It’s hard to remember now, but in the early days of COVID-19, people were baking. In kitchens across the world, sourdough sat on counters, fudgy brownies were pulled out of ovens, and home cooks either discovered and then claimed as their own the perfect brown butter chocolate chip cookies, or attempted to perfect them further. Dalgona coffee, an early quarantine trend from South Korea in which one whips up equal parts of instant coffee, milk, and sugar to create an aesthetically appealing frothed drink, was being documented via iPhone camera and shared widely. For many people, it was their first time seriously wielding a whisk, and for others, it was a desperate attempt to find comfort and domestic beauty in perilous times.
It was around this time that Kat Lieu, a Seattle-based blogger and cheesecake aficionado, started the Facebook group Subtle Asian Baking, inspired by another called Subtle Asian Cooking. Both are offshoots of Subtle Asian Traits, a massively popular online community (at writing, the group has 1.2 million members from across the globe) devoted to sharing memes and videos related to Asian culture, from K-pop and boba to ’90s anime and stereotypical Asian parenting.
Subtle Asian Baking is precisely what it sounds like: a community full of mostly Asian bakers, baking Asianly. One scroll through the page and you’ll find a cornucopia of cakes, breads, pastries, and desserts laced with matcha, ube, pandan, black sesame, and other ingredients from across East and Southeast Asia. Here, it’s Dalgona forever, with the coffee-sugar-water whip sandwiched in macarons, nestled between layers of sponge in roll cakes, and baked into souffle cheesecakes. There are incredibly cute bakes, like fondant figurines of Studio Ghibli characters sitting on cakes, anime faces meticulously reproduced onto roll cakes, macarons shaped like corgis, and icebox cookies featuring the faces of Luna and Artemis from Sailor Moon. There are bakes that aren’t even baked at all, like steamed buns, mochi donuts, sweet soups native to Malaysia and Indonesia, and homemade boba.
The group launched in May and recently hit 60,000 members. “You see a lot of posts where people are like, ‘I’m spending my birthday alone and I’m making cake to do a Zoom with my family,’” says Lieu. “And a lot of members reminiscing about the Chinese bakery cakes and then recreating those so that they could relive their childhood during the pandemic.”
The group’s members all agree to the basic rules: Each bake posted must have a recipe attached, as per the community guidelines, but the embellishment is all up to the baker. Along with photos of baked goods, members also share advice, solicit suggestions on ingredient sourcing, and pose other baking-related queries. “The point is not to promote Asian bakers,” says Lieu. “The point is to promote this culinary experience. We welcome all people from all over the world. We see a lot of Japanese desserts, a lot of mochi and mooncakes. I would love to see more Indian desserts, and Malaysian desserts, and more things from Thailand.”
Beyond the aesthetic allure of scrolling through these sugary creations, members also get a jolt of comfort in watching time-honored childhood flavors celebrated in a time of uncertainty. During the pandemic’s first wave, quarantined in my neighborhood away from my family and devoid of bubble tea shops and Asian bakeries (not that they would have been open anyway), I turned to the internet. I was mainlining K-dramas, attending weekly Zoom Cantonese conversation classes, and spending hours on a Discord server comprising mostly Asian-American and Canadian women, just to mimic the sensation of what it would feel like to walk through my favorite parts of Toronto — brilliantly pan-Asian, full of multilingual chatter and delicious and diverse snacks. At night, unable to sleep, I scrolled fervently through Subtle Asian Baking, finding vicarious comfort at the sight of pillowy souffle cheesecakes and traditional Hong Kong bakery-style pineapple buns.
Absent the normal comforts of routine, work, and social freedom, it became easy to identify what gave my life joy and solace. All arrows pointed to my family and larger community and the taste memories I associated with them, things the Facebook group reminded me of: bubble tea strolls, nights out over big vats of Korean fried chicken and pitchers of watery beer, and the Hong Kong bakery in the north end of the city where my family has gotten our hot dog buns and coconut tarts for decades. My first Subtle Asian Bake was a batch of matcha-flavored melonpan, using the tangzhong method of yeasting bread dough and shaped like turtles. The second was Hawaiian-style butter mochi. For Canadian Thanksgiving, I eschewed the pumpkin-spice life and went for a matcha-pumpkin filling for my pie, grounding the silky and nutty sweetness of the festive gourd with the earthy bitterness of matcha.
For me and the others in the group, Subtle Asian Baking promises a future where these flavors are not tucked away in small pockets of the city but given time, seriousness, and the obsessive dedication, heralding a new age of pastry. “I think this group has really inspired people to bring out their best and challenge them because they’ll see someone making these great things,” says Lieu. “‘Oh my god, a mochi in a muffin, what’s the next thing I can do? Now I can make mini ube pancakes cereal.’ I think it keeps pushing up that level of creativity.”
