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 presidential election in 2016. She was worried 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."
The inaugural Tapestry Suppers event featured banh mi sandwiches and a Vietnamese refugee who fled to Paris. 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's with the chefs 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 omelet.
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 vivid sense of place and identity.
At the Tapestry Suppers lunch, she labored like a street vendor would over a bucket of charcoal, propped up on cement blocks, to make kanom krok, delicate, buttery coconut cakes cooked in a 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, 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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