Skip to content
Northwest Harvest
Donate Now
Find Partner Food Programs

Culinary Connections: Elizabeth Kiyan-Thompson & AANHPI and Jewish American Heritage Month

Culinary Connections celebrates all the ways food influences our lives and our connection to community and land. Join us as we feature stories from Northwest Harvest’s staff and their culinary heritages.

In honor of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) and Jewish American Heritage Month, we sat down with our very own Elizabeth Kiyan-Thompson, Brand Manager, who shared stories of food, connection, and family.

“Food is how we show up in my family. We gather. We share food. My aunt and my mom tell stories. My mom and my dad poke at each other. I’m the mediator. My brother always shows up late,” Elizabeth Kiyan-Thompson explains, a playful smile on her face.

Elizabeth grew up in the suburbs of Memphis, Tennessee as a mixed-race child: her father was raised Jewish in Manhattan, and her mother, a third generation Japanese American from California. Her parents met folk dancing in the 70s at the University of Southern California. Her dad had moved to California for med school and to avoid East Coast weather. Her mom had grown up on a strawberry farm in West Covina.

Growing up in a mixed-race household in the South meant Elizabeth was uniquely aware of their cultural and ethnic heritages. There was one Asian grocery store in her neighborhood, owned by a Korean woman who always offered Elizabeth and their brother free gum. Elizabeth would snack on senbei (rice crackers) set to the sounds of K-dramas playing endlessly on a small television. The store always had a particularly nostalgic smell, one that Elizabeth still finds in corners of Seattle today while shopping at Uwajimaya.

Elizabeth’s palette was influenced from an early age by traditional Japanese cuisine, Southern cooking, and Jewish favorites. She has a strong affection for nori, pastrami and knishes, and black-eyed peas and collard greens. New Years Day was a particularly food-oriented celebration in the Kiyan-Thompson household: it was the one time every year when their mother made sushi.

With limited access to fresh fish in the Southern suburbs, Elizabeth’s mom would prepare what she referred to as “peasant sushi” – an entirely vegetarian roll. It was during these annual celebrations that Elizabeth learned how to fan the sushi rice so it would be shiny and just the right texture. This favorite “day of eating and napping and eating and napping and eating” continued after the family moved to the Seattle area in 2000 and is still celebrated today.

Once in the Pacific Northwest, Elizabeth’s relationship to their identity began to shift: they went from struggling to reconcile a mixed-race identity, to feeling secure in both their white and Japanese ancestry. As a young person, they navigated feeling both “too Japanese” for her white peers and “too white” to fully embrace her Japanese heritage, leaving them feeling like an imposter in their own identity and unsure of where they fit in.

As she grew older and started thinking more critically about her own racial identity, Elizabeth began to relate more fully and more comfortably to the various aspects of their heritage: “I can now authentically show up in spaces where past me may have been afraid to, because I know where I come from. I know where my parents come from and to ignore that is disrespectful. I get to have access to all of these identities because of my parents and their stories and their ancestors. I don’t feel the need to prove my identity anymore, I can just seek community in a way that feels right.”

“Food has always connected me to my family – I don’t remember a time where we didn’t sit down for family dinner. Eventually I aged into cooking for family meals, when told I was ‘old enough to contribute to a side to the Thanksgiving potluck.’ They remember their family gatherings with her mom’s extended family, always at a Chinese restaurant, with great fondness and recalls visits to her dad’s side: “In quintessential Jewish American style, someone was always asking if I wanted more food.”

Preparing and enjoying a wide variety of cuisine was a central experience of Elizabeth’s childhood. They were also raised very intentionally to see food as a human right and something that everyone deserved. “I had the privilege of growing up without experiencing food insecurity, and my family was always reminding my brother and I of the importance of caring for others, of paying attention to the rest of our community. I was raised with the belief that ‘if you are a person in society, then you help take care of other people in society.’ Anytime we got money from family for birthdays and holidays, my brother and I would be expected to pick a charity to donate a portion of that cash to.”

These values influenced Elizabeth’s personal and professional trajectory. With a strong groundwork of compassion and empathy, Elizabeth found herself pursuing work that allowed her to make meaningful change. They came to Northwest Harvest in 2015 as an interim Partner Programs Coordinator. Since then, they have held a number of different titles and roles. Currently, Elizabeth works as Northwest Harvest’s Brand Manager and spends her free time visiting bakeries with her mom, going to happy hours with her aunt, and enjoying home cooked dinners made by her dad. “Food is a way of intentionally spending time with people I care about, and the older I get the more important it is to be close to my family,” says Elizabeth.

When asked what their favorite foods are these days, Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “Just one? I love noodles – anything with noodles. And anything that resembles a dumpling. My favorite dessert item has to be imagawayaki – a traditional Japanese batter-based sweet filled with red bean paste. And how could I forget? Salmon! Salmon’s a food from my childhood that I always associate with a special occasion. My parents love to tell the story of how they were celebrating their anniversary at a fancy restaurant in Memphis – I was a toddler and my brother was a newborn. The restaurant didn’t have a kids menu, so my parents footed the bill for a full-sized salmon entrée for me. I didn’t make much of a dent but happily did my best on their dime,” Elizabeth laughs.

Elizabeth knows just how important food is to identity and to family. Food can bring us together, and it can connect us to ancestors we’ve never met, but whose culture we carry with us into the future.