Sharing who we are over a meal is comforting, soothing, and bonding. Culture comes through taste, memories are evoked by our senses, and we learn about each other by presenting the food of our past, present and future. Not only do we discover more about the people around us by breaking bread together, but how some dishes are presented tell a story, engage the senses, and make us feel better. As we close in on Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May, we’d love to share five of the many beautiful dining experiences of the AAPI community that are designed to encourage a sense of community and deepen connections.
Kaiseki, a study in exquisite omotenashi
What was once a very simple way of serving guests multiple courses of food at the height of its freshness, kaiseki has become the pinnacle of Japanese haute cuisine. But what is it exactly? Kaiseki is a meal made up of multiple, deliberate courses of gorgeous food. The simplicity with which it is prepared is meant to highlight the true flavor of the ingredients and is the embodiment of omotenashi, or “wholehearted hospitality.” Not only is the food beautiful, but the plates and bowls that hold it and the entire environment in which it is served are feasts for all of the senses, and everything about kaiseki is meant to evoke a feeling of total and complete indulgence and care.
The way the courses — traditionally six, sometimes as many as fifteen — are laid out is done for particular effect. They start with sakizuke, a small usually pickled starter similar to a French amuse bouche and meant to whet the appetite for the following meal, and ending with mizugashi or mizumono, a platter of Japanese sweets or fruits. All the courses come together to create sensual symmetry and an extraordinary shared experience.
Gogi-gui, wandering communal grillmasters
You may be able to find a Korean barbecue restaurant in just about any city of the world these days but this is an ancient practice begun by the nomadic tribes of Siberia and central Asia from which Koreans are descended. They grilled their meat communally up until the time that Buddhism spread throughout the region, which eschewed meat. When the Mongols overtook the land between 1230-1271 A.D., meat came back with them and this practice of gogi-gui or “roasted meats” took off again. Known now as KBBQ, it is a communal dish prepared with friends and family over a centralized grill in the middle of the table. The meats are usually marinated beef and pork with an array of sauces and small sides thrown in. Kitchen shears are provided by the graciously attentive wait staff for you to cut your meat into manageable pieces to cook on the grill, fold into a piece of lettuce, slather with ssamjang — soybean paste mixed with gochujang (chili paste) — then pop into your mouth in one bite. Follow this with some salty, tangy, spicy kimchi, a mouthful of rice, and a swig of good Korean beer, and you are home.
Gong kuai and gong shao, a study in family style respect
It has been my honor to eat in Chinese restaurants all over the world since my earliest childhood and up until about 10 years ago, I had never in my life ordered my own dish for just me alone. I remember the silent dread that came over me when my lunch mate ordered their dish at this busy little place in Kansas City, Missouri, waited for me to order my one dish then when it came, they started eating as if it was the blue plate special from the local diner. That feeling of community that I had come to know, to even rely on, was completely missing.
The joy of digging into handmade dim sum, silky egg drop soup, or lush mapo tofu family style is the ultimate form of bonding, coming together, sharing. It just seems to make the food taste better when someone at the table prepares a plate for me from the lazy Susan in the center of the table or I use the gong kuai (public chopsticks) or gong shao (public spoon) to do the same for them. This practice has many traditions — some include elders sitting at the head of the table and being served first, diners then being served clockwise — and reflects the Chinese belief that sharing these plates of sumptuous, lovingly prepared foods encourages people to bond together and strengthen their connections.
“Atithee Devo Bhava,” a flavorful warm welcome with Thali
The hospitality of the Indian host is legendary. The traditional saying of “Atithee Devo Bhava!” (“The Guest is God!” in English) says it all, and the form of dining to bring people together is called Thali. This Hindi word meaning “large plate”, has transformed into the style of communal eating of gorgeous shared dishes placed in small bowls called katori then served on a, yep, thali. The almost never-ending array of foods range from vegetarian to non-vegetarian with assorted breads, chutneys and more. Once you serve yourself, however, you’ll want to wait for others to do the same before you begin eating. At a restaurant in India, servers may continually bring out more dishes from which you get your fill, and in an Indian home, your host will frequently encourage you to please, eat more.
Indian food reflects Ayurvedic traditions — the focus of combining foods for health and wellness are huge — and plays off the six tastes: bitter, heat, pungent, sour, salty and sweet. Sometimes, a variety of thalis covered in katoris filled with inviting fare are presented for guests to enjoy. With the breaking of naan and chapatis, and between sips of water and cooling tea, delicious food is eaten and great conversations are shared across the Indian table.
Hāngī, good food and the essence of manaakitanga
Down New Zealand way, the Māori thrive on keeping traditions alive and exuding a sense of warmth and welcome. This is reflected in their food and the way they share the bounty of their beautiful land in simple, communal, and giving ways. Based on what the locals say, there’s no better gift for bringing people together and living the spirit of manaakitanga (hospitality) than through hāngī cooking. While it is a style of preparing food and the name given to the apparatus created to cook this welcoming meal, it is also used to refer to the event itself, the act of feasting with others.
Here’s how it works: a pit is dug in the ground and hot stones are placed in the bottom. In the old days, vegetables, fish and meat were wrapped in flax leaves, nowadays mutton cloth is used then aluminum foil and the food is put into a basket that is lowered onto the burning rocks. Wet cloths cover the food then dirt is packed on to trap all the heat. The hāngī then slowly cooks for three to four hours and once revealed, a beautiful feast is laid out for new friends, old friends, and family to enjoy, bringing everyone together and strengthening connections.
“Eating together, breaking bread together, is one of the oldest and most fundamentally unifying of human experiences.” — Barbara Coloroso, Author
There is magic to coming together, getting to know each other over and through our food. You can taste the culture in the spices and enjoy recipes that say as much about our similarities as it celebrates our differences. These five bonding experiences are just the sampling of how those in the AAPI community share themselves with others. There are more gifts to be discovered and anything that helps us bond with others and get to know our other humans on the planet? Well…
We’re all in.