Asian American Chefs Dish Out Their Favorite Recipes

A new generation of Asian American chefs are adding flare to traditional food.

By Hatty Lee Sep 07, 2012

Growing up my family used food as a way to share history, memories and love. Even now, certain foods conjure up vivid childhood memories. Japchae makes me thing of big family dinners and potlucks. Sikhye and watermelon takes me back to summer with grandma. Or bindaetteok brings back Sundays after church, eating with my cousins, fighting for the crispy edges. I grew up in a household that was culturally Korean with American tendencies. My mom and grandmother spent afternoons making kimchee and mandoo, and in that same kitchen, mom would also cook up her versions of American food. Her spicy spaghetti, bulgogi/kimchee sandwiches and Sunday breakfast always had Spam. Through my mother, I developed a unique second generation Korean American palette and knowledge of food.

Yet, it isn’t quite so unique. As a new generation of Asian American chefs emerge, we see how the second generation is developing a new, personal style of Asian American food that has a strong base in their family culture but also reflects their American upbringing. For some of us, food culture is all we have. It’s not about cooking fusion food. It’s not really about true authenticity either. It’s about creating a new and fun table of food that is reflective of their personal cross-cultural experiences. 

I had a chance to get get some thoughts from Asian American chefs on what inspires them and how they feel about the Asian American food culture that they are cooking in everyday. 

Corey Lee
Chef and owner of Benu
(Photo by: Eric Wolfinger)

Kitchen Staples
• vinegar
• dried kelp
• soy sauce
• a good chicken broth

I got into cooking accidentally, without having ambitions of being a chef.  I was in NY, just finished high school, and needed a job. My friend got me a job at Blue Ribbon in Soho.  

Inspiration is all around us. I think it can come from anywhere–nature, art, literature, music, etc.  We just have to be aware of it, internalize it, and then express it using the tools and materials of our particular craft. Being Korean and growing up in the US definitely influenced my perspective on food.  My mother’s cooking was a daily reminder of, and probably to most tangible link to my Korean heritage. So naturally, I learned at an early age that food is much more meaningful than just sustenance. 

I think the Asian American food culture is very interesting right now.  I think the previous generation of chefs and restaurant owners mainly offered a cuisine that was either as authentic as they can be or what they thought Americans would like. I think we are starting to see more and more of Asian chefs offer a cuisine that reflects their personal experience in which Asian sensibilities, traditions and flavors intermingle with American ones. I think it’s much more of a reflection of someone’s personal experience.  

Tim Luym
Chef, Attic and The Wow Truck
(Death by Pork, photo by: Hatty Lee)

Kitchen Staples
• fish sauce
• mortar and pestle
• Asian vinegars
• bones
• dried shrimp and fish

I love travelling and my inspiration comes from trying street foods and foods off the beaten path, especially in Southeast Asia. These simple dishes have such an intricate story behind them. I want to take all those elements and integrate it into my cooking here. There is so much more to the culture and history of Filipino food that people aren’t familiar with.  

The WOW Truck started as a way to bring Filipino street food literally to the streets. We specialize in serving silogs which is Filipino breakfast food–sinangag which is garlic fried rice and log which is fried egg. At first we did just rice plates, but most people would end up choosing the Korean or Indian burrito truck instead since they weren’t familiar with silogs. So it forced us to go the "Mexipino" route and add tacos and burritos to our menu, which flew off the shelves. We wanted people to know what silog was, and we realized that we accomplished that mission through the burrito. The integrity of the food is pretty much the same, just presented in a different format. 

For some of the ingredients we are forced to use substitutions but with globalization we are able find more things here. Farmers are starting to grow things here–like sili and calamansi. There is also a hand-harvested Filipino sea salt that is starting to be distributed here. The more ingredients that are available the more empowered homecooks and chefs are to cook. 

For the new generation of Asians, their food is more readily available and I see it developing a lot more intricately. They have the resources and the knowledge to keep true to the food. If they have the culture and studied it, they keep the integrity of the food. There is rhyme and reason behind how certain foods work together and with your body. Food has roots, it has culture and people need to remember that and respect it. 

Butterfish Coconut "Ceviche" Kinilaw
Serves 4

1 pound fresh fish such as butterfish or mackerel
1/2 cup fresh calamansi juice or lime juice
¼ cup vinegar (coconut preferably)
½ cup coconut milk
1 ea Thai bird chili, seeded & minced (optional)
1 cup toybox or grape tomatoes, halved
2 T minced shallots
1fresh grated ginger juice
2 T cilantro, chopped
Philippine Hand Harvested Sea Salt, to taste

• Cut fish into medium size cubes and place in a mixing bowl. 

• Add the lime juice, vinegar, ginger juice, shallots & Thai chili’s and let marinate in refrigerator for at least 20 minutes or until fish is ‘cooked’ through with an white color and firm texture.

