2 Asian American food entrepreneurs on the mix of tradition and innovation


During Asian-American Heritage Month, TODAY shares the history, pain, joy and continuation of the community for the AAPI movement. We’ll be posting personal essays, stories, videos, and specials throughout May.

For Chitra Agrawal and Cathay Bi, who both left their jobs to start a culinary career, authenticity in food is a nuanced idea. They may not use traditional recipes to prepare their dishes, but both feel their creations are representative of their individual histories.

Agrawal, who founded condiment company Brooklyn Delhi, began making her first product, achaar, a South Asian pickled condiment that she describes as “spicy, sour, a little sweet,” based on the products. that she got in her share of the farm.

“You just add a little bit, and that makes the dish just amazing,” she said. TODAY Food. “I made an achaar with heirloom tomatoes, garlic, gooseberries, rhubarb. I wouldn’t say it’s authentic Indian food. It’s very inspired by my heritage, but it’s authentic to me.

Related: “I felt helpless to be so far from home and wanted to be able to do something to help,” said Diaspora Co. founder Sana Javeri Kadri.

Likewise, Bi, chef and owner of the Dumpling Club, a weekly subscription service that offers a rotating menu of Dumplings and other Asian dishes, was inspired by her grandfather’s love for dumplings, but she incorporated other elements along the way.

“My grandfather is from a region in northern China that specializes in dumplings,” she said TODAY. “For him, the dumplings were the perfect food, the best food.”

Bi’s company, based in San Francisco, supplies dumplings and meal kits in small batches. (TODAY)

“I use all kinds of influences in the dumplings. For example, influences from my husband’s Austrian side, ”she continued. “This is not traditionally how dumplings were made. I’m learning to be really comfortable with it. At first I felt it wasn’t really authentic, but now I feel it’s very authentic to me and my experience.

Another benchmark for Bi: her mother’s ability to innovate when she does not have access to traditional Asian ingredients.

“I learned the importance of food from my mother,” she says. “She used spaghetti every time she made stir-fried noodles. Her creativity, this creative spirit, when it came to reproducing her homemade food through the ingredients she had on hand, is what really inspires me.

And when she goes through the process of sealing the dumplings with creases, she thinks back to how her mom and grandfather would.

“The pleating on the outside represents the amount of care that has been given to this food,” she explained. “We created them as a family. Seeing the folds my mom or grandfather added to the dumplings would remind me that they were the ones who made this food for me.

Brooklyn Delhi is also rooted in the family traditions of Agrawal.

“My dad’s mom, we were just really close,” she says. “I still remember the food she would give me. I can still taste it. These are culinary memories from my youth, and these continued when I visited him every year in India. On each trip, we were in the kitchen.

The decision to quit their job was not an easy one, but their deeply personal connection to their company helped.

Related: From addicting condiments to sustainably sourced spices, these Asian-owned businesses are doing great things in the food business.

“It was a really scary time because I had worked for over a decade in positions where I had benefits, had a continuous paycheck that I could count on,” Agrawal said. “What ended up happening was that my priorities changed.”

“Our public auctions tend to sell out within minutes. Once it sold out in less than a minute, ”she continued. “It has been great because more people want to try the flavors we offer and want to learn more about Indian food and culture.

Brooklyn Delhi sells potted achaar, chutney, simmered sauces, hot sauce and more.  (TODAY)

Brooklyn Delhi sells potted achaar, chutney, simmered sauces, hot sauce and more. (TODAY)

“Everything I really learned to do I learned from different family members. In a sense, Brooklyn Delhi recipes are also a way for our family recipes to make a living. “

Bi recalled, “I quit Google in the fall of 2019, and already that year I started making dumplings, sending them to my friends and family. When I decided to really get started in earnest, it was February 2020, a month before the pandemic started. “

“Everything stopped. I did not have a stable job or income at the time, ”she added. “Whenever I had a spare moment, I would fold dumplings and then stay awake every hour editing images and uploading them to Instagram. We were just trying to survive.

Now Dumpling Club is a reminder of the opportunities his family worked so hard to provide.

“When my parents came to America, they really came here with nothing, and I’m very aware of that now,” Bi said. “It’s a huge privilege to be able to do what I love, to pursue what I love, and this is the result of years of sacrifice and hard work by my parents. Knowing this, I want to take this privilege and make sure I do something really positive with it.


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