Asian American cooking reads for all ages

Cooking has often been my way to reset. I get a sense of control and am able to sit down to a meal with my loved ones and get out of my work mode. These days, cooking has changed for me a bit. I need to cook every meal and many times I am exhausted by the necessity of this chore. The thought of cooking dinner after figuring out both breakfast and lunch becomes overwhelming and somehow sad. It’s like the last bit of my mind is Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill but about food, and I love food. 

Through this difficult reality we are currently facing, I have dived straight into books. That seems to be my quiet place these days, where my brain just has to absorb the text and enjoy its time away from thinking and planning and stressing. And since cooking is more about survival than taste or culinary flair during quarantine, I have found that reading about food has been the escape I needed more than anything else. My brain relaxes more when I can dream up all the things I want to make when I don’t have to watch my budget and can source all those items correctly instead of getting my supermarket substitute ingredients. 

Currently, I have been diving into several Asian food books, partially because that is my wheelhouse when it comes to cooking but also because I miss my family. Asian food is the primary food we eat together. I like to read children’s books with recipes with my younger family members to try to get them excited about trying different foods. Along with a few children’s books with Asian recipes, some other suggestions can be found the last time I wrote about this topic, I have also found some wonderful graphic novels with recipes. I’ve been on a bit of a graphic novel kick recently and these books have been a welcome addition to my collection. 

Kid’s Books with Recipes

Thupka for All by Praba Ram

This sweet book has a lovely sense of compassion and togetherness that I have been longing for these days. Tsering, a blind boy, is making his way home to eat his grandmother’s thupka (noodle soup). Along the way, he meets several people, who join him on this journey, each bringing a dish. It looks like the evening is set for a wonderful meal with friends and family until the lights go out. Can Tsering help his grandmother cook thupka and save the day? I’ll leave you this cliffhanger, but know that at the end of your reading you probably will want to call someone you love and reminisce about a lovely meal together, I know I did. 

Mei-Mei’s Lucky Birthday Noodles by Shan-Shan Chen

This is such a cute story about celebrating culture. Mei-Mei is adopted from China and her parents celebrate her birthday every year by preparing her birthday noodles. She explains that her parents cook these noodles because long noodles signify a long life in Chinese heritage. She is excited to share her birthday noodles with her friends and family. The recipe in the back of this book is so simple that kids would love both making this dish as well as eating it with giant smiles on their faces. 

Dumpling Soup by Jama Kim Rattigan

I am pretty obsessed with dumplings. I love that they can have different fillings and that so many cultures have their own versions. Dumpling Soup is about eating dumplings in a mixed family in Hawaii. Marisa is very excited to be old enough to help make dumplings for New Year’s Day. Her whole family comes together on New Year’s Day and her grandmother and aunties make dumplings in different shapes. When Marisa struggles to make her dumplings look right, she gets frustrated but slowly those feelings disappear when she realizes that her broken dumplings make the soup taste delicious. Everyone who reads this book should definitely try their hands and making dumplings. They are surprisingly easy to make and lots of fun for the whole family.

Graphic Novels with Recipes

Cook Korean! by Robin Ha (@robinhaart)

When I was a kid my school would hold an international food festival and you could always find me at the Korean booth spending all my tickets on bulgogi. When I ran out of tickets I would likely get free portions since my brother’s best friend’s mother manned that bulgogi. This graphic novel has tons of history about types of Korean food and pantry ingredients that are pivotal to making those dishes. The pictures help share technique and make this unorthodox cookbook really pop. It has some recipes that I didn’t think I would ever try to replicate, but now I am second-guessing those thoughts. I plan on trying my hand at sundubu jjigae (soft tofu soup) and kimchi buchimgae (kimchi pancake). If I am feeling particularly ambitious, I’ll attempt making budaejjigae (army stew). Good thing I have the largest tub of gochujang (Korean red chili paste) in my fridge. 

Let’s Make Ramen by Hugo Amano

Some of you might be thinking, “Ramen? I have some 25¢ instant packets in my pantry, why stress about ramen?” Well, for one, freshly made ramen is actually incredibly complex and it can take years for ramen cooks to perfect their bowls. Several years ago I read The Ramen King and I by Andy Raskin, which heavily features Momofuku Ando, the creator of those instant ramen packets. I found the story fascinating, but it still felt like it was missing the thoughtfulness of preparing ramen from scratch. Let’s Make Ramen has been the answer to several ramen related questions. It goes through the rich history of ramen and how it became popular to the different types of broth and what toppings pair with the broths and even ramen etiquette (the major rule I will tell you is never, EVER leave your chopsticks in the bowl sticking out, this goes for all Asian food). It is fascinating how much goes into creating one dish, but the results will make you forget all about that 25¢ packet.  

