Recipe Exchange: Asian American Chefs and Asian American Cuisine

A colorful main dish is surrounded by smaller metal bowls of whole spices.

by Sahana C.

Come talk food with us!
Wednesday, May 24 at 7 pm | Savage Branch
Register here.

In Asian American households, food is a love language. Sliced fruit, set gently next to a workspace, is an invitation to take a break, or an apology. Homecomings are ushered in by welcome feasts, and almost every restaurant occasion ends with a polite battle over the bill. Food is affection, and especially in immigrant households, it is a connection to family, to a far-away home, and it is a consistent way of showing (but not telling) love.

Growing up with my Bengali mother, rainy days off meant khichdi (a mix of rice, lentils, and vegetables) and aloo bhaja (thinly sliced fried potatoes) for lunch. My brother and I would scrap over the last few aloo bhaja in the bowl, before our mother would smile indulgently and take a few from her plate to split between us. I’d sit in the kitchen as my mother cooked big, elaborate, multi-course meals, watch her season and spice, and wait for the oil to sputter specifically, never once consulting a recipe. She would have one of her aunts on speakerphone, talking about family back home and interjecting with quick questions on what to substitute to make our American ingredients taste as close as possible to the Indian ones.

I grew to appreciate food, to understand cooking, and to have a standard repertoire of recipes after learning from my mother. It was a common language we shared, this mutual culinary interest. And it’s only grown. I cook with and for friends, I follow cooking blogs and sites and social media accounts, I favorite every restaurant I pass by with an interesting-looking menu, and most of all, I like to talk about food with people. On desk at the library, I’ll see someone flipping through a cookbook I’ve read, and I’ll want to stop and talk. I’ll notice someone looking at a book written by one of my favorite food personalities, and I can’t help but smile at it. And most of all, I love when people share their recipes with me, when I can hear about the food, the stories, and the cuisines that influence them.

It’s important, also, to know about innovators. To know about the people who are pushing the cuisine, who are changing it, who are going back to the roots of a tradition or practice to better understand it. There are so many Asian American chefs who are pushing the envelope on what elevated Asian American cuisine looks like, and there are just as many Asian American chefs who are looking to create the most traditional experience they can with their food. All of that is what makes the cuisine not just Asian, but Asian American. It’s the blend of respect for culture and tradition, and the simultaneous push to the modern that makes Asian American food so unique.

To celebrate all of the above, we’re having a Recipe Exchange on Wednesday, May 24, from 7-8 pm at the Savage Branch. It’s themed around Asian American chefs and Asian American cuisine, where we’ll look at a few highlighted chefs and some of their most popular recipes. I’d love for you to join us and bring a recipe of your own to share. We’ll discuss our favorite tips, tricks, and techniques in community, and do it all the way food was meant to be enjoyed – together.

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. They enjoy adding books to their “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for them already.

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