Is food political? How a recipe can be a protest

“Chinese Protest Recipes” is an antiracist zine from chef and activist Clarence Kwan, who insists food and cooking are political. Kwan joins hosts Justin Phillips and Soleil Ho to discuss his project, the recipes and anti-Black racism within Asian communities. Plus: some tea is spilled about Drake, Kwan’s fellow Torontonian.

Clarence Kwan is the maker of "Chinese Protest Recipes," a cooking zine about antiracism and Chinese food.

Listen to the episode by clicking on the player above or the badge for your favorite app below, and scroll down to read a transcript of the interview.

Here is a transcript of Soleil Ho and Justin Phillips’ interview with Clarence Kwan, edited and condensed for clarity. The interview was conducted on October 28, 2020.

Soleil: We’re so excited to talk to you, Clarence. Thank you so much for joining us on the show.

Thank you guys for having me. This is amazing.

Soleil: So, first of all, it’s always helpful to start with describing your project because that’s the reason why we have you on the show. I saw your zine and it’s amazing and I instantly wanted to talk to you. So, tell us about “Chinese Protest Recipes.” What’s it about, why did you make it?

Clarence: So, Chinese protests recipes is a recipe book. It’s a project that I started essentially after the racial uprising began. It was a response to both the reaction that Chinese communities have been receiving since COVID started and also a response to the death of George Floyd. It’s a very personal project. It’s a way of speaking out and it originally started as a takeover actually. Duke magazine asked me to come over to the account and do a one-week takeover, and I wanted to do something meaningful. I had started to really speak out on a lot of these issues, just through my little crude Instagram, and I wanted to create something that I could do all week that could actually be of some use  to somebody and be meaningful. And so I created this project: it was seven recipes over seven days, and I decided to put that into a zine, a recipe book and I made some merch, some T-shirts, and one hundred percent of the proceeds go to support Black Lives Matter. It was kind of a personal examination of my feelings and experience I’ve been going through in this racial pandemic.

Soleil: Awesome. I love the kind of interesting confluence. A lot of food Instagram people are food writers who have been a lot more political in the past summer – they could have been political beforehand – but this is like the catalyst for a lot of them. I love the idea of a protest recipe. I think that is such a confrontational idea. And I’m curious to hear you articulate, like how can a recipe be a protest?

Clarence: Well, I think at first I just thought of what was a very natural way for me to speak out and protest, right? So, during COVID, I didn’t feel totally comfortable being on the streets and protesting in real life, so I just thought of what was really natural to me. Because I essentially posted about Chinese food and Cantonese food, I thought, “I’m going to use this as my platform to speak out.” 
It’s a cliche, but food is naturally political. It can be a weapon, it’s weaponized against us. And so I wanted to use recipes as a way to tell my personal story, our story as a Chinese community and speak real truth and demystify the myths of our food. Because, quite frankly, our food has been an entry point into attacking Chinese people for hundreds of years now. This was my version of speaking up, speaking out against all the vitriol that’s coming our way, and also essentially against white supremacy. This was a way for me to speak out against all the issues and forces that are happening right now in social injustice.

Justin: One of the things that I really love about your work, Clarence, man, is that I think in having these conversations about race issues about … the country itself, about food – just across all of these topics – I think relatability is really important.
There’s something about  the work that you do that just feels accessible to a lot of people who are willing to listen to what you’ve got to talk about. The thing that I’m extra curious about is with the confluence of this anti-Asian racism, especially during the pandemic, and then we also have the shootings of black men and we’re focusing on Black Lives Matter. There is a specific group when it comes to protesting and doing this kind of work, there’s this specific group – usually white people – that we’re trying to talk to about these issues, right?

You want this information to reach them and to have them have some kind of understanding, but do you ever get worried that, while people like you and us, while we do this work, that we’re just talking to each other? Like we end up sharing with each other and like co-signing our own work and being like, “Yeah, that’s a great point,” but it’s not reaching the people that you want.
How do you make sure that it does get in front of the people that you want to give a message to?

