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New Asian American Home Bakeries Explore Identity, One Treat at a Time

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The two founders of Big Boi Mochi hold up small cards showing the logo for the Asian American home bakery business, with a tray of their butter mochi in front of them.
Big Boi Mochi's Hawaiian-style butter mochi span a variety of Asian cultures, from Vietnamese pandan to Chinese salted egg yolk. The Instagram-based business is part of a new wave of Asian American home bakeries in the Bay Area. (Big Boi Mochi)

Editor’s note: It’s KQED Youth Takeover week. From April 25-29, we’re featuring stories by high school students from around the Bay Area.

Q

uarantine ignited the long-lost baker inside many Americans, who spent the early days of the pandemic tearing through yeast packets, with all their leavening glory. The kitchen became a haven for creativity during these bewildering times. For a while, it felt as though everyone in America was baking sourdough or focaccia.

Some Asian American bakers, on the other hand, looked toward their identities for inspiration. Instead of sourdough bread, their ovens churned out trays of Hawaiian butter mochi, ube bread pudding and garlic-scallion cream cheese buns. These home bakers used many of the same ingredients as their sourdough-obsessed counterparts—flour, water, yeast and sugar. But they also incorporated traditional flavors from their own culture. 

As the pandemic progressed, a number of Asian American home bakers started sharing these treats on Instagram and other social media platforms—and, in many cases, turned their hobby into an online business. Here in the Bay Area, the past two years have given rise to a growing movement of Asian American home bakeries. For these Instagram-based businesses, the pandemic did more than just provide a chance to explore new recipes. It also allowed Asian American bakers to develop a deeper connection to their own heritage. 

Homage to Ube

South San Francisco-based Kapwa Baking Company is one of the many Instagram-based home businesses that popped up during the pandemic. As work turned remote and schools switched to Zoom, Faye Baltazar-Caylao and Ryan Caylao finally had the spare time to jumpstart an idea that had been stuck on the backburner for years. The couple wanted to start a business that encapsulates their Filipino heritage and the idea of “kapwa.” 

Close-up photo of a box of chocolate chip cookies, with a row of bright purple ube white chocolate cookies on the left and more conventional-looking chocolate chip cookies on the right.
At Kapwa Baking Company, even the chocolate chip cookies are spiked with ube. (Kapwa Baking Company)

Kapwa is “Filipino for neighbor, community, or a shared sense of self,” the Caylaos explained. “There’s not a concrete definition for kapwa. It’s an essence or feeling for Filipino independence. It’s almost like ‘we are kapwa’ ‘we are united’.” It’s a sense of pride that seeps through generations of Filipinos and through hundreds of years of Spanish colonialism. This Filipino pride is evident on Kapwa Baking Company’s Instagram feed, which spills bright violets—an homage to ube, a purple yam native to the Philippines.  

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Flavors like ube are deemed exotic and “out there” in the States, Baltazar-Caylao explains: “It was always Americanized desserts like buttercream, cakes and cupcakes. American flavors like vanilla, chocolate, and cookies and cream”. Baltazar-Caylao, on the other hand, placed ube at the heart of her business. All of Kapwa’s sweets have an ube variety.

One of Kapwa’s signature sweets is their ube bread pudding, which shows off the rich and decadent nature of ube. Each warm bite is like a hug, as the dessert’s nutty, delicate flavor coats your mouth. Ube is also the star ingredient of the ube pastilla milk jam, a sweet paste reminiscent of condensed milk that goes well with several of the bakery’s desserts.

Other items give a Filipino twist to all-American desserts like brownies and white chocolate chip cookies. By giving these treats an ube punch, the Caylaos encapsulate the Filipino American experience, in which a crossfire of characteristics—Tagalog and English, ube and chocolate, Filipino and American—all come together.  

Cross-Cultural Relations

Across the bay in Oakland, Chinese Americans Tina Lee and Irene Pan started Big Boi Mochi as a way to highlight another element of Asian American culture: bouncy Hawaiian-style butter mochi. 

Like the Caylaos, Lee and Pan had an epiphany during the middle of the pandemic. Lee, the baker, was “stuck in limbo” after graduating from college. Meanwhile, Pan noticed the new trend of home bakers selling desserts on Instagram, and she remembered Lee’s mouthwatering Hawaiian butter mochi—a recipe she’d inherited from her mom. So, Pan pitched her friend on the idea of turning that mochi into a business. Big Boi Mochi was born after Lee tweaked the original recipe to fit a variety of distinct Asian flavors. 

Three squares of melon-flavored mochi on a plate, next to a melon popsicle with the same pale green color.
The melon mochi were inspired by a popular brand of Korean ice cream bars. (Big Boi Mochi)

During their pop-ups, Pan and Lee say, many non-Asian customers “come for the flavor, but they stay for that chewy, soft texture of mochi.” Their mochi also emphasizes the depth of diversity and cross-cultural relations between Asian communities in the Bay Area. And mochi offers new experiences to customers who are unfamiliar with flavors like Vietnamese coffee and pandan, a popular Southeast Asian leaf with an earthy, grassy taste. 

