From Boba to Dosa Waffles

[Soundbite: Sounds from Boba Shop]

Sarah: I think I’m going to go for my usual … Hello, can I get the honey dew peach royal tea please?

Sarah Mizes-Tan, Host: I remember the first time I had boba tea — I got the honey dew flavor, a classic, and there was something just so immediately appealing about it. A drink that looked cute, with a clear top and big straw, it was sweet and it was chewy … I was hooked.

[Soundbite: Boba Shop sound continues]

Sarah: Wait, 1, 2, 3 … (sound of straw puncturing top of cup) … nice.

Sarah: Over the years, I’d say my boba tastes have evolved, but I always return to an old fave of mine, a chain called T4, with stores all over California. For me, ordering boba can be as personal as a coffee order. And boba is kind of like coffee for a lot of Asian Americans I know.

Janelle Bitker: My favorite chain right now that you can find in a lot of places is Yi Feng Taiwan Fruit Tea.

Sarah: That’s Janelle Bitker, she’s a food editor, she works at “The San Francisco Chronicle.”

Janelle Bitker: They put like a fruit salad in every cup, basically, which is great. And I love their mango pomelo sago like the little, little chewy pearls and like the bitter threads of grapefruit, basically. And. And it’s not too sweet. Not too tart. Super creamy. Wonderful.

Sarah: And she also clearly remembers when boba first came to her hometown of Alameda — that’s in the Bay Area — back in the early 2000s.

Janelle Bitker: I remember when it first opened, it was a very big deal. It was Tapioca Express. And and we went to the opening party.

Sarah: She says she was so intrigued as the owners passed out free samples. And she also remembers that that boba shop was also…kind of a scene.

Janelle Bitker: All these different colors and loud music and music videos on TV and it was just really exciting. It felt like this moment in my life where like, Oh, here is this Asian-American space that is for especially young Asian Americans.

[Theme song starts, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]

Janelle Bitker: I remember the space being opened with that goal, and it was like a little radical and mind blowing at the time, like, this is this is for us.

Sarah: Boba means a lot to Asian Americans in California, because in many ways, it’s boba culture that’s helped define what being Asian American means to a lot of people here. And I honestly can’t think of another drink that seems like a microcosm of what it means to have a foot in two worlds. It’s a drink that so unabashedly is itself, it doesn’t feel compelled to define itself as a drink or a food, it’s both. And it isn’t really traditionally Asian, and it’s not really American either … and yet it kind of is.

There are so many different aspects of Asian American food culture. And for many Asian Americans, food and food culture is so intertwined with how we shape our own identity in this country. And I figured, what better place to begin, than with boba.

I’m Sarah Mizes-Tan, and this is “Mid Pacific” — A podcast exploring Asian American identity. We’ll be right back.

[Theme song up and fades out, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]

Sarah: And now, back to boba. So Boba’s evolved quite a bit since the days when Janelle or I initially discovered the drink. Today, you can get your boba drinks fancy, with real fruit and organic, locally sourced ingredients, served up in fun branding. But at its core, I still think it represents something that we as Asian Americans can really claim.

Boba was this drink that was originally invented in Taiwan in the 1980s. Tapioca is a common ingredient in a lot of Asian desserts. But somewhere in history, someone decided to mix the dessert and the drink, which is often made with tea, and that’s how boba was born.

The drink first started to appear in the United States in the 1990s. And these shops weren’t just about getting a drink, like Janelle mentioned, they were also spaces for Asian Americans to just hang.

Janelle Bitker: There were board games. There were these sugary beverages that just fueled us to no end. I mean, sugar plus caffeine plus teenagers. Like, what else do you really need?

Sarah: But lately it’s also starting to go mainstream.

Janelle Bitker: Yes, Peet’s Coffee, big Bay Area coffee chain, is making boba, kind of the summer of jellies, they’re calling it. I think it’s totally understandable and normal even that a big company is going to want to capitalize on this thing that’s really popular.

Sarah: I’m sure you’ve seen some version of this — suddenly it seems like non-Asian people have finally realized that boba is amazing. Even though to be fair, it’s been in the United States for 30 years now.

