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A Celebration of Food in Asian American Literature

Food in Asian American Literature
By PRH Staff
May 04 2020

As we stay at home, food has become a larger focus in our lives. As restaurants stay closed, we’ve been supporting our favorite places through take-out or gift cards. As grocery stores run out of staples, we’ve learned to cook our comfort foods with substitute ingredients. And as we video chat, we remember how important family and friend gatherings are to our well-being and communities.

At the heart of Asian American identity is food: the meals we ate with our grandparents, the dishes we crave when apart from our families, and the feasts laid out at celebrations, from Lunar New Year to Diwali to Eid al-Fitr, and all the many in between.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Asian American literature, including in these stories by Helen Hoang, Roselle Lim, David Chang, and Soniah Kamal. Woven within their books are mouthwatering dishes that they intentionally chose to include. We’ve featured a few of these dishes illustrated below and asked the authors to share, in their own words, why this dish was included. Their stories are perfect to read, especially now; from uplifting romances to take our minds off the world to memoirs that resonate deeply with the frustrations and anxieties we may be feeling.

And on May 27, continue the discussion by joining us for a night of cooking and conversation with several Asian American cookbook authors, including the Boba Guys, Archana Mundhe, Andrea Nguyen, Anita Lo, Alana Kysar, and Deuki Hong. Find more details here.

From The Kiss Quotient to Eat a Peach, these books connect us not only to our food and identity but also, more importantly, to each other.

Illustrations by Lauren Monaco

Illustration of vegetable dish with hands

Lumpiang Sariwa

Filipino vegetable spring rolls featured in Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim

“The kitchen is saturated with a symphony of sound as we worked together. From the splashing of water while rinsing vegetables, to the rhythmic tapping of knives across cutting boards; from the hiss of the wok and escaping puffs of steam from boiling pots, to the laughter as we gossip about relatives. Lumpiang sariwa is only served on special occasions. We take our time preparing the meal, and we take our time to enjoy the dish. The whole family gathers around the table as we use our hands to assemble the spring rolls while gesticulating to emphasize our talking points. Food and conversation flow. It is my perfect celebration of family.”

– Roselle Lim

At the news of her mother’s death, Natalie Tan returns home, and is shocked to discover the vibrant neighborhood of San Francisco’s Chinatown that she remembers from her childhood is fading. She’s even more surprised to learn she has inherited her grandmother’s restaurant. Lush and visual, chock-full of delicious recipes, Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune is about food, heritage, and finding family in the most unexpected places. Roselle Lim is also the author of the upcoming book Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop. Learn more about her work here.

Illustration of lentils and rice with cucumbers

Dal Chawal

Pakistani lentils and rice dish featured in Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal

Unmarriageable is full of what I term ‘plating memory’ by which I mean food eaten because it evokes loved ones. Alys turns to dal chawal, which she calls her ‘soul-settling comfort food’, in her upset at finding out how Darsee has kept Bungles from Jena and so she is eating it when Darsee proposes to her. Dal is orange lentils cooked Pakistani style and a favorite of my father’s, while chawal is boiled white rice, a staple of my mother’s cuisine, and so this meal conjures up for me both my parents and everything home. Alys’s dal chawal being topped with sliced fresh cucumbers is simply because I like to eat it this way.”

– Soniah Kamal

In Unmarriageable, Alys Binat has sworn never to marry—until an encounter with one Mr. Darsee at a wedding makes her reconsider. Told with wry wit and colorful prose, Unmarriageable is a charming update on Jane Austen’s beloved novel and an exhilarating exploration of love, marriage, class, and sisterhood. Soniah Kamal is also the author of An Isolated Incident. Learn more about her work here.

Illustration of noodle soup with chopsticks

Bún Riêu

Vietnamese rice noodle soup featured in The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

“I think most people know what phở is. It’s so common and easily accessible that my family prefers to eat it in restaurants, especially because it takes something like eight hours to make the broth. Bún riêu, on the other hand, is more difficult to find and something I think of as home cooking. It’s also my favorite Vietnamese dish, and my mom’s, as well. For me, it’s a dish I’ve only eaten with family, so naturally it was what I chose for the scene where Michael, Mẹ, Bà Ngoại, and his sisters share a meal with Stella.”

– Helen Hoang

The Kiss Quotient is a refreshing novel that proves one thing: there’s not enough data in the world to predict what will make your heart tick. Stella Lane is great with numbers, but needs experience in the dating department. After she hires escort Michael Phan to help her, their no-nonsense partnership starts making a strange kind of sense. Helen Hoang is also the author of The Bride Test. Learn more about her here.

Illustration of shrimp and noodles in a wok

Pad Thai

Stir-fried Thai rice noodle dish featured in Eat a Peach by David Chang

Excerpt from Eat a Peach:

“The realization came when I met the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose best-known pieces are interactive experiences. He’d cook curry or pad Thai in a gallery, sometimes getting mistaken for the caterer. Rirkrit told me he’d chosen pad Thai because it was the only noodle dish in Thailand that had not descended from China. He chose to cook in electric woks, because they were chintzy approximations of the real deal, and he wanted to comment on the commodification of Asian culture. Every move was intentional. All of it was designed to breathe life into what people too easily wrote off as quotidian or worthless.

Our plan was to open a fast-food restaurant that sold delicious chicken sandwiches, but if you looked a little closer, you’d see a dis­section of the Asian American experience. Like Rirkrit, we were deliberate in all of our choices, even if they didn’t all emerge as fully formed as one of his exhibits. The name came easily: Fuku. A riff on Momofuku and a phonetic F-you to everybody who took us for granted, mocked us, or made us feel lesser for how we ate.”

– David Chang

From the chef behind Momofuku and star of Netflix’s Ugly Delicious, Eat a Peach is an intimate account of the making of a chef, the story of the modern restaurant world that he helped shape, and how he discovered that success can be much harder to understand than failure. David Chang’s upcoming memoir Eat a Peach hits shelves in September. Learn more about him here.

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Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim
Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune
By Roselle Lim
Paperback $16.00
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The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
The Kiss Quotient
By Helen Hoang
Paperback $15.00
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Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal
Unmarriageable
By Soniah Kamal
Paperback $16.00
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Eat a Peach by David Chang, Gabe Ulla
Eat a Peach
By David Chang and Gabe Ulla
Hardcover $28.00
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