Bay Area Home Bakeries Explore Asian American Identity

Despite incorporating a plethora of diverse Asian cultures in its products, Big Boi Mochi is rooted in its founders’ Chinese American identities. The black sesame and salted egg mochi, for instance, are chewy little flavor bombs that capture the memories and nostalgia of growing up Chinese: They’re familiar flavors for anyone who has tasted the salted yolk in a mooncake or the nuttiness of zi ma wu (black sesame paste).

Raised in a predominantly white area, Pan and Lee say they were always labeled as “diverse.” After being forced into the margins for so long, they’re now using their pride in being Chinese American to bring their products to life. and after the influx of xenophobia and anti-Asian hate that we’ve seen in our communities during the pandemic, finding solidarity through food feels especially important. Businesses like Big Boi Mochi allow a wide range of Asian Americans to join together, even if it’s around something as small as a butter mochi.

A Taste of Hong Kong

Jacqualine Li started MamaLin’s Bakery to help give customers “a piece of Hong Kong” through her food. (MamaLin’s Bakery)

Many of the newer Asian American home bakeries have formed their own collaborative community during the pandemic, often promoting each other’s pop-ups and tagging each other on Instagram. Pan and Lee, for instance, made a point of mentioning their friendship with San Francisco’s MamaLin’s Bakerya Hong Kong-style home bakery that sells a swath of savory and sweet Asian treats that are hard to find elsewhere in the Bay Area.

When the pandemic hit, founder Jacqualine Li became a stay-at-home mom after not being able to find work. With her extra free time, she began experimenting with different recipes that she’d learned in her native Hong Kong. “Whenever I go back to Hong Kong, I would always try to take a cooking class to learn different techniques and cuisine that isn’t common in America,” Li explains.

It wasn’t until she accumulated a surplus from all the baking she was doing for her family that Li started giving away samples to friends and extended family. Posting her creations on Instagram allowed her to reach an even bigger audience.

After immigrating from Hong Kong in her 20s, Li says her ability to recreate culturally nostalgic foods like pork floss buns and mooncakes has always helped her feel connected to her heritage. She hopes customers, especially other immigrants, will “find a piece of Hong Kong in [her] food.”

Li makes the kind of buns and other fresh baked goods that you might stumble upon in a bakery in Hong Kong, but the treats are also unique in their presentation or in the way they incorporate ingredients such as cream cheese or durian. For instance, MamaLin’s signature scallion garlic cream cheese buns reminded me of the scallion buns prevalent in Cantonese and Hong Kong-style bakeries—but Li combines the salty scallion flavor of the topping with a velvety, honey-flavored cream cheese filling. To say that the combination was addictive would be an understatement.

Scallion garlic cream cheese bun on a wooden cutting board, with the bun's oozy cream cheese interior visible.
The scallion garlic cream cheese bun takes a standard Hong Kong-style scallion bun and adds sweet, velvety cream cheese to the mix. (MamaLin’s Bakery)

Like Kapwa Baking Company’s Filipino American twists, Li’s creations sit at an intersection between cultures. The durian daifuku mochi features the potent flavor of the durian, a fruit native to Southeast Asia—an unexpected addition to Japanese mochi since the stereotypically smelly fruit isn’t especially popular in Japan. But that’s what makes MamaLin’s so innovative, as it brings different corners of Asia together in one harmonious treat.

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