Asian American Cookbooks
Posted April 2021 | Updated April 2023
Megan Elias (Associate Professor of the Practice and Director, Gastronomy) is a historian and gastronomist whose work and research explores the rich history of food and culture through prisms of food writing, markets, and home economics.
People from all parts of Asia have been cooking and eating in North America since at least the fifteenth century and probably earlier. Two foodstuffs first cultivated in Southeast Asia—sugar and rice—became essential crops that fueled the economic development of North America by Europeans. A third—tea—was a staple import and famously entangled in revolutionary acts as English colonies broke away to become the United States.
Asian ingredients and dishes associated with different parts of Asia appeared in English language cookbooks from the late eighteenth century on, reflecting the global and multicultural nature of American foodways. Appreciation for diverse foodways, however, has not generally indicated an inclusive attitude. Non-Asian Americans have enjoyed Asian food while practicing anti-Asian politics and behaviors.
The first cookbooks by Asian people published in English in America did not appear until the twentieth century. In this blog post, I introduce some of these first texts and highlight some of the language they use to recommend their cuisines to potential readers and cooks. Authors of these books make claims for the integrity and dignity of Asian foodways in America. They help immigrant communities maintain their culinary heritage in America and simultaneously integrate their cooking styles, flavor combinations and ingredients into American foodways.
Before the books here were published Anglo-Americans had published books claiming to represent Asian foodways. While these texts are interesting for showing appreciation and sometimes misunderstanding of Asian foodways by non-Asian Americans, I do not include them here because they do not represent the voices of Asian people in America.
1: The Chinese Cook Book
Shiu Wong Chan, The Chinese Cook Book. NY: Frederick Stokes and Co. 1917
In this first Chinese cookbook published in America by a Chinese author, Shiu Wong Chan makes a bold claim for his food. He writes, “A person who has tasted Chinese food realizes that it is the most palatable and delicious cooking he ever ate.” Sweeping aside any potential culinary xenophobia, he promises the reader perfection if they will only try it. And the food’s virtues are not all aesthetic, he reveals, “It is not only that but its nutritious value recommends it.” Nutrition was a very new concept in 1917, so making this claim helped Shiu Wong Chan present Chinese food as modern.
The author claims that his book is “meant not only for the housewife but also for the restaurateur.” Most American cookbooks of this time addressed themselves solely to the housewife, with the exception of some industry manuals prepared for those in the restaurant business. Chan’s combination of the two groups is unusual and perhaps unrealistic, given that housewives cooked on a much smaller scale and for different audiences than did restaurant chefs. However, we can read Chan’s statement as a way of authenticating the cuisine for non-Chinese readers. Since most of them would have only encountered Chinese food in restaurants, this was a way of letting them know they would be getting the ‘real thing.’
The book includes many versions of ‘chop-suey,’ a dish that used Chinese techniques, but that did not exactly exist in China. Chan was smartly capitalizing on a fad for chop suey that emerged in America in the early 20th century. He also used terms that he probably calculated would resonate with American readers to familiarize them with his food. For example, “Chinese frankfurter” and “Stuffed squash.” But he also used the more poetic naming practices that Anglo diners had come to expect from Chinese restaurants such as “Food of the God of Law Horn.”
2. Japanese Food Recipes
Japanese Food Recipes, San Francisco, Calif. : Japanese Wholesale Grocers’ Association, 1940
In 1940, as US allies fought the Japanese in World War II, the Japanese Wholesale Grocers’ Association in San Francisco published a cookbook in English. The authors had a clear economic motive for the book—the more people who cooked with Japanese products, the richer association members would become. They may also have had a cultural motive. By integrating their foodways into non-Japanese kitchens the grocers could claim Americanness just as the nation was on the brink of entering war against Japan. In a foreword to the book, H.K. Watanabe, Director of the Nippon Trade Agency explained, “To the present category of American Recipes, we are herewith offering some entirely new methods of preparing dainty and unusual dishes.” Watanabe categorized the recipes as new twists in American cooking. Yet he also acknowledged non-Japanese reluctance to eat across cultures: “To American housewives, it may, at first, seem quite strange to read these peculiar recipes.” Of course, to the authors there was nothing strange in the book, so this comment establishes the white reader as the central figure in this endeavor.
