Wednesday, 13 July 2016

CAN FOOD MAKE BETTER NEIGHBOURS? THE WING IN SEATTLE, WA

A MUSE BOUCHE

BY: ERIKA ROBERTSON

This week I’m showcasing the extraordinary museum where I work as a collections intern. Like every museum I’ve visited so far, the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (the Wing for short) keeps food and drink out of the galleries. They don’t even offer a restaurant or cafĂ© for hungry visitors! 

It turns out this is a intentional choice. The Wing staff think of themselves as ‘concierges’ to Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. Staff love recommending local restaurants (where they can often be found ordering their own lunches). Rather than competing with their neighbours, the Wing collaborates with local businesses to organize food tours. My mom and I had the pleasure of taking their “Not Just Tofu” tour together.

Mom, wait up! 
Photo by the author. 
From beginning to end, "Not Just Tofu" was about building empathy. Our guides, Doan and Jintana, asked us to introduce ourselves "before we eat a meal together." These brief introductions broke the ice. By the end of the first course, we felt comfortable bringing up difficult topics such as economic stresses facing the historic neighbourhood. Doan connected the museum's mission to foodways: both the Wing and food are ways to preserve and share stories. 

Doan pauses mid-story.
Photo by the author. 
So how was the food? In a word, amazing. Our "progressive dinner" began with Vietnamese-style lemongrass chili tofu from Chu Minh while Jintana shared historic images of the tofu-making process. Next, we enjoyed tea, eggplant in garlic sauce, and crispy tofu at Henry’s Taiwan Kitchen. Seoul Tofu had the greatest variety of flavours with its many banchan, or pickled side dishes. As our guide explained, the Korean American community is a relatively recent addition to Chinatown-International District. The dishes had been thoughtfully selected to weave together many flavours, experiences, and histories.

Henry's signature crispy tofu has a light, aromatic quality.
Photo by the author.
Somehow, we found room for three creamy shaved ices at Bambu. Doan said she felt more at home at this last stop, which offers wifi and caters to a younger generation. Our two-and-a-half hour dinner concluded with a gift. We were presented with lovely “Eat Sheets” with a list of more vegetarian dishes to try and unique recipe for each of us. Soon we were all sharing stories about our favourite recipes and what we wanted to cook next. 

Jintana enriches the Thai tea-flavoured shaved ice with history and culture.
 Photo by the author.

Food can be a delicious introduction to a neighbourhood. As an intern at the Wing, I’m proud that my host institution is taking a leading role in building relationships. Many people are joining the conversation and finding creative ways to encourage cross-cultural understanding. Three groups caught my eye because they’re using food to discuss immigration, place, and cultural identity in innovative ways:

1) The Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) in Brooklyn values the universal nature of eating: “Food is culture. It is more than simply what is on our plates: it is a common denominator of human relationships” Source. They have partnered with local restaurants to open conversations about immigrant chefs’ contributions to New York Source. 

2) Torontonians may have seen the Toronto Ward Museum’s new food tours featured in Huffington Post recently: “the Toronto Ward Museum has already begun to tell the city's local stories in an unconventional way—through food” Source.  You can learn about the experiences of Arlene and Leo Chan on their “Wok Through Chinatown” tour. Their goal is to introduce visitors to the stories of Chinese immigrants through food Source. 

3) Culinaria Research Centre at University of Toronto, Scarborough just launched their mobile app. Scarborough, A Little Taste (SALT) helps you navigate the stunning diversity in their city’s restaurant scene.  Source. If you want to try something new but you’re not sure where to start, they can point you in the right direction. Check it out here.

So find a food tour or try a new cuisine near you! If you’re in Seattle, check out the Wing’s upcoming Game Day BBQ tour. (Pro tip: museum staff encourage you to bring a container for leftovers.) Stay tuned next month to hear about changing perceptions of First Nations dishes as I bite into fry bread. 

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