Janelle Bitker: And I think it does speak to boba really entering the mainstream like it is here. It is going to be all over America and all these places where it wasn’t before and I think it’ll be interesting to see from a branding perspective what they call it. Do they call it boba? Do they call it bubble tea? Do they call it something else? Do they tie it to Asian culture at all?

Sarah: Janelle remembers that back in her high school years, when she tried to bring white friends to get boba with her, their reaction was usually disgust or confusion. So, to have it be going mainstream now, it has her feeling a lot of things.

Janelle Bitker: Like, I both feel weird and possessive of boba and in an illogical way. And I also feel like. We’re in with the White corporations, go us.

Sarah: I want to explore more of this concept of who has ownership over Asian diaspora food. What happens when our food isn’t accepted or respected initially and who gets to call the shots on what is authentic?

[Transition music begins, “Palms Down”]

Sarah: Janelle mentioned feeling an illogical possessiveness over boba, and I think she’s getting at something. When a food that has meant so much to us goes mainstream — does it just belong to everyone now, even those white people who used to make fun of us for it? I get that Janelle is feeling a lot of feelings with this shift — food can be so personal to all of us in how it’s intertwined with our sense of identity and acceptance.

So who gets to own Asian American food? When we come back, we’ve got a conversation with a former Top Chef contestant and restaurateur in Northern California who you might recognize.

[Transition music up and out, “Palms Down”]

[Transition music begins and fades under narration, “Palms Down”]

Sarah: Welcome back. On the topic of ownership over food, I got a chance to speak with Preeti Mistry, a former Top Chef contestant and restaurateur in Northern California.

I asked her about how she’s found a connection to her Indian background through cooking, and her thoughts on who is allowed to cook food that isn’t of their culture. She’s created dishes like the dosa waffle and masala fries, and has definitely come up against that question of if what she’s cooking is “real” or “true” Indian food.

Sarah: Have you been interested in food from a very early age, what’s been your connection to cooking and how did you get to this point?

Preeti Mistri: I was more interested in eating than cooking when I was younger. I didn’t really cook. My mom didn’t teach me how to cook. I didn’t help my mother. So it wasn’t until my twenties when I left home that I started missing home-cooked food because my mom did — my family has a lot of really great cooks and we always eat from scratch. And so I started cooking myself and it just came really naturally to me.

Sarah: For me, and people that are kind of like a 1.5/2nd generation, they kind of like to find connection to their roots through cooking. That was not the case for you. Or do you feel like you’ve always been someone who was pretty connected to your parents heritage?

Preeti Mistri: Eating Gujarati food five nights a week, six nights a week from home. I hated it. I was like, I’m so bored. I want something different. Like, why do we eat the same thing? And now I’m like, It’s all fucking delicious. And what the hell? Like, my mom made bread from scratch every night for dinner. When I was a teenager, I kind of hated being Indian. I just wanted to fit in. I studied in London and French cuisine and cooked in restaurants and. But coming back eventually and cooking Indian cuisine, Yeah, it’s definitely a way in which I feel like I sort of now I’m like someone who upholds the culture or like, you know, a lot of friends or colleagues of mine. I have, you know, whatever. I put a certain amount of Indian food on the map or whatever in sort of larger mainstream culture. And so I think, yeah, I mean, that’s a great feeling for me to feel. like I can be Indian, like the way I want to be and not the way that my parents or my family expected me to be.

Sarah: Have you gotten people complaining about, like the authenticity of your food or people feeling like, you know, this isn’t real Indian food or something like that?

Preeti Mistri: Mmm hmm. Here’s where I feel like the white supremacy gets really deep. Who are allowed to be chefs? People who cook from their culture — it’s about white supremacy and like, a chef is this white man who, you know, discovers all of these ingredients and makes this thing that is their unique creation. And everyone’s like, “Ooh!” But that has to be within that box or somehow it’s not true, like, you know. And then also the other end of that spectrum is like, you know, this assumption when you go to an Asian restaurant, like there’s no chef. Like there’s just all these people who are of that ethnicity that cook that food.

