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Redefining identity, one dish at a time

Julia Gartland / Food52

In one of his popular YouTube videos for "NYT Cooking," Eric Kim introduces his Sheet-Pan Bibimbap as "really chill." Drawing inspiration from the simplicity of his family's preferred midnight snack, Kim gives the ultimate credit to his mother's techniques before shyly admitting she now uses his recipe. The vegetables are roasted in olive oil, cooked rice is crisped on a hot sheet pan to emulate the effects of a dolsot. The result mimics a traditional bibimbap — though for a dish that varies from family to family, what is traditional? — and meets the simple aesthetics and unpretentious elegance that so many crave today. For me, there's something validating about the bulk of Kim's recipes. Despite not having my own midnight bibimbap memories (I'm Indian American), his food feels representative, because it is distinctly Asian American.

To consider an "Asian American" cuisine category when the entire concept of "Asian America" is up for debate could seem hypocritical. "The Loneliest Americans" author Jay Caspian Kang has devoted a book and several essays arguing against the idea, as the fast-growing group of more than 20 million who make up this identity differ in race, socioeconomic standing, and cultural norms. Kang argues the term is only used by "upwardly mobile professionals who enter mostly white middle-class spaces." If he is correct, perhaps the term becomes even more apt when it comes to food, because this cuisine is often born out of cultural merging, even assimilation. Consider the nikkei and chifa cuisines of Japanese and Chinese Peruvians; the Gullah cuisine of the South Carolina islands created by West and Central Africans blending techniques of their homelands with the ingredients of the land they were forced to work; even the Tex-Mex food of the borderlands. Food evolves when cultures mingle.

But Asian American food is not the Westernization of Asian flavor, like the sweet tikka masalas and sticky General Tsos adapted for a presumed meeker American palate. Nor is it the "fusions" popular in the 2010s, often helmed by white chefs adapting European techniques to the "exotic" Asian flavors that enchanted them on vacation. It is a food steeped in reverence and culture. It is personal, yet representative. "Korean American as a whole is a third culture," said Kim, whose first cookbook, the aptly titled "Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home," was published this month. "So if there's American culture and Korean culture, Korean American is this third thing, and that's what I was trying to get across."

For many children of Asian immigrants, success is seen as hinging upon assimilation into white culture, which continues to dominate many spaces that can lead to upward mobility (this is part of the complex and hugely detrimental model minority myth). Food is one of few more visible ways to reclaim that heritage; and that very reclamation influences and complicates the identity of those of us who are assimilated.

Hetty Lui McKinnon, the Chinese Australian recipe developer and best-selling author who lives in New York, describes feeling an "urgent need" to re-create the foods of her childhood when she had children of her own. As a vegetarian, this takes some creativity. She uses modern techniques, "but it is rooted in real experience…flavor and texture from childhood. I don't want to miss out on eating the flavors of my childhood. So I need to re-create them for myself," she said.

Abi Balingit, the baker and blogger behind The Dusky Kitchen who is currently writing a Filipino American dessert cookbook, makes baked goods like kare-kare-inspired peanut butter and shrimp paste cookies. Like McKinnon, Balingit's creativity came from a place of homesickness. "Being nostalgic for a lot of the foods that I would eat with my family really compelled me to go in and make more Filipino-inspired dishes and desserts," she said, explaining how this passion took off during the pandemic, when access to her family was limited.

This Asian American cuisine reflects a nostalgia and reverence for the foods of our childhood (and the often maternal figures who made them), but those flavors can't help but mingle with the identity of their creators who were raised in American surroundings. New York Times food reporter Priya Krishna wrote her cookbook "Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family" with her mother. It features recipes born out of their Dallas kitchen that nod to their roots, like pizza built on roti as crusts, or blocks of feta in the style of saag paneer. "I consider myself a documentarian of my family recipes," she said. "My culinary identity is one generation from my mom's culinary identity, but also inextricably linked to her cooking."

Similarly, Kim spent nine months living with his mother while working on "Korean American," and credits that time with helping him find his culinary identity. "There are moments where I feel like I'm echoing my mother's cooking, revering the past and really honoring it, but it's also [about] having the courage to sort of experiment on that, and to move forward and define your own sense of what Korean cooking is. And so that was really freeing for me." While returning to his childhood home to share memories and develop ideas with his mother helped him find that courage, so did the physical space: a pantry full of syrups and spices and vinegars, tastes of his youth he could apply to his own cooking style.

McKinnon speaks to this, too. While working on her salad delivery project, Arthur Street Kitchen, she said her mother would bring her "very traditional" Chinese ingredients like lotus root or seaweed that McKinnon seamlessly incorporated into her popular, Australian-global menu. She paired the lotus root with charred Brussels sprouts and added a hoisin vinaigrette, taking her mother's suggestions of the crisp freshness the rhizome offered and playing with it to make her own creation. "I've just kind of made things up. I'll take my family's cultural cuisine and just kind of riff on that to reflect who I am. Because, you know, I'm not my mother; I am a person who grew up in the third culture. So it's very personal."

