Doctor turned founder of Subtle Asian Baking community and cookbook author: Kat Lieu tells her story

Kat Lieu of Subtle Asian Baking and author of Modern Asian Baking at Home. Image credit: Kat Lieu

Covid-19 was a challenge and has brought about unanticipated consequences to many. However, it was an opportunity for some to pursue the ambitions and aspirations that we’ve always wanted. It was the latter for Kat Lieu. Grew up in South Brooklyn, New York, she obtained a Doctor of Physical Therapy to fulfil her Asian parents’ dreams in 2008. However, for the past 13 years, Kat Lieu has been constantly searching for her identity. “For many years, I was untrue to myself and constantly searching, always unsatisfied, and I became a serial resigner (I always had a template for a resignation letter ready!)”, she shares with Set the Tables. 

During the peak of the pandemic, Kat started Subtle Asian Baking (SAB) on Facebook as a private group for like-minded home bakers. Within two years, it had snowballed to a community of 145.2k people (as of May 2022). Beyond supporting individual bakers, charities, and Asian communities, Lieu sees this platform as a place for connection and inclusivity for bakers of all backgrounds, not only those of East Asian descent. Her first cookbook, Modern Asian Baking at Home, will be released next month.

You can preorder your copy of Modern Asian Baking at Home here and on Amazon.

Tell us more about how you ended up doing what you do now? 

As a child, I was creative and romantic. When I became a Doctor of Physical Therapy in 2008, while I was proud of myself, I knew I chose this profession to honour my parents’ wishes and sustain their pride. I have worn multiple hats for the past 13 years as a physical therapist (PT) and lymphedema therapist. I’ve worked as a healthcare recruiter, educator, clinical professor, program founder, school PT, and even a SharePoint webmaster. 

 On July 16th, 2020, a switch flipped inside me when I watched my father breathe his last breath. That night I realized he had never fulfilled his dreams. What were his goals and dreams in life? What were my dreams? Life’s too brief to be stuck in the daily grind and not being true to oneself. 

 By 2021, after working both remotely and in-person as a PT, I went from healthcare burnout to full bakeout, from launching SAB community to a cookbook, as Michelle Li of The Very Asian Foundation had pointed out.

These days, I carry Dad’s dreams on my shoulder. In spirit, what I can and will achieve will be what he realizes moving forward. 

My best friends of nearly three decades recently reminded me how I’ve always wanted to open a bakery named Teacup Mousse. I also had a dream of authoring 300 books!

Growing up, what are the fondest memories of dishes made at home? 

It was memorable whenever my dad cooked, as he rarely cooked, and his speciality was French and western dishes. He made a delicious creamy beef and mushroom dish with lots of onions. Occasionally, he took my family to diners on weekends for American-style breakfast: a mountain of whipped cream over hot cocoa, buttered toast, strips of greasy bacon, and lots of sunny-side-up eggs.

 My mom cooked chiefly, and I helped: whole steamed fish with boiling scallion and garlic oil and soy sauce, whole-day boiled soups, her homemade black sesame soup, and soy milk. Every night, we had rice, that was for sure. 

In May 2020, you founded Subtle Asian Baking (SAB) on Facebook as a private group to connect with other like-minded home bakers. Can you share with us more about the journey? 

It is all about timing and some luck. Everything just fell into place. SAB is a COVID baby; I founded the community on May 24th, 2020, right at the pandemic’s start.

I poured my heart into my SAB community, led genuinely, and involved my members. Those are the key ingredients. We’re called the SAB Fam, and our network of bakers spans across the world. We’re also an inclusive and diverse group, so you don’t have to be Asian to join or bake the Asian way.

 I try to get community feedback by polling the members and engaging them to participate and comment. I’m also fortunate to have a group of volunteer moderators from around the world who keep the community a safe and fun space. We do live events together, like when we streamed a live mukbang during our first fundraising event! 

How do you feel about the progression, and how will it evolve? 

 I’m thrilled with where SAB is going and how it’s growing. There’s no script to follow, no actual blueprint to success, so I am nervous and anxious to see what’s in store for SAB’s future. 

