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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Like this comment
Posted by ElaineB
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 30, 2019 at 8:47 pm

ElaineB is a registered user.

I have attended quite a few of the Tapestry Suppers. They are wonderful, both the food and the people I've met. I recommend Tapestry very highly.

25 people like this
Posted by Chimichanga
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 30, 2019 at 8:57 pm

"...in the wake of the 2016 presidential election...the increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric around the country and wanted to do something about it."

Hmmm. The countless Mexican restaurants in the area have already succeeded in making this dining statement.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 31, 2019 at 6:35 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

The dinners sound wonderful. I have a friend who lives in Thailand and many dishes pop up on FB to show what great cuisine they have.

Hollywood did not do Somalia any favors - Tom Hanks was in a movie in which Somalia pirates overcame an oil tanker ship as pirates. The Somali people who starred in the movie were from the US. Somalia is referred to an overlooked Extremist hotbed - WSJ.
We have troops there in the middle of a internal war. It is unfortunate that Arica - the second biggest continent on the planet - was colonized by European countries. Most of the African countries became "independent" after WW2. However the colonizing countries still have financial interests in the countries. A lot of tensions with internal wars. This is less of an American issue but more of a EU-African issue. You don't see the EU factor from here but you do see the internal war. Each country has a set of governing requirements but those can be vastly different for each country. Al-Shabab and all keep the pot stirring. the job here is to keep US cities safe though that is becoming harder to do.

10 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 3, 2019 at 7:30 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Appreciate the idea of the Tapestry dinners. However do not appreciate the manner in which this topic has been politized or the choice of title for this article. Thailand is a Buddhist country. I have friends that live there so am fully aware of the politics of that country. The politics have nothing to with Trump. The politics have to do with the elections of people within that country.

The politics in so-called Muslin countries is confusing to US. The word Muslim is an umbrella term that covers a lot of extreme elements that tend to argue internally with each other over their extreme politics and activities. One could say the same for Christianity which has a wide interpretation of approach which you can see from the vast number of churches with differing dogma.

People in Thailand take great pride in their culinary talents that have nothing to do with politics. And they all love cooking and socializing over food. The choice to politicize this human activity and tie it to a specific individual is not good journalism. Hope in the future that every human activity is not tied to some political agenda.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 3, 2019 at 9:09 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Thailand is in the vicinity of China. Note the Muslim percentage in China is miniscule and China is busy eradicating Muslims from the country. China is 74% non-religious and that is just the way they like that. They can tolerate some Buddhist and Taoist. Meanwhile Indonesia is almost a 100% Muslim Country. So everyone has a place to be and it has nothing to do with Trump at the back-end since the problem is at the front-end - the country itself. So each country has to take credit for their religious choices and work with what that produces relative to the countries worth.

8 people like this
Posted by Other Reflective Cuisines
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 3, 2019 at 11:53 am

So when is someone going to open a Central American restaurant?

There used to be one on Calderon Avenue in Mountain View...El Calderon.

It was there for a long time.

I don't think Thais are being discriminated against all that much. Muslims perhaps but few people go out of their way to eat Islamic food.

Like this comment
Posted by Ray
a resident of Professorville
on Jun 3, 2019 at 6:03 pm

Ummmm...I thought the Palo Alto article was about using food to expose people to different cultures (and by extension) make us more acceptable that people ARE different and that can be interesting, informative, tasty, fun, broadening, educational, less rigid and judgmental.

Slainte, (an Irish toast to your health)


6 people like this
Posted by You Are What You Eat...Not
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 3, 2019 at 7:13 pm

> I thought the Palo Alto article was about using food to expose people to different cultures...

Like all culturally diverse foods from around the world, it has to be 'Americanized' to a certain extent or Americans won't go near it.

As a result, ethnic authenticity is lost to a large degree & the dining experience becomes contrived. There are Mexican, Chinese, Japanese dishes that would be totally unacceptable to the Anglo palate and the same goes for Thai & Vietnamese.

In Thailand, street vendors sell live monkeys and the locals enjoy eating warm monkey brains. Think that would fly in Palo Alto? I don't think so, Tim.

In Japan, they offer squid pizza using the purple ink in lieu of cheese. Though pizza is not a traditional Japanese food, you're NEVER going to see it offered at Round Table.

The list goes on...and we won't even get into some of the native African dishes or offerings commonly eaten in the Amazon jungle.

Bottom line is 'friendship food' only goes so far and it has to be deemed 'edible' by Americans in order for it to be considered 'acceptable'.

Sports is probably a better all-around lobal mixer than food.

Like this comment
Posted by You Are What You Eat...Not
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 3, 2019 at 7:14 pm

lobal > global

2 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 4, 2019 at 6:25 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Yes - this article from the point of the individual is about food. However the newspaper put a hate title on this and changed the intent. This article could have been handled so much differently. Putting extreme words in the title of articles - not good. It sets the reader in one mode and this should be a happy article.

8 people like this
Posted by Stick With The American Classics
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 4, 2019 at 7:54 pm

Food diversity is fine but unlike classic American food, no one wants to eat ethnic foods every day.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 5, 2019 at 8:44 am

LoL at the headline.
Y'all just couldn't help it, PA Weekly.
When will you make the comment section registered-only?

6 people like this
Posted by intent?
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Jun 5, 2019 at 10:14 am

>> this article from the point of the individual is about food. However the newspaper put a hate title on this and changed the intent

Uhhhhh.... no.

The opening sentence debunks that claim: "Feeling unnerved by increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric in the wake of the 2016 presidential election..."

Find your space of safety, and re-read it with an open mind.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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