The London duo uniting the foodie community against anti-Asian racism

The London duo uniting the foodie community against anti-Asian racism

<p>Claire Sachiko and Lex Shu: Dinner parties and restaurants are theatres in themselves, and are a great medium to tell stories’</p> (Terry Vietheer)

Claire Sachiko and Lex Shu: Dinner parties and restaurants are theatres in themselves, and are a great medium to tell stories’

(Terry Vietheer)

The last year has shown us many things – some new, some old. It brought some of us together, and drove others apart. And, sadly, it highlighted the entrenched existence of structural racism within our societies.

At the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, parts of the UK saw a near-threefold increase in hate crimes against people of east and southeast Asian (ESEA) heritage. NYPD data shows that there has been a 20-fold increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in NYC over the past year. The US has seen attacks on the ESEA community resulting in fatalities.

Horrified by these statistics, and with first-hand experience of the racism and microaggressions sweeping the nation, Claire Sachiko Fourel and Lex Shu Chan, AKA Sachiko & Shu, decided to do something about it.

As “third culture kids” and ESEA minorities in the UK, they knew what it was like to grow up in a country other than their parents’ homeland, and how to balance their multi-layered cultural identities. As lawyers working on social justice and diversity issues, they knew how to use their skills to highlight the racial injustices perpetrated against their communities. And as foodies, they knew that food could educate, heal, and bring people together; that it could be used as a “vehicle to challenge ‘othering’ stereotypes and celebrate multi-ethnic and multicultural identities and heritage”.

They have poured all this passion and drive into a downloadable charity cookbook, Recipes Against Racism, which is designed to do exactly what it says on the tin. Grounded in the cultural melting-pot of London’s food scene, the book is filled with 20 recipes from the best of the city’s Asian and Asian-influenced restaurants and supperclubs. Contributors include Chinese Laundry, Farang, Kiln, Lucky & Joy, Poon’s and Solip, and the recipes highlight the culinary and cultural diversity across Asia.

But this is not just a call to love Asian food: it’s a call to support Asian minorities, be they strangers, friends or family, in the fight for racial equality. The duo hope to raise £20,000 and will donate 100 per cent of the proceeds raised by the cookbook to two charities: End the Virus of Racism and Stop Hate UK.

“While pandemics can lead to distance, fear and even physical violence,” they write on their website, “together through the power of food we can overcome othering and discrimination.”

They talk to The Independent about the campaign, their own experiences, and how we can all get involved.

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How did you get started on this journey?

We met in law school in 2006 and bonded over our mutual love of food and what it means to our cultural identities. We both come from different backgrounds: Lex is Canadian-born and British-educated, having grown up between Canada and Hong Kong, and Claire is French-Japanese-American, born in London and French-educated.

It was definitely the “third culture kid” connection which conditioned us to be able to make anywhere our home and build communities wherever we found ourselves, and this led to us organising music events, supperclubs and other storytelling experiences over the last few years, and forming Sachiko and Shu.

Our aim has always been to create inclusive experiences based on community and collectivism, and of course to tell a different story each time through shared experiences. Everyone is welcome, but people are expected to contribute to, take pride in, and enjoy the output, whether this means enlisting set designers to dream up the space, chefs to come up with one-of-a-kind menus, and guests to bring ingredients and objects to be transformed into something special.

All proceeds from the book will be given to anti-racism charitiesRecipes Against Racism

All proceeds from the book will be given to anti-racism charitiesRecipes Against Racism

How did your own experiences influence this work?

As Asian minorities, we have both experienced racism and microaggressions over the years and were shocked by the rise in anti-Asian hate crime since the start of the pandemic. We both work on social justice, diversity and inclusion issues in our day jobs as lawyers, and wanted to use our skills and networks to highlight the racial injustices which have been perpetrated against our communities, while bringing people together through our love of food, creating communities and positive shared experiences.

With physical events being impossible during the pandemic, which resulted in many people feeling emotionally distant, fearful and isolated, we had to think of a new way to connect. Many of us have eaten alone, or with the same person, for the best part of a year, so Recipes Against Racism was a vehicle for everyone to break bread together by cooking the same recipes and connecting virtually. The pandemic has also put huge financial pressures on the non-profit sector, and so we wanted to create meaningful change by directing the proceeds towards addressing the immediate needs of the Asian community, as well as longer-term strategic aims which will benefit the community far beyond the life of this project.

