Random question of the day: Am I a bad Asian? This is something that has plagued me since childhood—something I asked myself again as I endeavored to develop a recipe for Chinese steamed buns.
If you’re a fan of mental gymnastics, buckle down for a journey through my brain as I attempt to move on from an identity crisis that’s been brewing inside of me for 20-plus years.
I was born in Beijing. By the age of eight, I would be transplanted thrice: first from Beijing to Tokyo, then from Tokyo back to Beijing, then finally a more permanent immigration from Beijing to New York. Many memories from those early years are of tearful goodbyes and confusing beginnings, but I do have a handful of moments I can recall with fondness. They always seem to revolve around food.
Japan, 1992: The joy of my father handing 3-year-old me a 100 yen coin to feed the vending machine. Him, lifting me up by my waist to meet that acrylic button so I could push it down with a satisfying click. Hearing the grape soda can drop down at the touch of my little finger. The sound of him popping that tab for me, the ticklish rush of bubbles rising from my nose to my eyes as I gulped down that sugar nectar.
Beijing, 1996: Mornings spent at local street markets with my grandmother, strolling down aisles filled with vendors peddling produce, household wares, clothes, and snacks, all displayed on makeshift sheets on the ground. We’d buy small plastic bags of dairy along with our vegetables; I’d nip a corner off a bag of strawberry yogurt with my 6-year-old buckteeth, sipping on that artificially pink drink while we made our way home. In the kitchen, my grandmother would make lunch: steamed buns, filled with a vegetarian mix of tofu, rice vermicelli, carrots, cabbage, and egg. The smell of white pepper infusing the air as water boiled beneath the buns.
Food, and the memory of food, has always been a source of comfort for me, even during times of uncertainty and jarring shifts in landscape and cultures. But when I began working professionally in the food industry in 2013, that sense of comfort transformed: Excitement and novelty gradually became anxiety and insecurity.
While I loved cooking, the longer I worked in the New York restaurant scene making foods I never grew up with, the more detached I began to feel. Reuben sandwiches, Lebanese fattoush salads, Dairy Queen-inspired ice cream sundaes, French-style apple tarte Tatins, Neapolitan pizzas—not only did I have little to no prior experience with these foods, I couldn’t even afford to comfortably enjoy the fruits of my labor on my meager paycheck. A chef once instructed me that in order to become a better cook, I simply had to eat at restaurants more often to gain more insight and develop my palate. It was a tall order; earning just minimum wage would mean I would likely spend up to two days’ worth of pay on a single meal out.
My increasing alienation from the food I was producing led to an unavoidable sense of impostor syndrome. It continued to gnaw at me when I transitioned from the restaurant world into food media. As a cook, I had been tasked with recreating foods using other chef’s recipes. Now, as a recipe developer, I am tasked with generating recipes for dishes from various cultures and backgrounds, including some I’m not a part of. The question grew louder: Who was I to make this food?
It wasn’t until recently that I realized how unauthentically Chinese I’d been feeling as my kitchen team at Delish began earnestly to discuss appropriation, representation, and tokenization in food media. So much of my life and identity revolves around food—yet so little of my food-making revolved around Chinese recipes. My sense of self fell into this widening gap between who I was culturally and what I produced professionally. Eventually, two kinds of authenticity troubled me: the authenticity of my food recipes and the authenticity of my own identity as a Chinese-American who has never felt Chinese enough or American enough.
My friend and fellow 1.5 generation immigrant Kevin Kim, a food ethnographer and doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Maryland, says, “That’s the story of us: never enough.”
For Kevin, whose focus is on the cultural politics of food in American life and the discursive power of food in pop culture, “Authenticity is always a fleeting question.” When it comes to the authenticity of foods, he says it can sometimes be a visceral judgment based on our subjective experiences of space, taste, and memory. But “memory is a contested region, easily corrupted,” he explains.
I’d catch myself from time to time casually joking about how bad of an Asian I am. Maybe it was a defense mechanism I’d taken up to cope with long feeling like the forever-foreigner. Maybe if I labeled myself as lacking before others got a chance to, it’d sting a little less. To compensate for never feeling quite Chinese enough, I got it into my head that if I knew how to make more “authentic” Chinese dishes, by some strange transitive property of essentialism, I would be more authentically Chinese.
