Connecting with AANHPI heritage through food

ABC News' Eva Pilgrim hosts a roundtable with entrepreneur and author Candice Kumai and "The Korean Vegan" Joanne Lee Molinaro to discuss the deep-rooted connection between food and heritage.
21:21 | 05/21/22

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Transcript for Connecting with AANHPI heritage through food
- Now to the crucial intersection of food, heritage, and progress with entrepreneur and author of Kintsugi Wellness, Candice Kumai, and content creator, Joanne Lee Molinaro. She's the author of The Korean Vegan. Both joining me to discuss finding comfort, connection, and career in Asian-American food. And the devastating effects of historic surge of anti-Asian hate. I'm really excited to have this conversation with you guys. So I guess let's start with one, thank you for being here. But also, so what is food to you? - A lot of different things. I mean, obviously, fundamentally food is survival. Right? We can't live without food. I don't care how much you hate food, you have to have it to survive. I think that actually is very important when you're talking about family members who may have actually almost died from not having food. Like my parents. They almost died because they nearly starved to death. So it's easy for people like us living in this wonderful, beautiful place to forget that food is fundamentally the thing that allows you to live. And then, of course, it's what connects us to our families, our cultures. And it also brings me at least immense joy preparing it and eating it. - What about you, Candice? What is food for you? - Well, after reviewing the last couple of years, and sort of wondering like why did I get into this crazy industry, it was really a form of therapy for me more than anything. Like a coping mechanism. Because when you grow up with a Japanese mom, she's not really coddling and loving in a way where like you're fabulous, you're perfect. Let me give you kisses. None of that. It was a meal that she cooked and put on the table was her showing so much love. And it was funny because when we were discussing the steps of how I chose food as my profession, people say, well, who is your biggest inspiration? Mom. And then they say, who was your catalyst that told you that you couldn't make it? And I said, mom. So it was a double edged sword of like I'll show you, and oh, but the therapy. I'm not quite whole as a half kid. And maybe I can use food to search a little bit more about who we all are and where we come from too. - So you actually started off not going into food. This wasn't like your chosen initial career? - No. Far from it. Yeah. There's literally nothing to do with food in my chosen career of the law. I can't even think of a single thing. EVA PILGRIM: So, I mean, you go to law school. - Yes. EVA PILGRIM: That's like one of the Korean mom dreams. Then you go to your mom and you say, hey, I'm going to do this other thing. How did that go down? - That went down very not well. About what you would imagine. My mother and I have had a phenomenal relationship since I became an attorney. Prior to that, we were fighting all the time. We're very fighty. When I told my mother that I planned to withdraw from partnership and pursue the The Korean Vegan full time-- this conversation happened not too long ago-- her first word was, no. And it was the first time I'd heard that tone, that word from my mother, in decades. And it was also like, why would you do that? We did so much to not do that. To not take any more risks. Why would you do that? So I knew that going into this conversation. But it was still immensely hurtful to me. I was like, hey, I've been doing this for 17 years. Don't you think I've earned some trust from you? And it wasn't until she joined me on my book tour and she saw, oh, my gosh. All these random strangers are here for my daughter. Wow. Maybe she could make this work. Maybe it'll work. And I think that was helpful to them. - With your mother you say she is where you get kind of inspiration. But also why was it that you think she didn't want you to go into food? - I think it's because just like Joanne, becoming a lawyer was probably amazing. Mom probably loved it. Right? - She did. I'm not going to lie. - For 18 years, that is incredible because it was what my mom hoped for was you're so good in front of the camera. You can do board meetings, C level executive in New York. And I said, after college I said, I'm going to go to culinary school. And she said you can cook for your friends. You can cook for fun. You cannot cook for a living. And I was 22. Paid my way through culinary school. That was about 18 years ago. And I look back and I want to say, do you think that I've made it now? And I think she's very quietly nodded like, yes. The other thing I think people don't notice about Asian-Americans and Asian women is that you can't take away the hard work that we've put in. Just because you think we're a model minority doesn't mean it wasn't difficult for us. And that is something that I hope people can see after all this time. If I was working in a restaurant starting at 15 and I'm 4 days away from 40, I'm like, dude, are you ever going to give us this opportunity to say you've arrived? Congratulations. Because it seems very much so that it's still very much a white man's world. And they get all the credit for being the greatest chefs when they're there is a line out the door of female Asian, AANHPI chefs. Or representatives of our communities like Joanne and I are, that it's like we just get overlooked. And I think it's time for change. - You think some of that, though, is because these are older men, and they look at you and you like never age? - Is that the cost of our eternal beauty? - Joanne, you know it is. - They just always think of you as this cute little girl. - Stop it. - Oh, my God. - And I say that because we've all heard that before. Right? It's not because that's what they should be saying. But do you think that's why, in their minds, you're forever this cute little girl? - We didn't grow. Well, obviously, people are going to look at Joanne and you even and they're going to say-- the first thing they're going to think is she's beautiful, she's exotic, she's gorgeous. And it's not really who you are. I often say in a lot of these interviews