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Bicultural sweet spot for new Asian American bakeries

The cookie looks just like a sugar cookie, but with sesame seeds. It reminds me of the sesame-filled, fried sesame balls you would find at Chinese dim sum restaurants.

Elaine Lau, pastry chef, has created this concoction in tribute to her grandmother who used to make them. Lau's baked goods, such as hojicha chocolate croissants or Chinese White Rabbit candy cookie cookies, are not going to be found at any Asian bakery. The shop, which has been open for three months, is infused with an American sensibility.

Lau, 35 years old, was born in Oakland.

"It's nice that we can invoke positive memories and feelings through our pastries.

Bakeries that sweetly reflect growing up American and Asian have been increasing in popularity, including mochi muffins to ube cakes. They are a delicious way for young, adventurous Asian Americans to celebrate and express their dual identities.

They are mixing ingredients they were embarrassed to eat as children with European and "traditional" American pastries to create something new. Some bakers are happy to help dispel societal and culinary misconceptions after months of anti-Asian hatred.

Third Culture Bakery is a Berkeley bakery that was born out of the experience of growing up as an immigrant child in two different cultures. It has been open since 2018 and is the brainchild of Sam Butarbutar, 32, and Wenter Shyu (31). After nine months of their marriage, they opened a bakery and expanded Butarbutar’s mochi muffin business to include wholesale and pop-ups. Mochi muffins are still a favorite item. They use California-grown mochiko rice flour.

It has grown to include two stores in Colorado as well as a second store in San Francisco Bay Area. Mochi brownies, butter mochi doughnuts and ube mochi brownies are on the menu.

Shyu stated that many non-Asian customers have never had to try some of these ingredients.

It takes a lot of education. People judge it even when you share the source. It's a mixed bag. It's also very rewarding, because you can see their reactions to trying something new in their lives," he stated.

Shyu recalls awkward situations such as the May episode in which Third Culture was featured on a Denver television station as part Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Shyu, a Taiwanese native, described the final segment as "Oriental music", which she found "cringey and uncomfortable."

Shyu stated, "I told Shyu, if you guys did an article on Black History Month and included tribal African music, there'd be an outrage." "Somehow, for Asian Americans that's OK. This's exactly what we're trying fight against."

These bakeries don't see Asian flavors as a marketing gimmick. It's what feels natural and authentic, said Deuki Hong, 31, whose Sunday Family Hospitality Group launched Sunday Bakeshop, and who loves Lau's outside-the-pastry-box thinking.

"When I ran a Korean barbecue, I was also known for corn cheese, which was a little side dish... She took it and was like, "I'm going to make a pastry of it," said Hong, coauthor of "Koreatown: A Cookbook."

Rose Nguyen, 34, is a former nurse who switched careers to open Rose Ave Bakery within The Block Foodhall in Washington, D.C. in March 2020, just before the pandemic shut down. Nguyen was selling Instagram-worthy morsels such as strawberry lychee rose donuts and ube cakes, and matcha chocolate cookies. She was able to win enough foodies to continue with online orders until the June reopening.

Nguyen was born in Rhode Island to Vietnamese immigrants. She said that it hurt sometimes when her white friends thought her home-cooked food was strange or gross growing up. It's now gratifying to show Asian flavours unapologetically.

Nguyen stated that it was never about satiating other people or following trends. It's me. The business is a part of who I am.

These bakery owners were all established in their communities and felt the need to help when racism against Asians was triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Third Culture Bakery collected donations from its locations in order to purchase and distribute 21,000 safety kit for Asian seniors. Sunday Bakeshop and Rose Ave Bakery donated pastries to anti-Asian hate groups.

The bakers felt that there was a disconnect between the hatred they felt and the joy that their food could bring across cultures.

Nguyen stated, "It's so sad that it's happening, as well as still happening because people say they love Asian American food and Asian food." They don't realize that you love the food, but they don't love people.

Traditional Asian bakeries were established in the past to replicate something that immigrants couldn't find back home. Robert Ji-Song Ku is an Asian American Studies professor at Binghamton University. He is the author of "Dubious Gastronomy": The Cultural Politics and Eating Asian in America.

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