Friends of Graza: Moonlynn Tsai & Yin Chang

Friends of Graza: Moonlynn Tsai & Yin Chang

The founders of Heart of Dinner, an NYC based non-profit countering food insecurity and loneliness, on the most meaningful parts of their work, maternal culinary legacies, and their favorite pantry staples.

How do you describe yourself?

M: A California native who’s lucky enough to get to call NYC her home and committed to fostering connections and creating meaningful experiences through food, whether it's through work with Heart of Dinner, restaurant projects or at home through cooking and travels.

Y: Born and raised New Yorker devoted to various mediums of storytelling and community building and visibility.

Finish this sentence: Cooking for me is _________

M: Cooking for me is a way to connect with my cultural heritage and traditions as well as an outlet to decompress and ground myself after a long workday

Y: Cooking for me is creative play, flow, and togetherness.

You co-founded Heart of Dinner, which works to directly address food insecurity and isolation experienced by Asian American seniors in New York City. What has been the most meaningful part of your work and experience so far?

Y & M: There have been so many but at the top of our list would be how co-founding Heart of Dinner has been the opportunity to bridge generational and cultural gaps, and cultivate meaningful relationships between volunteers (we love seeing our Big Heart volunteers meet up and hang out all around New York, and even internationally!) It has been especially meaningful to earn and build the trust of our older adult beneficiaries, they even tell us that they love our Heart of Dinner community like grandchildren!

What is your favorite comfort meal to make?

M: Nothing warms my heart more than preparing a hot pot feast for loved ones at home. Equally comforting to me is my mom's rendition of Taiwanese oxtail stew, a hearty broth of 6 hour simmered oxtail, infused with tomatoes, celery, onions that she’s made since I can remember and I still ask her to make it for me whenever she visits even though I make it at home all the time(it just hits differently when mom makes it)! It’s nostalgia and comfort in a bowl and perfect over rice!

Y: My favorite comfort meal to make is my Dad’s pork belly dish with leeks. Although my Dad rarely had the time to cook dinner, I'll never forget the special memory of him teaching me how to make this dish. It's a cherished memory I hold dear. I also find comfort in dishes that remind me of my dad’s mom (my Ah Ma), like mee sua (flour vermicelli noodle) and Taiwanese dried radish omelette. Ah Ma would pickle vegetables like radish and use them in her delicious omelettes, a tradition that brings back fond memories and flavors of my childhood.

Who do you turn to, watch, or follow for food inspiration?

M: My culinary inspiration stems from my travels and the time spent with my mom in the kitchen. When traveling, Yin and I love exploring local markets and eating at local eateries to immerse ourselves in different culinary traditions and expand our culinary perspectives. Nothing gets us more excited than discovering a new fruit or vegetable and learning how to prepare it! Spending time with my mom, whether she's visiting me or I'm visiting her in Taiwan, and learning family recipes passed down through generations has instilled in me a deep connection to my cultural heritage.

Y: My thoughts immediately go to the incredible women in my family whose culinary legacies have profoundly shaped my appreciation for food, and to my Dad, whose humble cooking skills have had a lasting impact. My paternal grandma (Ah Ma), who raised me, made the most delicious Taiwanese meals using fresh ingredients from her own garden, and her zero-waste cooking left a lasting impression on me. My mom’s creative ability to make dishes completely her own, she’s especially talented at integrating Italian, Southeast, and East Asian ingredients together.

My mom’s mom, though I never had the honor of meeting her, continues to inspire me through stories of the amazing dishes she prepared at her gatherings, bringing her neighborhood in Michigan and New York together despite not speaking English and building community through her dishes. Going back further, my maternal great-great-grandma was a beloved community cook in her Malaysian village, known for her grand feasts. I also owe a huge shoutout to my Dad, his outrageous talent in the kitchen runs in the family, with all of his sisters being incredible cooks—one of them even had a restaurant in Taiwan.

What are your pantry staples and favorite pantry brands?

M & Y: Cooking in NYC looks very different from when we were living in LA. Our NYC apartment has no hood, and the electric stove is only about 18 inches. If we use the stove too long, it'll smoke, and the fire alarm goes off - typical NYC living.

We focus on quick, simple ingredient meals and really let the ingredients shine through. Our pantry is pretty minimal - we just did a quick check, and we have olive oil (currently both the Sizzle & Drizzle from Graza!), salt, a tin of Diaspora Co turmeric, soy sauce, and a bottle of Trader Joe's 21 Seasoning Salute and Fly By Jing Chili Crisp Vin. Our flavorings come from fresh ingredients in the fridge; we always have garlic, lemon, ginger, and scallions (you can do a lot with the combination of these four) on hand.

Being so deep in the culinary world, we are constantly inspired by what our friends are creating. Off the top of the list are Fly By Jing and Diaspora Co. Not a pantry brand, but kitchenware by Material Kitchen. Not only are each of these brands creating amazing products, but the heart of the founders and mission behind each of them are like none other!

What are your all-around life mottos, mantras, philosophies?

M: Embrace the journey, cherish the moments, and trust the process.

What's on the horizon for you!

M: Food and hospitality have been front and center in my life since I was 15, and they will always be. I'm also really excited about keeping the creative juices flowing and delving into new industries, such as art and fashion.

Y & M: For Heart of Dinner, we have huge plans for the upcoming year. One of them is to fundraise for our own fleet of Heart of Dinner vans to make deliveries each week around Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens with plans to reach Staten Island which will complete our outreach to all 5 boroughs! Goal after that– expanding Heart of Dinner nationally and reaching Elders with our mission out in California!