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Baked with love and heritage: Asian American bakers whisk together multicultural treats

A selection of assorted mochi muffins appear at the Third Culture Bakery in Berkeley, Calif. (Eric Risberg/AP)
A selection of assorted mochi muffins appear at the Third Culture Bakery in Berkeley, Calif. (Eric Risberg/AP)

Autumn ushers in arguably the best baking season of the year.

Cinnamon rolls, apple cider donuts, pumpkin pies — who isn’t looking forward to the classics? But you’re also likely to see some new additions to your list of old favorites.

Asian American bakers are melding ingredients from their heritage with “traditional” American and European pastries in a celebration of their multicultural identities.

Growing up in Indonesia, Sam Butarbutar says eating tropical fruits, warm spices and elaborate treats became baked into his identity. He wanted to share those flavors in the U.S. through Third Culture Bakery, a pastry shop founded by him and his husband Wenter Shyu.

Both Indonesia and Taiwan, where Shyu was raised, have similar global identities that fuze different flavors together. The bakers honed in on that blend when opening Third Culture Bakery as a place for customers to indulge in pastries baked with rice and loaded with flavors like matcha — all reminiscent of their identities.

Matcha, a green tea powder, may be trendy now, but for Shyu, “it was just part of my childhood.”

Interview Highlights

On the inspiration behind their Original Mochi Muffin

Sam Butarbutar: “The Original Mochi Muffin was the pastry that started the entire bakery. It was inspired by my mom’s creation. Every Christmas and every holiday season, she would make these steamed layer cakes that are made out of rice flour. There’s coconut milk and coconut sugar, and it has such a satisfying chew with the sweetness and the little savory notes of the coconut milk and the coconut sugar. And so for me, growing up in Indonesia, but then transplanting to the United States, I always was craving that flavor and I wanted to share that with people. And so we created that recipe, but also added our own twist because growing up here, I love the crispy, crunchy edges of brownies, and I love that satisfying crunch.”

On feedback they’ve received when their Original Mochi Muffins took off

Wenter Shyu: “When we opened up our doors for our retail store, a lot of folks would come in and tell us story of, ‘Oh, this reminds me of something my mom made growing up in the Philippines or growing up in Thailand. We had this thing that we ate on birthdays or for New Year’s.’ And so I think it has this like sense of nostalgia for Asian kids or kids who grew up in the Southeast Asian area. And I don’t know, [the muffins are] just done in such a creative way. It was kind of like love at first sight.”

On how food and identity can be complex

Butarbutar: “On one part, I’m super proud of being Indonesian and being able to share that story of my diaspora and coming here and all that rich kind of cultural background and recipes. But the second part is a little bit heavy, that being gay is not accepted in any corner of Indonesian society — including my own family. We have this bright-colored, pink and loud [bakery], and we are all about supporting LGBTQ rights in the bakery, and we were very proud of that. And then in the same token, I am not on speaking terms with any of my family members just because I was disowned when I came out.

“I think after a couple of years and after a lot of meditation and doing yoga, I kind of was able to compartmentalize it and kind of turned it all around and actually used that struggle as part of our messaging — that our story is kind of a story that a lot of people still resonate with and there’s a lot of gay Asian boys and Asian kids that are still struggling with this duality. We just kind of made the bakery just a place of unapologetic acceptance. And I think that’s what kind of keeps me motivated and what keeps us going is that no matter what your background is and no matter who you are, we celebrate you as you are.”

On food as representation and whether basing identity in food is limiting

Shyu: “I think about this a lot about how we have so much to offer as Asian Americans, but in the last couple of months, I kind of felt more and more OK with just food kind of being that main representation. And that comes from a place I think of talking to my mom. She comes from a generation that — we don’t really talk a lot about feelings or other stuff that we enjoy or it’s either like, oh, this is good or this is bad or don’t do this or do that. And so the only thing that kind of was able to get through all of that was food. And so food really is the love language. And I realize how important and what significance my parents put on food. And so for me, now having a bakery with my husband, I am learning that this bakery is also our love language because this bakery exists because we kind of fell in love and started something together.”

Butarbutar: “I just want to add that for us, food is different rather than literature or film [as representation] in that there’s no ideology. So we get a lot of people who come to our bakery not knowing our story or not knowing anything that it’s a gay bakery and having them come into our bakery and eating our food and reading our story, it changes people’s minds and hearts. And that is the most touching aspect of our bakery.”


Kalyani Saxena produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.