A conversation with Kristina Cho

A conversation with Kristina Cho

🥮  Just in time for Mid-Autumn Festival otherwise known as the Moon Festival, we chatted with Kristina Cho, Richmond, CA based food writer, creator of Eat Cho Food, and author of the forthcoming cookbook Mooncakes and Milk Bread. Preorder Mooncakes and Milk Bread now or buy it at your local bookstore and online starting October 12. Preorder to get access to free virtual cooking classes and companion videos for making milk bread.

Also check out her Honeyed Pistachio Mooncakes recipe recently published in the New York Times.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Cut Fruit Collective: Can you tell us your inspiration for writing the book and what led you to this particular topic on Chinese pastries and baked goods? 

Kristina: Sure! So I always consider myself like a home cook and home baker like I'm a self taught like everything. I did grow up in a restaurant family. My grandpa, when he moved from Hong Kong to the United States, started working in kitchens and owned his own restaurant. So I've always just been very much immersed in the food world, cooking, and cooking for others.

As I started on this journey of working in food full time, it's always hard to describe my job working in food media, or as a recipe developer. I think you're always trying to find your own voice—I hate the word niche—but more like what you're passionate about. A few years ago, I started recreating my own versions of Chinese bakery style buns and things like that, because that's just something I would never see. 

I feel like the food media landscape is very inundated with a million chocolate chip cookie recipes and Western or American style baking, which makes sense. I live in America, but so much of my upbringing in my world growing up was going to Chinese bakeries as a kid.

Buns were my standard type of desserts I would get at dim sum or in the mornings. So I started recreating those, and I felt like I got a really surprisingly strong reaction from people when I shared it. People were really excited by the prospect of baking these things yourself. 

I think in a lot of Asian cultures—I can only kind of speak to my own, which is Cantonese or Chinese style—baking at home is not a super strong tradition, in a sense. There's a very strong tradition of savory cooking—like making big feasts. But dessert is always cut fruit. That's the love language, you know? You just serve a bowl of oranges or mangoes, and things like that. But baking something is not super common. I kind of wanted to not change that, but demystify a lot of these wonderful Chinese pastries and baked goods that you can only get at bakeries and share with other people. 

It's really not that hard to make them yourself, and there's actually a lot of crossover. There's really no other comparable book that extensively covers Chinese baking at all. That's where a lot of the confusion and demystifying comes in. You need to learn about and realize that so much of the stuff is just not that different from what we understand as Western baking. 

So the short answer is I saw a void there, and I felt like I wanted to fill it and share with the world this really wonderful part of my culture.

Cover of Mooncakes and Milk Bread, Kristina Cho's upcoming book

Cut Fruit Collective: And we're so glad that you're doing it! Personally, we love Asian pastries, too. And we've attempted to make a few but sometimes we just feel intimidated by it for some reason. 

Kristina: I think baking in general is a little intimidating if you don't have the right recipe or the right guiding voice to carry you through it. So the way I wrote my book, I wanted to feel like I'm your friend that's in the kitchen with you just reassuring you like, “It's okay!” 

If something weird happens, you can work through it. But also, I feel like when I was doing a lot of research for the different recipes, a lot of the recipes online are untrustworthy. There's not a lot of them that are vetted.

Cut Fruit Collective: You mentioned that a lot of Asian people didn't grow up baking. So for you having a family restaurant background, do you think there was an aspect of some familiarity with baking in the household or was that also very new for you and your family? 

Kristina: I think there were definitely a lot of crossover aspects, and as I was writing the book and writing my notes and stories, I started to realize that, whoa! Like we actually did kind of do a lot of this stuff growing up. There's actually a few recipes of my grandma's that I added in there because it just expanded my definition of what baking is. And I kind of explore that Chinese baking isn't everything that just goes into an oven. There's steamed sponge cakes and things like that. My grandma makes us Prosperity Cake for Chinese New Year every year. [After steaming them] they blossom into flowery tops. You'll see those at bakeries. And so I was like, “Oh, I actually did do this growing up!” It's not so foreign to me.

Maybe the disconnect would be at home, my grandparents would never measure anything. When I was trying to transcribe some of their recipes, they have like one specific coffee mug that they use for everything. My grandma advised me to maybe invest in some measuring cups, when you develop this recipe. I'm like, “Yes, grandma, I will do that! Really good idea!” So I think the technical aspects were not really the same, but there were a lot of traditions. The idea of doing a laborious task definitely helped me as I developed these recipes. It wasn't completely new to me.

