast, a potluck to raise money for undocumented immigrants impacted by the wildfires in Sonoma County. For every event, Tsi publishes in-depth Q&A with the chefs and recipes to share their stories.

On a sunny Sunday earlier this month, Kaewsawang recreated the street food of her youth for a group of diners.

Kaewsawang's earliest culinary instructors were her family members, neighbors and street food vendors. From her father, she learned to perfect fried chicken with oyster sauce and garlic. A neighbor showed her how to properly fry an omelette.

Kaewsawang came to the United States in 2001 when her father married an American woman. She planned to spend a year learning English and then return to Thailand, but things unraveled at home. Her father left and her stepmother forced Kaewsawang, then 13, and her younger sister to work inhumane hours at a restaurant she owned in Berkeley, she said. Kaewsawang eventually obtained a restraining order, left home when she was 17 and received her green card through the Violence Against Women Act, a federal law that provides protection for immigrant women and crime victims.

Food stuck with her through college, where she started serving Thai food from her first-floor apartment balcony through a pop-up she called Thai Late Night. She went on to cook at restaurants in New Orleans and Chicago and apprenticed at the three-Michelin-starred Manresa in Los Gatos before starting Hanloh Thai Food, a pop-up that she hopes to turn into a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Kaewsawang's food evokes a strong sense of place and identity.

At the Tapestry Suppers lunch, she labored over a charcoal brazier propped up on cement blocks, much like on the streets of Thailand, to make kanom krok: delicate, buttery coconut cakes cooked in a special cast-iron mold from Thailand. Chef-friends helped make saku yat sai: small, translucent tapioca dumplings stuffed with preserved radish, peanut and tamarind caramel, served for special occasions in Thailand. There was also mieng kham, a staple snack at any Thai home: a colorful platter of lime, ginger, shallot, lemongrass, peanuts, toasted coconut and chili, to be wrapped in a betel leaf, which grow in the wild in Thailand, and eaten in a single bite. (Kaewsawang said her grandmother would always have mieng kham in the refrigerator, ready to be eaten at a moment's notice.)

The bright flavors and complex textures of her yum khao tod (crispy rice salad with mango, raspberries, herbs and nham prik pao, or chili jam), hed nam tok (roasted mushroom larb with toasted sticky rice powder and herbs) and black rice pudding with caramelized bananas and coconut cream wake you up to how Westernized the food served at most local Thai restaurants is. But to Kaewsawang, it's just comfort food, a taste of home.

"I like bold flavors, really contrast(ing): spicy, citrusy, sweet, salty," she said. "I want to cook Thai food, not California Thai."

People of varied backgrounds -- from India and the Midwest, friends from Tsi's yoga studio, this reporter -- broke bread easily over Kaewsawang's food (which happened to be completely vegetarian). Conversations jumped from fond food memories to the death of retail to Steph Curry's performance at the previous night's Warriors game. Proceeds from tickets went to the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting.

Tsi calls Tapestry Suppers a "food-focused movement that resists hate."

"It's taking a stand to focus on what we share in common more than about what divides us and the differences between us," she said.

The demand for this continues, she said. She hopes to eventually find a space for Tapestry Suppers to be able to host more dinners and offer other kinds of programs, including cooking workshops.

More information about Tapestry Suppers is available at tapestrysuppers.org.

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4 people like this
Posted by West Menlo
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 10, 2019 at 1:38 pm

I believe there was an uptick in discussions around “illegal immigrants” versus “immigrants.” There is a big difference. And, if I’m not mistaken, Trump did not ban people from Muslim majority countries, of which there are approximately 57, but instead tried to limit travel, until better vetting procedures could be developed, from 5 Muslim-majority terror sponsoring nations and North Korea. Not sure why facts don’t seem to matter in your “political” food article.

26 people like this
Posted by Western PV
a resident of Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch
on Jun 10, 2019 at 3:31 pm

“illegal immigrants” versus “immigrants”

These are important distinctions.

