Subtle Asian Baking founder Kat Lieu is building community through shared culture and tasty treats

Subtle Asian Baking founder Kat Lieu is building community through shared culture and tasty treatsSubtle Asian Baking founder Kat Lieu is building community through shared culture and tasty treats
Gabriella Nicole Photography, Subtle Asian baking
Chandler Treon
June 16, 2023
Kat Lieu, creator of Subtle Asian Baking, talks trolls, appropriation and the joys of online community and content creation.
Craving Asian baked treats during the COVID-19 pandemic and inspired by the popular Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits, Lieu founded Subtle Asian Baking in May 2020 as an online outlet for people to share their Asian-inspired baking and dessert recipes. Unexpectedly, word-of-mouth helped Lieu’s group grow to over 61,000 members in just five months, and it has since ballooned to over 157,000 subtle Asian bakers as of this writing.
Speaking with NextShark, Lieu says her group was born out of a desire to amplify Asian food culture:

I had been baking since 2018 but not really diving into Asian baking. But it was time because you had all that Asian hate. You had Asian bakeries shuttering down, Asian businesses really suffering, and it was hard for me.

I used to live in New York City, but now I’m in Seattle. I don’t like to drive, so it’s really hard to drive out and get all the baked Asian goodies back. So I thought, why not start a group like Subtle Asian Cooking, Subtle Asian Traits, but specifically for Asian baking because there’s nothing out there. You don’t have a lot of Asian voices talking about Asian food, Asian culture, Asian flavors and things like that.

However, in her goal of spreading the joys of Asian baking, Lieu emphasizes that it is important to be mindful of the cultures we’re inspired by. In creating her Asian-inspired recipes, Lieu, who is ethnically Vietnamese and Chinese, says showing respect when borrowing from other cultures is paramount.
“I try to be very respectful, and the first thing I would say is, if you’re going to do something from a culture that’s not yours, at least be respectful of how you say it,” she says. “Do a little research. So don’t call like, you know, chicken ‘tonkotsu,’ because tonkotsu has pork. When you take a bowl of salad with Thai flavors, no bread, and you call it a ‘banh my’ bowl, not even calling it bánh mì, and you know it has nothing of the original recipe. It’s inventive, but maybe don’t call it a ‘banh my’ bowl, right? At least say bánh mì correctly.

And then you get all this clout from it, but if you never give back to the Asian community for all these inspiring recipes, that’s where you’re appropriating the culture, you’re not really doing fusion correctly.  You could be inventive, and you could do fusion, that’s fine. But there’s this line of appreciation versus appropriation.

While the growth of Subtle Asian Baking brought increased attention and interest in Asian recipes, Lieu says their viral posts also attracted trolls and racist comments from users on other platforms.
“When you go viral, and we’ve done that a lot on Instagram and TikTok, you get a lot of hate, especially when people see a face like mine. They just get very upset,” she explains. “Even if I’m making a rice paper mochi hack, you’ll have a lot of people saying, ‘That’s not mochi, why are you making that, that’s just disgusting.’ Or, yeah, I hear a lot of that. The barf emojis, and all of that.
“When I was promoting the cookbook, I said, ‘Hey, here is finally an Asian cookbook written by an Asian female author.’ Quote by quote, people would say, ‘Shut up just show us your food. We don’t care you’re POC. We don’t care you’re Asian.’ So that was really tough.”
Despite the influx of negative comments, Lieu says the overwhelming support provided by the Subtle Asian Baking community far outweighs the hate. A former physical therapist, Lieu has since left the security of a six-figure salary and transitioned into creating content full time, dedicating much of her newfound free time to organizing fundraisers for different organizations.
Additionally, having published one cookbook inspired by the Subtle Asian Baking community, “Modern Asian Baking at Home,” and with another on the way, Lieu perpetually donates 8% of all proceeds from her books to various fundraisers.
“We’ve had a lot of success fundraising on Instagram. Just in the month of May we raised $1,219 from just 3 viral reels that we put on Instagram for the Asian Mental Health projects,” she says. “Then in June, we’re going to do The Trevor Project, which we raised $11,000 for last year through Instagram. And then from bake sales, we did $15,000 the first year, 2021 I think, for Welcome to Chinatown.
“Earlier this year we also raised another $5,000 for the Very Asian Foundation through cookie box sales. We are so close to $100,000, donated to various fundraisers like Welcome to Chinatown, East Side Stories and Heart of Dinner in New York City, ACRS (Asian Counseling and Referral Service) in Seattle. So just being able to activate people from behind my keyboard is amazing.”
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