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Where EAST meets the Northwest


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 Photo/Eric Risberg)

From The Asian Reporter, V31, #9 (September 6, 2021), page 7.

New Asian-American bakeries find bicultural sweet spot

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 black sesame.

Shyu said many non-Asian patrons have never been exposed to some of the ingredients.

"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 uncomfortable."

"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 flavors unapologetically.

"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 people."

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 this mixture."

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 team.

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