“Food That Touches the Heart: Re-Orienting Asian Food”: What’s in Your Lunchbox?

Brad Lee is a writer and consultant with Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice and the creator of the #FaceRace Campaign.

Register for the event here: Food That Touches the Heart: Re-Orienting Asian Food – WeirFoulds LLP

When I was a kid, the best thing I could find in the brown bag lunches my Mom packed for me was a char siu sandwich. Two slices of fresh-baked white bread from Stadium Bakery, up by the university, a pat of butter evenly divided on both sides, some French’s mustard smeared to the crusty edge, and a single leaf of cool, crisp iceberg lettuce completed the noontime event, a common experience shared by nearly every Canadian schoolchild. The crowning glory was the thick slices of Chinese barbecued pork and charred bits from the loin ends that graced the middle. They’d either be rough-cut by the butchers at Kin Sang, with their vicious-looking wooden handled carbon-steel cleavers or finessed with a kitchen paring knife to fit within the linear limits of their captivity.

If I unrolled the crumpled end of the paper bag and peeked at its contents before lunch, I’d sometimes lose track of my morning lesson, and feast on the instant recall of warm, crisp and greasy roasted belly pork, or fo yuk, chopped and loosely wrapped in waxy pink butcher’s paper with a couple packs of plum sauce thrown in. Dad never bought just char siu or fo yuk alone, and likely couldn’t resist the temptation of seeing both hanging on hooks side-by-side in the front window of the Center Street shop. Make no mistake, my lunch was leftovers. But it was as divine as the cold pizza or lasagna that was coveted by my classmates.

Good fortune only ever happened on a Monday, and only if there were leftovers from our weekly pilgrimages from Calgary’s suburbs to Chinatown in the heart of the city. On a Sunday we’d know everyone in all the shops on Center St. and its connecting avenues. Of course, my hometown has survived several boom-and-bust cycles since my childhood, but memory of school lunches and a char siu sandwich still warms my heart.


You can imagine then the recent trauma of the COVID-19 global pandemic, when Canadians’ first response to this new strain of deadly coronavirus was racism against Chinese – and really anyone who looks like us. I watched in horror from afar in Singapore, where I was celebrating Lunar New Year, as news in Canada was rapidly infected by racist commentary, blaming and bias in some reporting of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China.


Just over a year into the pandemic, where lockdowns are now commonplace and everyone is tired of the shaky stop-and-start attempts to reignite our economy, racism is still rampaging. In Quebec, a popular FaceBook group that’s collecting stories of anti-Asian racism during the pandemic sparked a long conversation, when one parent wrote: “My six-year-old child has just had his first experience of ‘food shame’ at school: he took (dried) seaweed as a snack, and his friends told him to stop bringing it because it stinks. Back in the day, I was also intimidated because of my lunch. Some things haven’t changed . . .”


“Food shaming is an insidious micro-aggression that when directed at racialized youth can traumatize, hurt and isolate,” says my friend Sandy Yep, who’s affiliated with the Asian Canadian Educators Network. “Particularly harmful is the verbal taunt that can be associated; not only targeting the person’s identity, but also the child’s family, culture and heritage.”


When I ask my BIPOC friends what they think about it, everyone has a story to tell or can relate to the not-so-subtle racism in others’ perceptions of our food; but when I broach the subject with my white friends and colleagues, I often have to explain the cultural phenomenon that persists in spite of Canada’s reputation for multiculturalism.


Sandy is emphatic about dealing with lunchbox racism when it occurs, saying: “Left unchecked food shaming can escalate to physical altercations. The trauma can be life-long; conveyed forever through personal story. Families and educators have a huge role to build safe spaces to grow and learn.”


Really, it makes no sense that food lovingly placed on tables across our diverse country should cause any unpleasant dinner conversation. Of course, in a city like Toronto, there’s been an entire field of young professional chefs who are pushing the boundaries of what actually defines Canadian cuisine. The myriad Asian identities and diasporic experiences they bring to the table have created a new normal for anything that might be contrived as “Canadian mainstream”.