In contrast to Shiu Wong Chan’s certainty, the authors of Japanese Food Recipes struck a more tentative tone. They suggested using Japanese recipes “when a change is desired,” rather than integrating them into every day cooking. The home cook “may find a certain joy in discovering new tastes,” but if they did not, ‘at least it will afford some amusement to try this strange cooking.” For a national trade organization, this may sound strangely defeatist. However, emphasizing the novelty of Japanese food for non-Japanese readers could also help to pique those readers’ interest.
The recipes used mostly Japanese terms, though written in English, and offered few substitutes for Japanese foodstuffs. In one recipe, readers were informed that if they wanted to use pepper and salt rather than soy sauce to flavor a soup, it would still be tasty. But the default was to use the Japanese flavorings. Recipes included many processed products, such as canned eel, canned kamaboko, and Ajinomoto sauce. This is unsurprising, given that a group of wholesale grocers put the book together. Many American food companies, such as Crisco and General Mills also produced cookbooks to promote their products to consumers.
To create any of the dishes in Japanese Food Recipes, the reader would need to visit a Japanese grocery because the items listed were not stocked in non-Asian groceries at the time. This, of course fit perfectly with the mission of the Association by developing new markets for Japanese goods.
3. Japanese Foods: Tested Recipes
Hui Manaolana Foundation. Japanese foods: tested recipes. Honolulu : International Institute, Y.W.C.A., 1951
In 1951, a group of Hawaiian women of Japanese ancestry published a community cookbook. Community cookbooks had been a part of American culture since the Civil War, when women in the North produced them to raise money for the Union cause. These cookbooks gave middle class women, who were typically confined to private life, an opportunity to present themselves in public. Japanese Foods was “Dedicated to our parents of Japanese ancestry whose cultural contributions have enriched the island life of Hawaii.” With these words, the women celebrated the impact of immigration and the maintenance of tradition across geography. Community cookbooks were typically sold within the community that produced them, so the presumed audience for this book were mostly women who already knew the cuisine. Many recipe titles were paraphrased, however, as a gesture towards the reader who might be unfamiliar with Japanese or Hawaiian foodways. For example, Oyako Donburi is described as “Rice with chicken and egg topping,” though most of the readers would have known this from having grown up with the dish. Color photographs also presented the foodways as aesthetically appealing.
Japanese Recipes included dishes that connected the authors to their heritage outside Hawaii and also featured ads for local businesses, many of them Asian. The combination reflects a culture in which people could identify with both local and global foodways simultaneously. In the book’s introduction, the authors presented Hawaii as a paradise of cultural diversity and inclusion: “Nowhere else in the world do we see such display of various food representative of the different countries as in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Islands offer another example of the workings of the ‘melting pot’ that is our United States, with Caucasians, Polynesians, Orientals and Latins all living harmoniously together and accepting each other’s folk customs and food habits.” While the reality of interethnic relations was not as perfect as presented here, it is notable that the authors saw multiculturalism as a strength at this moment in US history. They noted that “a stroll in any grocery store will also show clearly the cosmopolitan character of the people living here.”
4. Classic Cooking from India
Dharam Jit Sing, Classic Cooking from India, Cambridge: The Riverside Press/Houghton Mifflin, 1956.
While American cookbooks by non-Indian writers had often included dishes that the authors associated with India, the first cookbooks by Indians were not published in America until the 1950s. In Classic Cooking from India, published in 1956, Dharham Jit Singh offered readers an education in Indian food history alongside his own personal perspective. In an introductory essay, he wrote of traditions ‘as old as the pre-Aryan Indus empire contemporary with Egypt and Sumer,’ and also of ‘the great kitchen and hearth in my grandparent’s house’ where he made his own connections to this rich food history. Singh interspersed legend and history with recipes, offering the reader a cultural immersion. His recipes also acknowledged the emotional investments we make in cooking, as when he instructed readers to “serve with reasonable pride to a dinner party of 8 to 12” his recipe for Pigeon Pellau.
