Asian American cooks look to Italy for culinary inspiration

July 27, 2022 at 10:00 a.m. EDT Pearl Ma sets up her iPhone stand at her kitchen in New York City. (Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post) Comment on this story Comment Pearl (Yiping) Ma draws you into her TikTok with the words, “Hey foreigners, let’s traumatize Italians.” Off the […]

Pearl Ma sets up her iPhone stand at her kitchen in New York City. (Photo by Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)
Pearl Ma sets up her iPhone stand at her kitchen in New York City. (Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)

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Pearl (Yiping) Ma draws you into her TikTok with the words, “Hey foreigners, let’s traumatize Italians.” Off the bat, she’s every Italian grandmother’s worst nightmare: She threatens to break the linguine but instead cuts the cooked pasta with a knife, then breaks an egg on top before brushing Chinese soybean paste and oyster sauce onto the thin strips.

But then she starts to explain. “Pasta is a lot easier to get in America than Asian noodles. That is just the truth,” Ma says. “This recipe is approved by hundreds of international students who miss our hometown food, kao leng mian.” By the end of the video, you’re on her side and eager to taste her version of this northern Chinese grilled noodle.

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Since early April, Ma has been documenting her culinary swaps on TikTok with a humorous bent. She’s “offended” Japanese and Mexican people but especially likes to pick on Italians, who are notorious for decrying any twist to their food. She has cooked Chinese meat buns (bao zi) with wrappers made from Pillsbury pizza dough and transformed Italian meatballs into pearl meatballs, a Chinese spring festival dish. Ma initially thought more people would be offended by her videos, but to her surprise, most support her “putting things together but cooking it in a way that makes sense.” As one commenter puts it, “As an Italian I am not mad.”

For Ma, the similarities between the two cuisines became evident when she moved to the United States four years ago. Whenever she felt homesick for food from northern China, she gravitated to a slice of cheesy pizza or a bowl of pasta. They didn’t taste like her favorite dishes from home, but the starchy, saucy flavors in Italian foods satiated her taste buds. She made similar substitutions in the kitchen, adding tomato sauce to Chinese noodles and oyster sauce to Italian pasta. This Italian-Chinese combination has since become her TikTok calling.

“The concept of my series is using foods to build a bridge between different cultures and different foods,” Ma says. “One of my followers says I’m offending people to unite them.”

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Ma belongs to a group of immigrants and Asian Americans who have connected the dots between Italian and Asian cuisines. Chinese international students, like Ma, discover and exchange recipes on the social media platform Xiaohongshu, or “Little Red Book.” In the restaurant world, Asian American chefs craft menus based on their experiences traveling to Italy, attending culinary school and internalizing the therapeutic rituals of pasta and pizza making. Even an older generation of Asian home cooks — from Vietnam to China to the Philippines — chime in with stories of scouring a store’s pasta section to engineer dishes from their homeland. In every corner of the food world, you’ll find both unexpected and intentional stories from Asian Americans cooking with Italian ingredients and techniques.

Beginning with Chinese cuisine, Asian and Italian foods have a long, storied history of intermingling. A common myth that both pasta and pizza were invented in China and brought back to Italy by Marco Polo stirred waves in the Italian and Chinese communities. In actuality, this tale was fabricated by the National Macaroni Manufacturers Association in 1929 to promote U.S.-made pasta.

Miranda Brown, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Michigan, says that even mythical stories like this obscure a more complex history that includes Middle Eastern and African traders. “It’s a sexy story, right? We all know who Marco Polo is, but there’s a much longer history of exchange that tends to get forgotten because we don’t really study the Maritime Silk Road.” But the idea of two cuisines taking and giving has resonated with people because pasta and noodles, though different in preparation and texture, look nearly identical.

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They may not share a common origin, but evidence suggests that these starchy foods developed concurrently for hundreds of years, with China coming first. In 2005, archaeologists unearthed a bowl containing 4,000-year-old noodles at the Lajia site in northwestern China. In the 4th century B.C., an Etruscan tomb showed people making a dish that resembles pasta, though some scholars dispute this evidence. Regardless of its origins, the popular, simple, versatile combination — flour, water and a pinch of salt — speaks to a universal craving for doughy foods.

In recent years, the Chinese community has grown and prospered in Italian cities such as Rome and Milan, with businesses dishing out “Chinese ravioli” and “Beijing crepes” — or dumplings and jian biang — to locals and tourists. Back in the 1960s, Chinese cookbook author and restaurant owner Joyce Chen referred to wontons as Peking ravioli to introduce Chinese cuisine to Italian customers in Boston. And because Italian and Chinese immigrants in America have historically congregated in ethnic enclaves and sought to rent from the same landlords, a city’s Little Italy and Chinatown often neighbor each other.

Brown carefully considers the origins of Chinese and Chinese American food in her classes. To her, the mixing of Italian and Asian ingredients, especially Chinese foods, seemed natural. “Chinese food at this point is American food. Everyone knows what Chinese food is,” she says. “And then Italian food is also very popular. Pizza. Spaghetti. These are staples of American life.”