Clarence: Yeah, that’s a really good question because I think the last thing I want to do is become an echo chamber for just the people who know and just end up talking to ourselves. I think the style in which I speak and write the directness and the volume in which I write is really towards, I think people who don’t quite get it. There are plenty of white people who are in the fight who know what’s up, who get it, but my imaginary audience, the people that I’m speaking to, are people who do not see it. For me, that’s what gives me fuel and gives me motivation: a lot of people respond and say, “Hey, thank you. Because I did not get it. I thought I got it, but now I get it more.” Or there are people who would just like straight up not get it. I don’t understand. What is up with this and if they are willing to engage what I’ve seen, is there a huge learning gap? And that is the opportunity. And that is, I think, what keeps me hopeful that we can continue these conversations because, ever since I have started speaking out, the response has been overwhelming that there’s just simply so many people, both white and non-white that do not understand and see that these issues exist both in the food world and beyond.

Justin: Yeah. Can you talk about doing the work that you do. Isn’t just something that you wake up and roll out of bed and do, and have plenty of energy. Like there’s an emotional toll that thinking deeply about these issues, right? Especially when it comes to food and trying to disseminate a message. Can you talk about that, too? Like, how you keep yourself inspired. You mentioned that by some of the reactions, too, but I think it’s important to talk about, maybe … I guess: How are you taking care of yourself while also doing this, I guess is a better question?

Clarence: I think anytime you put yourself out there with this kind of language and these hot topics, right, you’re going to have emotions come right back at you. And so I think at least for me, I’ve managed to figure out my own personal boundaries of how and when I post, and how I deal with any potential hate or conflict that might come back my way.
I mean, I think I’m pretty good at just kind of maintaining who I am. But it’s hard. I know a lot of people in this fight, a lot of people who are dealing with this kind of work, that it does take a toll. And I think for everybody, they need to figure out their version of self-care and make sure that they take care of themselves and realize that it is a long fight.

It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. 

Soleil: On the flip side of that, I would love to hear from you any sort of successes that you can think of recently where you did reach somebody and how did that happen? 

Clarence: I think that happens pretty regularly. I think anyone who is willing to engage, they’ll ask questions like, “Hey, like what about this recipe? Or, what about this food mascot, am I doing something wrong? I want to cook another cuisine. Do you think I’m having the right approach here?” And so I get a lot of questions.
I don’t know if I can think of any quick, interesting examples right now… But there are constantly white people in my DM who are willingly learning and come out better on the opposite side. So that’s what feels really hopeful. They know. 

Soleil: That’s awesome. Okay.  So, I’d love to talk also about Chinatown, which is sort of a character in the zine. There’s a lot going on with … the rhetoric about Chinatown and just, I think your background is with Chinatown. I know you’re in Toronto, but you also have been to New York a lot. I think your love for conceptual Chinatown, because it transcends geography, right? Like, that’s really palpable. And as Justin alluded to in light of coronavirus and sign of phobia and all of that, I think a lot of us in the Asian community just broadly are feeling very protective of our sort of ethnic enclaves, like Chinatown, Japantown, Thai town. Those are the places. So can you articulate just what does Chinatown mean to you as a symbol, as a place?

Clarence: I mean, first of all, I grew up in Chinatown.  I grew up in the Eastside Chinatown in Toronto. That’s where my grandparents lived. My grandfather was a head master chef in the Westside Chinatown in Toronto.

It was one of the few industries where we were allowed to work and thrive. Starting from the beginning of Chinese immigration, right. It was either Chinese food or laundry, like there was no other choice. And so Chinatown is both a kind of safe haven, but also basically my heart and soul, it’s like where I grew up. It’s where you see a generation of Chinese people thrive and prosper. And then also because of what’s happening right now, you’re seeing Chinatowns crumble left, right and center because of racism, because of phobia, because of gentrification. These are communities that are really struggling to survive right now.

