"If rituals bind a culture, how do you hold together a diverse community with no single shared tradition?"
This is a question I ask myself in my work as a community organiser serving the East and South East Asian diaspora in London. We are held together by genetics; a taxonomical label of ‘ESEA’, East and South East Asian. One that is relatively new, having been claimed in the last few years as an alternative to the nebulous and homogenising ‘Asian’, outmoded ‘Oriental’ or downright inaccurate ‘Chinese’. ESEA encompasses almost 30 national backgrounds, all the major religions and a multitude of languages. Aside from how we are labelled, there is nothing that binds this ‘community’. Thus, it is my mission to find the reason to bind. And that reason, I have realised, is a collective longing for a sense of home.
For the past four years, I have been hosting a regular potluck event at Hackney Chinese Community Services - a community centre in East London that was founded in 1985, the same year I was born. A hodgepodge bunch of London-based East and South East Asian food lovers gather every few months to share space in shared meals. Among us there are Indonesian, Macanese, Korean, Taiwanese and Filipino chefs but also Cantonese bakers, Burmese doctors, Malaysian bankers, Singaporean graphic designers and many more. We span a diverse selection of British and overseas nationals, mixed race and multicultural individuals - bound by a love of cooking dishes from our own heritage. We all understand the power that food has to create temporal acts of home making; regardless of where we are in the world.
Every potluck has a theme, for I believe that limitations engender creativity. If you think ‘CAKE’, ‘FALLING LEAVES’ or ‘TOFU’ are niche themes, think again. You wouldn’t believe the stuff that people come up with! Every potluck is more fantastical than the last; the tables groaning as more people turn up and extra mahjong tables are laid out to accommodate the new dishes. But my favourite potluck is the one that I coordinate every January, falling after Christmas and New Year and before the Lunar New Year, the most important festival in many Sino-influenced cultures. It’s liberating when not everyone celebrates the same festivals, because in this case, you can invent your own. This particular potluck takes the form of a huge banana leaf rice feast on a long makeshift table that spans the diagonal hypotenuse of the community centre hall. My role is simply to lay down banana leaves on the table, wash and cook around 18 litres of rice, and then wait for people to turn up.
The community group knows the drill: the theme is always ‘RICE KILLER’ - sharing dishes that go well with rice. We distribute our food in small piles dotted all the way down the long table, making sure everyone has a bit of everything in reach. The dishes start overflowing into one another - pickles into curries, fritters against curries, noodles, salads, grilled meats and whole fish - but no one minds, because the spirit of this meal is about eating together. We eschew cutlery, eating with our hands instead; the traditional way to eat banana leaf rice.
I believe that commensality - the practice of social eating - goes hand in hand with health and nutrition. When you build and eat a feast together, you stimulate all your senses with new flavours and aromas, while using your hands to navigate new textures and build your own perfect mouthful. Knowing that each morsel has been lovingly homemade builds an underlying energy of hospitality; a sense that every guest is welcome and important. We take our time to eat slowly, introducing ourselves to new neighbours and discussing who made what and sharing recipe tips and tricks. All of these are practices in mindful eating. Happy people, happy guts. Finally, everyone fills their Tupperware with leftovers and we box up some portions for the elderly community centre members. Then - the feast concluded - we roll up the banana leaves from one end of the table to the other. No cutlery or crockery needing to be washed, we bid each other goodbye while already discussing what the next potluck theme should be…
About Jenny Lau
Jenny Lau is a writer and community organiser who uses food to bring people from different diasporas together. She is a volunteer at Hackney Chinese Community Services and in 2022 her essay on the Hackney Luncheon Club network was published in the architecture and food anthology London Feeds Itself. Since 2020 her fundraisers and initiatives have raised tens of thousands of pounds for local and global causes.