Meal by Blue Delliquanti and Soleil Ho (@bluedelliquanti @soleil_ho)

I really enjoyed this graphic novel for all the different ways it asks you to expand your compassion and your palate. Meal is about a young aspiring chef named Yarrow and her desire to work in a new restaurant that features different bugs in every dish. When Yarrow is given the assignment to make a taco featuring insects by the restaurant chef Chanda, who she somehow insulted, she realized that she needs to make her food personal. After seeking out her ingredients from a seller who breeds grasshoppers for consumption, she shares her taco with Chanda. Yarrow explains that as a child she would often collect cicadas with her grandmother in the countrysides of Japan to later eat and her passion for cooking with insects is not a fad, but a part of her desire to share her heritage. Chanda explains that she has a similar history with her mother in Cambodia, who survived the Khmer Rouge partially by eating tarantulas. Several countries around the world eat insects, except for most of Europe, and their food culture heavily influenced America’s food culture. While the ambitious bug-centric recipes in the back might be difficult to source, the story does make me want to expand my view on food and what is deemed by some as daring ingredients. 

 

 

Growing up Asian and American

I was looking at pictures the other day and I realized how much my face has changed over the years. I don’t think I look like a completely different person, but when I was really young I think my features look somehow more Asian. Over time I think it has morphed a bit more into my father’s side features, I very much look like my father and grandfather with a more sturdy, somehow more Polish face now, but when I was young I somehow was a carbon copy of my mother. Weirdly enough, I also have two completely different feet, with my left having the traits of my father’s foot and my right foot is my mother’s duplicate. I somehow have higher arches on my right foot and my toes go in descending order, the opposite of my flatter left foot with a taller second toe than the big toe. While I have both Asian and Polish American traits within me, I literally have a foot on each side of my cultural DNA.

This has been a major factor in why it has been such a difficult journey figuring out who I am within my cultural identity. I’ve struggled with not feeling like I fit into either category that I belong to, and while I know there are other people out there just like me, every story is different and mine includes a large amount of moving. I finally came to the conclusion that I actually wanted to go to boarding school starting my sophomore year of high school, and making that decision on my own with the support of my parents was a crucial moment in my life.

I made a very tough decision right in the middle of my teenage years and was able to grow from that moment into a more clear personal identity. I think this is a significant reason why I like reading coming of age stories with an Asian American voice. I can relate to navigating multiple cultures that vary in social views on everything from what you wear to when you can start dating. It was the reflection in books I craved and it still feels personal.

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott

I find this graphic novel incredible poignant today. With Asian American’s being racially targeted for the coronavirus, reading this book made me feel incredibly proud to be an Asian American. They Call Us Enemy was written about George Takei’s time in an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. It showcases how these Americans banned together during a time that the American government thought they were enemies and how they survived after everything they worked for was seized. It resonates deeply with how people of different races are viewed in America and is a great reminder of what Asian Americans have had to struggle with and work against.

Buy it here.

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani

This is a wonderful graphic novel that follows teen Priyanka as she tries to piece together her heritage and who her father is when her mother does not want to talk about it. She finds her mother’s pashmina stuffed in a suitcase and when she puts it around her shoulders, she is transported to a dreamlike India, where things are beautiful. When her mom finally agrees that she can go visit her aunt in India, she sees that while there is beauty, there also is poverty and it is also different than what she imagined. This was something that I grappled with a lot in my time in Singapore and traveling around Asia. Tourism gives off the idea that the continent is “exotic”, but the reality is a lot more complex.  

Buy it here.

Kampung Boy by Lat

I grew up with this and all of the other Lat graphic novels. They are cherished by my family because they go into detail about what it is like living with Peranakan relatives (Peranakan or Baba Nyonya refers to the mixed culture created by Hainanese immigrants to Malaysia).  Kampungs are traditional villages that are often on stilts and my mother grew up in a more rural Singapore where kampungs were still around. This explores how kampung life is like and the unique eccentricities that Peranakans have with their mixture of cultures.