So, I also cook Chinese barbecue part-time at another Chinatown, Chinatown North, here. And I just see the struggle on the basis of restaurant owners and cooks and workers. And it means a lot to me to fight and potentially speak for those voices that aren’t quite heard and are essentially invisible in our society.

Soleil: What are you hearing from your coworkers, too? How do they feel about all of this?

Clarence: I think they feel worried. They’re worried on a day-to-day basis. I don’t think they see it as theoretically or as abstractly as we do. I think they’re worried about paycheck to paycheck, day to day. How is today going to be? Because you’re seeing your neighbors are seeing restaurants go sometimes completely empty. And there are other restaurants where buffets – bigger-footprints places with 50, 60, a hundred seats – where there’s basically no traffic. So, they see their colleagues, fellow restaurant owners, fellow cooks, really struggling getting there. Their days cut back. We’re getting only one or two days a week and it’s a problem.

It’s a level where a lot of workers just simply cannot survive and we’re not even into winter yet. So I think there is a huge cloud over everyone’s head and people are really looking at how tomorrow is going to be, how next week is going to be. They are really living day to day.

Justin: For kids who grew up with a connection, especially Asian people in this country, to a Chinatown, I’m thinking about the generation right now of young Asian people who are protesting in the movement right now. And I imagine like, I can’t relate to this 100{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed}, but I understand the idea of like those young people remembering maybe having like school experiences where they ate with their family cooking, like bringing something specific that your parents made that might not have been like the hyper-white ham-and-cheese sandwiches that other kids had, and then feeling kind of insecure about that or feeling insecure about not being able to relate to white kids who ate Pizza Hut every night or some s– like that. They’re these young kid cultural milestones that maybe Asian Americans didn’t get what white kids got. And I feel like, maybe there was an insecurity element to it when you’re younger, but as you get older, you embrace that stuff. I think there’s a lot of young people that want to hold on to their background, amplify their background, be really proud of it.

Do you think there’s a generation of young kids who are part of that protest generation right now who have connections to Chinatown when they were younger, now we’re kind of built for this moment, like they think about those like childhood memories and it makes them more proud of what they have now?

It’s a long question, but I’m wondering if there’s something you could talk about, about the demographic right now that’s like in the midst of all this. A lot of young Asian Americans are really leaning into their power and reclaiming their cultural heritage and cultural identity. And the best way to do that is through food.

Clarence: I think every Asian kid, probably a lot of BIPOC kids, a lot of Black and brown kids have been racialized, discriminated against and s– on because of what they eat. Food is a way to hate on us. I can speak from my own personal experience where my mom made the sickest hot thermos meals of like smelly fish on rice, and I threw that out or I traded it away or I was embarrassed to bust it out because it wasn’t ham and cheese and wasn’t pizza and wasn’t fries. I think every non-white kid who grew up brings that food out of lunch at a cafeteria, has experienced that sort of discrimination.
It’s what we eat. It’s such an old story. And it still happens today. I get a lot of DMS from people who are like, “Yeah, I’m 40 and I still get side-eye from people who look at my food differently.” So, I think with social media and the ability to speak your voice and tell your story and connect through food, it’s a huge vehicle for power, too. Like I’m going to eat and love like everything about my culture. Like whole-heartedly unapologetically, and no one’s going to say anything about it because you can’t touch me anymore. We’re not going to be bullied about how our food looks or how it smells, like I couldn’t care less. I could do both! I can make ham and cheese and I can make fish with white rice. Like you can’t touch me. And I think that’s the attitude and the kind of power a lot of young Asian Americans have right now. 

Soleil: So there’s the self-realization angle that is really important and fascinating with regards to interracial relations, but I also admire that you took on this really complicated and kind of hard to talk about topic, which is anti-Black racism in the Asian communities, specifically the Chinese community. I think a lot of people struggle with that because they don’t know how to have that conversation or just the prejudice is so deeply ingrained in the community, whether it’s among elders or peers … what have you seen of it? Why is it so prevalent and just … what formed your conversations about it?

