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Saffron and Solidarity

An immigrant-focused supper club flourishes among friends and strangers.

SLIDESHOW

Guests at the May gathering enjoyed a 13-dish buffet spread.

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A plate of food at the Persian-themed Tapestry Suppers event.

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Tapestry Suppers founder Danielle Tsi (left) with Mojdeh Zahiraleslamzadeh, who hosted the Persian lunch at her Sunnyvale home.

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Zahiraleslamzadeh prepares shirin polo (Persian sweet rice) on her kitchen floor.

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A spread of Persian dishes (sangak bread, cucumber pickles, shirazi salad, and cucumber-yogurt dip topped with rose petals).

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Cookies, tea, and conversation starters.

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Since it launched in March, Tapestry Suppers has fed about 140 diners.

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Election night, 2016. So many in the Bay Area’s liberal bubble can recall exactly how they felt when the results came in: shocked, angry, outraged, anxious, depressed—collective political grief on steroids. Danielle Tsi happened to be on a yoga retreat in Mysore, India, on November 8, and something about hearing the news so far from home seemed to only magnify its impact.

Then President Trump announced his Muslim travel ban. For Tsi, who hails from Singapore and has lived in Silicon Valley for 10 years, a sense of outsider’s unease mounted. “The anger and distrust of the ‘other’ is distressing. And it is endless,” she says.

Once back in the United States, Tsi began to mobilize. The tech PR worker turned freelance photographer who blogs at Beyond the Plate knew she wanted to do something community oriented. She also knew that food—that delicious unifier—would play a role. One sleepless night, a concept solidified in her mind: Once a month, she would gather friends and strangers around a table to share a feast cooked by an immigrant steeped in his or her native cuisine. Proceeds from each event would support an immigration-related charity chosen by the host. She would call the events Tapestry Suppers.

Since March, Tsi has organized five of these gatherings around the Bay, feeding about 140 diners in all and raising $3,700 in the process. Yoga teacher Thoa van Seventer launched the series at her Palo Alto home with a lunch spread that featured crab-and-asparagus soup, shrimp rolls, and heart-wrenching stories about the Vietnamese refugee experience. One month later, April Chou, a former tech worker who later studied plant-based nutrition, served Burmese tea leaf salad at a lunch benefiting the Catholic Charities of Fort Wayne–South Bend, an organization that supports newly arrived refugees. (Who knew that Fort Wayne, Indiana, is home to the largest Burmese community in the United States?) The next Tapestry Suppers event, in Mountain View on September 17, will feature Tanzanian fare.

These events aren’t overtly political or in-your-face activist. Hosts typically share their own immigrant stories, but the focus, Tsi says, is on food. That proved true in May, when a Persian buffet in Sunnyvale delighted guests with its variety, depth, and deliciousness. Host Mojdeh Ahiraleslamzadeh cooked the entire 13-dish spread, which featured ingredients brought to her by her sister in Iran: the rose petals that fragranced a cucumber-yogurt dip; the saffron, whose telltale hue colored the rice and stews; the sour orange paste that punctuated the khoresh e bademjan, or eggplant stew; and the dried mint that added a refreshing note to a roasted eggplant dip.

Also in the mix: expertly cooked okra and lots of fresh herbs and feta.

“Being an immigrant is hard, especially at first, when you’re a stranger in a strange land,” says Zahiraleslamzadeh, a yoga instructor and former environmental engineer who came to the United States in 1978 to attend college in Utah. She had grown up in a house in the middle of orchard fields in Dezful, Iran, and cooking Persian food in her dorm room helped her feel connected to her country of birth—and helped her make friends.

Tsi’s is not the only Bay Area group trying to dispel stereotypes and forge new relationships through food. On the same day as the Tapestry Suppers event in May, 1951 Coffee Company in Berkeley, a nonprofit café that hires and trains newly arrived refugees and asylees, hosted a fundraiser catered by recent settlers from Syria. Also in May, a Muslim-Jewish cooking series for women hosted by Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos and the Islamic Networks Group culminated in a community potluck. And Experience Ramadan, cofounded by Bay Area software engineer Usman Abdullah, matches hosts with guests who want to attend an iftar, the traditional meal with which Muslims end their daily fast at sunset.

In March, photographer Nik Sharma, who blogs at A Brown Table, hosted an intimate dinner for eight at his Oakland home. The meal honored his Indian heritage, with coconut as the featured ingredient, and raised over $400 for the ACLU. In July, Sharma teamed up with Tapestry Suppers to serve pulled chicken sliders with an amchur-based barbecue sauce to about 14 guests while raising money for Washington, D.C.–based Immigration Equality, the largest U.S. LGBTQ immigration-rights group.

Tsi doesn’t expect to change hearts and minds with her suppers. She knows she’s serving up dishes to a sympathetic audience. But even many of those opposed to racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia are still, to a large extent, living their lives online. Her objective is to connect people in real life (even if she uses MailChimp to communicate with them). She also hopes the gatherings will inspire others to host immigrant-centric suppers in their own neighborhoods. These meals, Tsi stresses, need not include elegant tableware or serve a crowd, as the Tapestry Suppers do. It’s the gesture, she maintains, that will spark goodwill. “I feel it’s my goal to assure people that they have a story worth telling,” she says, “and it’s my responsibility to make sure their stories have a place to live.”

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco 

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