• Add the cilantro and coconut milk and let marinate 5 minutes longer, refrigerated.

• Mix in the cut tomatoes and season with salt to taste.

• Transfer onto a plate.

Debbie Lee
Chef, Ahn Joo

Kitchen Staples
• bacon
• butter
• garlic
• kimchi
• noodles

Before moving to Los Angeles, I ate mostly Southern food that my mom learned to cook when she first immigrated to Jackson, Mississippi over 60 years ago. There were no Asian markets at the time, so my mom never really cooked Korean food. After about 6-8 years, they moved to Dallax, Texas, and then Arizona where I grew up. Growing up, we had traditional Southern suppers. My favorite food was mom’s Southern fried chicken.

We moved to L.A. ,where my grandparents were living, in my early teens. My grandmother spoke only Korean and I spoke only English. The only thing we shared was food–that was our common language. I learned to cook Korean food through her. She had me taste different foods, dip my fingers into what she had cooking. My grandmother is who really taught me how to cook. Now, when I cook, my dad says that it tastes like grandma’s.

Food was a way to introduce myself to community. When people would throw racial slurs at me, I made then mandoo. By exposing people to Korean food, it help me deal with those people and expose them to Korean culture. I am searching for myself and identity through my food. Being a chef, you will see some influences of Southern food, but at the end of the day I call myself as a modern Korean chef. There is a beautiful story and history to myself and my culture that I put into my food–I’m sharing a part of me too.

Chile Chicken Wings
erves: 6 to 8
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes

2 pounds chicken drummettes, skin on
Vegetable oil, for deep frying
Sea salt and white pepper to taste

For Soju Chile Sauce :
1 cup red chile bean paste (gochugang)
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup mirin
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons coarse chile pepper
flakes (gochugaru)
one 375-ml bottle soju (available in Asian markets)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds, for garnish
1 tablespoon roasted and salted sesame seeds, for garnish

• First, make the Soju Chile Sauce: In a medium saucepan, combine all the ingredients and mix well. Bring to a low boil and then lower the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes.

• Preheat the oven to 400°F.

• In a large stockpot, heat 6 to 9 inches of vegetable oil until it reaches 375°F as measured on a candy or deep-fry thermometer. Add the wings and cook for 5 to 6 minutes, or until lightly golden. Transfer to a mixing bowl.

• Season with salt and white pepper. Pour the chile sauce over the wings and toss well, making sure to coat each wing thoroughly. Transfer to a roasting pan and bake in the oven for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the wings are cooked through.

• Transfer to a plate and garnish with both kinds of sesame seeds. Serve immediately.

Jonathan Wu
Private Chef

Kitchen Staples
• soy sauce
• black vinegar
• rice
• salted fermented black soy beans
• homemade dried shrimp

My inspirations are family–the cooking of my mom and relatives. From night to night, Mom’s dinners were pretty eclectic: spaghetti with ham and mushrooms; chili with rice; corned beef hash; braised chicken with ketchup, BBQ sauce, beer, and served with rice; Japanese Curry with rice; Chicken and Okra Soup; and Progresso breadcrumb-crusted chicken. My Chinese-born mom, cooking in American, exposed me to many different flavors at the dinner table. 

I also love when older relatives tell me about pre-Revolutionary China and the special foods that have since disappeared. In my cooking, I try to reverse engineer these dishes based on my own unique technical repertoire. I’m also big cookbook junky. Lately, I’ve been inspired by old books about traditional Chinese cooking. Lin’s Chinese Gastronomy and Chiang’s Sichuan Cookbook are favorites. 

The current Asian American food culture is vibrant. I think it’s a great time to be cooking Asian food. Chefs are going to continue to gain deeper understanding of Asian food to compliment their Western technical background. Chefs are pushing themselves to have deeper knowledge of Asian and ethnic cuisines before they start to play with them. My goal is to tap into the soul of Chinese food and, with respectful interpretations of traditional recipes, create my own cuisine. 

Toon Cloud
What is a Toon?
Toon leaves are a Chinese herb. Chinese Toon is a perennial hardwood tree. Known in China as "tree vegetable"(xiang chun), young Toon leaves and shoots are uniquely aromatic and tasty. The flavor is garlic-y, earthy, mineral-y, nutty. Toon leaves are often used in combination with eggs, scrambled or in omelets. 

My grandparents live in Yonkers. They have several Toon trees in their yard. Each spring, we harvest the leaves. This dish is inspired by Grandma Wu’s Toon Scrambled Eggs. In my Toon Cloud, however, the egg is morphed into a savory poached meringue (whipped egg white) that has been infused with ginger, garlic, and scallion. The broth is chilled vegetable stock. The intent is to highlight the flavor of the Toon leaf and preserve its form.