IN MARCH 2020, Renton-based Kat Lieu was working as a physical therapist in the Renton School District. She also was a novice home baker searching for community: a place where she could connect with anyone who, like her, wanted to “obsess over Asian baking.” But she wasn’t finding anything that satisfied her.
“If you Googled ‘Asian baking’ in 2020, you’d see something from a Western creator,” Lieu says during a recent phone call.
Knowing that representation matters, Place felt called to start a Facebook group that March; she called it “Subtle Asian Baking.” It was a place where people of any ability could share recipes and baking tips. It immediately gained traction. Within a month, there were 1,000 members; by December 2020, more than 60,000. Now, between Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Discord, “Subtle Asian Baking” reaches more than 350,000 people daily. Lieu also has written a cookbook, inspired by the group; it’s called “Modern Asian Baking at Home” and is scheduled for release on June 28.
She began work on the book in April 2021 — polling members on everything from their favorite ingredients to head-to-head matchups of dishes (“Do you want melon pan or pineapple buns?”) All the recipes in the book were written or rewritten by Lieu and tested by 23 members of the Facebook group, working via email, text and Zoom meetings to send videos and notes of their successes and failures — making sure each recipe was as perfect as possible.
The resulting book showcases nearly 70 recipes, from basic cookies and pastries to intricate, cloudlike cakes, breads and holiday bakes. There’s a small primer on ingredients and a few pages on technique. The tone is friendly, unpretentious — conversational, even. The recipes and flavors are the ones that were the most popular with her audience; matcha, ube, miso and black sesame feature prominently. There are recipes for milk bread, mooncake and Dalgona coffee.
“I’m a home baker, a novice myself. I wanted to make it like it’s talking to a friend; the book is your friend,” she says.
Cooking my way through the book was a sheer delight. The miso garlic bread buns started with a milk bread recipe and then utilized the dough to make a savory roll swirled up with rich miso scallion butter. The pan of buns disappeared faster than a plate of cinnamon rolls.
The cottony Japanese cheesecake was magic. Right out of the oven, it was a wobbly, ethereal whisper of a cake. A night in the fridge (which Lieu calls out in the headnote) “cured” the cake, making it more custardy. A butter knife practically lived on the plate with this cake; I think I sliced a small sliver every time I opened the fridge.
The gooey, fudgy miso brownies are gluten-free, with traditional flour swapped for glutinous rice flour. They’ve got the famous bouncy chew described as QQ, a “darling texture and mouthfeel of Taiwan.” It’s a bounciness due to the rice flour, and it gives the brownies (which already have a lot going on, with deep cocoa flavor and umami notes from the miso) an incredibly pleasant chew. Lieu says they are her son’s favorite recipe in the book.
The book feels forgiving. Not only does Lieu admit how tough it was to nail the recipe for the cottony Japanese cheesecake (making the home baker feel OK if it doesn’t turn out quite right the first time); she also leaves many recipes open for interpretation. Add matcha to the Japanese cheesecake, or swap out ube for black sesame in another. That, for Location, is where subtle Asian baking originally comes from.
For her, baking the Asian way isn’t just about traditional bakes, like milk bread or mooncakes. It’s also about fusion recipes.
“A brownie, but I add glutinous rice flour and mochi — an Asian ingredient and texture — you sneak something in there and make it your own. Anyone can bake this way. It’s all about subtleness and cleverness,” she says.
Lieu’s favorite recipe in the book is chewy Taiwanese snowflake crisps, a crunchy, salty/sweet dessert with marshmallows, butter crackers, chopped nuts and dried fruit. She says it is like a Rice Krispies bar, another prime example of baking the subtle Asian way.
“You can make it with any ingredient; you can mix in whatever you want. It’s so chewy and delicious, it makes you feel like a kid,” she says. Who wouldn’t want that?