Asian-American chefs look to Italy for culinary inspiration

Pearl Ma sets up her iPhone mount in her kitchen in New York City.  (Photo by Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)
Pearl Ma sets up her iPhone mount in her kitchen in New York City. (Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)

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Pearl (Yiping) Ma lures you into her TikTok with the words, “Hey, foreigners, let’s traumatize the Italians.” Right off the bat, it’s every Italian grandmother’s worst nightmare: she threatens to rip the linguine, but instead slices the cooked pasta with a knife, then cracks an egg on top before brushing the thin strips with Chinese soybean paste and sauce. of oysters

But then she starts to explain. “Pasta is much easier to get in America than Asian noodles. That is the truth,” says Ma. “This recipe is approved by hundreds of international students who miss the food of our hometown, kao leng mian.” By the end of the video, you’re on her side and eager to try her take on these northern Chinese grilled noodles.

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Since early April, Ma has been documenting their culinary exchanges on TikTok with a humorous bent. She has “offended” Japanese and Mexicans, but she especially likes to pick on Italians, who are known for crying any twist to your food. She has cooked Chinese meat buns (bao zi) with wrappers made from Pillsbury pizza dough and transformed Italian dumplings into pearl dumplings, a Chinese spring festival dish. At first, Ella Ma thought that more people would be offended by her videos, but to her surprise, most of them support her in “putting things together but cooking them in a way that makes sense.” As one commentator puts it: “As an Italian, I am not angry.”

For Ma, the similarities between the two cuisines became apparent when she moved to the United States four years ago. Whenever she got homesick for northern Chinese food, she gravitated toward a slice of cheese pizza or a bowl of pasta. She didn’t taste like her favorite dishes from home, but the spicy and starchy flavors of Italian food satiated her taste buds. She made similar substitutions in the kitchen, adding tomato sauce to Chinese noodles and oyster sauce to Italian pasta. This Italian-Chinese combination has since become her TikTok calling.

“The concept of my series is to use food to build a bridge between different cultures and different foods,” says Ma. “One of my followers says that I am offending people to bring them together.”

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Ma belongs to a group of immigrants and Asian Americans who have connected the dots between Italian and Asian cuisines. Chinese international students like Ma discover and exchange recipes on the social media platform Xiaohongshu, or “Little Red Book.” In the restaurant world, Asian-American chefs craft menus based on their experiences traveling to Italy, attending culinary school, and internalizing the therapeutic rituals of pasta and pizza making. Even an older generation of Asian home cooks, from Vietnam to China to the Philippines, chime in with tales of scouring the pasta section of a store to design dishes from their homeland. In every corner of the food world, you’ll find unexpected and intentional stories of Asian Americans cooking with Italian ingredients and techniques.

Beginning with Chinese cuisine, Asian and Italian foods have a long history of mixing. A common myth that both pasta and pizza were invented in China and brought to Italy by Marco Polo stirred waves in the Italian and Chinese communities. This story was actually invented by the National Macaroni Manufacturers Association in 1929 to promote pasta made in the United States.

Miranda Brown, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Michigan, says even mythical stories like this obscure a more complex story that includes traders from the Middle East and Africa. “It’s a sexy story, right? We all know who Marco Polo is, but there is a much longer history of exchange that tends to be forgotten because we don’t really study the Maritime Silk Road.” But the idea of ​​two take-and-give cuisines has resonated with people because pasta and noodles, while different in preparation and texture, look nearly identical.

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They may not share a common origin, but evidence suggests these starchy foods developed simultaneously over hundreds of years, with China first. In 2005, archaeologists unearthed a bowl containing 4,000-year-old noodles at the Lajia site in northwest China. In the fourth century a. C., an Etruscan tomb showed people preparing a dish that resembled pasta, although some scholars dispute this evidence. Regardless of its origins, the popular, simple and versatile combination (flour, water and a pinch of salt) speaks to a universal craving for doughy foods.

In recent years, the Chinese community has grown and prospered in Italian cities like Rome and Milan, with businesses serving “Chinese dumplings” and “Beijing crepes” — or dumplings and jian biang — to locals and tourists. In the 1960s, Chinese cookbook author and restaurant owner Joyce Chen referred to wontons as Peking dumplings to introduce Chinese cuisine to Italian customers in Boston. And because Italian and Chinese immigrants to America have historically congregated in ethnic enclaves and sought to rent from the same landlords, a city’s Little Italy and Chinatown are often neighbors of one another.

Brown carefully considers the origins of Chinese and American Chinese food in his classes. To her, the mix of Italian and Asian ingredients, especially Chinese food, seemed natural. “Chinese food right now is American food. Everybody knows what Chinese food is,” she says. “And then Italian food is also very popular. Pizza. Spaghetti. These are staples of American life.”

