Welcome to Sarap Stories - your space for Asian American representation, inspiration, and insights from real AAPI makers in the Sarap Now marketplace.
Source: Kat Lieu
But with travel to Asia out of the question, Asian bakeries shuttering, and a severe lack of online recipes developed by AANHPI creators, Kat took matters into their own hands.
They founded Subtle Asian Baking (SAB), a joyful community of bakers swapping recipes and photos of goodies made with beloved Asian ingredients like matcha, ube, pandan, black sesame, and more.
Dubbed the “Queen of Asian Baking,” Kat collaborated with the “SAB Fam” to crowdsource recipe ideas for their first cookbook, Modern Asian Baking at Home, an essential resource for the Asian baking-curious.
Read on to learn how Kat pivoted from working full-time as a Doctor of Physical Therapy to baking, writing, and using her voice to build community, raising over $100,000 for AANHPI causes in the process.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about yourself - your name and pronouns. Do you identify as AAPI or an immigrant of Asian heritage?
My name is Kat Lieu. Lieu looks French – probably derived from French colonization – but it’s actually Vietnamese. In Chinese, it would be Liu or Lu.
My pronouns are she/her/they and I identify as Asian American, but it’s funny because I was born in Canada. I immigrated to Brooklyn when I was about two years old and lived there for over 30 years. Every summer, I stayed in Montreal with my grandma.
I identify as Cantonese Chinese. My mom's side is from Hong Kong and the Guangzhou, Guangdong area. My dad is from Hanoi, Vietnam. My husband is half Filipino, half Chinese, so my son is also part Filipino.
Source: Kat Lieu
What was your experience like growing up in America?
I grew up like every older millennial child of immigrants. My parents were always busy working and I was left to my own devices a lot. I have a younger sister and we would play a lot of video games or go on the internet. We spent a lot of time at home because our environment outside wasn't safe.
I grew up in South Brooklyn, right in Coney Island. Asian Americans would very often receive racist remarks or get hit on the streets. Unfortunately, I’d hear about scary incidents all the time. Someone I knew from elementary school was robbed and killed right in front of his house at 18 years old. He was also Asian American. When you hear things like that, you don't feel safe. It was a poor neighborhood and there was a lot of division and racism. But I'm sure it's gotten better these days.
Being able to go to Montreal every summer as a child was always a nice change of pace. My grandma lived in Montreal’s Chinatown. She grew up in Hanoi and her family owned restaurants where they cooked and baked like the French because the French colonized Vietnam. She knew how to make baguettes, chiffon cakes, and moon cakes, and would teach me a lot. She was my early influence on baking!
I remember that she used to make me Asian bakery birthday cakes at home from scratch. For my fifth birthday, she made me a chiffon cake with fresh whipped cream and strawberries on top. Not too sweet. It was delicious.
Source: Kat Lieu
Do you remember the first time you felt represented in your career or the baking world? Tell us about those memories and what they meant to you.
I used to watch Yan Can Cook in the ‘90s. Chef Martin Yan was the first cook whom I felt was a representation of my culture and heritage. I love scallion pancakes and I remember making them along with him on TV. My younger sister would try my cooking and be like, “Oh my God, this is so good. I can't believe you can make this at home.”
In my book Modern Asian Baking at Home, I have an attribution to Martin Yan in the Night Market Scallion Pancakes recipe. It resonated hard.
As for Asian baking, if you Googled the term in 2020, your results would be very, very white. All of the highest SEO-ranking recipes were by white people. After growing the Subtle Asian Baking community over the past few years, we’re proud to see a lot more representation in Asian baking.
Source: Kat Lieu
What inspired you to create the Subtle Asian Baking community and write your cookbook, Modern Asian Baking at Home? Walk me through what led you to those moments.
It's a COVID baby, I'm not gonna deny that! It was 2020. I was working full-time as a Doctor of Physical Therapy. I was reminiscing about a recent trip to Japan and all the delicious goodies I had – milk bread, mochi, cream puffs! I asked myself, when am I ever going back to Asia? That question combined with seeing Asian bakeries around me close down made me miss moon cakes and hot dog bread even more. It was time to start making them at home.
I started Googling recipes and all I see are recipes written by white people. No Asian voices. No Asian baking community with AAPIs as the experts.
So I thought, hey, why don’t I start this community and why not call it Subtle Asian Baking? There were other popular groups called Subtle Asian Traits, Subtle Asian Cooking, and Subtle Asian Eats, but none of them specifically were for sweet and savory baking or desserts.
If you don't see something, then make it. That's exactly why I did it. It was just a spur of the moment. I expected at most a thousand people would join, but it blew up! Then Eater wrote a feature that blew it up even further.