So, when I asked the trio of chefs participating in “Food That Touches the Heart: Re-Orienting Asian Food” – organized by Toronto law firm WeirFoulds and Choir! Choir! Choir! co-founder and television personality Nobu Adilman in celebration of Asian Heritage Month 2021 – what goes best between two slices of bread, I got some tantalizingly tasteful replies. Joshua Wong, who works at WeirFoulds and is also the chef owner of SNŌ private dinner company, emailed: “I have to say: ‘Spam and eggs’, probably something my grandparents always made for me, or Hong Kong-style breakfast.” Similarly, Eva Chin, chef de cuisine at Kōjin, also in Toronto, wrote: “My ideal nostalgic sandwich would be kaya jam in between two buttered toasts.”


Having lived in Hong Kong, I knew immediately the culinary reference to what my Singaporean wife calls a luncheon meat and fried egg sandwich, something that without the bread goes equally well on top of a steaming bowl of instant soup noodles. Either way, I know it to be a favourite among Asian students far away from their families and craving the comforts of home. In a conversation with WeirFoulds Partner Philip Cho, a member of the team organizing the event, I was reminded about Korean budae jjigae, or “army stew”, which highlights the Spam that was introduced to South Korea by American GIs during the Korean War and welcomed by local people when food was scarce and meat in short supply. The late chef and documentary filmmaker Anthony Bourdain seemed fixated on the processed meat product as a luxury good and popular gift in South Korea during the filming of an episode of his Parts Unknown series.

To know kaya is to know (and love) a Singaporean. It’s also about having experienced the daily breakfast ritual of strongly filtered black kopi-O (or coffee) with thick, smooth, creamy curd made from slowly mixing eggs, sugar, coconut and naturally extracted pandan leaf flavour (akin to vanilla but, oh, so much more!) and slathered between crustless toast slices.

Chef Craig Wong, who owns Patois and Bar Mignonette in Toronto and is the executive chef at Ting Irie in Dubai, kicked it up a few notches with his quick response, and then a longer email thread: “My perfect sandwich is the iconic Macanese Pork Chop but served up in a Buttered Bolo Bao (Chinese Pineapple Bun).

“It’s a very simply marinated bone-in pork chop that’s seasoned with soy sauce, garlic, Shaoxing wine and all it’s about (is) eating it straight off the griddle, so it’s just moist and hot,” he wrote around lunchtime, when I opened his email.

“Macanese people don’t mind having to eat around the bone in this sandwich. The trade-off is a juicier, fattier, tastier cut of meat,” Wong continued, and as I pictured his sandwich, I might have started drooling. “This sandwich is not meant to sit around –you gotta eat it piping hot, right then and there.”

Macanese pork chop, deconstructed in Craig’s own words, and re-created in my mind made me think about another mid-pandemic summer confined to my backyard and barbecue. But what about the pineapple bun? I knew of several Chinese bakeries scattered across downtown Toronto. I also knew that all the ingredients in Chef Wong’s lunchbox recommendation were available at any Canadian supermarket, save for the Shaoxing wine that could be gathered during a jaunt to Chinatown, or from most Asian grocers anywhere in the rest of the country.

That made me think more about Craig’s story. He was born and raised in Scarborough, now a suburb of Greater Toronto, and home to many racialized and proud Canadians. His parents have Chinese Jamaican heritage and it’s a big part of his  culinary influences – and he just commented on a favourite sandwich whose origins are half a world away. It became obvious to me that these chefs were doing more than cooking up good grub in their kitchens. Their approaches to the culinary world and successes were probably more related to their Canadian experience and the passe-partout nature of our complex racial and cultural identities.

Philip, who’s been vocal about his Korean Canadian background and is a staunch supporter of CCNC-SJ’s #FaceRace Campaign, has been reflecting on the challenges of the pandemic and the racism spread by some Canadians that threatens all of us. “Food That Touches the Heart”, which will feature a video with chefs Wong, Chin and Wong, is important to him as it aims to show “how food can break down barriers and bring people together.”

His story seems simple, but it has its own twists and turns. Philip says there was no standout experience of “lunchbox anxiety” during his formative years. His parents immigrated to Canada from Korea around the time he was born. “I believe my mother packed me standard ‘Canadian’ lunches from an early age to help me ‘adapt’ to life in Canada,” he told me. “So, lunches were often ham/cheese, tuna, chicken salad, etc. sandwiches.”

