In these AAPI communities, meals arrive with a pleasant surprise

The food is more than what is on the plate. This is equal partsa series by traveling editor Shane Mitchell, examines the issues and greater activism in the world of food, and how a few good eggs work to make it better for everyone.

“Right now, I love using my son’s Crayola brand, because I’m a kid again,” says Nat Chantanalok, co-owner of the family-owned Tree Top Thai restaurant in Waltham, Massachusetts. In a Boston suburb of modest bungalows and a low-rise main street, his storefront catches the eye with a cheery purple canopy and flower-filled sidewalk planters, in an apartment block between a sandwich sub-joint and an auto repair shop. To see Tree Top Thai, which opened 22 years ago, you really have to live in the immediate neighborhood. On busy nights, the restaurant seats a maximum of 30 people – but that was before the pandemic, when Chanthanaluck switched to takeaway and delivery only.

A dinner heart is accompanied by handwritten messages and illustrations with each package. Photography by Alex Lau

To keep in touch with regulars, he writes customers’ names in a cursive line on each plain brown paper bag coming out the door. Chanthanaluck often adds messages like “stay safe” before bad weather hits or when COVID-19 cases spike. When orders are slow, he has time for more detailed drawings, like the Statue of Liberty wearing a surgical mask. As a child in rural northern Thailand, Shantanalok taught himself the art of calligraphy by studying magazines at his aunt’s tailoring shop and hand-painted posters outside his local movie house. (Print ads were expensive, he explains, so local artists put up banners for every new movie.) When he graduated high school, Chanthanaluck was sent to live in Bangkok with an extended family, chopping vegetables at his uncle’s restaurant. “This is what Thai children traditionally do,” he says. “You have to help with the family business.” After earning a commerce degree in art, Chanthanaluck immigrated to Massachusetts where his mother lives, eventually opening his own restaurant. Now, his family, including his wife and cousins, help out with the cooking. “A lot of clients tried to save us when the shutdown happened,” he says. They wanted to support us, and I really appreciate them. So this is how I say thank you.”

The care that Chanthanaluck shows in his neighborhood is beyond customer appreciation. It adds flair to a service that many are increasingly taking for granted in the age of impersonal delivery apps. Giving thanks is an important way to express humanity when a small business like himself is overly affected by current events, particularly in Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities, where according to the Stop AAPI Hate Coalition, crimes ranging from verbal harassment to physical assault have reached unimaginable levels. prefixed.

“Throughout the pandemic, AAPI moms and pops have been targeted,” says culinary historian and activist Grace Young, who was named Humanity of the Year by the James Beard Foundation for her social media campaign #LoveAAPI and Welcome to Chinatown. initiatives. “Across the country—Boston, San Francisco, New York—are these restaurants and stores that were all about a solo experience? Forsaken and closed. Bakeries, produce markets, grocery stores, and the Fives and Dozens: the places of heart and soul that truly epitomize ‘small-town USA’.” We missed out on a lot of old restaurants when the only thing you could have was eating out. It was awful.”

Equal amounts of ready-made Illos AAPI
The organization sends out culturally appropriate meals, groceries, and basic food items. Photography by Alex Lau

With New York’s Chinatown classics like Hop Shing and Lung Moon Bakery permanently closed, nothing more than menus with dim sum or pineapple buns has disappeared. Young testifies that the downtown streets emptied after dark because people were afraid to go outside – especially the elderly. That’s when the heart of the diner came to the rescue. Founded by partners Moonlynn Tsai and Yin Chang, who started cooking casual care packages in their tiny Lower East Side apartment, the now two-year-old organization works with a local network of restaurants, farmers and volunteers to provide culturally appropriate hot lunches, groceries and pantry essentials to seniors. Older Asian Americans staying home and experiencing isolation and food insecurity in multiple neighborhoods. “We have served over 110,000 meals so far,” Tsai says. “We focus on nutrient-rich dishes, like the dishes your grandparents might have prepared for you. White fish braised with soy rice, wrapped with goji berries, mapo tofu, tomato eggs. It tastes home made, and reminds us of childhood.”

Equal amounts of ready-made Illos AAPI
If you order takeout from Tree Top Thai, you will likely receive artwork with your meal. Photography by Nat Shantanalok

Meals are only part of their message. Growing up, Chang remembers that her working mother left comforting notes around the house for her to find, and the pair took up the practice together, making love letters to each other. “So when Heart of Dinner started in 2020, we wrote in black markers on plastic packaging: ‘We think of you and love you’ in Chinese characters,” she says. “We wanted our seniors to feel as if they were wrapped in an embrace from our entire community.” Those quickly written notes were the genesis of what would become the signature of the dinner heart—creatively decorated bags and thoughtful messages in the recipient’s native language—accompanying each dispatch. “We’ve had thousands of feedback, backlogged up from all over the world, in all of these languages,” Chang says. “We now have people hosting tote bags and demonstration days.”

Of course, love letters aren’t always the written type. They can also be something extra on the board. Eric Kim, author of Korean American: Food that tastes like at home. “Thank you for visiting, it’s often a note of familiarity, and it happens a lot in Atlanta when my dad escorts us to a restaurant and the owner gets to know him. Koreans love free stuff, and this service is closely tied to the idea of ​​special and specific hospitality.”

Equal amounts of ready-made Illos AAPI
Chanthanaluck is a self-taught calligrapher. Photography by Nat Shantanalok

“It’s called Li Chang Wang Lai in Cantonese,” says Janet Chan, whose father owned a restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown. Now based in San Francisco, she’s started posting her favorite dishes and finds — potter stickers, mooncakes, egg custard pies and peanut puffs, roast duck, even baked Hong Kong-style café-style spaghetti — on Instagram @sfchinatown. Today to show that the community was still open for business. “They might give the regulars extra food, or not charge a plastic bag. But if I told my dad, ‘Write a little note’? He’d say, ‘We don’t have time to do that kind of thing.'”

Chanthanaluck explains that the Thai expression for this free treat is called thæm, or giveaway. “This means that you buy one thing, but the owner wants to give you more.” And for him, that means keeping his markers, watercolors, charcoal, and pencils ready when orders pop up in the kitchen. “I just want to give them joy. When I started drawing calligraphy, even the teens were excited. I hope they will try themselves instead of using the keyboard. That’s why I keep doing it.”

Please consider donating to KK Store Recovery Box, a multi-generational company in New York known for supplying many Chinese restaurants. This old store was recently destroyed by alarm fire and forced to close until the city allows the Li family to rebuild.

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