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

Lalita Kaewsawang, chef-owner of Hanhloh Thai Food, cooks kanom krok, Thai coconut cakes, at a Tapestry Suppers lunch in Mountain View on May 5. (Photo by Federica Armstrong)

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 to watch him make the khao mun gai, a deceivingly simple yet technically challenging dish. She offered to wash dishes for an hour just to be able to watch him pour chicken stock into a vat of rice at the exact right moment.

Saku yat sai, tapioca dumplings stuffed with preserved radish, peanut and tamarind caramel, are wrapped in lettuce leaves and topped with bird’s eye chili and fresh cilantro. (Photo by Federica Armstrong)

Kaewsawang and her story—from a young food-obsessed girl in Thailand to the owner of a Thai pop-up in Santa Cruz—were highlighted at a recent lunch in Mountain View hosted by Tapestry Suppers, a local supperclub series 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. The state of things in America 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.

Danielle Tsi, left in yellow, founded Tapestry Suppers in 2017 to bring people together through food. (Photo by Federica Armstrong)

“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 added, “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 a Vietnamese refugee who resettled in Paris 10 years after the fall of Saigon, shrimp spring rolls and banh mi sandwiches. 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 hungry 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 an in-depth Q&A with the chefs and recipes to share their stories in more detail.

From top, clockwise: Khao poon, a Laotian soup with vermicelli noodles and tofu; diners (from left) Stu Warnsman, Jennifer Dougherty and Karen Leshner examine the cuisine at a Tapestry Suppers lunch in Mountain View on May 5; diners (from left) Janet Wiener, Bay Thongtheppairot, April Chou watch as chef Lalita Kaewsawang makes her vegetarian version of saku yat sai, or tapioca dumplings. (Photo by Federica Armstrong)

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.

Chef Lalita Kaewsawang grew up in Thailand and came to the United States at 13 years old. (Photo by Federica Armstrong)

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 step-mother forced Kaewsawang, then 13, and her younger sister to work inhumane hours at a restaurant she owned in Berkeley. 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 Santa Cruz pop-up that she hopes to turn into a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Kaewsawang’s food evokes a vivid sense of place and identity.

Lalita Kaewsawang used a cast iron mold from Thailand to cook kanom krok, Thai coconut cakes, over a charcoal fire. (Photo by Federica Armstrong)

At the Tapestry Suppers lunch, she labored over a charcoal brazier, propped up on cement blocks 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’s grandmother would always have a set of 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 most local Thai food is. But to Kaewsawang, it’s just comfort food, a taste of home.

From top, clockwise: Mieng kham, a staple snack at any Thai home; fresh strawberries with prik gula, mixtures of sugar, salt and chili often served by fruit cart vendors in Thailand; and black rice pudding with caramelized bananas and coconut cream. (Photo by Federica Armstrong)

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, the Midwest, friends from Tsi’s yoga studio, this reporter — broke bread easily over Kaewsawang’s food (which happened to be completely vegetarian). Conversation flowed from fond food memories to the death of local retail to Steph Curry’s performance at last night’s Warriors game. Proceeds went to the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting.

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

Diners cheers each other at Tapestry Suppers’ Hanloh Thai Food lunch in Mountain View on May 5, 2019. (Photo by Federica Armstrong)

“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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Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

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