We’ve branched out into other social media channels like Discord, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. In the future, I will need more help and ways to sustain the group financially aside from using my cookbook advance and royalties. Are you interested to explore with Kat? Email her here.

We fundraise, donate, and give back a lot to the community (gifting swag and prizes to winners of our bake-offs). Since 2020, we’ve raised over $30,000 to give back to multiple fundraisers such as World Central Kitchen, Heart of Dinner, Hate is a Virus, Black Lives Matter, and Welcome to Chinatown. 

We will always be mission and purpose-based, which has been integral in its growth and evolution. 

As for what’s in store for SAB, I’m hoping to apply for grant funding from Facebook and Meta. A second cookbook is possible! 

 

Journey of launching Modern Asian Baking at Home and being a cookbook author

Tell us more about what inspired you to launch your first cookbook. How did it happen? 

Shortly after Eater featured Subtle Asian Baking in an article published around December 2020, an editor from Quarry Books (Jonathan) reached out to me with a generic email (love you, Jonathan), asking me if I were working on a cookbook. He put an idea in my head, and from there, I worked on a cookbook proposal, and Jonathan pitched it to his publisher. I signed a contract with Quarry Books and then worked on the book for the next six months. 

“These days, I carry Dad’s dreams on my shoulder.” – Kat Lieu
What was securing the book deal, creating the concept, working with the publisher and the writing process like?

Jonathan and I worked closely to secure the book deal and create the concept of Modern Asian Baking at Home. He didn’t baby me throughout the process, but he was a valuable guide and mentor, and I think it is a privilege for authors to work with an experienced editor. The process has been super rewarding, albeit exhausting as well. 

I wrote the cookbook during ungodly hours in 2021; my son was in a remote home school throughout kindergarten, and I worked remotely. I wrote after everyone slept or before everyone awoke for the day. 

 Of course, what I enjoyed the most was testing the recipes and eating the literal fruits of my labour. I also loved working with my 23 recipe testers, all of whom are SAB members, and now, seeing the physical book in its gold-foiled glory and beauty. 

Velvety Nama Chocolate from Modern Asian Baking at Home

What was the most challenging part, and what did you enjoy the most from the entire process? 

That would be putting myself out there, having no shame or shyness, networking, and tirelessly marketing my book! These days, I’m a full-time social media and marketing manager for SAB! I’ve learned so much about what works, what makes a video viral, and how to rally support from my community, and I’m still learning!

How long did it take you to launch this cookbook, from ideation to the book launch in June 2022?

I started writing the book around March to April 2021. The full manuscript was due around September 2021, and I started marketing the book around October 27th, 2021; I remember this date because it’s right around my wedding anniversary! The book is not out until June 28th, 2022, and the publisher stretches the preorder campaign over eight months. 

What would you share with aspiring cookbook authors of your journey?

Aspiring cookbook authors, I suggest you take more time than I did to author your first book and look closely at your contract with your publisher. If you can afford it, have a lawyer look over your contract. And have fun! It’s super important to have fun during the entire process and not sink yourself completely into marketing the book. You’ll burn out if you do. These are pieces of advice I wish I had received at the beginning of my cookbook journey. 

Also, have a solid social media presence or build it before you market your book. Finally, while you’ll only have one debut cookbook, it probably will not be your final cookbook! 

Your SAB community inspires your cookbook – how did you select which recipes to recreate in your cookbook? 

I’m a glutton and a foodie! I made a list of all the trendy and viral food and recipes that made my mouth water and my belly rumble, and then I polled SAB members to see which recipes they liked most or would like to see in the cookbook. 

Chewy Taiwanese Snowflake Crisp. Image credit: The Quarto Group.

 My favourite recipe is the Chewy Taiwanese Snowflake Crisp on page 44 of Modern Asian Baking at Home because it’s super easy and quick to make, and I could eat about a dozen (or more) in one sitting, and I’ve done that before. You can also change up the mix-ins in the recipe and make it your own and personal.

Chewy Taiwanese Snowflake Crisps from Modern Asian Baking at Home

Is there a particular recipe that is very dear to your heart? 