Cut Fruit Collective: We've always been really impressed with how you incorporate Asian culture into your recipes. Some recipes feel more traditional, like a grandmother's recipe, and some are more modern and feel more influenced by Asian culture. Do you think you could tell us more about that journey for you personally on whether that was something you were always doing? Or is it something that you strayed away from and had to come back to? 

Kristina: I think over the years, as I've been honing in on my culinary voice and my vision for my recipes, and I've found myself most comfortable in this hybrid of  infusing flavors and techniques that I learned from my family [and heritage], but also really recognizing the fact that I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. I wasn't born and raised in Hong Kong like my dad. I have learned to embrace both sides of that.

That wasn't always the easiest for me. For most of my life I grew up in Ohio, and my grandparents lived in Chinatown. I felt like when I went to my grandparents house or did family activities, I was very much immersed in Chinese Cantonese culture. But then when I went back to the suburbs where I grew up, it was incredibly hard to kind of feel comfortable in that.

I, as a lot of kids did, just tried my best to assimilate. So I had this very strange dichotomy of trying to separate those two. That was a struggle I had to kind of balance for a lot of my life. 

When I moved to San Francisco eight years ago, and I lived in the Inner Richmond, that was the first time I lived somewhere where a lot of the people looked like me. And I heard other Asian languages, like, just casually being spoken on the street. And that was very life changing for me. I had never experienced that before. Other than traveling to Hong Kong. Even there, that doesn't even feel like the same.I felt like, living in Inner Richmond, allowed me to feel comfortable living both sides of how I was brought up. 

From there, that's actually where I started Eat Cho Food, and playing around with these recipes. Sometimes I would recreate something that's really traditional that I felt like my grandparents and my parents would make, but then also incorporate my own California slash Midwestern influences. It just wasn't a super conscious decision and just kind of happened—just letting myself be myself in my food.

When I develop recipes, my goal is not to recreate something that's been done a million times over. I keep going back to chocolate chip cookies, but like I don't have a desire to make another version. That's totally fine for other people. Their goal is to make something better, but I'd rather be reinventing or creating something that's new or reinterpreted.

Cut Fruit Collective: That’s so wonderful and insightful. When did you start your blog exactly? 

Kristina: I think  around 2017. I used to be an architect slash interior designer. And I started my blog because I was very unhappy in my job and did not feel creatively fulfilled. And so in my spare time, I started working on my blog.

Cut Fruit Collective: So I think that we're finally getting to a point where we kind of see a difference between Asian food versus Asian American food being discussed more openly. I know you definitely mentioned that you do a hybrid of the both, but what do you feel the differences are and what does that mean to you?

Kristina: Yeah, I feel like there's definitely more discourse about that. Now, and I feel like for a long time, Asian American food was discredited for a while for being inauthentic. “Authentic” is a super hard word to claim on anything! I feel like Asian American food is just its own thing that just happens everywhere. Wherever you go, you learn to adapt. And I think that's what Asian American food is. It's like coming to America, you learn to adapt with the grocery stores and resources that we have here. And I think it's human nature for everyone to adapt to wherever they are. Even my own version of Asian American food might not be the same as what other people consider Asian American food, which might be more like Chinese takeout food. 

And other people’s perception of Chinese/Chinese-American food might be different from what the Chinese food that my mom would make growing up. [Her food] was also a hybrid of things because there wasn't great access to Chinese grocery stores and things like that. Even living out here [in the Bay Area], I feel like there's an interesting kind of California-style of Asian American food that's different from how my family would eat in Ohio or on the East Coast. So I think exploring what everyone's definition of Asian American food is—it's just really fascinating.

Cut Fruit Collective: What would you say off the top of your head are some of the differences between Ohio-Asian-American food and Californian-Asian-American food? 

Kristina: It might be the use of vegetables or more vegetables? I would think in California, we have the best produce. So there's a lot of really interesting vegetables and also access to the seafood seasons here. I think that's what makes California and our Bay Area Chinese American foods different from the Ohio stuff. I think though, the stuff that I grew up on in Ohio, is probably more of like the platonic idea of Chinese takeout food. There's definitely a few restaurants that kind of took that a little further. But yeah, I think Ohio is more about working with what you can get access to. 