Was including non-Asian chefs in the book an important part of the decision-making process?

We were really touched by the level of interest from restaurant and supperclub chefs who were keen to be involved in the project and responded with enthusiasm to our call to action, given the challenges the hospitality sector has faced during the pandemic. The fact that so many took time out of their schedules to donate a recipe and share their stories about their cuisine or cultural heritage showed us how many people want to contribute to the global anti-racism movement by uniting through food.

We worked hard to ensure a diversity of Asian cuisine was well represented in the cookbook, in keeping with our mission: 13 out of 17 participating chefs and business-owners are of Asian heritage, and as you have identified there are also chefs who are not of Asian heritage but whose cuisine is inspired by great Asian food. We wanted to ensure that we did not limit participation to chefs with Asian heritage, as we felt it was important to be inclusive of chefs and business-owners from different backgrounds who are allies and supporters of the Asian community and who celebrate Asian cuisine and culture in a positive manner.

‘Cooking can be a letter of love for a culture’Recipes Against Racism

‘Cooking can be a letter of love for a culture’Recipes Against Racism

Cooking can be a letter of love for a culture, and we really felt that coming through from all the participating chefs. Dinner parties and restaurants are theatres in themselves, and are a great medium to tell stories – whether it’s about your personal cultural heritage, or your way of telling the story of a cuisine that you honour and respect. For us, this is where the message “love us like you love our food” comes in: if we consume food and culture, have we taken the time to understand where the dish has come from and to learn about the people who originated it, particularly if they face discrimination?

If you are not Asian but love Asian food, and perhaps post about it on social media a lot, how can you make sure you’re not just exploiting the cuisine or adding to the echo chamber?

There have been a lot of conversations around cultural appropriation in the food space, which we think are valid and important, and of course we have seen some instances where Asian cuisine has not only been appropriated without due credit, but presented in inaccurate and disrespectful ways. However, if an individual not of that culture takes the time to educate themselves on the origins of a dish, or the specificity of the ingredients, and does not pass something off as their own but clearly indicates the heritage of a cuisine, they should be free to be part of the conversation.

Cuisines are also not static, as Fuchsia Dunlop (whose knowledge of and respect for Chinese cuisine runs deep) remarked at an event at the Oxford Cultural Collective. Fuchsia pointed out that the word “authenticity” implies that there are unbending rules to which chefs must adhere, but in reality, culinary conventions evolve over time as a result of trade and migration. In the wise words of Chengdu chef Lan Guijun: “Today’s invention is tomorrow’s tradition.” We think that taking a mindful and curious approach to any culture we consume is always the best way to avoid the risk of accidental exploitation.

In what ways do you think food can be a vehicle for change?

The notion of the “other” is something we have reflected on a lot during the pandemic, where we saw people become fearful of each other. Who can forget people being scared of being within two metres of each other standing in line for the grocery store? Clearly this fear of the other and the geographic provenance of the virus has also led to a rise in hate crime against east and southeast Asian minorities around the world.

Who can forget people being scared of being within two metres of each other standing in line for the grocery store? Clearly this fear of the other and the geographic provenance of the virus has also led to a rise in hate crime against east and southeast Asian minorities around the world

However, we also noticed that food became a high point of the day during a time of isolation, and a way for people to stay connected to each other. While we recognise that this may have been limited to a privileged echo chamber, we saw communities coming together and going crazy over sourdough and banana loaves. Food allowed many of us to overcome the distance that was brought about by the pandemic, and provided a great source of comfort, where we were able to feel connected virtually through the universality of what we were going through.

In our globalised and hyperconnected world, food and cooking is often the first touchpoint for many of us to engage with a foreign culture, be that through going to a restaurant or seeing a dish on social media. We don’t all have the opportunity to travel to the place where that food originates, but this exposure does present an opportunity to learn about the people or the culture that originally created the dish. In that sense, food can be a great way to open minds to differences beyond our own cultural identity and can serve as a vehicle to break down barriers between people.

In this regard, we feel that food can be a vehicle for positive storytelling, to bring about human connection and cultural exchange, which can challenge “othering” and celebrate multi-ethnic and multicultural identities and heritage.

What kind of work do the charities you’ve chosen to support do?

After much consideration and research into charities tackling the issue of racism in the UK, we decided on Stop Hate UK and End the Virus of Racism as we believe they are both closely aligned to our fundraising and awareness goals, and both offer excellent support services for their beneficiaries on a national level.