After he got married and had kids, Philip and his wife would pack a variety of lunches for them with a mix of the staples he grew up eating, but also some Korean or Japanese food. Kim-bap (similar to Japanese futomaki sushi rolls) and jumeok bap (rice balls) and yubu chobap (fried tofu stuffed with rice) sometimes made appearances in school lunches. Steamed edamame beans in a pod, served cold, were a popular snack.

The tables were turned on their lunchbox game for a brief moment when their daughter Madeline, then in kindergarten, tried to lay down some strict ground rules.

“One day in junior kindergarten, my daughter, attending a very ‘white’ school, asked if we could pack her ‘Canadian’ snacks,” Philip recalled. “We asked her what she meant, and she didn’t want to have Korean food for snack time, like edamame.

“We told her edamame was not Korean, but Japanese. And she said, ‘Really? Then that’s okay.’ We continued to pack her edamame and other Korean food as snacks, and never heard about this again . . . We thought that she was comfortable with her heritage and did not know that she experienced racism in other ways.”

Turns out Madeline, now in Grade 10, was struggling with Asian Canadian identity issues. Tipped off by a teacher, Philip and his wife saw a rehearsal two years ago of a hard-hitting slam poetry rant, titled “A Letter to You”. Madeline’s performance secured her an entry in the Showcase event at the North York Performing Arts Centre (now, Meridian Arts Centre). There’s Madeline up on stage – and in the light – delivering her lines with absolute conviction and confidence, setting things straight in front of a cheering audience.

“Understand that Asia doesn’t only consist of China and Japan / In reality, you’ve missed 46 countries! / Korea, Israel, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and India are just a few on the list / They’re on the map / READ YOUR MAP!”

There’s still Korean food in her lunches now, and to hammer home the point: “I do not eat dog / I am not your geisha / I am not your token / I am not your toy / STEREOTYPES . . . haunt our society and racism is around every corner . . .”

You could say that Madeline’s words and powerful voice and thoughts were already resonating among the more than 6 million Canadians – or nearly 18 per cent of the total population – who self-identified as sharing Asian origins, not to mention the 2016 census statistic that nearly half of all current immigrants are from Asia, including the Middle East. What might have been a ripple before COVID-19 is now a tsunami, as Asian Canadians are coming to terms with the racism meted out against them by their fellow Canadians during the pandemic.

Our #FaceRace Campaign, which began at the start of the pandemic when Asian Canadian communities were bracing for impact after the initial outbreaks of racist attacks, shaming and shunning, has carried forward the resilience of our communities through historic and ongoing racism in Canada. Importantly, living generations have found the courage over the last year to stay safe, stay calm and, above all else, speak out!

When I think back to where this all began and the fake news proliferated by racists across the globe, despite science-driven official refutations about coronavirus jumping species from bats to humans through food as utterly baseless and an outright  lie, and the reaction by famous Canadians who ought to know better, and others who are responsible for more than 1,150 reported incidents of anti-Asian hate in Canada during the first year of the pandemic, I still get sick to my stomach.

Thankfully, there was never any cultural criticism leveled against my cherished char siu sandwich; it probably flew under the radar by being literally sandwiched between two slices of whiteness. Growing up as a fourth-generation Canadian also helpfed, but it does make me wonder what goes through a person’s head when they go out of their way to criticize something another person eats.

COVID-19 isn’t over. Anti-Asian racism in Canada and globally won’t be forgotten easily. There’s the promise of vaccines on the horizon to inoculate all of us against coronavirus, but there’s nothing other than our own conscious efforts that will protect us from prejudice. I’ve noticed the multitude of Asian faces on the frontlines of health care along with other right-minded Canadians who are fighting daily, and sometimes minute-by-minute, to save lives. I appreciate seeing fellow Asian Canadians among public health leaders who are working hard on Canada’s recovery. And I look forward to the next time we can share a table together and celebrate all the ways that food from all over the world serves as the peace offering that brings us together, nourishes and sustains us.

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