Cut Fruit Collective:  Going back to the Mid Autumn Festival—do you have any memories of Mid Autumn Festival growing up and memories around moon cakes?

Kristina: Yeah, totally! Every Mid Autumn Festival, I went to the Chinese market with my mom or my grandma trying to hunt down different types of mooncake tins. Because in Cleveland, there was not—up until a few years ago—like an actual Chinese bakery there. We would only get mooncakes from those tins that get imported from Hong Kong. And so we would hunt down and try to find the best tin that we could. That was always kind of fun to see what different flavors they had. Then we would always go to my grandparents house for dinner and then make a big feast.

For some reason I can't remember if there were any specific dishes that we ate during the Mid Autumn Festival, but the only thing I remember is that at the end there was always a bowl of steamed baby taro. We would peel them and then go out into my grandma's garden and eat them while staring at the moon. My grandma grew up in the countryside where taro symbolizes the moon and it's just a lucky thing to eat while also staring at the moon. [It also gives you] good luck and prosperity for your next season's harvest. That's always stuck in my mind too.

Cut Fruit Collective: Do you know the region your grandmother grew up in? 

Kristina: Yeah, she grew up in the Toisan area. All four of my grandparents are from there. 

Cut Fruit Collective: Can you tell us more about how you got interested in making mooncakes?

Kristina: Going back to my self-taught baker journey, I started researching recipes when I was in high school because I didn't know how to make all these things that I loved like cheese cakes and cookies and things like that. I've always been drawn to learning a process. Making things like puff pastry and croissants and stuff like that, I love those kind of methodical, step by step things. With mooncakes I started making them a few years ago and always with the notion that people will think they're super difficult to make. Even when I asked my grandma if she's ever made them before she just laughed in my face. She was like, “Only a master could make those!” 

But when I started making them there's so many varieties of mooncakes that not all of them are crazy days long or month long processes. There’s the traditional one with a salted egg yolk and a white lotus or red bean paste. If you did it the old fashioned way, you would cure your egg yolks for 30 days and make your own bean paste. I do have scratch made versions of those in my book, but they've also been condensed down to be a little bit more manageable for the everyday home baker.

The process of making noon cakes was really intriguing for me because I think it made me understand that it could be really hard but you can also make it in a way that it's not that difficult for you. Like, if you ever tried making a pie or a layer cake before, these are easier! Learning the process is something that just intrigued me, and now I really love making them. It's always really satisfying to pop them out of the mold. 

Cut Fruit Collective: Nice! So through this process, what have you learned about the history, culture, and regional differences of mooncakes?

Kristina: That there are just so many! While writing this, I learned a lot about Chinese baking in the terms of the context that I know it and I fully recognize that my version is closest to the Cantonese style, and also Taiwanese style baked goods. But there's so much more. The whole country of China is huge! There's so much more history that it’d be so exciting for someone else who maybe is more into that context of northern Chinese baking (like flat breads) could investigate and write their own book about that.

So I learned a lot about my world, but also expanded my definition of what Chinese food can be and especially with mooncakes, every region has their own style of mooncake, some of them are not sweet! I have grown up eating the Cantonese style ones. And so those are primarily sweet—sometimes there might be preserved ham or something like that, but they are primarily a dessert. Other mooncakes have pork belly in it or turnips and potatoes and are more savory with a flaky pastry. So there's just so much more to learn about it. If I had an entire book dedicated to mooncakes I think that would be really interesting but [I’ve got] a portion of my book dedicated to them.

 

 

Cut Fruit Collective: Could you sum up what are the key kinds of techniques, ingredients or things to keep in mind when making mooncakes? 

Kristina: So mooncakes typically are two parts. It's crust and filling inside. Those are the basic components. I don't think I've even encountered a mooncake, that's entirely one material or one ingredient that's stamped in something unless it's a cookie. But those are typically the two things and the crust can be so different. You can have a flour base crust that feels almost like a fig newton that's kind of soft and kind of crumbly, like Cantonese style, or you can make a flaky pastry. But then there's also another style that's made with glutinous rice flour or even mochi flour for snowskin mooncakes. And so there's a lot of creativity and routes you can go with your type of crust.