Clarence: Well, first of all, when I started Chinese Protest Recipes, the big motivation was what could I personally do? Right. I’m a Chinese guy. I post about Chinese food. Like, what could I potentially do to help our Black brothers and sisters? And part of that was to speak up, put it into action.
And so it started with tough conversations, starting with my parents, my family and friends. And it is a real thing,  I think, racism and shadism. I mean, you’re seeing it in China and Chinese politics with the Uighur community and Africans in China right now, it is prevalent and we really don’t talk about it.
We probably haven’t addressed it enough. And I think a lot of Asian kids grew up being taught like, “Hey, keep your head down. Don’t get too close to Black kids.” I heard that when I was a kid. And so when you’re talking about not only being not racist, but anti-racist, we have to start dismantling those ideas within our own community. It’s not just about white supremacy… 
It starts at home. And so for me, I know that that definitely exists in the older generation, probably in the younger generation, too. It is all a part of our own learning that we are all kind of going through. And I think they’re just such old stereotypes and such old school ideas and the relationship between Asian and Black communities that have been complex across America for a number of years. And I think it’s getting better, but the gap is still there. And so in order to bridge that divide, we have to start at home. You have to talk to your parents. Language is often a big barrier, and there’ve been just so many tools and resources where young kids have developed to be able to talk to your grandparents about, “Hey, like that’s not cool,” or, “Hey, that’s actually wrong.”
 And so I think it starts at home, including myself in my own family.

Soleil: How do you start that conversation? I mean, how have you started that conversation?

Clarence: I started with the history of violence against Black lives. George Floyd, his death was just one of way too many;  I lived through Rodney King, Trayvon, too many names and it started with talking about the systems … white supremacy and uphold injustice and police brutality and all the BS that Black communities go through.

And it started with asking my parents. What do you think about this? Like, why do you think this exists? Why do you think cops get away with this year after year? Why do you think nothing happens? That was my entry point and asking them questions of how come there hasn’t been enough progress … when you ask them those questions for me, they didn’t have a lot of answers, they didn’t have a good response. And I think when you start putting people on the spot, it forces you to really examine the issues at hand and realize there is a problem, it’s not just a thing. It’s not just like, “Oh, it’ll always be this way.” 
These are things that are just simply unfair to humanity and we have to do something about it.

Justin: Clarence, man, what’s the utopia, what’s the perfect outcome? Especially like during the pandemic and the anti-Asian racism that proliferated through all the communities all over the country, especially in the Bay Area, too.
Now we had the rise of the BLM protest, but I would see a lot of Asian people at these protests in the early days. And in my head, I always think about what if we’re able to quickly jump ahead in progress and Black and Asian communities … like, work together more and kind of find a common bond. Like that would be incredible, but what is your best outcome with all this work that you’re doing?
Like having these challenging conversations within your own community about relationships with Black people? Like, what do you, what do you hope happens?

Clarence:  I think for me, step one is awareness. I think there’s just so many people that have not seen it. They haven’t seen that they are potentially really white-adjacent, and for potentially that colonialism and colonial thoughts have really set into their own behaviors and their own way of life. Step one for me is really awareness in both white folk and Asian folk and everyone, that they examine the question, how they live and what are the small, tiny decisions every day that could potentially amount to harm.
Thinking about the long-term in terms of like a utopia or like a long-term goal, I would love to see a lot more solidarity among BIPOC. … I think the reality is we do live quite separately and distinctly a lot of the time, I think communities are probably not as tight-knit or not as show with each other as they think.
And I think, for me, it’s a better understanding of what oppression looks like, that our experiences might not be the same. But we can identify with each other’s struggle. And in terms of Black Lives Matter, I think we have to realize that for Black folks that struggle is really different. It is similar, but very different.
And I think once we got to realize that maybe that’s when we can start pulling together and realize how we could actually join forces and how solidarity can do better for these communities. But I think for step one, there’s just such a lack of awareness right now that I think speaking up and talking about these issues is the most important thing for me right now.

