Kat Lieu from Subtle Asian Baking shares recipes and talks about her new book

In May 2020, Kat Lieu started something beyond her wildest dreams. She wanted to create a community where new bakers – as she had recently been – and more experienced ones could share and learn about Asian baking. In less than six months, the Subtle Asian Baking Facebook Group had over 60,000 members. Today, they are more than 150,000 to share their passion for Asian ingredients and flavors.

And Lieu – somewhat to her amazement, as she explains when we chat with her – is the author of a colorful and encouraging new book, Modern Asian cooking at homewho also shares her recipes and some favorites from the SAB community.

Get the recipe for Chewy Taiwanese Snowflake Crisps — which Lieu says is her favorite recipe in the book — here.

For those familiar with Asian flavors and textures, this might cause some nostalgia (Lieu’s stories about food she remembers from childhood, for example, like Nian gao, Lunar New Year cake – you (you can try her recipe here.) And for those who aren’t, it’s a wonderful introduction. Find out how to get the lightness of Japanese cheesecake, the QQ chewiness of homemade boba pearls, or ways to roll out the vibrant purple color of ube.

In addition to showcasing the range of Asian baking repertoire, one particularly encouraging aspect of the book is that Lieu herself was not a baker for much of her life. She is a self-taught baker who has found great joy in the kitchen and in the SAB community. With her new book launching in Australia this week, we chatted with her about trying it, the benefits of baking, and the long history of Asian baking.

Is it a bit unreal to have gone from a total non-baker to the author of a pastry shop book?

Surreal, unreal, like a dream! For the past 13 years, I have been a doctor of physiotherapy, wearing many hats. I had always wanted to be an author (of romantic comedies) but I never imagined that my first traditionally published book would be a cookbook!

Although I’ve been cooking for my family and loved ones since I was a kid, I didn’t start cooking until 2017 when I moved from New York to Seattle and finally had a kitchen big enough to not storing my pots and pans in my oven. . I baked, casually – mostly banana bread, cupcakes and macaroons. It wasn’t until 2020, when I founded Subtle Asian Baking, that I started cooking consistently Asian style.

Every day I feel like I’m still in a sweet daydream, because this is my dream career. I’m a boss, I can write and test recipes every day and travel across the US to book signings and baking events, and I teach Asian baking in person and remotely. I feel so blessed and joyful.

What encouraging words do you have for others who may not pastry shop experience but you want to try?

With anything you do the first time, there will be doubt, anxiety, or fear of failure. If you give up before trying, failure is 100% guaranteed. So, in Nike’s words, “just do it”. Don’t let your fears stop you from cooking. Grab a good beginner’s baking book, like mine, or put tabs on pages of recipes you’d like to try, roll up your sleeves, and start baking! Everything I made first other than my miso banana bread failed, but I never gave up because baking brought me so much joy and a sense of purpose. Also, baking has helped me make friends. When we first moved to Seattle, we didn’t know anyone and had no family around us. Every time I baked cupcakes and cookies, I delivered them to my neighbors. My sweets brought their friendship, LOL!

You mention in the book that ingredients, techniques and textures differentiate Asian baking from Western baking. The huge growth of the SAB community suggests that there is a great appetite for doing and learning about it. Is the interest coming from both people of Asian descent and those who may not have grown up with one of these flavor and texture experiences?

Recently, I tried to sell a project on Asian baking to an American audience, and the people at the top felt that Asian baking was not broad and exciting enough for the entire American audience. People unfamiliar with Asian baking tend to think of it as “exotic” or “niche” and forget that over 20 million Asian Americans make up the population of the United States. For over a century, there have been Asian bakeries in every city and corner of America. International districts, Chinatowns, Korean cities, Little Tokyo! (I’m sure in Australia too!)

I always say you don’t have to be Asian to cook the Asian way. Just be open-minded to new flavors, techniques and textures.

Asian flavors and ingredients (ube, mochi, black sesame, matcha, boba, miso, crispy chili) are trending and growing in popularity (even though they’ve been enjoyed for ages since Asians immigrated to Western countries ). always up to date with techniques and flavors and I have a lot of love and interest in Asian cooking. The aim of my group is to spread and promote the love and appreciation of Asian baking and to make it as popular as British and French baking. We are inclusive and diverse and I always say you don’t have to be Asian to cook the Asian way. Just be open-minded to new flavors, techniques and textures. If you already love boba, you’ll love mochi. If you like pho, ramen and sushi, you will also love Asian pastries! However, not everyone will like all of the ingredients, such as durian, and that’s okay, but try it before you cut it down.

Get the recipe for these meringue swirls with condensed milk and custard swirls here.

A striking theme throughout the book is the use of ube. It’s hard to get fresh ube in Australia (although we can get the essence of it), so many of us have never cooked with it. Can you tell us why you like using ube in pastry shop – is it the color or the flavor, or both?

In America, you can only find ube in powder, essence, jelly, or jam, and I’ve heard that fresh ube is also hard to find in the Philippines. To develop my son’s love for ube and Filipino food (he is Filipino, as is my husband), I try to cook Filipino dishes that I learned from my mother-in-law, Lilanie, and from Subtle Asian Baking. I love the vibrant purple color and its aesthetic appeal; ube is in fashion. Trader Joe’s ube mochi mixes always sell out. People now live on social media, so if they try an Asian dessert or flavor for the first time, they’ll opt for anything and post the striking purple beauty on TikTok or Instagram.

Personally, however, I like the flavor of taro more, a lighter-colored but naturally tastier and easy-to-find tuber. Grab a taro boba, taro dim sum, or a taro bun from an Asian bakery, and thank me later.

Anything you would like to say to encourage people to try modern Asian pastry shop?

Asian baking is not just a trend or “exotic”, or something I created in 2020; it has been around since (and before) the 1800s, when Vietnamese street vendors sold colorful steamed cakes (or bánh bò) to children. In pockets and corners of the world, Asian bakeries have been around since before the early 1900s. (God, I feel so old saying 1900 these days!) Modern Asian cuisine, I think, is an homage and homage to traditional Asian baking, and a fusion of cultures and techniques. A bit of chaotic cooking too. The easiest way to start is to make something familiar, like a brownie. Make this brownie but instead of using flour, use sticky rice flour and give it a mochi texture. Add miso to the paste to give it a touch of umami. And if you like spicy chocolate, add gochujang too!

Or let’s say you like macaroons. Add black sesame or matcha to the almond flour to give it an Asian touch.

Again, do it. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t fallen in love with Japanese cheesecake (a go-to recipe in my book that’s usually guaranteed to fail on the first try). I love Japanese cheesecakes, so I set myself the goal of perfecting the recipe. It took three years and these days I can make it in almost any flavor (durian, pandan, ube, hojicha, even savory) and whip the batter with my eyes closed. My tongue and my belly thank me. Yours too!

Modern Asian Cuisine at Home by Kat Lieu, with photography by Nicole Soper Photography (Quarry Books, $32.99) is on sale now. Find the Facebook group Subtle Asian Baking here. You can also find more of Kat Lieu’s glorious baking at Modern Asian Pastry Website.

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