This food is deeply personal, a blend of childhood memories, life experiences, and individual style on a plate. But when seen together, these separate experiences can represent a larger identity. There's a reason Kim's Korean American dishes or Balingit's Filipino American baked goods might resonate with me, an Indian American, more than a traditional Indian dish: by creating dishes so true to their own Asian American experience, these recipe developers represent a wide-ranging group. There is immeasurable variation in the foodways and techniques, and the lived experiences, of Asian Americans — of course there are in this diverse group of 20 million, Kang might remind us — but there can also be unifying forces. These experiences are singular "with echoes of the plural," as Kim described. Krishna said, "Even if my experience isn't exactly the same, maybe people can find kernels within my experience that feel relatable. I feel like I'm constantly kind of balancing between recognizing that my experience is both unique and not unique at the same time."

Still, this personal, identity-affirming food's existence comes from a place of privilege. "I stand on the shoulders of giants . . . like Julie Sahni and Madhur Jaffrey," Krishna explained, acknowledging two cooks who are most credited with bringing Indian cuisines to America's attention. Indeed, American cookbook authors focusing on non-Eurocentric recipes no longer have to be compendiums that represent the cuisine of their heritage as a whole; instead they can have diasporic nuances. And yet, with this freedom comes a weight to protect the flavors of their respective backgrounds, and ensure that when these ingredients are used by people without a personal connection to them, it's with respect and context. "I think about that as culinary diplomacy a little bit," said Kim. He knows when he introduces a Korean ingredient, it may be the first time some readers are interacting with that ingredient, and there's a responsibility that comes with that.

"Things that some people think of as new or trendy have actually existed in cultures for a really long time," said Krishna, in this case speaking about turmeric. "I have a platform. I'd like to use it to, you know, protect my culture as much as possible." This feeling of protection over cherished ingredients of their childhood was something all the recipe developers I spoke to expressed. This respect for an ingredient's origins doesn't always mean using it in the most traditional way, but instead recognizing its history and context in order to use them in newly conceived recipes.

"Authenticity is kind of a sham, but it is really important to have a conversation about appropriation," said Balingit. She uses ube, the bright purple Filipino yam, as an example of an ingredient often not used in proper context. "You don't want to gatekeep ube, but it's really great to give respect to where an ingredient is from and what it tastes like." Balingit explained the delicate — and challenging — balance of maintaining cultural context while encouraging culinary creativity: "Sometimes [I see] it used just for show, and not necessarily showcasing the subtle flavor. I think that it's super important to give credit where credit is due, but also that innovation is super important for your culture to continue on. So it's living in a half-and-half world."


This weight of simultaneously honoring a cuisine's past while pushing traditional ingredients and techniques into modern recipes is further complicated by the mainstream food media. Whiteness (and a presumed majority-white audience) has dictated — and today in many aspects, still dictates — much of what is covered in food media. An editor of a mainstream publication may remove key ingredients in a recipe from an underrepresented cuisine that they assume their audience is not familiar with. McKinnon, for example, says dried shiitakes are a staple in her pantry, so she was shocked when an editor asked for a more "accessible" replacement. "​​I didn't grow up white so things that are 'normal' to [many] editors are not what's normal to me. So that's really hard, but I try and fight that as much as I can."

With a large social media following often going hand-in-hand with the success of a recipe developer, self-branding becomes paramount. Sometimes this looks like taking ingredients or dishes out of their cultural context without explanation, or claiming a lack of personal culture inspired them to pull from a global pantry. "[Some developers] try to act like they discovered everything. I don't even feel that confident about writing about Chinese food, you know? And I grew up eating Chinese food every single day of my life. I don't even want to assert my supreme knowledge over that cuisine. Because I know that my experience is just singular," said McKinnon.

In an industry where cultural appropriation feels rampant, listening to this "chorus of voices," as Krishna put it, of Asian American creators who do honor a traditional ingredient's context, and whose recipes are often deeply personal, feels especially important. But because the cuisine is so tied to the personal, it will continue to change and evolve. "As I write more books, more recipes, more articles, I've discovered more about myself. So, in many ways, I'm evolving at the same time as my work," said McKinnon.

It is impossible to categorize "Asian foods" as a single thing. They represent some of the world's greatest diversity in technique, ingredients, and norms. And yet, in its journey to America — or more accurately, in its mingling with American surroundings — Asian American food becomes easier to categorize as a style, not because it is minimized to a single thing or because this diversity is lost, but because those "echoes of the plural'' show up through the shared experience of finding our identity through food. Asian American food reveres the past and is pushing culture forward, and it reflects the deeply personal and yet represents a diverse and changing identity. "So that's the complicated part about 'Asian American,' right?" said Kim. "Sometimes it feels like a blanket term that erases us. On the other hand, if we wield it as a power, it can feel like an incredible community, and I think that's beautiful."

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