I would even explore that even further, expand on that maybe using different types of flour for your crust. But then the filling is where you can get even more creative. I just bought a box of mooncakes, my first box of the season from Costco, and they had black tea and pomelo flavor in there. So it's really interesting how you can infuse different flavors in your filling. A lot of times the fillings are, I would say, calorie dense. They're really dense, typically like red bean paste, white lotus paste, or like a bunch of nuts that are kind of ground up.

Typically, you want your filling to be sturdy enough to hold up against your stamp. So that's something you have to think about with your structure. But that's why nuts and things like that are really great because you can kind of compact them into like a little ball, wrap them up.

Cut Fruit Collective: Can you talk a little bit more about the molds and stamps?

Kristina: So I have two kinds of molds. I have the plastic plunger style mold, which is a little bit more modern. And then I also have the wooden ones that and actually a lot of different cultures have this kind of the same wooden stamp. Like ma'amoul which is a Middle Eastern cookie looks exactly the same with different patterns. So it's really interesting, but the wooden paddle one is definitely harder to use. It takes a lot of practice to be able to pack it in well enough and then you kind of whack it to get the new kick to fall out but sometimes they stick.

In my book, I clearly say that you should just use the plastic. If you have an heirloom wooden paddle mooncake mold, by all means use it and get comfortable with it. But my goal as a recipe developer is to make sure that people don't feel frustrated while they're making something because I feel that when frustration builds, you don't want to make something again. So if you're going to start, I highly recommend the plastic plunger style one. I have one plunger mold that has like eight different patterns in it, which is really great because you can swap it out and make different designs.

A lot of times the designs and the plastic ones are a little bit more intricate. And I don't know, I think mooncakes are just really beautiful. So that's like a benefit of using the more modern style mold. You can also make mooncakes without a mold to which I also have an option in my book. You can kind of freestyle it and make them look like little animals, which some bakeries will do. 

Just in case there are people out there that can't convince themselves to buy a moon cake mold.

Cut Fruit Collective: Do you have any of your favorite Asian grocery stores that you'd like to hit up before the Mid Autumn Festival to start that mooncake process? 

Kristina: Totally! So when I lived in the Inner Richmond [neighborhood of San Francisco], I would pretty much always go to New May Wah, which is one of the bigger grocery grocery stores there. I love going there. I went there like every other day, and the cashiers know me. Out here in the East Bay, I go to 99 Ranch. I was there a few weeks ago. They already started their mooncake display. So there's a lot there. 

In terms of bakeries: Eastern Bakery, in Chinatown San Francisco is excellent. They're the oldest, I think, Chinese bakery in San Francisco. And they make really good mooncakes all year long—always scratch made.

Cut Fruit Collective: Thanks for those recommendations! All right. Last question. What's your favorite fruit, and any fruit memories or stories that you'd like to share?

Kristina: Oh, my gosh, my favorite, I feel like I would have to immediately go to mango! I just love a ripe mango. I have a preference towards the champagne mangoes or the Filipino mangoes. I think they're less fibrous.

And one memory that I have… Overall, cut fruit, obviously, is something that my family would always do. My mom still cuts an apple for my dad every single night. Like she wants to do it, you know? And he wants an apple. They'll do it for us when we're home too. 

I think about it often when I write about mango or eat a mango—a few years ago, I went back to Hong Kong—just me. I just went to Hong Kong by myself to visit my dad's side of the family. And I was staying with my grandma there. My Cantonese is not very good. When I'm in Ohio, I can understand Cantonese and my dad and I have bilingual conversations. But in Hong Kong it’s just very different. I have a hard time keeping up.

But I was staying with my grandma, and every night she would turn on this one channel that was only playing Harry Potter for some reason. Every night she would turn on TV and there's Harry Potter playing, and she played it for me because it's the only thing that was in English. And then she would peel a mango for me. And the way that she peels mango—I've never seen anyone else peel it like that before—she peels it like a banana! She held it and then peeled the skin off like a banana for me and would just hand it to me to eat. I'm just like “Do I just bite this with my mouth?” She ate it that way, and so for a few days, every night we would end the night watching Harry Potter and eating a mango like a banana.

It’s a very funny random memory with fruit that I have but the feeling is always the same. Getting a piece of fruit is “I love you,” you know? 🥭

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