personal essay

Mooncakes, Matcha, and Mochi: How the Asian Baking Group I Founded Became So Much More than I Imagined

published Aug 25, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Kat Lieu, founder of Subtle Asian Baking, is depicted in and illustration baking some of her favorite recipes in her home along with friends (who join her virtually).
Credit: Jessie Wong

In April 2022, over the span of two weekends, like-minded bakers across the globe fired up their ovens.

Vivian Chen, a Singapore-based dentist and home baker made homemade cheesecakes, cookies, and kawaii macarons. In New York City, Jenny Lu tirelessly baked and packaged jars of homemade meringue cookies. Joyce Lee and Lisa Chan of Cha Bay made tins full of delicious matcha button cookies, which sold out within just a few hours. In Toronto, Owen Li skipped the oven and made hundreds of jars of homemade XO sauce

What did all of these cooks have in common? They were all raising funds for our baking group, Subtle Asian Baking, in response to SAB’s annual call to help address the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes that began in 2020. 

Two years prior, on May 24, 2020, I started Subtle Asian Baking. The small Facebook group was a “COVID baby,” born out of my nostalgia for comforting Asian baked goodies, as well as my yearning to safely connect with others during unprecedented times. When I was growing up, I thought that Asians didn’t bake — at least not in the way the Western world does.

Instead of chocolate chip cookies and fudgy brownies, my mom made Hong Kong and Chinese desserts like steamed custards in whole papaya, black sesame soup, tangyuan, and soy milk from scratch.

In 2009, when my parents sold my childhood home, the new homeowners received a clean, like-new oven because we had only ever used it to store pots and pans, not to bake. My mom and I never baked or frosted cookies. We didn’t decorate birthday cakes at home like my classmates. As a July baby, I never had a birthday party in school, and in a way this relieved school-aged Kat. 

Instead of chocolate chip cookies and fudgy brownies, my mom made Hong Kong and Chinese desserts like steamed custards in whole papaya, black sesame soup, tangyuan, and soy milk from scratch. I knew my classmates wouldn’t love her “baking” as much as I did if I brought it to school parties. In first grade, I ate shān zhā bǐng (or haw flakes, candy made from Chinese hawthorn) and shared a piece with my classmate. Her face told me everything: She would not be asking for seconds. After that, I kept my snacks and food from home to myself.

I didn’t start baking until I moved from New York City to the Seattle suburbs, where my kitchen was large enough that I didn’t have to hide pots and pans in the oven. I immediately fell in love. When March 2020 came along and COVID-19 reared its ugly head, I was 3,000 miles away from my mother, stuck at home desperately craving her desserts, along with the milk bread and mochi I had been enjoying in Tokyo during my February trip to Japan. I was nostalgic for sweets like Hong Kong egg tarts, cocktail buns, and cottony Japanese cheesecakes.

In a way, you could say that SAB was born from my long list of cravings, and it has served as a creative outlet for me. I can experiment with different flavors and techniques. I can make miso brownies chewy like boba using glutinous rice flour, or I can make basque cheesecakes but with black sesame or hojicha. Milk bread can be made gluten-free and vegan so that everyone can enjoy it! (Vegan blueberry milk bread, anyone?) What about ube soufflé pancakes that melt on your tongue? I realized that the possibilities are endless when you bake the Asian way.

And why did I name the group Subtle Asian Baking? One, because I love the Subtle Asian communities online that have formed since Subtle Asian Traits was created in 2018. And two, because there are so many clever, subtle methods and techniques to baking the Asian way.

Credit: Nicole Soper Photography
Ube Butter Mochi Bars from Kat Lieu's Modern Asian Baking at Home

However, when I first started SAB, never could I have imagined that what began as a Facebook group created for my closest friends would snowball into the popular and impactful community that it is today. SAB has become so much more than just a fun, safe virtual space for recipes; it has evolved into a diverse and inclusive family. The gratitude and love we have for one another has become just as much of a distinguishing component of the group as the countless recipes, inspirations, and stories that we share. 

By the end of 2020, the group had grown in size to more than 60,000 members. As the SAB community and I witnessed the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes here in the U.S., we decided that we wanted to use SAB as a platform to create change. Naturally, our community rallied to do what we do best: bake. 

Since 2020, SAB has raised more than $50,000 hosting global bake sales in support of organizations dedicated to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, as well as in support of causes like the Robb School Memorial Fund, World Central Kitchen, and The Trevor Project. By the end of May 2022, SAB members raised a total of $14,008 for Heart of Dinner, an organization that delivers meals to Asian elders throughout New York City, and The Very Asian Foundation, which aims to support the inclusion and representation of Asian experiences in mainstream spaces.

Every day, I think of my father. Whatever his dreams were for his life, they are now my dreams to fulfill.

While it’s impossible to think about the early days of SAB without thinking about the pandemic and the subsequent uptick in anti-Asian violence, the group’s philanthropic ethos was born partly out of another defining moment in my life: the passing of my father. On July 16th, 2020, I watched him exhale for the final time before he was gone forever, leaving a million words unsaid between the two of us. There were so many questions that I wish I knew the answer to. What were my dad’s dreams? Had he fulfilled them? 

Lewy Body Dementia had long robbed my dad of coherent conversations and thoughts, but he had always been a brilliant, gentle, giving, and kind soul, even during the early stages of his sickness. When he could still write, he wrote checks to every charity that sent him mail. My sister and I laughed as his junk mail piled, but he didn’t care. He just generously kept giving.

Every day, I think of my father. Whatever his dreams were for his life, they are now my dreams to fulfill. As the SAB community grew, I realized that I had a platform that could also help to honor my father’s legacy. In 2020, SAB partnered with the Alzheimer Society of Toronto and hosted our first fundraiser. We raised nearly $5000 CAD in my father’s memory and in honor of group moderator Owen Li’s mother who has dementia. I was, and continue to be, amazed at how effectively SAB rallies and how engaged our members are. 

Credit: Nicole Soper Photography
Tangzhong Milk Bread Five-Spice Cinnamon Buns

Early in 2021, I asked members to apply as recipe testers for my cookbook, Modern Asian Baking at Home. Nearly 750 applications flooded in — in less than two hours! I chose 23 members from around the world who tested the 68 recipes in my book. They provided feedback through direct messages, emails, Zoom calls, and text messages. SAB members also helped me choose which recipes to feature in the cookbook in the first place by responding to polls in the group. Would they rather see a recipe for a melon pan or pineapple bun? Choux creme or kare pan?

Subtle Asian Baking may be a phenomenon that was born and raised during COVID, but the group continues to evolve, to connect people across the globe, to rally members in acts of service, and to promote the fantastic world of Asian baking through culinary innovation. I couldn’t be more proud of what our SAB family has become.

Hungry for more? Try these two recipes from Modern Asian Baking at Home, and join the Subtle Asian Baking community.

Credit: Nicole Soper Photography

Ube Butter Mochi
This decadent dessert is a total showstopper. Ube is a purple yam that is popular throughout much of Asia, and it lends this butter mochi both its gorgeous color and its smooth, creamy texture.

Credit: Nicole Soper Photography

Tangzhong Milk Bread Five-Spice Cinnamon Buns
Tangzhong, a roux made from cooking water (or milk) and flour, makes these cinnamon buns soft and pillowy like milk bread. The addition of five-spice takes the flavor factor up several notches from your average cinnamon bun.