Asian Pacific Islander Voices: Books on Food and Culture

Food can be a tie to a home country and a heritage, a link to the past and an anchor to the future. It can preserve a sense of community, provide a living, or be an embarrassment in a school lunch box. It can build a bridge between cultures and be a source of identity.

These 15 books written by Asian and Pacific Island voices serve as a reminder to embrace foods from other cultures, welcome refugees and immigrants, and learn to and listen from one another.

1. American Harvest by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

Marie Mutsuki Mockett, born to a Japanese mother and a white father in California, grew up visiting her paternal relatives but knew nothing about farming. When she inherits her father’s land in Nebraska, she is invited to stay with a conservative, evangelical Christian, wheat harvesting community in the panhandle. She works to understand the great divide between the beliefs and values of her home and this community, as well as the region’s nature. What she finds are competing versions of American history and the manifesting relationship between colonialism and Christianity. She explores these beliefs and assumptions while also finding her own identity.

2. Chamoru Cuisine: A Marianas Cultural Legacy by Gerard and Mary Aflague

Educators Gerard and Mary Aflague, both born and raised on Guam, created this cultural cookbook of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Not only are there over 100 recipes and culinary practices that reflect Pacific Islander and Marianas heritage, but the book also includes a deep educational section on the Mariana Islands. With maps of the islands, narratives from Chamoru people, stories from Chamoru culture, and kitchen phrases in Chamoru, readers will learn much more than a recipe from this book.

3. Cook Real Hawai’i by Sheldon Simeon and Garrett Snyder

Chef Sheldon Simeon, a two-time Top Chef finalist, takes readers to his home state of Hawai’i to share the recipes of his ohana, or family. He showcases the cross-cultural influences in Hawaiian cuisine from native traditions to Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, and Portuguese influences through recipes and stories. Get to know the islands of Hawai’i through its dynamic flavors and dishes.

4. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

In this memoir, Michelle Zauner reflects on the time she cried in H Mart, an Asian food supermarket chain, after the death of her mother. Having grown up in an interracial family, Zauner’s ties to her Korean heritage were through her mother. After the loss, Zauner looks for ways to grieve and reconnect to her Korean identity, finding cooking traditional Korean dishes like mul naengmyeon and seolleongtang. Starting as an essay for the New Yorker, Crying in H Mart follows Zauner’s journey through loss and identity.

5. Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race by Naben Ruthnum

Naben Ruthnum dives into the history of his Indian heritage and identity in the modern world. Though often synonymous with Brown individuals’ identity, it is not even a real dish in native Indian cuisine. Ruthnum investigates the origins of curry from British colonial imagination and the imperial power dynamic it creates. He then explores the modern use of the word and dish and its influence in the Indian diasporic experience. He also discusses his experience as an Indian writer, being boxed in by his racial identity, and the expectation of curry narratives and stereotypes in his writing (and using a pseudonym to escape the genre).

6. Dreaming in Spice: A Sinfully Vegetarian Odyssey by Hari Pulapaka, Ph.D., C.E.C.

In his second cookbook, Dreaming in Spice: A Sinfully Vegetarian Odyssey, Hari Pulapaka challenges cooks to dive into the intricacies of spices, vegetables, and textures to create complex dishes where meat won’t be missed. The executive Chef and Co-Owner of Cress Restaurant and Associate Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Stetson University, Pulapaka takes readers through the various benefits of a plant-based diet. The book includes 251 globally-inspired recipes, including takes on popular meat dishes like empanadas, sloppy Joes, and Reubens.

7. Eat a Peach by David Chang and Gabe Ulla

Eat a Peach is Chef David Chang’s memoir documenting Chang’s tumultuous journey from his childhood to opening his award-winning Momofuku Noodle Bar. Chang chronicles his experience growing up in a religious, Korean American family, his feelings of otherness, and his relationship to his parents. He is candidly honest about his mental health, his mistakes, and the brutality of the restaurant industry. This book shows how one Korean chef made his way to the top through passion, grit, and luck.

8. Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader edited by Robert Ji-Song Ku, Martin F. Manalansan and Anita Mannur

American pop-culture has deep connections with Asian Americans and Asian food, the editors of Eating Asian America argue. But this can often mask the forces of class, racial, ethnic, sexual and gender inequalities found in Asian American culinary practices, ideas, and images. This anthology brings together 20 scholars from different disciplines who look at the ways culinary practices shape people’s understanding of Asian American identity. It is the first collection to showcase Asian American immigrant histories and connect them to public ideas of Asian American foods.

9. Eating Identities: Reading Food in Asian American Literature by Wenying Xu

According to author Wenying Xu, food is an identity shaped by what people choose to eat, what is available to eat, and how they prepare it. Working at the intersection of culture and politics, Xu analyzes the writing of Asian American authors including John Okada, Joy Kogawa, Frank Chin. In doing so, she reveals how cooking, eating, and the ingredients themselves act as Asian American identities in terms of race and ethnicity, gender, class, diaspora, and sexuality.

10. Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal by Ava Chin

Ava Chin is an urban forager, or someone who forages for edible plants and mushrooms in urban settings, like New York City. In this memoir, Chin, a Queens native, uses urban foraging as a way to cope with an emotional time in her life: losing her grandmother and grieving a failed relationship. Walking and foraging allowed Chin to rediscover herself as she learned about the interconnected ecosystem of the flora around her. She brings the reader along on her journey while including edible and medicinal plant knowledge and recipes.

11. Handmade by Abarna Suthanthiraraj, Shruti Thiruchelvam, and Frank Thiruchelvam

This cookbook uses food to center the stories of 34 Tamil women in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the decades-long civil war. Their individual stories show the strength, hope, and struggles that come with rebuilding a country after war. The conflict shaped local food traditions and relationships with food, from shortages, refugee camps meals, and traumatic events, but these women find peace when cooking dishes like vadais (a fried snack) and uluththamaa koo (a sweet porridge). This cookbook celebrates Sri Lankan food while also sharing the history, culture, and people behind it.

12. Mango and Peppercorns: A Memoir of Food, an Unlikely Family, and the American Dream by Tung Nguyen, Katherine Manning, Lyn Nguyen, and with Elisa Ung

This serendipitous, true story follows Tung Nguyen, a pregnant woman who escaped Saigon in 1975, and Katherine Manning, a Miami graduate student who was taking in displaced Vietnamese refugees. Mango and Peppercorns documents how they learned about each other, raised a child, and became family. With Nguyen’s brilliant cooking skills, they also opened an award-winning Vietnamese restaurant, Hy Vong. This story features the voices and experiences of Nguyen, Manning, and Nguyen’s daughter and includes 20 complementary recipes from Hy Vong.

13. Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking by Krish Ashok

This scientific exploration of Indian cooking shows readers exactly what is happening inside the pot. Learn why salt makes kheer (a rice pudding) more flavorful, grandmothers use their knuckles to measure, and what happens when the onions brown through friendly explanations of chemistry. By understanding more of the processes happening behind the recipes, Masala Lab hopes to inspire readers to eat and cook Indian dishes.

14. Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim

This novel from Roselle Lim, a Filipino Chinese author, explores food, heritage, and community. When chef Natalie returns home to San Francisco’s Chinatown and learns she has inherited her grandmother’s restaurant, she finds the neighborhood struggling. While dealing with her own loss of her mother and their complicated relationship, she must cook from her grandmother’s cookbook and revive relationships with Chinatown neighbors. She explores her own identity within her heritage and the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters. The book describes the dishes magnificently and is sprinkled with recipes like lumpiang sariwa, or spring rolls.

15. Taste of Control: Food and the Filipino Colonial Mentality Under American Rule by René Alexander D. Orquiza

Taste of Control explores the history of Filipino cuisine and its influences from colonial rule. When the islands were colonized by Americans in the 1890s, Filipino cuisine was deemed inferior. The colonization influence impacted Filipino culture’s behaviors, relationships, and perceptions of their own dishes. Food historian René Alexander D. Orquiza explores these changes through archived menus from restaurants, letters from American soldiers, Filipino cookbooks, and textbooks from this time. These primary sources give a first-hand look into how Filipino cuisine became the fusion of foreign influences it is today.

Photo courtesy of Ying Ge on Unsplash.

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