Despite incorporating a plethora of diverse Asian cultures in its products, Big Boi Mochi is rooted in its founders’ Chinese American identities. The black sesame and salted egg mochi, for instance, are chewy little flavor bombs that capture the memories and nostalgia of growing up Chinese: They’re familiar flavors for anyone who has tasted the salted yolk in a mooncake or the nuttiness of zi ma wu (black sesame paste).   

Raised in a predominantly white area, Pan and Lee say they were always labeled as “diverse.” After being forced into the margins for so long, they’re now using their pride in being Chinese American to bring their products to life. And after the influx of xenophobia and anti-Asian hate that we’ve seen in our communities during the pandemic, finding solidarity through food feels especially important. Businesses like Big Boi Mochi allow a wide range of Asian Americans to join together, even if it’s around something as small as a butter mochi. 

A Taste of Hong Kong

The owner of MamaLin's Baker stands in front of the sidewalk table she's set up to sell her baked treats.
Jacqualine Li started MamaLin’s Bakery to help give customers “a piece of Hong Kong” through her food. (MamaLin's Bakery)

Many of the newer Asian American home bakeries have formed their own collaborative community during the pandemic, often promoting each other’s pop-ups and tagging each other on Instagram. Pan and Lee, for instance, made a point of mentioning their friendship with San Francisco’s MamaLin’s Bakery, a Hong Kong-style home bakery that sells a swath of savory and sweet Asian treats that are hard to find elsewhere in the Bay Area. 

When the pandemic hit, founder Jacqualine Li became a stay-at-home mom after not being able to find work. With her extra free time, she began experimenting with different recipes that she’d learned in her native Hong Kong. “Whenever I go back to Hong Kong, I would always try to take a cooking class to learn different techniques and cuisine that isn’t common in America,” Li explains.

It wasn’t until she accumulated a surplus from all the baking she was doing for her family that Li started giving away samples to friends and extended family. Posting her creations on Instagram allowed her to reach an even bigger audience. 

After immigrating from Hong Kong in her 20s, Li says her ability to recreate culturally nostalgic foods like pork floss buns and mooncakes has always helped her feel connected to her heritage. She hopes customers, especially other immigrants, will “find a piece of Hong Kong in [her] food.” 

Li makes the kind of buns and other fresh baked goods that you might stumble upon in a bakery in Hong Kong, but the treats are also unique in their presentation or in the way they incorporate ingredients such as cream cheese or durian. For instance, MamaLin’s signature scallion garlic cream cheese buns reminded me of the scallion buns prevalent in Cantonese and Hong Kong-style bakeries—but Li combines the salty scallion flavor of the topping with a velvety, honey-flavored cream cheese filling. To say that the combination was addictive would be an understatement. 

Scallion garlic cream cheese bun on a wooden cutting board, with the bun's oozy cream cheese interior visible.
The scallion garlic cream cheese bun takes a standard Hong Kong-style scallion bun and adds sweet, velvety cream cheese to the mix. (MamaLin's Bakery)

Like Kapwa Baking Company’s Filipino American twists, Li’s creations sit at an intersection between cultures. The durian daifuku mochi features the potent flavor of the durian, a fruit native to Southeast Asia—an unexpected addition to Japanese mochi since the stereotypically smelly fruit isn’t especially popular in Japan. But that’s what makes MamaLin’s so innovative, as it brings different corners of Asia together in one harmonious treat.

Meanwhile, the business itself is the epitome of Asian American duality: Li writes the Instagram captions in both English and traditional Chinese characters, aspiring to reach speakers of both languages. 

In that sense, Asian American home bakeries like MamaLin’s across the Bay Area have proven more than their baking abilities. They’ve also helped both the bakers and their customers come to a deeper understanding of their heritage and their dual identities, juxtaposing flavors from the East and the West. 

Quarantine ignited the long-lost baker inside many Americans—not just of sourdough but also salted egg yolks and all their auspicious glory. The kitchen became a haven for culture and family recipes during these bewildering times. And, at least for some Asian Americans, baking  became an important way to rewrite the narrative.

Kapwa Baking Company takes orders for delivery and pickup (in South San Francisco) via online forms available on its Instagram page. 

Big Boi Mochi takes orders for delivery and pickup (in Oakland) via its website

MamaLin’s Bakery takes orders for delivery and pickup (in Hayes Valley or Daly City) via online forms available on its Instagram page. 

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Evan Sun is a junior at Saint Ignatius College Preparatory who loves Boudin clam chowder bread bowls and Cantonese pineapple buns. When he isn’t scoping out new hole-in-the-walls, he’s probably out on the water as coxswain for his school’s rowing team.

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