Sarah: And I mean, do you think it is something that’s possible to kind of shift the Western mindset to accept Asian food as a part of Western food?

Preeti Mistri: I guess the way I would say it is like I’m not really waiting around or looking for that validation. It’s not really important to me. It’s not about acceptance of the white mainstream. It’s actually like more and more people doing interesting, exciting things. Now you have a lot more young people who are really prideful about their culture and not embarrassed of it and are like making all kinds of exciting food that’s like their food. But it’s sort of out of that traditional, like our ancestors and our parents generation of that, sort of like, you know, nameless, faceless Tandoori grill. It’s like, unapologetic and savvy. Like, I feel like that was one of the things that was really important to me with Jujhu (Beach Club). It’s like, yes, I am of a certain generation where I have some savvy about marketing, but it comes from my perspective, not my parents generation, right? So it’s relatable to mainstream America. More so because I am part of mainstream America.

[Transition music begins and fades under narration, “Tarte Tatin”]

Sarah: The way Preeti mixes the personal and traditional in her cooking reminds me of another person who’s started a line of sauces, called Fly By Jing. Jing Gao was born in Chengdu, but raised in Europe, and has now settled in Los Angeles. She makes sauces that reflect her own personal background, but she’s struggled a lot with this idea of Chinese food being held to Western standards of what Chinese food “should” be.

[Transition music up and fades out, “Tarte Tatin”]

Sarah: In America in particular, Chinese food has a lot of stereotypes around it and Jing is trying to break that.

Jing Gao: In the West, you know, Asian people have been marginalized for a very, very long time. And you know, the reason why I launched this company back in 2018 was seeing the way, being aware of the way that Chinese food was viewed from a western lens.

Sarah: Unlike western or European food, people think Asian food is static. That Asian food has strict boundaries defining what it is and what it isn’t. Preeti mentioned this as well.

Jing Gao: And, you know, Chinese food is really just an extension of how people are viewing Chinese culture and Chinese people.

Sarah: When she was working as a chef in China, she says she saw a lot of Chinese chefs innovating with Chinese food and making it modern, but, again, that’s something she doesn’t see a lot of in the west and in the United States.

Jing Gao: We put things into boxes like this, you know, this is not my experience of what a Chinese sauce tastes like, so therefore I reject it. You know, it’s not real or this is not what my grandmother made, so therefore it’s not real. But actually, we all come to the table with so many, you know, preconceived notions. And so, you know, I just wanted to kind of show that it’s, you know, is because of some of these notions that, you know, for a long time in this country, you know, Chinese food was not allowed to kind of, like, evolve, you know, like people were very preoccupied with, like, trying to keep it in a box.

Sarah: Food means so much to us as Asian Americans. I really liked how Fly By Jing and Preeti were connecting with their own personal identity through the food they were making, and trying to push the boundaries of what people thought Asian food should be.

I also got a chance to speak with chef Danny Bowien, someone who really understands this idea of being Mid Pacific and of two worlds, and who’s using food to make space for himself. As a Korean adoptee raised by a white family in Oklahoma, Danny used learning how to cook traditional Asian food as a way for him to explore his identity.

Danny Bowien: This is what I have in my fridge right now, literally.

Sarah: That’s Danny running me through some of his cooking essentials. He’s a chef and one of the founders of the award-winning restaurant, Mission Chinese in San Francisco and New York.

Danny Bowien: A bunch of condiments, there’s charred chili paste. There’s some arugula that I should probably eat pretty soon. This is the Oklahoma in me, there’s always a jar of Pace Picante sauce hot.

Sarah: Growing up, he was usually the only Asian person in spaces, and he says he’s often struggled with whether or not he “deserves” to call himself Asian American.

Danny Bowien: I’ve done my best to learn as much as I can about my heritage and culture. I would say 99 percent of that I’ve done through food, I’ve done through cooking. I’ve been fortunate to go and travel to Korea extensively, work with some Korean chefs, one of which who convinced me, ‘You need to make Korean food. It’s okay,’ because I was very scared to make Korean food. I was scared because I didn’t feel like I deserved to do that. I still, you know, struggle with that.