Buy it here.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

I love this book so much because I can relate to it from moving so much. It tells the story of Shirin, a girl who has moved so much that she has guarded herself with emotional walls incredibly high. This takes place a year after 9/11 and she has become a target of bullies in her past high schools because she wears a hijab. Her older brother, on the other hand, is viewed as the cute foreign teenager that girls love, much like my older brother in high school. When a boy is actually interested in talking to her, she is terrified and finds it challenging to let her guard down. 

Buy it here.

Permanent Record by Mary H.K. Choi

I find this book incredibly dreamy and lovely. I am not a huge fan of romantic books but this book feels like a different kind of Notting Hill, which is probably one of my favorite movies of all time. Pablo Neruda Rind is a college dropout who is trying to figure out what he wants to with his life. He currently works at a bodega, which gives his Korean mom some frustrations. His Indian father is more forgiving, but then again he was the one who named him after Pablo Neruda. One day while working his shift at the bodega, Leanna Smart, a very famous pop singer and actress, enters and they strike up a conversation. He is both fascinated and confused about how their worlds have collided. I won’t spoil what happens next, but I will tell you that I got to meet Mary H.K. Choi at the 2019 Texas Teen Book Festival and made a complete fool of myself talking to her, much like Pab interacting with Leanna for the first time. 

Buy it here.

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier 

I read this book when I was a teenager and I don’t think I have ever felt like I related to a character more than Dimple Lala. Dimple has spent her entire life resisting her parent’s traditions as she much prefers to assimilate into American society. When she turns seventeen, her parents try to introduce her to a suitable boy, an Indian American who is an NYU student. She rejects the idea wholeheartedly until she finds him at a club and realizes he is much more complex than she had imagined. While parents might find Dimple too rebellious in this book, she experiments with drinking and smoking pot and she lies to her parents at different points in the book, Dimple feels like a real person with flaws and all. I highly suggest this book to anyone who feels a little bit confused about their identity. 

Buy it here.

 

Six children’s books with recipes for you to share the love of cooking with kids

I grew up obsessed with food. Between growing up in Singapore around all sorts of different cuisines and my parents and family cooking up all sorts of homemade deliciousness, I was always around something to taste or nibble on. Whenever my parents were cooking in the kitchen I always wanted to watch and help, and every time my parents would find something for me to help with. As I grew older, I graduated from taking cilantro leaves off of stems to filling and wrapping pierogis and wontons to cracking open a coconut to extract the milk and meat for my mom’s beef rendang. 

I try to keep these memories in focus when I buy children’s books for friends and family. I want them to be able to have amazing food experiences together. I’ve been adding to this group of children’s books about food over the years, but my favorite specific group of children’s books is about food with a recipe included. This to me feels like the ultimate way to get kids excited about food and a way I have been able to convince picky eaters to try eating something new- read them a story about something different to eat, involve them in the cooking process based on that book, and they feel so accomplished with helping they give it a try! 

With that notion, here are my favorite kids’ books with recipes for you to try at home with tiny humans. Please note: most of these books contain a pretty ambitious recipe for you to try, but I guarantee you that each book will fill up a full day experiencing new tastes, smells, and wonderful new memories with your kid to cherish over a wonderful new dish. 

Cora Cooks Pancit by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore

I read this growing up and it always stuck with me. It’s about a girl who is the youngest of five kids and she always gets stuck with the “kids” food prep. When all of her siblings are occupied doing other things, she finally asks her mom to show her how to make pancit, a Filipino noodle dish. This book and recipe is perfect for kids who want to want to be the boss.

Octopus Stew by Eric Velasquez

This book has made the rounds in the office as it was both 2019 Festival title and a pick for  2020 Reading Rock Stars Houston. It’s a fun story about making, well, octopus stew, that will make children giggle with the silly situation the characters get in when they cook things incorrectly. This book and dish are perfect for the adventurous kid who isn’t afraid of touching an octopus.

Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang

This was maybe my favorite kids’ book at the 2019 Festival and it was a pleasure to meet Kat Zhang when she came to the 2020 Reading Rock Stars Dallas / Fort Worth program (I often don’t get to see the authors when I am working at the Festival grounds). It’s about a little girl trying to make to perfect bao, a bread-like dumpling with savory or sweet fillings. This story and recipe are great for kids who like to create their own versions of things or perfectionists. 

