Montreal, Canada. She is 4 years old. It’s a special day, and she knows it. After all, ah ma has baked a cake. “Say cheese!” says someone wielding a clunky camera, but it’s hard to sit still in ah ma’s loving embrace. How can she when there is cake?
Still Montreal. She is 5. This year, she is permitted to crack the eggs into the baking bowl. She is a big girl now. Ah ma performs her magic, spinning raw ingredients into pretty confectionary. The strawberry cake layered with fresh cream is every bit as good as she remembers.
Seattle, Washington. At 37, she does it all now, from cracking the eggs in the bowl to adding the finishing touches to her treats. Her son helps out sometimes, but he is more smitten with savory eats.
A core memory immortalized in a photograph: Kat Lieu and her ah ma, whose strawberry chiffon cake ignited Lieu’s love of baking
It’s a universal story that never gets old: Italians learn to lick the spoon while cooking with nonna, Mexicans credit their love of the stove to abuela, and so on and so forth. For Kat Lieu, this matriarch of the family was ah ma (the word for ‘paternal grandmother’ in the Chinese dialect of Hokkien, embraced by several other dialects and languages).
“She spoke Cantonese perfectly but also Vietnamese,” says Lieu of her paternal grandmother. During a Zoom interview that coincidentally falls on Qingming Festival, Lieu takes a trip down memory lane, recounting memories of her ah ma, whose parents migrated to Vietnam to carve out a better life. Here, they came to own landed property, which many of their tenants turned into restaurants. The dutiful daughter’s job was to collect rent — a task turned opportunity to interact with and learn from chefs and restaurateurs.
“She learned how to make traditional Chinese foods, including mooncakes, from scratch, and was exposed to the French techniques that had seeped into Vietnamese cuisine,” recalls Lieu.
“Choux pastries, homemade ice cream… and then there was that chiffon cake,” she adds. “That very memorable chiffon cake with the fresh cream and the fruit.” It’s the kind of cake you’ll find at most any Chinese or Asian bakery.
“It’s the first memory I have of baking.”
View this post on InstagramA post shared by subtle asian baking (SAB)® (@subtleasian.baking)
A post shared by subtle asian baking (SAB)® (@subtleasian.baking)
Thus began Lieu’s beguilement with baking. It wasn’t until the black swan event of 2020, however, that her hobby turned full time.
“Everything started here, in the state of Washington,” says Lieu with regards to Covid. “Suddenly, I was at home all the time. That’s how I was able to grow the Subtle Asian Baking (SAB) community.”
Rooted in Facebook but also spread across Instagram, TikTok, and Discord, SAB’s fanbase spans the U.S., Australia, Canada, the Philippines, the UK, China, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Vietnam (in descending order of followers).
Part of SAB’s popularity can be pinned to it riding the coattails of Subtle Asian Traits (SAT), a 2-million-strong Facebook group, one of the largest online Asian communities, and the antecedent of other ‘Subtle Asian-’ niches. Simply key ‘subtle Asian’ in Instagram’s search bar for an inkling of the phrase’s prevalence. Results range from wholesome to NSFW, including @subtleasianartists, @subtleasianmentalhealth, @subtle_asian_climbing, @subtle_asian_ass, and @subtleasianbabygirls (it perturbs this writer that even a tag born of Asian pride has invited fetishization, but that’s a different story).
“I didn’t put much thought into why I chose Subtle Asian Baking,” admits Lieu. “It was a trend. One in three Asian Americans on Facebook is probably in one of these groups. I realized, ‘hey, there’s no Subtle Asian Baking. Let’s make that, because we want to ‘bake the Asian way.’”
What, then, is ‘baking the Asian way’?
Baking is, ironically, often absent from SAB’s trove of recipes — a reminder that most Asian households are perfectly able to get by without an oven.
Lieu herself confesses, “Growing up, I didn’t think Asians other than my grandma baked. Our oven was always stuffed with pots and pans, so you had to take everything out when you wanted to bake. When my mom sold the house in 2009, her oven was practically brand new.”
Not counting the clay tandoors introduced from India to China by way of the Silk Road, most homes in China weren’t outfitted with ovens until the 19th century.
Instead, one might break out the bamboo steamer to make a batch of brown sugar ma lai go, or drop hand-shaped tangyuan into a pot of bubbling water.
Another characteristic of traditional desserts or snacks in Asia — compared to their Western counterparts — is their ritualistic role. Less a means to satisfy sweet cravings and more symbolic, Chinese treats like the mooncake (central in a myth about Chinese rebellion against Mongol rule) and shou tao bao (aka ‘longevity peach buns,’ modeled after the ‘fruit of immortality’ in Chinese lore) lend a physical — and edible — component to storytelling.
A quick peek in the pantry further differentiates Asian and Western baking. Chocolate, caramel, or cheese, all-star ingredients in the latter, might be eschewed in favor of local ingredients in the former. “Black sesame, coconut milk, matcha, miso, pandan, glutinous rice, golchujang, soy sauce, ube, yuzu,” Lieu reels off 10 staples in the SAB pantry without missing a beat.
Respectively inspired by Portuguese pastéis de nata and British hot cross buns, Macanese egg tarts and Hong Kong pineapple buns, two Asian treats that are baked, continue to be churned out by Asian people long after being freed from their colonial yokes.
Lieu likes to point out that even then, baked goods always showcased “our own identity, our own spin on things — like using less sugar, or going plant-based to make room for the lactose intolerant.”