Source: Kat Lieu
That led to an email from my future publisher asking if I’m working on a book. At first, I thought it was just spam and I was gonna ignore it. Then I Googled the person and found out he was a legit editor. So we came together and proposed the book.
When I was working on the book, the Subtle Asian Baking community was involved the whole way. 23 of the recipe testers were members. I polled the community on what recipes they’d like to see and curated a list that way. I also added some recipes that were my inventions. Some were inspired by my mother-in-law. A lot of recipes were adapted from and inspired by members of the group.
I took six months to write the book while I was working and schooling my son remotely. It was a lot of blood, sweat and tears.
It’s important to me to give back to the community, so I’ve been donating 8% of all proceeds from book sales to AANHPI organizations. We've donated to Welcome to Chinatown, Heart of Dinner, and Vietnam Health Clinic – just to name a few. Last month, we were helping one of our local bakers in Seattle support The Trevor Project, which helps prevent suicide amongst the LGBT youth community.
In what was has being Asian American impacted or inspired your journey as a community leader and writer?
Growing up in a third culture and being a woman, I overcame so many obstacles.
When I was promoting my cookbook, I went on social media and talked about being an Asian female who wrote an Asian cookbook. I’d get all this pushback from trolls and bullies who said, “Shut up,” “Just talk about your food,” and “Who cares who you are?”
There's a lot of gaslighting too. When I speak out against bullying, hundreds of people will say that I never received any nasty comments. Even if I have screenshots of someone literally saying “slit-eye g— ch—” to me online, they’ll say, “You're not a victim,” or “Shut up.”
It fills me with this energy that’s not necessarily negative because it drives me. It makes me think – okay, you want me to be silent. You don't want me to have a voice. You want me to remain invisible.
So I’ll just be more visible and more outspoken so that people like me growing up will be comfortable using their voices. So that people won't be afraid to make content. So people won't be afraid to speak out against bullying and harassment. Because all that needs to change.
People love snippets from our culture. They love K-pop, they love boba, they love mochi, but why is there still so much hate for our people?
I grew up being bullied a lot and getting beaten on the streets, so I’ve had to look out for myself. I’ve faced people harassing me in school, so all of that has made me more resilient and outspoken. I have a strong personality and I'm blunt and I just speak my truth – this has always been me.
Source: Kat Lieu
AAPI Representation matters. Why does it matter to you? What do you think needs to happen to make more progress with representation?
We're on the right path, but we still have a long way to go. In terms of making more progress with representation, there has to be less gatekeeping by Hollywood, big media, and food publishers. We need fewer token Asian roles or singular Asians everyone talks about in each industry. We need more vast representation.
For me, representation matters so much because growing up I didn't have that. That's why I was forced into a healthcare career and I wasn't able to dream on my own. I wasn’t able to show my parents that there is someone who looks like me who is doing great in baking and writing. All they saw was that all of my relatives were in healthcare and that was a stable career. They didn't see any creatives. It's so important that our future generations see more of that so they can dream big.
Do you have any tips for young AAPIs who want to follow a nontraditional career path?
This is a hard one because I also recognize the importance of stability. My Chinese Zodiac sign is the Rat, so my personality is to prioritize stability – I always like to have something in the nest. That's why even now I'm working as a part-time writer as I'm waiting on my next book deal. You still need to eat, right?
There are two ways you can follow a nontraditional path. You can start with a more stable career and build up savings to pursue your second career, or you can go all in on your first career. Put your heart and soul all into the creative field.
You have to find a balance. Ask yourself, are you able to pay rent? Are you able to pay back your student loans?
Also, think about timing. Right now, there's a lot of celebration around being AAPI and there’s a lot more opportunity because of that. I didn’t have that growing up.
Consider all of that and then decide the best way to build towards that passion project or dream.
For me, I would still pursue the same path that I went through. My situation and the timing of it all led me to where I am today.
What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?
The biggest advice I can share right now is to not compare yourself to other people. Love yourself, give yourself grace, and appreciate the present moment. Because things go by so fast. I can close my eyes and remember my childhood and then I'll be like, “Oh my God, I'm almost 40. Where the hell did all those years go?”
And, get off social media when you can! Thank God I didn't have a smartphone growing up.
What's something you love about your culture that you wish more people knew about?
How important family is.
We welcomed my mom into our home and she's living with us. Family is so important and it drives our decisions.
As much as I love my Asian heritage, I'm also very much in love with my American side.
That's why I'm subtly Asian! I love being in a third culture. We have the best of each world.
Source: Kat Lieu
What's your favorite childhood snack?
What's next for you? Anything else you'd like to share?
Check Out Kat's Cookbook Modern Asian Baking at Home
Source: Kat Lieu