we are proud of where we come from. But it didn't happen so easily, and it comes at a cost. And I grew up in a white and Hispanic neighborhood as a kid. And I got made fun of to the point where it was hard to hold back tears during most of my interviews. And not like burst into tears because of the stuff that we've held inside. And then also being HAPA. Like half Polish-American and half Japanese. You wouldn't believe the first day of school I used to cringe because they would read the roll call sheet and say Candace. My name is Candice Kumai Gwisdowski is my surname. And no teacher would ever look at me and just move on to the next kid. There would always be this funny face. - Oh, that's you. - And it was like, Hi. - And as a child, did you know why they were pausing to look at you? - Yeah. Because eventually it started to hurt because it's early as first grade is when the teasing starts. So it's like-- - It's all part of the same thing. Yeah. And I think what happened was old wounds really got ripped open during the pandemic. - Why do you think during the pandemic it hit something. Well, as you both know, we all became a target. And our mothers became a target. And the elderly population of Asians became a target, and I felt sick. - Did you have conversations with your mom about it at that time. - So I think from our generation's perspective, the AAPI hate, and this spike in hate crimes against our community may be relatively new. It might be the first time in our lifetime where we're grappling with these issues. But like you had alluded to, our parents have been through this before. They are dreams of America. So fragile and so precious. And I don't want them to somehow think, why did we ever come here? Why did we come to this country that hates us so much? I didn't want them to think that. So always kind of thinking about how do I protect our parents because I feel like like you said they have sacrificed so much for us. And now it's our turn to use the tools that we have-- our language, our understanding of what it means to be American, our understanding of microaggression, what that looks like. Use those tools to protect them. - Much more with Candice Kumai and Joanne Lee Molinaro on how our culinary traditions can help heal us and move us forward when this special edition of ABC News Live Recipe for Change is back after a quick break. Welcome back to this special edition of ABC News Live Recipe for Change. And our deep dive on the rich and complex culinary traditions that are a hallmark of Asian-American Heritage. Our roundtable discussion with Candice Kumai and Joanne Lee Molinaro continues now with a close up on comfort, and the healing powers of food. - Were you always good at cooking? - No. I have many raw chicken dishes in my history. Was not always good at cooking. It was one of those things that I had to learn when I went plant-based. So I had to learn to cook. But right before I went plant based, I started dating my now husband. And this is an old story but a repeated one. I wanted to impress him by learning how to cook. I had a lot of fundamentals from watching the Food Network. Watching Rachael Ray on the Food Network. She taught me pretty much everything that I know about cooking fundamentals. And then I supplemented that with Maangchi. But as I-- - You too? - Yeah I spent like hours watching YouTube videos. Maangchi was like 90% of it. But I needed to learn how to make Korean food. And I needed to learn very quickly because it was like night and day. I'm not vegan. Now I'm vegan. And then I started calling my mom a lot. I started calling my aunts and my whistling bowl a lot to ask them for, what are your tips? How can I make this extra special? [INAUDIBLE], how come your broth always tastes so good and mine does not? What are you doing to it? And a lot of times, they don't know. I don't know if you've experienced this. But so much of it is by instinct. And the irony of all of this is that me going vegan has brought me so much closer to my parents, to my mom, to the women in my family. And ultimately by virtue of them, my culture. - I was just thinking when you talked about how there's a je na sais quoi, where you can't put your finger on what it is. In Japan there's a saying, [JAPANESE]. Children learn by watching what their parents do. Not by what they say. So in the best ramen houses in Japan, when they have an apprentice come in, the apprentice must watch the chef from start to finish of the day. Same thing you spoke about. It does take a full few days to make a great ramen base. So this apprentice is to watch the chef from start to finish of every single day of the week. They are only taught by example. EVA PILGRIM: Just watching it. - Absolutely. - So many of my memories with my hominy are on the floor. Cooking in her kitchen. They have the radiant heat everywhere. JOANNE LEE MOLINARO: Yes, yes, yes. - So you're like sitting on the floor, whatever it is that you're making, and you're doing it as a group. You talked about that community. So much of creating the food is about community. Not even just eating it. It's the actual art of putting it together. Do you think that has a big impact in the kind of food that you try to create? - Absolutely I think that food, as we talked about your first very powerful question, what is food to you, as somebody who creates food for people, creates recipes for people, and also tries to do it in the most compassionate way that I can, the reason it resonates with a lot of people I think is because they know the stories behind my food. That's what I do. I try to tell people like you know my mom taught me how to make this [NON-ENGLISH]. She told me you have to fry it in sesame oil before you boil it because otherwise, da, da, da, da, da. And then they have this vision in their heads of me standing over the pot with my mom. And she's showing me how to do this. And what does that do? It unlocks in them their own memories of standing over a pot with their moms, their grandmothers, their aunts. Maybe with their children. And so I think in that, we are creating community. - Korean moms, and I imagine Japanese moms are the same, they don't really write recipes down. - Are you kidding? - No they don't. My sister has to collect them for me. And then I collect them for her. And then we trade. Because she