MULTICULTURAL FLAVORS. A display counter is filled with mochi donuts
and muffins at the Third Culture Bakery in Berkeley, California. From
ube cakes to mochi muffins, bakeries that sweetly encapsulate what it is
to grow up Asian and American have been popping up more in recent years.
Their confections are a delectable vehicle for young and intrepid Asian
Americans to celebrate their dual identity. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
BICULTURAL SWEETS. Pastry chef Elaine Lau holds a Dim Sum Cookie at
the Sunday Bakeshop in Oakland, California. For some Asian Americans,
the dim sum cookie at Sunday Bakeshop tastes like childhood. It looks
like a typical sugar cookie except with sesame seeds on top. But bite
into the creamy, red bean center and itís reminiscent of the fried,
filled sesame balls served at a Chinese dim sum restaurant. (AP
From The Asian Reporter, V31, #9 (September 6, 2021), page 7.
New Asian-American bakeries find bicultural sweet
By Terry Tang
The Associated Press
OAKLAND, Calif. ó For some Asian Americans, the dim sum cookie at
Sunday Bakeshop here will taste like childhood.
It looks like a typical sugar cookie except with sesame seeds on top.
But bite into the creamy, red bean center and itís reminiscent of the
fried, filled sesame balls served at a Chinese dim sum restaurant.
The concoction is pastry chef Elaine Lauís nod to her grandmother,
who would often make them. The baked goods that Lauís team churns out ó
like hojicha chocolate croissants and Chinese White Rabbit candy cookies
ó arenít going to be found in any bakery in Asia. Thereís an intrinsic
American sensibility at the nearly three-month-old shop.
"Talking to some of the Asian Americans and other people that have
tried some of our pastries, we get a lot of comments where theyíre just
like ... ĎOh this took me back several years,í when they were growing
up," said Lau, 35, who was born in Oakland.
"For us, itís kind of nice we can evoke some positive memories and
feelings with our pastries."
From ube cakes to mochi muffins, bakeries that sweetly encapsulate
growing up Asian and American have been popping up more in recent years.
Their confections are a delectable vehicle for young and intrepid Asian
Americans to celebrate their dual identity.
Ingredients they found embarrassing as children are being blended
with European or "traditional" American pastries into something new.
Some of the bakers welcome the chance to dispel culinary and societal
misconceptions, especially given months of anti-Asian hate.
The experience of being an immigrant kid in between two very
different cultures is what inspired the name and concept behind Third
Culture Bakery, which is located a few miles away from Sunday Bakeshop
in Berkeley. Open since 2018, itís the brainchild of husbands Wenter
Shyu, 31, and Sam Butarbutar, 32. Nine months into their courtship, they
decided to open a bakery together and expand Butarbutarís mochi muffin
business beyond wholesale and pop-ups. The mochi muffin, still a
signature item, is influenced by Butarbutarís Indonesian roots and made
with California-grown mochiko rice flour.
The operation has blossomed, with two locations in Colorado and a
second San Francisco Bay Area store planned. Their menu includes mochi
brownies and butter mochi doughnuts with glazes like matcha, ube, and
Shyu said many non-Asian patrons have never been exposed to some of
"Itís a lot of educating. Even when you educate and share where it
comes from, people are judging it. Itís a very mixed bag. Itís also very
rewarding because then you get to see their reaction trying this new
thing theyíve never had in their life," he said.
Shyu recalls some awkward situations, such as one in May when Third
Culture was featured on a Denver TV station as part of Asian American
Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The finished segment included "Oriental
music" that Shyu, who was born in Taiwan, described as "cringe-y and
"I told the news station, if you guys did a piece on Black History
Month and added tribal African music, there would be an outrage," Shyu
said. "Somehow for Asian Americans, thatís OK. Thatís the exact thing
weíre trying to fight against."
For these bakeries, integrating Asian flavor profiles isnít a
gimmick. Itís what feels natural and authentic, said Deuki Hong, 31,
whose Sunday Family Hospitality Group launched Sunday Bakeshop, and who
loves Lauís outside-the-pastry-box thinking.
"When I was running a Korean barbecue, we were known also for corn
cheese, a little melty side dish ... She took that and was like, ĎIím
gonna make a pastry out of it,í" said Hong, co-author of Koreatown: A
Cookbook. "Wow, this came from our conversation that was very
personal to me and it also tastes really delicious."
Rose Nguyen, a 34-year-old former nurse, switched careers and opened
Rose Ave Bakery inside The Block Foodhall in Washington, D.C., in March
2020, just before a pandemic shutdown. Nguyen was peddling
Instagrammable morsels like strawberry lychee rose donuts, ube cake, and
matcha chocolate cookies. She won over enough foodies to keep going with
online orders until fully reopening this June.
Born in Rhode Island to Vietnamese immigrants, Nguyen said it
sometimes hurt when, growing up, her white friends thought her food from
home was weird or gross. So, itís gratifying now to showcase Asian
"It was never about trends or satisfying other people," Nguyen said.
"Itís just me, basically. The business goes hand in hand with who I am."
As fixtures in their neighborhoods, these bakery owners all felt
compelled to do something when racist attacks against Asians tied to the
COVID-19 pandemic started. Third Culture Bakery raised donations at its
locations to pay for and distribute 21,000 safety kits for Asian
seniors. Sunday Bakeshop and Rose Ave Bakery have donated pastries and
profits to anti-Asian hate organizations.
The bakers felt a disconnect between that hatred and the joyful
connection that their food can make across cultures.
"Itís so unfortunate that itís happening, and still happening,
because people say they love Asian food and Asian-American food," Nguyen
said. "Yet, they donít even realize you love the food and donít love the
Older, traditional Asian bakeries started out as a means of
replicating something immigrants missed back in their home country. The
new bakeriesí bolder assertion of identity is a natural evolution, said
Robert Ji-Song Ku, an Asian-American studies professor at Binghamton
University and author of Dubious Gastronomy: The Cultural Politics of
Eating Asian in the USA.
Chefs like Roy Choi and David Chang came to fame in the early 2000s
embracing their Korean heritage. But the baking world is still "a real
frontier," Ku said.
"It goes against stereotypes of Asians as math geeks. Itís sort of
the artistic side of Asian-American identity thatís often ignored," Ku
said. "Theyíre instead really trying to fuse things together ó create
These first- and second-generation Asian-American bakery owners seem
passionate about bringing visibility to the Asian-American community,
which often feels invisible, Ku added.
Theyíre showing that an ube snickerdoodle or a black sesame muffin is
as American as any apple pie.
"Thereís nothing wrong with apple pie," Hong said. "But thereís a lot
more interesting things being done ... thereís a lot of Asian creators
and entrepreneurs, and gradually theyíll be more vocal."
Terry Tang is a member of The Associated Pressí Race and Ethnicity
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