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The Comfort and Power of Asian Cooking in Quarantine

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In lockdown, I’ve been making my mom’s Vietnamese recipes. Social media has shown me that I’m not alone — Asian-Americans and non-Asians alike have been trying their hand at Asian comfort foods like dumplings, bone broths, and scallion pancakes.

For me and many of the Asian-Americans I know, this boom in Asian cooking has felt like a positive change in a bleak time. It’s given us a chance to rediscover our roots and to feel some pride in foods we might have been ashamed of as kids. Still, the picture isn’t entirely rosy. Sensationalist stereotypes about Chinese food have reemerged, and Asian restaurants are closing at double the rate of others. There’s so much widespread xenophobia against East Asians that the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council’s Stop AAPI Hate website reported almost 1,500 cases of coronavirus-related discrimination in its first four weeks.

Recently, I got together with two colleagues and one former colleague to discuss how it feels to be cooking Asian food at this complicated moment in history.

Andrew Nguyen, editorial assistant: So what has everyone been cooking?

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz, senior writer: I’m having misadventures in curry. My boyfriend is Japanese-Indian, and he has been making really elaborate Japanese meals. And I’m Indian-American, but the bulk of the Indian cooking is falling on me. My mom is coaching me through it. I did my eighth curry of quarantine last night, and it came out pretty good. But I asked for specific instructions, and she was like, Just taste it. You’ll know.

Diana Tsui, former senior market editor at the Cut and current editorial director at MedMen: Did you use a mix?

SSK: No, my mom wouldn’t let me.

DT: That sounds like my mom! She makes Cantonese and Burmese food because that’s how she was raised, and she measures nothing. I’m guilty of that as well. It’s all instinct. “You’ll just smell it.”

AN: The last time I asked my mom for measurements, she said, “Not too much and not too little.” I was like, Uh …

Kathleen Hou, beauty director: That is exactly how Diana responds whenever I text her a seasoning question.

AN: Sangeeta, do you feel like learning how to cook curry has brought you closer to your mom?

SSK: It’s a way for us to connect without talking about the pandemic. She’s a nurse so she’s obviously very stressed, and the only time she’s not talking about it is when she’s bossing me around in the kitchen from afar. It’s also a way for me to get closer with my boyfriend, since we both have sort of bumpy relationships with our Indian sides.

DT: I’ve noticed I’m making everything that comforted me as a child. I moved to L.A. from New York not long ago, and I think cooking is helping me deal with missing home.

AN: I miss home too. My mom has been sending me photos of Vietnamese food that she makes, and the next day I’ll ask her to walk me through it — things like sweet-potato shrimp fritters and Vietnamese crêpes. Did you learn from your family?

DT: I learned some of the basics when I was younger. The more complex things, like the bakery stuff, I had to look up on The Woks of Life. My parents didn’t make that stuff — we just bought it. But I have all this time on my hands right now, so I might as well try. I’m honestly just proud that Kathleen is cooking after resisting it for so long!

KH: Well, baby steps. I’ve made chicken using a Japanese curry brick, curry puffs, and butter-mochi cake. My mom never really liked cooking and doesn’t make a ton of Taiwanese food, but we’ve always liked baking. She used to do the Japanese curry brick as a quick meal when growing up.

DT: Sangeeta’s mom is appalled hearing this.

SSK: Ha! She’s so freaked out that I can’t cook and that my boyfriend does the bulk of our cooking.

DT: Okay, but here’s my issue with curry: My apartment smells like curry for days. The downside with all of our foods … it’s fragrant.

SSK: Which was definitely something I was really embarrassed of growing up!

AN: Same! I remember leaving my aunt’s house when I was little reeking of oil from the fryer and fish sauce.

KH: Well, that’s why our dishes aren’t bland.

DT: Actually, the whole idea of our food being trendy right now drives me crazy because some of the people who are “discovering” our foods were the ones who made fun of us for it.

AN: For me, it’s ironic how kids used to talk about how disgusting and weird fish sauce was, and now everyone’s making Alison Roman recipes with anchovies, which is what fish sauce is made of.

DT: Fish can be so controversial.

KH: Remember that one time someone microwaved fish in our office? I’ve never seen so much turmoil.

DT: It did offend my senses. But back to the food trends: It’s a good thing that we’re normalizing our foods. I’m happy to see people making scallion pancakes and folding dumplings across social media, and I’ve definitely advised plenty of people on how to do it. Although it’s frustrating that we have to normalize anything.

KH: Any de-exoticism about food is good. If a little kid brought in dumplings to lunch nowadays, the other kids would be like, Ooh, you’re so cool. So I’m for that. Luckily, these foods have been part of our culture for so long that no one can say, “I invented that.”

DT: That’s why I’ve been posting about food on Instagram. My friends are diverse and culturally curious. It’s the people from outside my bubble that I hope learn more about food across cultures.

AN: When we post about cooking, it shows the whole process. I feel like some people have messed-up stereotypes about how Asian food is prepared.

DT: Well, how did COVID-19 presumably start? In a wet market, centered around Chinese traditional medicine and food. Food is a central conversation in this pandemic.

KH: Right. The myth being that Chinese people eat “gross” stuff like bats.

DT: I don’t think we’re consciously saying, Hey! We don’t eat gross stuff. It’s more of a subtle way of being like, Here’s our diet and what we love, and it’s freaking delicious, so we hope you appreciate it too. Yes, some ingredients may seem unusual to some Americans, but that’s true of any culture that’s ever experienced poverty. Lack of access to food makes people scrappy, and they eat what they can easily source — in America, as well as anywhere.

AN: Talking about accessibility makes me think about the dishes I wish I could make right now. I can’t make pho, for instance, because my closest grocery stores don’t have all the necessary ingredients. It’s just not possible for me to shop at an Asian grocery store right now, given the distance and the fact that many have closed temporarily to keep their workers safe.

DT: I’ll say that I never felt more safe than when I was in 99 Ranch! Unlike more mainstream supermarkets, they were quick to implement safety measures before they were mandatory. Every one of their cashiers are older women, and they’re given face shields, masks, and gloves.

KH: Diana introduced me to Just Asian Food. It’s how I get my condiments and sundry stuff now.

DT: The Asian veggies site is also great, although you have to buy in bulk, which makes it hard.

KH: What am I going to do with 16 bok choy?

AN: You can share it with friends! But even before everything shut down, Asian businesses were hurting.

DT: I’m still deeply concerned that all my favorite spots will go out of business. As much as we might be cooking, right now is the time to support them. And order directly if you can — don’t go through Seamless or Grubhub.

AN: Whether it’s cooking or ordering, it’s definitely good that our foods are more widely shared, but I hope the sentimental value of them is also appreciated. There’s a lot of memories packed into each dish. For so long, I was embarrassed about it all, but now it feels like I’m reconnecting to my heritage by cooking.

DT: Well, hopefully the people who are learning to cook these foods are creating new memories. What drives me crazy about all these racial incidents is this: Do the perpetrators not eat our foods? Or the terrible people who call and say terrible things to workers at Panda Express or P.F. Chang’s — because that’s also happening. I’m like, This is honestly how you want to express your anger? But I’m a firm believer that food creates bridges. I would hope that if you appreciate a culture’s food, you’d wind up being less of an asshole to their people.

This chat has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Comfort and Power of Asian Cooking in Quarantine