collected my grandma's miso soup. I collected my mom's cusa. And then we can trade that way. Because I don't think any Asian women write down their recipes unless they're asked. - Well, yeah. Unless that's their job. - So then even then, it's like kind of hard to translate. Because my mom always says, well it's my tongue. I don't know what to tell you about my tongue. And I'm like, what? Just measure it. - There are spoons. - But then your salt is saltier than mine. I'm like, mom, can you just estimate? - Well, I think that is the art of it. Right? When my [INAUDIBLE] was teaching me how to make the kimchi paste, I was like, so how much rice flour do you put? - Oh, this much. This much. What does that mean? You know? How much a soy sauce? Just did this much. OK. So there is a little bit of guesswork that's built into it. But ultimately what you want, and I'm sure you want this as well, when people read your recipes is for them to take it in. And make it so many times so that by the time it's their 25th iteration of this recipe out of The Korean Vegan cookbook, it's actually not my recipe anymore. It's your recipe. It's your family's recipe. It's your husband's recipe. It's the one that you guys have created together. Mine was just a starting point. An introduction into this new world of cooking for you. - What was your favorite food growing up? - Oh, god. Anything my mom made was amazing. But her sushi is homestyle. It's kind of like kimbap. You know, like it's homestyle. One of my friends you say homey style. Like homey style. Because homestyle cooking, I'm sorry, but you can't beat that. And I learned from Chef Elizabeth Andoh in Japan. And I continued to study under [INAUDIBLE] mom, my great auntie [INAUDIBLE]. That's my Holy Trinity of who I want to learn from. They're not tattooed and running around with a cigarette like trying to be cool. - No. But my grandmother, I remember when she would make her mandu, somehow the entire part of Seoul we lived in would show up at our house. - Oh, really? - Because everyone could smell the mandu I guess. I have no idea how they knew she was making it. But people would show up at the bottom of the step. And she lived in like a up a hill. You couldn't drive a car up to her house. You had to park at the bottom, and then hike the steps up. And people would show up to get a couple, or have a conversation, stop by and say hi. - And she shared? - Oh, always shared. JOANNE LEE MOLINARO: You always make an effort for the whole village. - Do you have a food now that's like a comfort food? Like you're having a bad day, what's your go to? I would say, for me, it is soondooboo chigae. That is the first thing my mom ever taught me how to make on my own was soondooboo chigae. So always when I make it, I think of all the little things she told me. She said don't burn the gochugaru. You got to watch it. If it turns brown, too late. It's going to be bitter and you've ruined it. Many brown soondooboo chigae I have made. - Well, we've talked a lot about how our stories we've learned through food. It connects you to other people because they have an interest in your food. We've talked a little bit about healing. How does it take us forward? - Well, I always say that the reason I started doing what I'm doing, which is sharing plant-based recipes along with the stories is that I don't care who you are as I said in the beginning. You need to eat. I will provide you with the food. But if I may ask as compensation for me providing you with the food, would you maybe just sit down, have a seat, and listen to my story or two with an open mind. With an open heart. I believe that people are fundamentally trying to do the right thing. You might hurt me. You might wound me. You might say something racist to me. You might tell me my food is horrible. And I never want to eat it again. I'm willing to bear that risk so that I can maybe just plant something very, very small in you that 5, 10, 15, 20 years from now could turn into something incredibly important. Hopefully when you're voting. Hopefully when you're talking to another person that doesn't look like you. Hopefully when you're raising your kids when you're teaching them how to interact with somebody that doesn't look like them. These are the very everyday moments in life that I'm hoping that seed will turn into something that will move all of us forward. - They won't think the gimbap smells anymore. - Yes, exactly. And if they do, they'll just keep it to themselves. Does that hurt you so much to just not say it out loud? Seriously. - Garlic smells too for the record. - Yes. Exactly. I specifically did not put garlic on my avocado toast this morning for all of you. Just I want that in there. - Even if you did, we would still love you. Honestly. That's such a great question. What a great perspective too. I do agree with Mother Teresa when she says, I will not come to your anti-war rally. I will come to your pro-peace rally. So in that, I wish words are powerful. That we didn't have the word hate right next to Asian. And I wish they would have rethought the campaign slogan when they came out. Because all I hear when I see that is the two words that are not supposed to be next to each other next to each. You love our food. You love our culture. You love our beauty products. You love our women. Whatever your thing is. Maybe it's anime. You know, love on an Asian. Try to flip the script a little bit. It's not just one slogan or one thing that's going to stick. It's what you choose to believe that will make the change. - The food very much is that like gateway. It's the conversation starter. - Well, think of the best dinner party you ever went to. You're going to think of two things. You're going to think of, wow, that food is so good. I got to try and figure out how to make that at home. And you're going to think of so and so Sally sitting next to me had the most hilarious story. Or I heard the most outrageous thing at this dinner party. Those are the most memorable dinner parties. And oftentimes, these incredible conversations happen at a dinner table. Happen at a dining table. Happen in the cafeteria or at a restaurant. And I think that's just so beautiful. Just don't take it for granted.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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