Chefs across the country are letting their passion for Italian cooking influence culinary endeavors closer to home. Those who attended culinary school spent hours perfecting techniques from France and Italy, while Asian cuisine, despite all its distinct regional cuisines, was crammed into a short day. Even 10 years ago, few fine-dining restaurants specialized in cuisines like Chinese and Korean, so most Asian-American chefs sought training elsewhere. But now these Asian-American chefs dominate their own kitchens and have created opportunities for the next generation of chefs.

Asian American chefs with histories of Italy and its cuisine are not hard to find. Brandon Jew, owner of the Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco, traveled to Bologna, Italy, to begin his culinary career. James Beard Award-winning cookbook “Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown” showcases a wonton recipe with wrappers made from a pasta machine and seasonal ingredients from California farms, an approach based on ingredients he gleaned from his sojourns in Bologna and Shanghai.

Across the country, DC-based Filipino chef Paolo Dungca was first exposed to pasta and Italian food while working at Disneyland’s Wine Country Trattoria and later honed his pasta-making skills at Eve’s restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia. . and Italian cuisines in celebratory dishes like Filipino spaghetti, which he calls a “sweet bolognese with hot dogs.” When he decided to open Piccoletto, a casual restaurant in Washington, DC specializing in pasta with Asian sauces, he incorporated his favorite pastime on the menu: kneading pasta.

Brooklyn-raised Calvin Eng opened Cantonese American restaurant Bonnie’s in 2021. He never had the opportunity to train in a traditional Chinese kitchen, similar to the ones he visited as a child in New York City’s Chinatown. Instead, most of his training comes from culinary school, stints at Nom Wah dim sum house and trendy Taiwanese restaurant Win Son, and sessions with his mother in the kitchen. Now running his own restaurant, he finds himself comparing his food to Italian cuisine to explain the difference between Cantonese cuisine and other regional Chinese cuisines.

“They both really focus on minimal ingredients and allow the main ingredients to shine. Both are umami and flavorful,” Eng says. “In both cuisines, there’s not a lot of acid, there’s not a lot of heat. They use a lot of salt. They are preserved in fermented products, be it anchovies or salted fish to improve dishes”.

One dish on his menu, wun tun en brodo, was inspired by a trip to Italy. In a restaurant in Parma, she ordered a plate of tortellini and was consumed with nostalgia. “Before I even tasted it, just by smelling it and looking at it, it looked like a huge bowl of wonton soup,” he recalls.

Wun tun en brodo is just the beginning of the Italian inspiration at Bonnie’s. When she makes the fan-favorite fuyu cacio e pepe mein, Eng pulls out the wok from her to coat the pasta with a slippery, cheesy butter sauce, a method she learned as a cook at Win Son. The intense heat of a wok, known as wok hei, has made cooking large amounts of pasta much easier, while adding complex, toasty aromas.

At a time when Asian grocery stores are rarely more than a bus ride away in major cities, international students still notice gaps in ingredient aisles. In Ma’s case, her search for kao leng mian took longer than expected. She ransacked the aisles of Chinese supermarkets for flat sheets of noodles, but they were hard to come by without online delivery services. Getting pasta from her local grocery store made sense.

But go back 50 years and Asian grocery stores were scarcer. Mai Wolfe, who immigrated to Baltimore from Vietnam in 1975, saw Vietnamese food as a cure for homesickness. Using cheap ingredients from her local grocery store, her parents whipped up angel hair pasta, fresh herbs and soy sauce to try bun in a new country. Once she married and moved in with her American husband in 1980, she came up with the idea of ​​buying a pasta machine for homemade rice noodles. There was no YouTube or other easy source of instruction, but she finally refined a rice noodle recipe to her liking and saved countless trips to the store.

In times of pandemic, Wolfe has limited his trips to the supermarket. On top of that, supply chain issues tripled the price of rice noodles and limited their access to this key ingredient. So when he wants to try Vietnamese food, he finds himself reminiscing about recipes from his youth, including his family’s angel hair bun. The taste may not be the same, but according to Wolfe, it still pleases everyone, especially his grandchildren.

“We know better. But when you see little kids and 8-year-olds running around, they’re hungry,” says Wolfe. “You cook it and dress it like a Vietnamese dish. And when you’re hungry, he does a really good job.”

Many Asian-American chefs and home cooks have inherited Italian techniques for various reasons, either consciously from culinary mentors or as a survival mechanism in a foreign country. But this exchange doesn’t have to be one-sided: Calvin Eng thinks Italians can learn a thing or two from Cantonese American chefs. Eng wants to share Cantonese ingredients and cooking tricks, wok hei and all, with everyone he knows, including Italian chefs.

“Every Italian restaurant that is a pasta restaurant should only have woks,” he says. “Because it will make their life so much easier.”

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