The recipe that is very dear to my heart is the Asian Bakery Fresh Cream Cake (or Ah Ma’s Cake) on page 96. It reflects my fifth birthday cake, one my Ah Ma or paternal grandma had baked and decorated for me in Montreal back in the eighties. It’s not too sweet, incredibly light, and unforgettable, just like the ones you would find at a local Chinese or Asian bakery.

A younger Kat with her Ah Ma. Image credit: Kat Lieu

It was a core memory for me when my grandma placed the finishing touches on my birthday cake, and I like to tell people I started baking when I was four years old, even though I only helped her crack a few eggs and taste-test the fresh cream.

How is being an Asian-American growing up in the US reflected in the book? 

I honestly could not have written this book if I weren’t an Asian-American growing up in the US. 

On Sundays, when we had dim sum, we always ordered fresh egg tarts from the carts, as it was Dad’s favourite dessert. Growing up, Mom and I never baked cookies, cupcakes, or cake pops together; we never frosted cookies or tackled macarons! But Mom made plenty of Cantonese desserts like tangyuan and black sesame soup, and those dishes always warmed my heart and comforted me.

When I first worked with dough, I followed a scallion pancake recipe by Martin Yan while watching an episode of Yan Can Cook! 

Cottony Japanese Cheesecake from Modern Asian Baking at Home. Image credit: The Quarto Group.
How would you say your identity as a cookbook author? 

It was quite a journey to get to where I am now. As a debut cookbook author, I am still finding my voice, and I honestly held back in this book, but I’ll be bolder, even more vulnerable, and raw with my next book. 

In the past, my writing mentor and publishers have told me that Asian characters and culture don’t sell books! Earlier this year, when I was marketing my cookbook, I received threats, racist remarks, and a lot of cyberbullying and trolling for being a visible, vocal, and viral Asian female author. When I clapped back, someone said, “You’re the reason why there’s so much Asian hate!” Please understand that most hate and violent crimes against Asians in America have been largely unprovoked. 

We’ve been hunted and hurt simply for looking the way we do; so we can’t stay silent; we need to clap back and fight back safely.   

A glimpse into Kat’s kitchen pantry 

 What are the 3 Asian cooking myths you wish to dispel? 
  1. Asian food and MSG are unhealthy or bad for you. 
  2. Asian-American food is unauthentic.
  3. Asian food is difficult to prepare and the ingredients are too exotic or difficult to source.
Tell us your kitchen pantry essentials. What are they, and how do you use them? 

1) Miso: I use miso in place of salt in almost every one of my baking recipes. It adds a nice salty and umami balance to my sweets.

2) Glutinous rice flour: If I want to make anything chewy, gluten-free, or mochi like, I must use glutinous rice flour or Mochiko.

3) Ube: I love making purple desserts that taste like ube, this beautiful and hard to find purple yam from the Phillippines. 

4) Pandan: A green leaf people refer to as the vanilla of Asia, it pairs so well with mangoes and coconut!

5) Black sesame: Try the gray stuff, it’s delicious! Like tahini and peanut butter, with a toasty roasty afternote, and an unforgettable subtle bitterness, I use it in my frosting, fillings, and anything sweet really. You can make black sesame cakes, pancakes, cookies, and milk bread!

Ube Butter Mochi. “I love making purple desserts that taste like ube, this beautiful and hard to find purple yam from the Phillippines”. Image credit: The Quarto Group.
What excites you the most in building the SAB community, and what is next for you? 

The unknown and the potential of SAB is super exciting for me. Just continuing to grow the community, make new friends, connect with bakers who bake the Asian way around the globe, continue to fundraise, and host global virtual bake-offs! 

I hope to always maintain our purpose and vision, and perhaps we’ll see an end to Asian hate one day. If we lead first with love, the world will be a brighter and even more beautiful place. That’s why I love bakers. We bake and give with all of our love and hearts. 

You can preorder your copy of Modern Asian Baking at Home here and on Amazon. (There is a beautiful free e-book and lots of bonus recipes for everyone who preorders prior to June 28th, 2022.)

You can find more of her recipes and creations on Instagram and Tik Tok. 

Join Subtle Asian Baking Fam here!

Black Sesame Neapolitan Sugar Cookies. Image credit: The Quarto Group

 

 

 

 

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