“Food is an important part of all cultures”: A conversation with a Stop volunteer

This week we interviewed Laurie Harada, a volunteer in our kitchens helping prepare nutritious meals to our community members.

Laurie, how did you get involved with The Stop, what do you do and how long have you been doing it?

I wanted to volunteer at an organization that provides access to fresh, nutritious, and culturally diverse food, where I could help prepare meals as I love to cook. I started volunteering at Wychwood Open Door on Wednesdays as “kitchen help” from July 2020, working alongside Chef Bronwyn and other volunteers preparing ingredients, packing hot takeaway lunches, and cleaning the work areas after our shift. 

That’s awesome! What about our work encouraged you to volunteer?

I was drawn to The Stop’s holistic approach to supporting community members with an array of services and was impressed by the different programs that help people make connections such as Health Beginnings – the program for new and expecting birthing parents, or Community Kitchens – the programs that teach people how to cook for themselves. I was also impressed by how The Stop helps people navigate systems (like through the tax clinic). The Stop’s videos provided a great overview and were appealing to me as a potential volunteer. The Stop looked like a welcoming place – I was not wrong!

From your perspective, how has COVID impacted our work?

While the demand for food has increased significantly since COVID started, the number of volunteers who can work in The Stop’s locations has decreased due to public health guidelines. It’s wonderful that The Stop has been able to continue supporting community members in spite of these challenges. For me, connecting with others in person on Wednesdays has been the highlight of many weeks during the pandemic. I can imagine how important it is for many who look forward to brighter days when in-person programs at The Stop get the green light to resume.

Our chef told me about you because you are doing great work in our kitchen! Can you tell us about an initiative you proposed that is meaningful to you?

Since the pandemic started, I have had a couple of anti-Asian encounters on the street and with recent reports about Asians being hassled or attacked I have felt discouraged about ongoing discrimination and the perception of Asian people’s place in Canadian society. My parents, who were born and raised in Vancouver, faced abject racism. They were amongst thousands of Japanese Canadians who, during the Second World War, lost the right to vote and were sent to ghost towns in the interior of BC where they were detained in shoddy internment camps. After the war ended, there were lingering effects of anti-Japanese sentiment, harbored in racist comments and prejudice.

As food is an important part of all cultures, I asked Bronwyn if we could make some special dishes during Asian Heritage Month (May). I am proud of my Japanese heritage and wanted to share some family-favourite recipes with others. Bronwyn has come up with some delicious Asian-inspired menus, including some Japanese dishes that will be served at the end of the month.

Laurie making delicious meals for our community members at one of our locations.

Are there any recipes that you’d like to share? Why these specific recipes?

My mother typically cooked from the heart, not using recipes. I’ve tried many from Just One Cookbook a helpful site that has easy to follow recipes and videos. The dishes I’ve made taste like my mother’s. Here are a few favourite recipes:

  • Teriyaki Sauce – easy to make and versatile for many dishes
  • Baked Chicken Katsu – usually “katsu” is deep-fried pork, this baked version with chicken is healthier, and delicious drizzled with Tonkatsu Sauce
  • Asian Cole Slaw – made with long-lasting veggies (cabbage, carrots, etc.), this colourful slaw is a delicious side dish

There are also many recipes in Just Add Shoyu: A Culinary Journey of Japanese Canadian Cooking*, abeautifully illustrated cookbook that features recipes, photos, and stories from Japanese Canadians. (*Available for sale at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.)

That is really meaningful. Laurie, why do you think culturally relevant food is important? How do you think it ties to identity, belonging, health, community?

My parents instilled in my siblings and me a sense of pride being Japanese Canadian and food was often at the centre of our conversations. The preparation of special ingredients, the smells, and the presentation of dishes often sparked stories about our Japanese heritage and what was important to them. Despite their hardships, they taught us to treat others as we wanted to be treated ourselves – with respect, dignity, and compassion.

As the only visible minority family in our suburb, my mother, a talented home cook, introduced our neighbours and friends to Japanese culture through dishes she made. Her food was healthy, beautifully presented, and made with love. Her chicken rice, Vancouver-style chow mein, tempura, and sushi were just a few of her legendary dishes.

Sharing food from your culture is sharing your identity and your history.

Asking “What was your favourite food growing up?” can spark interesting conversations not only about food, but about a person’s experiences, aspirations, and what matters to them.

Trying dishes from other cultures can inspire us to learn more about our neighbours and find what we have in common.

Here is what we served our community members! We did chicken and tofu katsu with tonkatsu sauce, vegetable rice, a green salad with carrot miso dressing, and a mandarin for dessert.

Thank you to Laurie and to all of the incredible volunteers for helping us provide good, healthy, culturally appropriate to our community members. Today we encourage you to ask your friends and loved ones what their favorite food was growing up.