But “authentic” signals a monolithic culture of identity, a monolithic food tradition, and it ignores nuances inherent in personal histories. Kevin urged: “Avoid the word ‘authentic’—there’s no such thing as an ‘authentic recipe.'”
When “authentic” is used as a way to qualify something’s validity—be it the identity of a food or of a person—it risks distilling something complex into a limiting, oversimplified, essentialist definition. This idea of the fallacy of authenticity is also echoed by chef Lucas Sin of junzi kitchen, who speaks to how “people use the word ‘authentic’ as code for ‘ethnic.'” As far as authenticity is concerned, he notes in an interview with HuffPost: “Chefs can only be authentic in themselves. Chefs have to be careful not to represent the entire culture, but also if you’re drawing ideas from other cultures to say, ‘Hey, I am also in the process of learning. You can eat this and cook this with me while we go on this journey of learning about other cuisines and cultures.'”
For all of my fantastical memories of my grandma’s cooking prowess, I learned over a Zoom call with my mom that grandma didn’t actually cook that much in her early years, starting in earnest only once she retired. My mom also began cooking only after she got married, by necessity of domesticity. Even then, she kept to the bare minimum: steamed rice, a loosey-goosey formula for stir fries. Get the oil hot, add whatever aromatics sound good, add in vegetables and just…keep cooking until it’s no longer raw. Her philosophy seemed simple: Food is food. Just make it edible.
It was validating to know this personal history, to know that my mom and grandma—who are, in my view, definitively “more Chinese” than I am—didn’t feel any less Chinese because they weren’t masters of Chinese cuisine.
Identity is fluid. So, too, are all the definitions we live by. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: Everything flows. Life is flux. The only constant is change. When our place in time and space changes, so, too, do we: our food, our cultures, our selves.
But about those buns that I recall so fondly—the ones my grandma made in that Beijing kitchen half a lifetime ago. I asked her about the recipe. She said this: Mix together flour, water, and sourdough by hand until it feels right. Let it rise. Add baking soda until the sourdough pungency dissipates. For the filling: anything goes, whatever you have, what you want. When I pressed her for details and specificity, she used the phrase 随意(sui-yi) repeatedly. It means: according to your fancy.
In a way, my grandma’s non-recipe is maybe the most authentic recipe of all because it is forever open to change and flux in time, place, and space. It has no desire to uphold a monolithic culture, cuisine, or prescriptive identity. There are so many kinds of steamed buns, both within and beyond China. Each and every region has its own specialty and twist—different kinds of dough, different sizes, different fillings, an excitingly endless catalogue of delicious variations. If I can appreciate the beautiful wealth of diversity of steamed buns, maybe it means I can begin to celebrate the various identities within myself, too.
For me, a perfect baozi—which literally translates to “package” or “bundle”—has a versatile dough that’s got just a hint of sweetness, able to play host to savory or sweet fillings alike. The golden ratio is equal parts filling and bread. Without any fillings, the bun is called a mantou, and it should be delicious enough in its simplicity: soft and fluffy with a slight chew, but not too tough, dry, or dense.
So here’s my recipe for steamed buns, authentic only to myself. I recommend making the dough by hand, rather than using a mixer. It’s more satisfying this way, to feel the dough change under your touch. Both Kevin and my grandma independently pointed me to the concept of muscle memory and how it plays into our development as cooks. My grandma used the phrase 随手 (sui-shou) when she described the essence of making the dough. It’s a phrase that means “effortlessly” or “conveniently” but literally translates to “following the hand.” It’s an instinctive, subconscious knowledge that comes with experience, a general feel for how large of a pinch of salt is needed, how much water to add, how forcefully to knead. Kevin used the Korean phrase 손맛 (son-mat)—literally translated, “the taste of the hands.” Acclaimed chefs are said to have good son-mat: They’ve cooked so much that their bodies know exactly what to do even in the absence of measuring spoons and cups.
Don’t be discouraged if your buns don’t look perfect on the first few tries—mine didn’t!—because it’s what’s on the inside that counts, and it’ll taste delicious no matter how wonky it looks. I encourage you to engage all your senses when making them, to be open to developing your own son-mat over time, so that you can one day stray from the recipe. Change the filling, change the dough—see where your hands take you through time, space, and place.
Kevin noted that, “If you take that power out of ‘authenticity,’ then you get to have some fun.” So, let’s have some fun: It’s the single most important ingredient in cooking, and in life.
Art By Alyssa Gray
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