Stop Hate UK provides an essential service through their 24-hour hate helpline which has supported the Asian community throughout the pandemic. As lockdown lifts, the risk of anti-Asian hate crimes is expected to increase – just last week, a Chinese student was violently attacked in Sheffield – meaning the need for this service is immediate. Stop Hate UK works hard to tackle all forms of identity-based hate crime and discrimination, whether based on race, gender, sexual orientation or any other identity characteristic, which is very much aligned with our mission of building power through intercommunity solidarity.

Agedashi aubergine soba noodle saladRecipes Against Racism

Agedashi aubergine soba noodle saladRecipes Against Racism

In parallel, End the Virus of Racism has been set up to address the lack of charities in the UK focused primarily on racism against people of Asian heritage, to benefit them moving forward and for years to come. End the Virus of Racism will direct proceeds from Recipes Against Racism towards the provision of mental health support and guidance about legal aid in east and southeast Asian languages.

We recently came across a research paper by Dr Daniel Fujiwara on the impact of racism on the mental health and wellbeing of Asian people. While the pandemic has definitely shone a light on the importance of mental health, the research paper highlighted the fact that this topic warranted further attention and longer-term focus in the Asian community, and that many Asian people who had experienced racist attacks and microaggressions were suffering in silence, without the awareness or the means to seek support. We therefore decided it only made sense to partner with both organisations to ensure that the immediate needs of the community, as well as those beyond the life of the project, were met.

What are your top three recipes in the book?

Lex: That is so difficult to choose as our purpose was to showcase the diversity of Asian cuisine, so I love them all equally but just in different ways! My mood really dictates what I want to eat, but over the past week I have craved the jiaozi (pot-sticker dumplings) from Chen’s Table and the claypot rice with wind-dried meats from Poon’s. I haven’t seen my grandparents in Hong Kong for a while, and these are both recipes which remind me of home and which I find incredibly comforting – and a bit of comfort is something we all need after the year we’ve had! I also have a sweet tooth (definitely need to do a dessert edition) so I would have to end my meal with a Taiwanese crispy waffle. On previous trips to Taiwan, my sister Vicky and I would spend several hours a day scouring for street food, so this recipe definitely brings back memories! Can you tell I miss travelling?

Claire: It’s so hard to choose and they say you should never have a favourite! Today I think I’m in the mood for agedashi aubergine soba salad, as I’m very partial to a buckwheat noodle. If I wanted to seriously challenge my skills in the kitchen, I’d go for the oil-blanched red mullet from Sollip which mixes French cuisine (the other side of my mixed heritage) with a nod to Korean flavours. It brings haute cuisine to your home! I have a soft spot for Sollip, which is the only restaurant I was able to eat out at during that two-week December window of freedom between lockdowns, and which definitely kept me going through winter. We actually experienced a casual racist incident there as we were leaving, where a drunk guy yelled at us to ask if we had any spare prawn crackers. It certainly drove home how the conversations that the Recipes Against Racism cookbook will hopefully lead to are so important and timely.

Big plate chickenRecipes Against Racism

Big plate chickenRecipes Against Racism

And just for fun: if you’re stranded on a desert island, what recipe book are you taking? (Besides your own, of course – and for argument’s sake, let’s say there’s a kitchen on this island!)

Lex: Does Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat count as a recipe book? Every time I look through it I learn and discover something new, and I love how it presents cooking not as an esoteric discipline which must be perfected, but more as a means of connection and experimentation. Otherwise, I would have to say that Land of Fish and Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop is a go-to for me. Many years ago I did some traveling around China’s Lower Yangtze region (Jiangnan) and had some very enjoyable culinary adventures which this book helps me (try to) recreate and relive!

Claire: I’d go for Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, if you promised that the island’s kitchen would be stocked with all the necessary ingredients! To me, it’s a love letter to the culinary, political and historical complexities of the city, as well as an ode to friendship and the unifying power of food. Otherwise, I’d take the battered copy of my French grandmother’s recipes which we all had printed when she passed. It contains all the traditional French recipes such as baba au rhum or choux a la creme she would cook for me when I stayed with her during the holidays, written in her joined-up old-fashioned handwriting, with so many annotations it’s nearly illegible! It’s one of my most cherished possessions.

Read more about Sachiko & Shu’s campaign and get your copy of the book here

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