Chefs around the country are letting their passion for Italian cuisine influence culinary projects closer to home. Those who attended culinary school spent hours honing techniques from France and Italy, whereas Asian cuisine, despite all its distinct regional cuisines, were lumped together on a short day. Even 10 years ago, few fine dining restaurants specialized in cuisines such as Chinese and Korean, so a majority of Asian American chefs sought training elsewhere. But now these Asian American chefs command their own kitchens and have created opportunities for the next generation of chefs.

Asian American chefs with tales of Italy and its cuisine are not hard to find. Brandon Jew, who owns the Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco, traveled to Bologna, Italy, to begin his culinary career. His James Beard Award winning cookbook “Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown” showcases a wonton recipe with wrappers made from a pasta machine and seasonal ingredients from California farms — an ingredient-driven approach picked up from his stays in Bologna and Shanghai.

Across the country, D.C.-based Filipino chef Paolo Dungca was first exposed to pasta and Italian food while working at Disneyland’s Wine Country Trattoria and later honed his pasta-making skills at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va. He says he immediately noticed similarities between Filipino and Italian cuisines in celebratory dishes such as Filipino spaghetti, which he calls a “sweet Bolognese with hot dogs.” When deciding to open Piccoletto, a casual Washington, D.C., restaurant specializing in pasta with Asian sauces, he knew to incorporate his favorite pastime into the menu: kneading pasta dough.

Brooklyn-raised Calvin Eng opened Cantonese American restaurant Bonnie’s in 2021. He never had a chance to train in a traditional Chinese kitchen, similar to the ones that he visited as a kid in New York City’s Chinatown. Instead, most of his training comes from culinary school, stints at dim sum house Nom Wah and modern Taiwanese restaurant Win Son, and sessions with his mother in the kitchen. Now at the helm of his own restaurant, he finds himself comparing his food to Italian cuisine to explain the difference between Cantonese cooking and other regional Chinese cuisines.

“Both really focus on minimal ingredients and allow the main ingredients to shine. They’re both umami and savory,” Eng says. “In both cuisines, there’s not much acid, there’s not much heat. They use a lot of salt. They’re preserved in fermented products, whether that’s anchovies or salted fish to kind of enhance dishes.”

One dish on his menu, wun tun en brodo, was inspired by a trip to Italy. At a restaurant in Parma, he ordered a bowl of tortellini and was consumed with nostalgia. “Before I even tasted it, just by smelling it and looking at it, it just looked like a massive bowl of wonton soup,” he recalls.

Wun tun en brodo is only the start of Italian inspiration at Bonnie’s. When making fan-favorite fuyu cacio e pepe mein, Eng whips out his wok to coat the pasta in a slick, cheesy butter sauce, a method he learned as the chef de cuisine at Win Son. The intense heat from a wok — known as wok hei — has made cooking large quantities of pasta that much easier, while adding complex, toasty aromas.

At a time when Asian grocery stores are rarely more than a bus trip away in major cities, international students still notice gaps in the ingredient aisles. In Ma’s case, her quest for kao leng mian took longer than expected. She ransacked the Chinese supermarket aisles for flat noodle sheets, but they were difficult to obtain without turning to online delivery services. Grabbing pasta from her local supermarket just made sense.

But go back 50 years and Asian grocery stores were more sparse. Mai Wolfe, who immigrated to Baltimore from Vietnam in 1975, saw Vietnamese food as a cure for homesickness. Relying on cheap ingredients from her local store, her parents cobbled together angel hair pasta, fresh herbs and soy sauce for a taste of bún in a new country. Once she married and moved in with her American husband in 1980, the idea to buy a pasta machine for homemade rice noodles occurred to her. There was no YouTube or other easy source of instruction, but she eventually refined a rice noodle recipe to her liking and saved countless trips to the store.

In pandemic times, Wolfe has limited her grocery store outings. On top of that, supply chain issues have tripled the price of rice noodles and curbed her access to this key ingredient. So when she wants a taste of Vietnamese food, she finds herself recalling recipes from her youth, including her family’s angel hair bún. The taste might not be the same, but according to Wolfe, it still satisfies everyone, especially her grandchildren.

“We know better. But when you run into little toddlers and little 8-year-olds running around, they’re hungry,” Wolfe says. “You cook it up and you dress it up like a Vietnamese dish. And when you are hungry, it does a really good job.”

Plenty of Asian American chefs and home cooks have inherited Italian techniques for various reasons, whether consciously from culinary mentors or as a survival mechanism in a foreign country. But this exchange doesn’t have to be one-sided: Calvin Eng believes that Italians can learn a thing or two from Cantonese American chefs. Eng wants to share Cantonese ingredients and his kitchen tricks — wok hei and all — with everyone he meets, including Italian chefs.

“Every Italian restaurant that’s a pasta restaurant should just have woks,” he says. “Because it’s going to make their life so much easier.”

A previous version of this story mistakenly said Calvin Eng was prep cook at Win Son. He was chef de cuisine. This version has been corrected.

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