Soleil: Yeah. I can see that in the way in which your zine is not very subtle,  the language is very … confrontational … not aggressive, I guess. I don’t know … The juxtaposition is so interesting to me because, for instance, for listeners who haven’t read the zine yet, there’s a passage about shrimp and lobster sauce, right? Where you write, “When black people win, we all win. Right. And this recipe is pure comfort food. The gravy should be bold and silky.” 
It’s interesting to me as someone who is often told to keep politics out of food writing by aggressive readers … but at the same time, I’m not as upfront about how I feel about things as you are in this food writing. So tell us more about that approach and just how I guess on a formal level, what are you trying to achieve with that?

Clarence: I think I just write the way I speak and the way I think, I think the zine and my food writing or just my writing in general is just an invitation to how I would talk to me and my friends.
And this is almost like an open conversation of like, if you want to know what BIPOC talk about and how we talk all the time, this is how it is. That’s how I talk to me and my friends. Life is political, I suppose. And food is political and you can’t talk about some weird bastardized version of pho without talking about these issues.
So, when it comes to assembling a collection of recipes I think tell my story and tell the story of what Chinese people going through and what Black Lives Matters means to me, this is just real talk for me. And it’s kind of just a very open, unfiltered way of talking about both food and life.

Soleil: Yeah, I can easily imagine you,  I dunno being in your kitchen and hearing you talk about these things and all of a sudden, beckoned me over to taste something. Those conversations in real life do butt up against each other a lot more than people think. I totally feel that.

Clarence: I just think conversations flow like that. I think food and food people are way more complex than just like someone who’s teaching you how to make some sauce.  The life that we’re living in 2020 is super complex. And so I think this is just a reflection of probably this year and my emotions right now, but also some real s– that we’re all going through. And so, if you’re going to cook in 2020, this is what’s up.

Justin: Can you talk about how important the food is? Like the messaging and what you talk about, like on these pages is really important, but at the end of the day, like the recipes are dope, too.

Clarence: The recipes are dope. I mean, at the end of the day, people have responded and say like, “Oh, hey, I tried this recipe.” Or like, “Oh, I couldn’t believe the sauce works out.” And like, “I’ve never seen this recipe before.” So, I think I chose food and dishes that I think were misrepresented or underrepresented in the canon of Chinese cuisine, specifically Cantonese cuisine.
I think I haven’t seen recipes written quite like this before. So part of it was just me wanting to put it out there. Like I want people to taste this food, it’s awesome. Some recipes are recipes that maybe haven’t been quite documented as well as they should have. And I think all of these dishes have really unique stories to them. I think everyone should try them because the food is really good.

Soleil: On that note, I did want to bring up the fact that there are no measurements. Am I correct in this? Because I couldn’t find any measurements for the recipes in the zine, which I found to be interesting.

Clarence: Yeah. There are no measurements. That was a deliberate choice. I want a recipe book that reflected my ancestors and the way my grandparents cooked, and I think that’s just the way probably 80{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} of the world cooks, right? Like you ask any Pitmaster or Roti lady or someone who’s making curry or even the way I cook at our restaurant. There’s no quantities. 
And I think we’ve lost the ability to cook with our senses and cook intuitively. And I think it’s much more realistic of how everyday people cook and a lot of like BIPOC cooks, home cooks, moms and grandma, that’s how we’ve always cooked. I think the rigidity and institutionalism of cookbooks and recipe writing has really made people freeze up and to actually feel like they don’t want to make a mistake rather than wanting to cook something. And so that was a deliberate choice to make sure that it’s as simple as possible and you can interpret it however you want.

Justin: This vibes with me completely, like not having the amounts on there. Also just reminding me, like being little and realizing or thinking about my grandmother and being like, how much pepper you put in there? And she pours it in her hand, and like, how am I supposed to re-create this? Yeah, no, that’s definitely something I’ve lived out, too. And I like the idea of encouraging people to cook more with their senses … I loved it. It definitely resonated with me. I thought it was awesome.