“When people think of baking, they don’t immediately imagine Asian baking,” laments Lieu. “Even now, the top searches are for ‘French baking’ or ‘British bake-offs.’ People are not so quick to accept baking the Asian way.”
Many Asian people may love ingredients such as brightly colored ube or Japanese yam, but these culinary components aren’t always readily accepted by the uninitiated
A case in point: In early 2022, SAB’s content experienced a wave of cyberbullying. The target? Asian produce such as ube (purple sweet potato), pandan (screwpine leaves) and clitoria ternatea (butterfly pea flower).
Fueled by anti-Asian sentiment and an awareness — bordering on paranoia — of artificial ingredients, but lacking any actual knowledge of natural pigments, some netizens vilified the community’s more ‘exotic’ content.
“Anything that is different or strange can be hard to accept,” says Lieu calmly — although her reaction at the time was anything but. One of her sharp retorts in February 2022 reads, “Anyone who asks about mold, you are yucking our yum and being rude. You are not being curious or funny.”
“I firmly believe that when you clap back, bullies will stop, whereas if you’re passive and let it slide, they’ll keep stepping on you,” says Lieu. This approach is working, as the stream of hateful comments has slowed down — but not completely stopped.
Not one to let ego get in the way of facts, Lieu acknowledges that several negative comments on SAB have held sway: “We’ve had people make mochi cheese balls and pin their origin to Hong Kong, only to have someone else come along and say, ‘That’s really Brazilian pão de queijo. It’s not Asian, don’t claim it as your own.’”
Since then, Lieu and her team of moderators have been extra careful at ensuring that their content doesn’t discredit other cultures in the same way that Asian culture is often appropriated. Sure, fusion creations are ‘allowed’ (they even make for the bulk of SAB’s ‘top hits’), so long as kudos is given to their origins.
A debut cookbook author come June 2022, Lieu has been counting down the days till Modern Asian Baking at Home: Essential Sweet and Savory Recipes for Milk Bread, Mooncakes, Mochi, and More makes its worldwide release.
It wasn’t long ago that Lieu, a licensed doctor of physical therapy, permanently traded her lab coat for an apron (and whatever editors don in their home offices).
Her favorite thing about the career change? “I get to be creative every day. And I have the best boss: me,” she chuckles.
Modern Asian Baking at Home by Subtle Asian Baking will hit bookstores (and ebook readers) on June 28, 2022
Selected through a calculated mix of crowdsourcing and common sense, Modern Asian Baking’s 68 recipes strike a healthy balance between all-time classics and trendy treats.
“I asked the SAB community if they preferred pineapple buns or melon pan, and more wanted pineapple buns, so we went with that,” explains Lieu. One by one, things got knocked out of the ring, and others emerged favorites. Good ol’ Google also helped her spotlight foods that have been trending since the onslaught of Covid, like Korean garlic buns.
While Modern Asian Baking mostly features creations by Lieu and cooks in her vicinity, the remaining recipes were inspired by SAB submissions and — with permission from the original creators — tweaked for print.
Aided by 23 recipe testers, who significantly lightened her load, Lieu powered through penning the book: “I would write from midnight until 2 AM, catch some sleep, wake up and write again from 6 until 9 AM, and then go to work.”
Purpose fuels her book promotions, as presale proceeds will be directed towards the Stop AAPI Hate cause and World Central Kitchen for Ukraine.
A torchbearer in the crusade against anti-Asian hate, Lieu has used her platform and assembled her online community to raise thousands of dollars for non-profit organizations and struggling Asian businesses since 2021.
On February 24, 2022, however, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shocked the world and planted doubt in Lieu’s fundraising group. “Many of us felt guilty,” admits Lieu. “It didn’t feel right to fundraise for Stop AAPI Hate with so many people suffering from a war.”
“So we live with all this fear, but [we are] also trying to keep a low profile because we’re not in a war,” says Lieu. “One of our partners in New York City said something very poignant: ‘I’m trying to help our cause via a bake sale, but I’m afraid to deliver these goodies using public transport.’ Isn’t that ironic? Trying to stop Asian hate while avoiding being a victim of a hate crime?”
Later, something sunk in: It was possible to support more than one cause. She says, “We’re fighting our own battles here. And no one should feel guilty about doing any form of good. Ever.”
It’s an interesting time to be alive, in this thing called the ‘internet age.’ What might have been an insular cookbook club in the suburbs of Seattle now has unprecedented reach and influence.
As Lieu says, “We can be as innovative and creative as we want moving forward. All while celebrating our beautiful flavors, ingredients, techniques, and stories. We can reclaim our narrative.”
Not just a virtual refuge for Asian cooks, SAB beckons at all bakers and cooks with a willingness to learn about ‘baking the Asian way,’ as discussed previously. “Submitted recipes don’t all have to be traditional, however. They can incorporate Asian ingredients or have Asian stories,” adds Lieu. “That’s where the ‘subtle’ part comes in, right?”
Before signing off on our interview, I tell Lieu about having bookmarked a rice cooker cake recipe from SAB.
Her eyes light up. “I know which cake you’re talking about! That beautiful chiffon cake flavored with strawberry.”
Some say hunger is the best spice, but they’re forgetting an equally powerful ingredient: Nostalgia. For some, such as Lieu, strawberry chiffon cake clearly carries said ingredient in spades — while also catering to modern conveniences.
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All images courtesy of Kat Lieu; cover image designed by Haedi Yue
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