In these AAPI communities, meals come with a pleasant surprise

The food is more than what’s on the plate. It is Equal portionsa series from editor Shane Mitchell, investigating bigger issues and activism in the world of food, and how a few good eggs help make it better for everyone.

“Right now, I love using my son’s Crayola marker, because it’s like being a kid again,” says Nat Chanthanaluck, one of the owners of the family business. Thai at the top of the trees restaurant in Waltham, Massachusetts. In this Boston suburb defined by modest bungalows and a low main street, its storefront catches the eye with its cheery purple awning and flower-lined sidewalk planters, in a residential block between a sub sandwich and an auto repair shop . To know Tree Top Thai, which opened 22 years ago, you really have to live in the immediate vicinity. On busy evenings, the restaurant can seat a maximum of 30 people, but that was before the pandemic, when Chanthanaluck switched to takeout and delivery only.

Heart of Dinner attaches handwritten messages and artwork to each package. Photography by Alex Lau

To keep in touch with regulars, he writes customers’ names in cursive script on every plain brown paper bag that comes out the door. Chanthanaluck often adds messages like “stay safe” before bad weather hits or when COVID-19 cases spike. When orders linger, he has time for more elaborate sketches, such as the Statue of Liberty wearing a surgical mask. As a child in rural northern Thailand, Chanthanaluck learned calligraphy by studying magazines in her aunt’s seamstress shop and hand-drawn posters outside the local cinema. (Print ads were too expensive, he says, so local artists made the signs for each new movie.) When he graduated from high school, Chanthanaluck was sent to live in Bangkok with his extended family. , where he cut vegetables in his uncle’s restaurant. “That’s what Thai children traditionally do,” he says. “You have to help with the family business.” After earning a business degree in art, Chanthanaluck immigrated to Massachusetts where his mother lived, and he eventually opened his own restaurant. Now his family, including his wife and cousins, help in the kitchen. “A lot of customers tried to save us when the lockdown happened,” he says. “They wanted to support us and I really appreciate them. So that’s how I say thank you.”

The care that Chanthanaluck shows to her neighborhood goes beyond customer appreciation. It adds flair to a service that many increasingly take for granted in the age of impersonal delivery apps. Giving thanks is an important way to express humanity when small businesses like his have been unduly impacted by current events, especially in the 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 unprecedented levels.

“Throughout the pandemic, AAPI moms and pops have been targeted,” says food historian and activist Grace Youngwho was named “Humanitarian of the Year” by the James Beard Foundation for her #LoveAAPI social media campaign and Welcome to Chinatown initiatives. “Across the country – Boston, San Francisco, New York – those restaurants and shops that were all about a person-to-person experience? Leaked and closed. Bakeries, fruit and vegetable markets, grocery stores, five hundred: the places with heart and soul that truly personify “small town USA”. We lost so many legacy restaurants when the only thing you could have was takeout. It was apocalyptic. »

Equal Portions Takeout Illos AAPI
The organization sends meals, groceries and culturally appropriate staple foods. Photography by Alex Lau

As New York’s Chinatown classics like Hop Shing and Lung Moon Bakery closed for good, something more than menus featuring dim sum or pineapple buns disappeared. Young attests that the downtown streets emptied after dark because people were afraid to go out, especially the elderly. That’s when dinner heart came to the rescue. Founded by partners Moonlynn Tsai and Yin Chang, who started cooking informal care packages in their small apartment on the Lower East Side, the two-year-old organization now works with a local network of restaurants, farmers and volunteers to provide culturally appropriate hot lunches, groceries and daily necessities for Asian American seniors struggling with isolation and food insecurity in several boroughs. “We’ve served over 110,000 meals so far,” Tsai says. “We focus on nutrient-dense dishes, like the ones your grandparents might have cooked for you. Soy-braised whitefish with rice, cabbage with goji berries, mapo tofu, tomato egg. They have a homemade taste, reminiscent of childhood.

Equal Portions Takeout Illos AAPI
If you order takeout from Tree Top Thai, you will likely receive a piece of art with your meal. Photograph by Nat Chanthanaluck

Meals are only part of their message. Chang recalls that growing up, her working mother left her comforting notes around the house for her to find, and the pair began the practice together, composing letters of affection for each other. other. “So when Heart of Dinner started in 2020, we wrote in black markers on plastic containers, ‘We’re thinking of you and we love you,’ in Chinese characters,” she says. “We wanted our seniors to feel like they were wrapped in an embrace from our entire community.” These quickly written notes were the source of what would become Heart of Dinner’s signature – creatively decorated bags and thoughtful despatches in the recipient’s native language – attached to every delivery. “We received thousands of notes, piling up from all over the world, in all these languages,” says Chang. “We now have people running bag drives and illustration days.”

Of course, love letters aren’t always written. They can also be something extra on the plate. “Suh-bee-seu, or service, is when a restaurant sends a free dish, maybe some corn cheese or a nigiri,” says Eric Kim, author of Korean American: cuisine that tastes like home. “It’s a thank you for dropping by, often a note of familiarity, and that often happens in Atlanta when my dad walks us to a restaurant and the owner recognizes him. Koreans like free things, and this service is closely related to a specific and special notion of hospitality.

Equal Portions Takeout Illos AAPI
Chanthanaluck is a self-taught calligrapher. Photograph by Nat Chanthanaluck

“It’s called li shang 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 foods and finds — potstickers, mooncakes, egg custard pies and peanut puffs, roast duck, even Hong Kong cafe-style baked spaghetti — on her instagram @sfchinatown.today to show that the community was still open for business. “They may give regulars an extra bao or won’t charge a plastic bag. But what if I said to my father: “Put a little note”? He said, ‘We don’t have time to do this stuff.’

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

Please consider donating to KK Discount Store Recovery Fund, one of New York’s multi-generational family businesses known for supplying many Chinese restaurants. This old store was recently destroyed by a two-alarm fire and forced to close until the city allows the Li family to rebuild.

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