The Empanadas That Abuela Made/Las Empanadas Que Hacia la Abuela by Diane Gonzales Bertrand

This book was a hit at the 2019 Reading Rock Stars Houston program and has a sweet story about family and togetherness. It’s about a family that comes together to make some empanadas with the grandmother leading the charge. This book and recipe are great for the family that needs to break up a cooking project into smaller projects. That way you can make the filling, dough, and the full empanada creation into three different pieces or days.

Bee-Bim Bop! by Linda Sue Park

This book was a 2017 Reading Rock Stars Austin book and it features one of my favorite recipes of all time. When I cook the wonderful Korean dish, that is also this book’s title, this is the recipe I draw from when I start. The book is about a girl helping prepare the meal and is so cute. The text has a sort of flow to it that I honestly think it would make a really cool rap with a beat behind it. The recipe gives some good info on which parts are better for kids and which parts are more suitable for adults. I would recommend this book to families who are just starting to learn how to cook together since it gives you good guidelines for you and your kids so everyone has a duty. 

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard 

I love this book so much because it shares a history that is often overlooked. It celebrates the food and culture of Native Americans and the inception of fry bread. This book is a great way to keep your kids thinking about history and a perfect way to create a multi-leveled lesson for your little one while they are away from school. You can even incorporate a science lesson in cooking with the Maillard reaction and yeast fermentation reaction. 

 

Take solace in cooking while social distancing

Right now the whole world feels like it is upside down and I’m just waiting for Hopper to come rescue us with Eleven and the Stranger Things gang. While being cooped up in my apartment has been frustrating, I take solace in my cookbook collection. In those pages there is an order to each recipe that calms my nerves and at the end of cooking I’ll be eating something warm and inviting. During this upside down time, I’ve decided to dive into several books about food as well as cookbooks to read about how food brings us together. Here is my quaran-time food reading list.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat

If you are new to cooking and want to know the science behind cooking food, this is the book for you. The first part of this book reads like a friend just walking you through each element of good cooking and the second part is more of a regular cookbook. I’m in the middle of rereading the “Heat” section, but my favorite recipe here is the Caesar Salad recipe, which includes a mayonnaise recipe that is also in the book. Don’t miss out on her intro paragraphs to each recipe, which tend to include what else to pair with the dish. Nosrat also did a Netflix special of the same name, which I highly suggest watching as her excitement for cooking and food is contagious. (I wrote this with the miniseries on in the background!)

Order it from BookPeople here.

Eat What You Watch by Andrew Rea

The YouTube “Binging with Babish” star created this book that dives into some of your favorite food from movies. Rea dives into the Il Timpano for Big Night and the Prison Gravy from Goodfellas. I am bookmarking the Ratatouille recipe for when I have some access to better vegetables, but with my pantry pasta I will be diving headfirst into the Chef inspired Pasta Aglio e Olio recipe. I’m even going a step further and will be making the dish and then eating it while watching the movie on my couch! Now if I could find some fresh pineapple I might attempt the Hawaiian Burgers from Pulp Fiction

Order it from BookPeople here.

Mixtape Potluck by Questlove

If you have talked to me within the last two months, you would have heard me wax poetic about this cookbook. The concept behind this book is just genius. Questlove, the drummer of the band The Roots, would hold dinner parties of his own and invite guests to bring a dish. The twist is that he would also assign them a song that is meant to inspire the dish. While I currently don’t have the ingredients to make Missy Robbins’ Braised Osso Buco with Fennel Soffritto, I will be diving straight into my canned tomatoes for Stanley Tucci’s Eggs in Purgatory and my canned chickpeas for Padma Lakshmi’s Chickpea and Spinach Tapas. 

Order it from BookPeople here.

South by Sean Brock

Sean Brock came to the 2019 Festival and I was so excited to snag a copy of his cookbook. Brock has a deep love for Southern cooking and he spent a lot of time reading old Southern cookbooks before making this cookbook. While it doesn’t have the easiest dishes, his book does give you some good aspirations to challenge yourself. I’ll be diving into his fermented vegetables section, particularly to try my hand at some ramp sauerkraut and preserved lemons. And once I get some good koji, I’ll be starting to work on Boiled Peanut Miso and Hot Sauce.

Order it from BookPeople here. 