Nolan Eng is an industrial designer whose passion for baking and photography developed simultaneously after COVID-19 hit. The Los Angeles resident saw baking as a way to combine his eye for detail and passion for food during lockdown. Now, he estimates that he spends 35 percent of his life baking and growing his online presence. His Instagram grid features French pastries jazzed up in the flavors he knows well, like boba-coffee cream puffs, matcha-pistachio canneles, black sesame madeleines, and ube-blueberry coconut tarts covered in a mirror glaze set on a tart filled with ube chiffon.
“When I was a kid, Asian flavors weren’t the most popular in school,” says Eng. “I would bring my bag of shrimp chips, my seaweed crisp, and all the kids would just be like, ‘What the heck are you eating, that smells terrible.’ But now, that has become my greatest strength. I’m very proud of my Asian heritage and culture. So my passion for detail-oriented pastries, which is French baking of course, merging those together embodies how I am as a baker today.”
Eng says the group not only gives him a community of like-minded creative bakers from Asian cultures, but it’s also provided a way of building traction for his Instagram profile. His first post on the Subtle Asian Baking Facebook group, an ube chocolate souffle, garnered 2,000 likes and a few hundred new followers on Instagram. He’s embedded in the community now, swapping likes with other Asian-inspired pastry influencers and picking up samples of hojicha and matcha to feature in his online bakes. He gets a sense of fulfillment when people look at his creations and tie them back to their childhood or a fond travel memory.
“Everyone has their own unique story,” he says. “Just giving them a baked good that they can have this Ratatouille moment over, like ‘I had this before,’ gives me the most joy.”
Across the world, pastry chef Gunawan Wu has been trying to fuse the flavors of his childhood into the world of French pastry for years. In 2013, the Australia-based Indonesian pastry chef won the bronze medal at the Dilmah High Tea Awards with a macaron flavored with tom yum soup spices. He was a student at Le Cordon Bleu at the time, and newly arrived in Australia. At first, he says, people were reluctant to warm to his ideas, which included bak kut teh (a Malaysian pork rib stew)-filled vol au vents, and entremets riffing on cendol, a beloved Malaysian drink in which coconut cream and pandan jelly are layered over ice. His version features a layer of chocolate mousse, a pandan cake, and coconut marshmallows encased in a sugar terrarium.
Wu says people around him initially resisted trying his desserts; sometimes, they were so put off by the unfamiliar ingredients that he served them as mystery desserts. “People who read the descriptions would straight away say, ‘No, no, no,’” he says about his Sriracha custard and soy sauce ice cream concoctions. “But when we actually give [it to them as a] surprise dessert, they actually enjoy it. They say, ‘This is something that I can actually remember. I think I’ve eaten this before. Is that a salted caramel ice cream?’”
Like Eng, when Wu found Subtle Asian Baking, he was blown away by the community of people who not only embraced his ideas but offered constructive suggestions on how to improve them. He’s a frequent contributor on the group, linking recipes to his signature terrarium tarts and offering advice in the comments to other bakers looking to improve their techniques.
“This was what I was looking for for the past seven years as I was living in Australia. This is the place where you can express yourself, and you can inspire and learn from other people,” he says. “It gives instant inspiration. I don’t have to look through thousands of books to get inspiration.”
For Lieu, watching the group grow and respond to each others’ bakes has inspired her to dream bigger. She started the Subtle Asian Baking Instagram page in July, which quickly picked up steam. She and the team of moderators behind the group launched virtual bake-offs in August, with a junior baker bake-off coming up. In November, they will hold their first fundraising mukbang, where members eat live, mukbang style, to fundraise for the Alzheimer Society of Canada to honor Lieu’s father, who died from Lewy body dementia in July. They’ve also done fundraisers for Women for Women and Black Lives Matter. Beyond using this platform to support individual bakers, charities, and communities, Lieu sees it as a forum for connection and inclusivity for bakers not just of East Asian descent, but from across the world.
“As an Asian pastry chef, it’s really hard to express myself [compared to] French pastry chefs,” says Wu. “If we can keep pushing up in the world, we will get recognized and then our pastries will be common in pastry school as well. We’ve never been taught how to make steamed cakes [in culinary school], but back in Asia, they can make cakes and pastry goods from steaming without even requiring an oven. In school, I was never taught this skill.”
Not long ago, matcha was an adventurous a flavor in mainstream desserts, and now you can get it in a latte at Starbucks. Once considered to be texturally off-putting to many, boba is ubiquitous in cities across the world. Things have changed over the last few years, and that change has intensified over the last few months — Subtle Asian Baking is no longer just a small community of bakers swapping recipes, but a movement for culinary innovation. I mean, oh my god, a mochi in a muffin. Wouldn’t you want that too?
Jessica Wei is a writer and editor based in Toronto.