When the Parents of Asian Students met before the beginning of the 2020/21 academic year, they knew they would have to reinvent tradition. They couldn’t hold the Diwali celebration in-person, and they’d probably have to cancel on-campus celebration of the Lunar New Year, too. In fact, every on-campus activity for the foreseeable future would probably have to be canceled. That challenge gave the committee an opportunity to reinvent themselves.
“At the kickoff meeting, we started with the definition of what ‘Asian’ means to us,” Nishita Shah (P ’24 ’28) says. “It’s one of those words where you ask anybody and they have a different definition, depending on where they’ve lived. With Sidwell, a lot of the focus has been on China and India, while there are a lot of people who come from different parts of Asia.” And what better way to explore even more Asian cultures than with food?
“We always had a Lunar New Year celebration, and it was always focused around cooking,” Grace Mai (P ’25) says. “This year, we really wanted to expand and celebrate the other Asian holidays, and we thought that cooking would be the best way to do it.”
That launched a series of virtual cooking classes sponsored by the Parents of Asian Students. The first was a moon-cake-making class, celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival. Then there was a class on Punjabi khichdi for the Indian festival of Lohri; the latest, a dumpling-making class led by DC chef Peter Chang, occurred on February 13.
“When we decided on the cooking series, we decided to focus on certain countries and cultures that people may not know much about,” Shah says. “It’s a really easy way to include everyone. We knew we were going to do the Lunar New Year, for example, but we also said, ‘Let’s add something from India—but instead of doing something typical like Diwali or Holi, let’s focus on another festival that people can learn about.’”
The virtual gatherings have actually managed to create some connections that wouldn’t exist during a typical time.
“When we did dumpling-making in person, we prepared the ingredients for everyone—they would just come do the wrapping,” Zhe Tang (P ’25 ’22) says. “Now we give the ingredient list in advance, so the people need to go shopping instead of us getting everything ready for them. They have more fun.”
In pursuit of ingredients, families find themselves wandering down new aisles in the grocery store—or going even further. “People are even to going to certain stores they would never go to otherwise,” Shah says.
The cooking series is making a difference outside of Sidwell Friends families’ kitchens, too. “Doing the virtual classes has allowed us to get access to a lot of great chefs in DC,” Shah says. (In addition to Chang, chefs have included Lisa Chang from Mama Chang’s in Fairfax and Jassi Bindra from Punjab Grill in Washington.) “And we’re trying to help these businesses as well,” she says. “So at the end of the Lohri class, we offered a 20 percent discount to those who attended the session to encourage them to have a meal at Punjab Grill. If we can give back to the local community and support local businesses, it's a win-win.”
The cooking—and the learning—will continue; current plans include, among others, an iftar dinner during Ramadan in the spring
“It brings people from different backgrounds together over a topic that everybody loves: food,” Shah says. “It transcends language, politics, religion, and race. It's something that connects everyone together."