Clarence: Yeah. Our pallets are all different unless we have standardized kitchens where like four teaspoons is exactly the same as my teaspoon. Like, one recipe is going to be different anyways …

Soleil: So, out of curiosity, how do you cook rice?

Clarence: I cook rice the Chinese style, which is using a rice cooker…

Everyone: [laughs]

Justin: So … Clarence,  I forgot to ask you … I read something on your site that really hit home with me, where you talked about the way Americans eat food is very binary. And I think that’s such a great description of how they see food. And then, you can kinda stretch that to how many people have interaction with communities, how they view communities through food. Can you talk about the importance of not seeing food as binary and kind of like, you don’t have to describe how people are stuck in that, but can you talk about why it’s important for you to see beyond that?

Clarence: I think the cliche of,  you are what you eat is really true. I think the way you shop, the way you eat, what you cook is ultimately kind of a reflection of your relationship with communities around you. And so if you’re only shopping at like a certain grocery store, or if your take-out is usually like the same old or when you’re usually cooking constantly for food, you’re really not going to get to know your neighbor and get to know the people in these communities that are cooking other foods.
 And so, in terms of solidarity and changing your point of view of race relations, the food is a great entry point. I think Americans are probably not as adventurous as they think. I mean, you still see a lot of meat and potatoes. I think you still see a lot of 90s-style food and there’s just so much good food out there, but I just don’t see it. I work in a primarily Black and brown community and you see the type of customers come in, it is a reflection and ultimately a vote, using your dining dollars, how you spend your money is a vote on who you believe in and the communities that you support. And I think being more adventurous, getting out of your comfort zone can only lead to better things.

Justin: Yeah. And a side note about Toronto. So is Drake just always around everywhere? … I’m just curious. I want to know! Because I feel like when he comes out here, I’m sorry, Clarence, but … when he’s in the Bay area, he definitely eats, like, we know what restaurants he goes to, and it seems like he has an affinity for good spots. I’m always curious if he’s interactive, hitting up places and, hole-in-the wall neighborhood spots … I just figured I’d ask.

Clarence: I think Drake sightings in Toronto are not as frequent as you think. I think he’s home, he’s got a mansion. He’s probably in L.A. more than he is in Toronto. I don’t know, but I know he has a food spot  and I know he repped a lot of restaurants, but I don’t think the sightings are as much as people think. 

Justin: Damn. Damn!

Soleil: So, to pivot back to the recipes, if someone were to open this up and didn’t know which one to try first, which recipe would you recommend?

Clarence: Hmm, I really like the Anti-Racist A-Choy recipe actually, because I think it uses fermented tofu and fermented bean curd, and I think that is considered a really like, probably out there, kind of stinky ingredient for most people. But when it’s balanced with sugar and pepper and everything, it actually tastes like blue cheese. And I think that is a really kind of symbolic recipe of how, if you just dig a little bit further than that, we’re probably a lot closer than you think, a lot more similar than you think. And I … really liked that roughly because it’s vegan, it takes like five minutes to make and it’s really delicious actually.

Soleil: And I love that you had this whole thing about cooking lettuce because I agree, people out here don’t really understand that cooked lettuce is amazing and probably superior to salad, but I notoriously hate salad…

Clarence: Braised lettuce is delicious. It is buttery and it’s really good. And it’s just another one of those things where it might sound weird, but start cooking your lettuce, it’s awesome.

Soleil: On that note, if people want to find “Chinese Protest Recipes,” how do they get it?

Clarence: We just finished our pre-sale now, but there’ll be a limited quantity of books available in November. So you can just DM me. There’ll be instructions in my highlights and hopefully you get a copy… My [Instagram] handle is @theGodofcookery.

Soleil: Awesome. Thank you so much for joining us, Clarence. 

Clarence: This was fun. I really respect what you guys do. So this was awesome.

 Soleil: Thank you! 

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