Like a warm bake from the oven, Kat Lieu’s Modern Asian Baking at Home envelopes you with its conversational just-between-the-two-of-us congenial approach. You can almost see her ‘wink’ as she introduces the book by revealing her mother’s reminder that her daughter was “not classically trained” to have authored a book on Asian modern baking. “She’s right,” confirms Lieu, slyly appending “(and when is she not?)”.
Born in Montreal, Lieu was raised in NYC and just recently moved to Renton, a suburb of Seattle, along with her husband and young son. Her cultural background is steeped in the homelands of Asia: her mother, from Hong Kong; her father, Vietnam; her husband is Filipino-Chinese.
Throughout her book, with genial good humor, references to her Asian heritage is evident as the author draws you into her world of confections: cookies, pastries, cakes, breads, custards, holiday specials, and tempting libations. She swaddles the anticipating reader in scrumptious Asiatic yum-yums.
In Asian cultures baking is not a peculiar anomaly. According to Lieu, India’s tandoori ovens have been in use for cooking and baking for thousands of years. And the history of Chinese bread began in the Han Dynasty, approximately 1500 years ago. Nor is Asian baking a whimsical trend. It is, she claims, “as legit as any type of baking — French baking, British baking, American baking.”
Lieu’s first foray into creating oven treats was by means of a common early 1900s American standard. “If you guessed banana bread,” she chuckles, “you’re right. Cue the eye roll.” And on she goes, welcoming you into the most recent of her many transformative adventures.
Prior to authoring the cookbook, Lieu self-published young adult rom-coms featuring Asian American heroines. A certified lymphedema therapist, formerly a doctor of physical therapy for over a decade, she became smitten with the baking arts.
The founder of a popular online Facebook group — a global community of amiable bakers eagerly sharing their recipes with one another – in 2020 Lieu created Subtle Asian Baking (SAB) to while away the time during the pandemic. It has since become a world-wide network of well over 300,000 members, growing faster than the doubling time for yeast. Today the SAB site (https://www.modernasianbaking.com/recipes/tag/kat+lieu) features recipes, events, merchandise (gifts, apparel, kitchen swag) and tchotchkes for bakers, cookbook lovers, and moppet collectives.
Cited as “a movement for culinary innovation” SAB culminated in her best-selling book, Modern Asian Baking at Home, which (slower than a seven-year-itch or Congress) took 13 years to whip up and out of her kitchen.
While “food” is a simple four-letter word, “baking” is not, as Lieu demonstrates in her recent publication. To determine the recipes to include in the 176-page cookbook, the self-proclaimed “glutton and foodie” simply “made a list of all the trendy and viral food and recipes that made (her) mouth water and belly rumble.” In consultation with SAB members, sixty-eight sweet and savory recipes from across the diverse diasporas of Asia were selected from “a mix of my inventions and inspirations from SAB members.”
Lieu discusses the recipes’ at times unfamiliar ingredients in easy-to-understand terms. She chronicles procedures with straight forward, detailed instructions meeting the needs of those at various skill levels. Illustrated with colorful, inviting step-by-step photos, and engaging, thought-provoking paragraphs that introduce each recipe, the book is a treasure trove for those seeking modern as well as traditional Asian desserts to create while simultaneously being entertained.
An innovative enthusiast with a penchant for exploration, Lieu notes “people may be surprised with how many things you can make in the microwave” such as mochi, boba, mango sticky rice. “You can also use a rice cooker to ‘bake’ all kinds of cakes” adding, “You could call me an experimental baker and synthesizer. I always like to add to or change up recipes. If a cookie recipe calls for a pinch of salt, I’ll put in at least a teaspoon of miso instead to add a subtle pop of umami. I love spicing chocolatey desserts with gochujang (or even sriracha!).”
A sample of inventive recipes found among the pages include Korean Garlic Cream Cheese Milk Buns, a Tri-Color Japanese-Style Matcha Cheesecake, Mochi Pon de Ring Donuts, Five-Spice Cinnamon Buns, Hong Kong Dan Tat (egg tarts) and Milk Tea Popsicles. Abandon any resolve to diet. Once your eyes encounter the in-living-color gastronomies, all is lost. Reader alert: immediately seek clothing with elastic waistbands.
Awash with recipes, more of Lieu’s creations can be found on her:
Instagram page subtleasiankitch (https://www.instagram.com/subtleasiankitch/?hl=en),
TikTok page (https://firstname.lastname@example.org),
Facebook baking group page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/subtleasianbaking),
and website (https://www.modernasianbaking.com).
The high-octane, energetic Lieu is currently a full-time author, blogger, mom, and recipe developer at modernasianbaking.com. She has made an indelible mark in the once uncharted cookbook world of Asian baking, a mainstream phenomenon recently capturing the center stage on recipe-formula bookshelves. Modern Asian Baking at Home has won accolades since its publication in June of 2022. It was a Food and Wine Editor’s Pick in their Best Cookbooks category. It made Publishers Weekly’s bestsellers list. Media platform Radii China dubbed Lieu the “doyenne of Asian-style home baking”; local KING5 News anointed her the “Queen of Asian Baking”. In 2022 Lieu was placed on the Inspiring Leaders and Changemaker List of Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (AANHPI) honorees. She has been featured on a plethora of local and national television and radio shows throughout the U.S. and beyond.
As successful as she has become, it has not been without pitfalls or problems. In seeking to publish her book she was told repeatedly by publishing house representatives that “Asian characters and culture don’t sell books”. Even after its highly successful publication and glowing reviews, a significant, noxious backlash materialized. Lieu was told to “shut up” and received “threats, racist remarks, and a lot of cyberbullying . . . for being a visible, vocal, and viral Asian female author”.
But the feisty Lieu did not cower, nor did she slink from the fray. She meets spewed hatred head-on. For the intrepid author, her book is a means of “reclaiming the narrative” of Asian culinary culture. As one of the few works about Asian baking “actually authored by an Asian-American woman,” she has drawn a deep and wide metaphorical line in the flour dust covering her well-worn baking board. She continues to be seen and heard giving highly visible interviews, ignores ignominious chatter, and stands her ground. For her, representation not only matters, but is a must.
Lieu once commented that growing up in America as a person of Asian descent, she felt like an “outsider” or “other”. It was rare, she said, to see people who “looked like me” on TV and other public rostrums. More galling: the “experts” who talk about Asian culture and cuisine but are not Asian. She has joined the heightened public out-cry for recognition of minority groups whose mantra “If you see it, you can believe it” has become a rallying cry for equity and access.
Today, Lieu and SAB have become a united platform mobilized against the ubiquitous anti-Asian sentiment so prevalent in today’s America. “We’ve been hunted and hurt simply for looking the way we do; we can’t stay silent; we need to . . . fight back. . . .” The experience of ethnic groups in Asian diasporas often don’t feel 100% American or 100% Asian. To rectify this, SAB seeks to be instrumental in helping Asians “reclaim their identities by standing together in solidarity — baking pins in hand.”