Sarah: He recently released a cookbook, “Mission Vegan,” which includes his interpretation of traditional Korean dishes, made with only plant-based ingredients, and he admits he was kind of nervous to even do that. But he originally began his career training to cook Italian food. And even though he doesn’t have a personal connection to Korean food, cooking Italian food just didn’t feel true to him.

Danny Bowien: They took me to compete in the world pesto competition in Geneva when I was like, I’d never been outside of the country. And that was in and of itself was a really crazy moment because like, I was the only Korean kid again. It was like, it was very like, it just, it felt very foreign, but also very familiar because here I was in the situation where I was like, Why are you here? Like, who? Who are you with? Like what? You’re up. It reminded me of my being a kid at Chili’s

Sarah: He eventually took a step back from Italian cooking. He realized he hadn’t tried to just cook food that he ate on his days off. And that’s what brought him to try cooking the type of food at his Mission Chinese restaurants.

Danny Bowien: I’ve been like, kind of like in this way, just trying to find my way and find myself through food. If you ever eat a mission Chinese over the years, like there was a lot of different stuff and there was quite a bit of Oklahoma in that food too.

Sarah: He’s found a lot of validation and belonging in learning to cook traditional Chinese food from traditional Chinese chefs and traditional Korean food from traditional Korean chefs. But he also says it’s inevitable that his food will have some of his upbringing from Oklahoma infused in it.

Danny Bowien: I actually was eating the salt cod fried rice many months ago and this was based off of like the traditional Cantonese, like salted fish, fried rice, but we use salt, cod and Chinese sausage, but we would fold an iceberg lettuce at the end and there’s like egg. And I like from my whole life, I mean, the whole, the last ten years, like that dish has always been like, what does that remind me of? You know? And people hate when I say it, but it reminded me a lot of eating like Taco Bell growing up because of the iceberg lettuce and the umami from the Chinese sausage and like, you know, that you just can’t stop eating that addictive, you know, flavor profile. But, you know, I find myself like it’s that’s how it was for me.

[Theme song begins and fades under narration, “Can’t Hold Me Back.”]

Sarah: I think Danny is perfectly in-between. I love how he’s navigating cooking Asian food in a way that feels true to his identity…even when that identity is informed by the American experience of Taco Bell and Pace Picante sauce.

And I really like how he doesn’t think he’s figured it all out yet.

Danny Bowien: But I do think like with food, it’s for me, it’s it’s always been I’ve been kind of a wildcard because I’m not cooking the food I grew up eating. I’m not cooking the food I was trained to cook. I’ve like really learned a lot of this on my own.

[Theme song begins and fades under narration, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]

Sarah: So, we talked about boba. And it offered us a space to claim a food as our own and also a space to be Asian American. And we‘ve also explored these ideas around ownership over Asian food, and who is allowed to make it. And all of that is a reflection of what it feels like to be Mid Pacific.

From boba to dosa waffles to vegan Korean food, as Asian Americans, I’m hoping that with wider acceptance of what Asian food means, there comes wider acceptance of what it means to be Asian American too. Thanks for listening to Mid Pacific.

[Theme song swells and back under, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]

In our next episode … we’re going to move from food to another important connection. The Asian mother-daughter relationship. Because can we really discuss our identity without also discussing our relationship with our mothers?

[Theme song up and out, “Can’t Hold us Back”]


[Theme music starts in full, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]

Sarah: “Mid Pacific” is a CapRadio production, reported and hosted by me, Sarah Mizes Tan.

Our producer is Jen Picard. Associate Producer is Jireh Deng. Antonio Muniz mixed the sound.

We had editing help from Nick Miller and Shayne Nuesca. Sally Schilling is our Executive Producer. Special thanks to Alyssa Jeong Perry.

Chris Bruno is in charge of marketing. Our designs were created by Marisa Espiritu. Renee Thompson is our Digital Products Manager.

Our theme song is Can’t Hold Us Back by Polartropica. You can find it on iTunes or Spotify.

To make sure you don’t miss a single episode, be sure to subscribe, follow or add us to your podcast feed.

Thanks for listening to “Mid Pacific.”

[Theme music swells for chorus and fades out, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]

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