You and I Eat the Same by Chris Ying

If you have been following the Austin360 Book Club powered by Texas Book Fest on Facebook this is already in your “read” pile, but I implore you to take a look at it again when you are feeling a little blue about what is going on. This book was a 2018 Festival pick and it helps remind you that we are all the same when you boil it down. These times have been scary and it can be easy to put blame on one another, but when you read how many different cultures use the same ingredients just in a different way it can be comforting- like how sesame seed can be used on bagels, hamburger buns, scallion pancakes, and in tahini sauce, to name a few. My personal favorite chapters are “Fried Chicken is Common Ground” and “Coffee Saves Lives”.  Everything might feel uncertain right now, but remember that we are all in this together, just like that song from High School Musical. 

Order it from BookPeople here.

Finding My Asian American Self Through Cooking

Pictured above: Reading Indian-ish with a side of Chaat Masala Almond Butter Toast

Join us in celebrating Asian American/Pacific Islander Heritage Month! We’re highlighting AAPI literature and members of our state’s literary community—starting with our own Logistics and Volunteer Coordinator, Nicole! Here, she explores her love of cookbooks and food writing, as well as the vital connection between food and cooking and her cultural identity.

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Growing up, it always felt as if, while I was both Asian and American, I somehow didn’t fit either of those categories. Considering myself more Asian would garner strange looks at my clearly half-Caucasian facial features, yet growing up so little in America meant friends often ate dinner at home prior to sleepovers at my house for fear that we would serve them Fish Head Curry (which we never did). But I always connected with the cultural identity of Singapore because that was all about food. Singapore itself is a big melting pot of people and cultures, and the great connector has always been food. Being half Singaporean meant I grew up with an opinion on everything related to food, and knowing I could at least relate to other people through that, because everyone needs to eat.

I started cooking with my mom from a very early age, learning firsthand on how to create passed down recipes. Shopping for ingredients with my mom always felt special. When we were still living in Singapore, it meant going to open air markets. We would talk to the passionate vendors and haggle about the prices—a direct connection to the farms and farmers. I read The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin with my cousin not too long ago and it reminded me of those interactions. The Ugly Vegetables is a children’s picture book about a child frustrated that her mother won’t plant pretty flowers, only ugly vegetables, until she realizes those vegetables make the most delicious Chinese vegetable soup. I knew walking into those markets that whatever we ended up buying, even if it smelled funny or looked unusual, would be turned into something delicious in the end.

Doing the “recipe hover”

My mom’s recipes always consisted off “a bit of this” or “a splash of that,” and eventually we would get to the “and now let the flavors sit and talk to one another” step. I didn’t know how important those recipes would be until I lived on my own and began to miss those flavors. When I visit my mom now, I’ll ask her to make a dish and then hover around her with a notepad, trying to create a set of cooking steps. I write out these recipes knowing that if I wasn’t willing to take the time to do this, the delicious dishes she’s created over the years would be lost forever.

I remember distinctly having déjà vu when I started to read A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. While Tan was writing about her own experiences surrounding learning family traditions to create delicious food, it felt like she was writing about my own. Tan is also from Singapore and writes about the same food-obsessed city and culture, yet it still felt like something I had never read about, only experienced firsthand. Reading her book was one of the first times I felt “seen,” like someone else understood the complexities of getting a recipe from your auntie when she hasn’t ever written the recipe down.

Hot Dog Fried Rice

My mom’s recipes range from very traditional dishes like beef rendang or sambal goreng to hand-tailored dishes from my childhood, where she would throw fried hot dogs into her fried rice to get my brother and me to eat leftovers. It was very clear that she cared for us through how she cooked, that preparing us food was the equivalent of her saying, “for whatever you are celebrating or going through, I’m here.” Connection with food is important for so many cultures because it somehow signals a level of openness, an invitation to celebrate the other’s cultures through taste. This is why I read cookbooks like novels: each recipe tells a story about the creator and their relationship to food and culture.

I’ve recently started Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family by Priya Krishna, and it’s been a real treat to read recipes that are a lot like my mom’s. While the recipes are still rooted in the Indian culture, author Priya Krishna lets you in on her specific family’s recipes, her versions of hot dog fried rice. She makes Malaysian noodles with a ramen packet and her Shahi Toast is actually an aromatic bread pudding. The simplest addition of chaat masala spice to almond butter toast feels like her personal comfort food, a part of her past and her present merged on a piece of toast.

This type of marriage of food cultures really speaks to me, an unexpected reflection of myself in food. It always was hard to understand myself based on labels, but I’ve been learning about myself based on my taste in food. When you’re able to figure out your tastes and what you find personally interesting, it tells you more about who you are as a person. For me, a Singaporean-American who particularly likes fried meats and aromatic spices, that’s something I can identify with.