In an introductory chapter, Singh identified the target audience for the book: “The purpose of this book is to make the American housewife familiar with authentic cooking from India.” He promised that “Indian food has great variety and is not difficult to prepare. Whether made in the Indian or the American kitchen, this food needs neither magical incantations nor the elaborateness exacted by two playboys, Lucullus and Vitellus, who liked a dish of two thousand larks’ tongues.” In other words, European culinary traditions were much more fussy, so the reader who was familiar with them would have no trouble with Indian cooking. He organized the recipes in his book both around foodstuffs and techniques, emphasizing their connection to place with terms such as “Indian rice cookery’ and “Indian breads.”
Singh flattered his reader, too, as a way to convince her to cook his dishes: “With her pioneering tradition of adapting new culinary ideas to her own needs [the American housewife] will find much from India to welcome into her kitchen.” Like the Japanese Wholesale Grocers’ Association, Singh encouraged readers to integrate his recipes into their existing foodways, creating a diverse repertoire rather than a full-scale conversion.
5. The Art of Korean Cookery
Cho Choong-Ok, The Art of Korean Cookery. Japan Publications Trading Company. Rutledge, VT, 1963
In 1963, ten years after the end of the Korean War, Cho Choong-Ok’s The Art of Korean Cookery was published in the US. The book was also published in Japan, in English. The cover presents an interesting scene in which three women in traditional Korean outfits cook in a back yard for two non-Asian people. The author may be one of the figures in traditional dress. The non-Asian guests stand in the foreground, suggesting they are important, but also to the side, showing they are peripheral to what is happening. Each is using chopsticks to eat something, the woman’s face expressing some awkwardness, though she is also smiling. This cover picture is notable in the messages it sends to non-Asian readers. Featuring the tall, thin white couple, mid-bite, the photo assures readers that other non-Asian people happily eat Korean food. The framing of the event also seems to say that using this book is going to be different from what readers know but it is going to be different in a fun and lovely way. It may be that foregrounding the charcoal grill in the image also helped American readers to feel comfortable with the cuisine since these were common items in suburban American yards.
Cho used some American culinary terms to make the recipes seem familiar. For example, readers can choose from “Fancy Pot Roast,” ‘Korean Hors D’oeuvre” and “Stuffed Italian Green Peppers,” and even a whole chapter of “casserole dishes.” Pot roasts and casseroles were common dishes in American cookbooks of the time and appeared on many family dinner tables. Like the authors of Japanese Food Recipes, Cho attempted to help non-Asian readers imagine these foodways as part of their familiar world of dishes and flavors.
Cho included headnotes for many of the recipes that give this book a unique voice. The notes are a mix of food history, legend, and poetic scene setting. They give the reader a sense of the author as both an individual and a person steeped in her culture and able to serve as a guide for outsiders.
“Mugwort Soup: It is customary in Korea for the whole family to go out picnicking in early spring when the first greens appear in the fields to gather mugwort to celebrate the coming of spring. This soup was often made in the Palace kitchens and is also liked by the old people.”
“Korean Barbecue: There is so much joy in preparing and eating together out in the open under the blue sky, breathing pine scented air—one is apt to forget all worries and troubles and wholeheartedly enjoy the company and the good food. Korean barbecue is becoming very popular everywhere.”
Each of these books, the first Asian cookbooks published by Asian authors in the US, offered Asian American readers an opportunity to reconnect with heritage and to reflect on what it means to eat one’s home food in a new place. They represented Asian foodways as American because enacted and enjoyed in America but also transnational because they originated in and remained connected to distant food sources and histories. For non-Asian readers, these books offered opportunities for education, a broadened and enriched understanding of what American foodways might be.