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Sweet Memories: How Chefs are Remixing Nostalgic Asian Snacks

29 June, 2022

Reinterpreting culturally resonant snacks can also be a way of confronting and understanding an uprooted childhood. Matt Delatour, a former executive chef and current sales representative and restaurant consultant, does this exact thing when developing menus for his pop-ups in Los Angeles. “I lost a lot of my culture and heritage when I was adopted. [As an adult] I stumbled upon a multitude of Korean snacks – Pepero, Honey Butter Chips, Melona Bars, Moon Pies. I tried all the Korean snacks I could get my hands on.” Delatour fixated on Moon Pies. “Super chalky cake, mixed with extra sticky marshmallow, covered in a chocolate shell that melted in two seconds – I was instantly a fan.” So he remixed it. Delatour is in the process of making Moon Pies from scratch, but with chocolate frosting, graham cracker crumbles and marshmallow drizzles – flavours that ring true to any American kid.

Chefs also spoke about improving upon the snacks of their youth, infusing their versions with better ingredients, as well as ingredients that speak to their new lives in new cities. Daphne Kauahi’ilani Jenkins of Ono Mau Goods spent her childhood on Oahu, but in recent years, has assumed the deserved title of the Butter Mochi Queen of Portland, Oregon. Her butter mochi is light years away from the plastic wrapped chi chi dango stationed at the checkout line of Long’s Drugs, and it belongs to the same galaxy as those familiar foil trays of butter mochi that someone’s parents always brought to the volleyball tournaments of her youth, but it swirls around a totally different sun. “The kind of butter mochi I make now has that elastic texture of mochi but I infuse different flavours into the plain cake. Kahuku Farms lilikoi butter, lemon curd, black sesame paste, tamari.” None of these flavours ever crop up on butter mochi found in Hawaii.

Jenkins’ extraordinarily beautiful swirled butter mochi cakes permeate many an Instagram feed and draw from a joyfully riotous combinations of memories. She does as her father did, “He’s notorious for refilling his drink at the soda fountain with all the sodas at once. And that’s the vibe when snacking. I love iso peanuts, any kind of mochi crunch, kaki mochi with li hing mui sauce, pickled mango, dried squid, M&M’s.” All these flavours, salty and sweet, make it into her mochi some way or another, and her customers get it. “[My business] started with people with Hawaii roots [as customers] but now most people are coming to me out of curiosity. Some of them have never even tried traditional Japanese mochi, but they are drawn in by the visuals.”

Baking is also a way for her to address of being away from home. “I’m infusing emotion and intention into each batch. This mochi practice grew out of my longing for Hawaii. My family, my parents and brothers were all far across the ocean and during the pandemic, they seemed farther away due to restrictions. I like to think of the texture of my butter mochi as the texture of longing.”


Animae Ube Magnolia ice cream Photo by James Tran

Tara Monsod, the executive chef at San Diego’s Animae strives to “present nostalgic Asian flavours in a new way. The dishes I like to create may not look like something you’ve eaten before, but taste like dishes nostalgic of an Asian American childhood. Halo-halo takes me back to summers with my family. I love when ‘ube’ ice cream melts and it’s like a milkshake on steroids. Traditional halo-halo uses Ube Magnolia ice cream, natta de coco, mung bean, red bean, macapuno and plantains but our Ube Sundae at Animae uses flavoured coconut pineapple ice and its texture comes from an almond coconut crumble and meringue.”

Toying with Filipino flavours also draws connections to shared heritages with Mexican foods, as Roxxanne Delle Site-Jeronimo illustrates through virtual bakery Mexipino, which is “inspired by my son who is half Mexican from his father and part Filipino from me. I began to combine and play with nostalgic flavours and traditional desserts from both cultures. We take classic Filipino sweets, snacks, and desserts and put a twist to them by adding an authentic ingredient or childhood flavour from Mexico and vice versa. What’s interesting is that Mexico and the Philippines have a deep connection and a history that dates back to the Spanish trade route centuries ago.”

Something must also be said about the chefs who are working to bridge the oceanic divide between the cultures and continents of America and Asia, at Japanese establishments in New York City. Kenta Goto, of Bar Goto and Bar Goto Niban, will serve you chicken wings and celery sticks as you might expect in a typical bar, but these will be sauced with “miso and sesame, with celery coated in sesame oil and a house kombu and shiso blend”. Goto also riffs in the opposite direction, remixing popular Japanese bar snacks, infusing korokke with Gruyere and Parmesan.

Shigefumi Kabashima, owner and beverage director of NR, adheres to a similar philosophy as Goto, but is primarily inspired by the cuisine found in traditional 19th century Japanese port towns. NR’s deviled eggs are whipped up with Japanese mayo and mustard, wasabi and sea urchin and his customers “seem very happy to have a Japanese ingredient accent”.

Private chef Sarah Najemian manipulates Japanese nori snacks – the most important snack to her, growing up – in a similar fashion. “There are so many flavours and types of nori snacks. This allows you to do so much. Like blend it up into a powder and coat fresh cod in it, then make a cod mosaic, which I have done on a menu this past winter. It was a cod and nori mosaic with a shiitake broth, and a jalapeño crema. You could julienne it and use it as a garnish, or you could hydrate it and incorporate into a sauce like I did with the nori sabayon. Nori not only adds flavour but it adds a nice natural dark colour that is hard to find.”

All of these dishes aren’t exactly fusion. They weren’t conceived to be mash ups for the sake of some restaurant or business concept. Each of these reinterpretations of snacks, whether making Asian ones more Western, or Western ones more Asian, derive from a chef’s inner dialogue, borne from their personal memories, and are ways to confront two very different but internalised cultures. These dishes are themselves third culture kids.


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