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A New Foraging Walking Tour With Asian American Roots Springs to Life

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A young Asian American woman in a knitted hat and blue jacket is picking flowers in a field of grass.
Cindy Li gathers edible plants in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on Apr. 1, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

It was dark out when Cindy Li’s mother first taught her how to forage. But they weren’t hunting for clusters of mushrooms in the moonlit depths of forests with bespoke baskets.

They were going through people’s trash.

“‘Look out for a long stick,’” Li remembers her mother telling her from the front seat of her Toyota as a 5-year-old Li pressed up against the window from her car seat.

23 years later, Li is trimming the shaggy tops of a wild fennel plant on a side street in San Francisco. It’s a sunny spring morning, and her shoulder bag is already full with tender bunches of miner’s lettuce, fiery orange nasturtium blossoms and stinging nettle, carefully wrapped in a dish cloth.

In May, Li will debut a series of foraging walking tours and post-walk eating fests, which will include versions in San Francisco and the East Bay — and already have a 20-person waitlist.


“The foraging world tends to be mostly white male–dominated,” Li says. “I’m really excited that I’m starting to see more younger people of color like me.”

Li’s foraging knowledge is intergenerational, she says, supplemented by learning from other foragers and research she’s done on her own. Over the past three years, she’s built up a popular social media account, “cindydoedee,” where she shares that knowledge with her followers in videos like “10 common edible plants to forage in San Francisco” and “how to identify strawberry fruit tree (Arbutus unedo).”

A spread of edible plants arranged on a rough wood surface.
A spread of nettle, Bermuda buttercups, nasturtium and other plants foraged in Golden Gate Park. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

I accompany Li on a preview of her San Francisco walking tour in early April. On the menu is magnolia blossom and nettle tea, miner’s lettuce and nasturtium leaf pesto and strawberry tree fruit over ice cream.

“Look at all of this free food!” Li exclaims as we enter a clearing in Golden Gate Park.

Where a novice like me sees dirt, a circle of eucalyptus trees and patches of grass, Li sees tea, dinner and dessert.

With slices of orange preserved in resin dangling from her ears and a hat crocheted with sunflowers tucked over her head, Li looks completely at home in her foraging world.

But Li didn’t always feel like she could forage in the open.

Back in L.A., where she grew up, a five-year-old Li and her mother would search around their neighborhood on Sunday nights — the day before trash pickup when bins were choked with trash and loaded on the edge of driveways. That was also when the cover of darkness would keep Li and her mother out of sight from wary, white neighbors.

A woman in a knitted hat gazes upwards while standing in a grassy, wooded area.
Li has built up an enthusiastic following for the foraging videos she posts on social media. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Li remembers looking for old discarded brooms whose handles could be repurposed as a trellis for the long winding vines of cucumbers in their family garden. And when Li’s mother was making stir-fry and needed a lemon, Li would get on a bike her dad bought her from Walmart — spray-painted black because Li didn’t like that it was pink — and go out into the neighborhood to find one.

For Li, this very practical kind of foraging has always been wrapped up in her parents’ immigrant experience.

“I grew up with parents who immigrated from China,” Li says. “And they grew up during the Cultural Revolution, where they were foraging mostly for survival.”

Li’s parents became highly familiar with plant species out of necessity, but they also love and respect the natural world deeply, says Li. On Li’s social media, she posts videos of herself eating passion fruits from her dad’s massive garden and harvesting honey from a wild beehive he found in his basement.

A colorful spread of edible plants and flowers, arranged on a white tablecloth.
The bounty. (Olivia Cruz Mayeda/KQED)

“I spent most of my childhood in the backyard getting to know plants really well,” she says.

Li wants to share those deeper, complicated food histories that are also her family history with folks in the Bay Area.

“Foraging has a very complicated history, especially when it comes to race and culture in this country, Li said. “There are not a lot of foragers of color or Asian American foragers and that has a lot to do with foraging actually being an act that is banned in a lot of places today.”

The modern foraging scene is white-dominated, says Li, because anti-foraging laws have been historically rooted in racism, colonization and capitalism. Anti-foraging laws enacted since the early colonial period in the U.S. have disenfranchised Native folks and later, during slavery, targeted Black folks, too.

With that legacy and its continued impacts in mind, Li wants to help other people of color reclaim these practices, together.

Red berries arranged on top of bowls of whipped cream and ice cream.
Strawberry tree fruits are delicious with ice cream. (Olivia Cruz Mayeda/KQED)

“I would love for people to walk away with a sense of abundance in the place that they live,” she says.

In Berkeley, Li snags a small handful of red fruits from the upper branches of a strawberry tree. They’re berry-red like the kind of strawberry that grows in patches on the ground, but they’re not juicy — they’re custardy, smooth and subtly sweet.

“They’d be great with vanilla ice cream,” she says.

Later, Li and I sit down at the table and dig our chopsticks into a foraged pesto that’s peppery from wild nasturtiums and tangy from mustard weed.

And it’s the best pesto I’ve ever had.

Signups for Cindy Li’s guided foraging walks can be found on this Google sign-up sheet. Walks are offered at sliding scale from $5-$50, in addition to free community walks.

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