When you refer to illegal, are you referring to the host of Trump property employees that were in the country illegally?

- Web Link "Undocumented Workers Lose Their Jobs at Yet Another Trump Property"

Or the nominally legal, but cheaply paid, foreigners that Trump properties bring in from overseas to avoid paying Americans reasonable wages?

- Web Link "Trump Organization’s Use of Foreign-Worker Visas Reaches 10-Year High"

2 people like this
Posted by West Menlo
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 10, 2019 at 8:48 pm

@Western PV: I don’t care if it’s Trump property employees brought here illegally, [portion removed; stick to facts] or the people who pick your lettuce. Illegally here means illegally here. Very different from my ancestors who came here, stood in line, were properly vetted and got into country LEGALLY. And very different from the thousands and millions of people who spend time, money and effort following our laws and respecting our laws to get here legally.

1 person likes this
Posted by West Menlo
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 11, 2019 at 5:41 am

Editor: regarding your redacting a portion of my comment: please read the following. Web Link

He may or may not have been in the country illegally. He does seem to have been a Chinese spy.

18 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of another community
on Jun 11, 2019 at 12:07 pm

West Menlo, it's highly unlikely that your ancestors were vetted when they came here, depending on how far back that was. What line did they wait in? Lines at a port of entry to check for illness? And, even if they "waited in line", what does that have to do with undocumented economic immigrants here in the US? It's not that your perspective lacks merit, but it's problematic given your dog whistles, such as picking lettuce. I have very recent documented immigrants in my family who didn't do much waiting and it all went smoothly, including extensive vetting.

Trump's focus on vetting Muslim immigrants was pretty silly. One of the only categories that needed more scrutiny was fiancé visas.

Like this comment
Posted by West Menlo
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 12, 2019 at 2:44 pm

Yes, @Hmmm, my relatives got all the vetting there was back then, for Diseases and a contact name of someone who would be responsible for you. So they were LEGAL. Contrast that to “undocumented economic migrants” that you describe who are ILLEGAL. I have no problem with people who get here legally, including the members of your family who recently legally gained entry. Read my original comments again. I’m trying to highlight the fact that the word “immigrants” is commonly used by the media to describe both legal and illegal immigrants, but those two categories describe very different groups of people.

1 person likes this
Posted by Western PV
a resident of Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch
on Jun 12, 2019 at 3:16 pm

" “immigrants” is commonly used by the media to describe both legal and illegal immigrants"

Shucks. Noted. Bummer.

When are you going to get mad at the corporations that encourage immigration? Mad at the corporations that enable the politicians that do nothing but bluster (ie. the GOP)? Trump had Paul Ryan's GOP House and McConnell's GOP Senate for TWO years and did nothing. Nothing. Zero. Zip. Nada. Zilch.

Coincidence? Of course not. Worst politicians ever? Maybe. Two years and nothing, to please their corporate donors/masters.

But go ahead and blame the media for using the word “immigrants”.

" “immigrants” is commonly used by the media to describe" immigrants.

The horrors!

Like this comment
Posted by yup
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 13, 2019 at 6:51 pm

Two years and no wall. They never wanted it, other than to rage their base.

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 13, 2019 at 6:57 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.


you haven't heard? According to our moron in chief, construction is under way. It's not, but we know about his loose grip on reality.

1 person likes this
Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 13, 2019 at 7:02 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.

Western PV:

Yes, "immigrants" is technically correct when referring to both legal and illegal immigrants. And I'm sure you know that. The press shows their bias when they refer to both as "immigrants". Illegal immigration is a problem. As long as the press and people like you continue to try to soft sell illegal immigration as just "immigration" we will continue to have a problem. Not to mention that the true problem is that neither the dems or the pugs really want immigration reform. It's too good a topic to keep their bases riled up. Never going to change until people wise up and demand both sides quit screwing around and actually FIX the problem. I'm not holding my breath.

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