A Conversation with Kristina Cho
Talking to the author of 'Mooncakes and Milk Bread' about recipe writing and Chinatowns.
You're listening to From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy, a food and culture podcast. I'm Alicia Kennedy, a food writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Every week on Wednesdays, I'll be talking to different people in food and culture about their lives, careers and how it all fits together and where food comes in.
Today, I'm talking to Kristina Cho, author of the cookbook Mooncakes and Milk Bread. We discussed how studying architecture has influenced her recipe work, moving from the Midwest to California, and why it was so important for her to pay homage to the Chinatowns of the United States.
Alicia: Hi, Kristina. Thanks so much for being here.
Kristina: Hi, so excited for this podcast.
Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
Kristina: I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, technically, the suburbs, but my grandparents—And it's also where my mom and all her siblings grew up, but they grew up in Chinatown of Cleveland. And so, I ate a lot of Chinese food growing up, which makes sense. My family is a Cantonese Chinese family from Hong Kong. So I ate a lot of Chinese food.
But I also ate a lot of, I don't know, I would say the classic Midwestern staples, ’cause my mom was always interested in learning how to make, I don't know, I guess American food and figuring out a way to make it palatable for my family that loves Asian flavors.
Alicia: Well, how would she do that?
Kristina: So there's two recipes in my mind that always stick out to me that are kind of this really interesting fusion.
She makes this really great meatloaf, which I haven't had in a long time. But we had meatloaf a lot growing up. And her glaze on it, rather than just ketchup or whatever else you put in it, she would do ketchup in oyster sauce mixture. And she would put bread crumbs and green onions inside of the meatloaf. So it had a lot of that sweetness and also the umami flavors from oyster sauce.
And also her—I call it Mom's spaghetti. Or Chinese spaghetti. Again, it's ketchup again. I think my mom probably growing up was like, ‘What's ketchup? I need to figure out how to use this in everything.’ She loves it. But her version of spaghetti, spaghetti bolognese was ground beef, ketchup, oyster sauce again. And later on in life when I described it to other people, there's a Filipino version of spaghetti that's very similar to it. So I just find that recipe very interesting to compare with other people's kind of immigrant history, Americanized version of classic American recipes.
Alicia: And you grew up cook—around cooking and food. And it's always been a significant part of you, your life as you write in your book Mooncakes + Milk Bread. But writing recipes down is kind of an entirely different set of skills from just eating or cooking.
And you credit your training as an architect with your ability to test recipes to perfection. But when it came to writing instructions for home cooks, how did you get your voice together to communicate your style of cooking?
Kristina: It was quite a journey. I don't think I initially had my recipe writing voice at the beginning of my cookbook writing process. And it kind of just took me a few months throughout that whole writing process as I develop recipes to kind of figure that style out.
’Cause you're right. Growing up in my family, no recipes were written down ever. It was just kind of ‘go by feel.’ Recipes were passed down orally. And I think working in architecture, a lot of it is just kind of creative, developing different concepts and ideas. But then there's the more kind of a practical side, when a building goes into construction; you document it in a very meticulous way so that someone else knows how to build it. And so, I think I took that mind-set into recipe writing, kind of noting what details are important for someone that I don't know what their kitchen is like and giving them everything that they need to be able to execute this recipe successfully.
So I focus a lot on indicators. A lot of times recipes have times, but I'll say ‘until golden brown.’ And just talking to other people, it was just really important for me to emphasize cooking towards indicators. Everyone's oven’s different. Yeah, that was important to me.
And also kind of writing recipes in a very warm way. And it's only way that I know how to write, is to write in my own—how I would speak. So I wanted the recipes to sound like I am there in the kitchen with you to assure you that everything's going fine. So if anything, while I was making it—the Chinese sausage and cilantro pancakes are a good one. I like to say in there that while you're rolling it, if a bit of cilantro bursts out of your dough, don't panic. That is supposed to happen. So I tried to note where like, ‘Oh, someone might freak out here. I need to add a note to make sure that they’re ok.’ [Laughs.]
It's so hard to do, too—And that's such an amazing skill to have, is to know where to account for someone else's state of mind or someone's oven. It's really difficult. I mean, I'm kind of new to writing recipes down for people. And it's really nerve racking and it's really interesting, the questions you'll get that you never thought of, but from—
Has that helped you as well, is knowing where people kind of falter and ask for advice?
Kristina: Yeah, absolutely.
The book is out into the world. I can't really change anything that's on the pages. But my DMs on Instagram, I kind of treat it as an open hotline for people. And I probably shouldn't. I should probably separate that a little bit and not be on it so much answering people's questions. But I honestly live for it. I love hearing other people's experience making it.
There's just one kind of maybe a little bit of a finicky cake in the book. It's a Malay cake. And she was baking it at a high altitude. And I was like, ‘Oh God, I don't know. I have zero experience with baking anything at a high altitude.’ So she's kind of picking her brain with figuring out what would happen.
I love that stuff. I love troubleshooting, figuring out the little details. And I think post–book release, learning about all these things out in the real life of how these recipes were truly executed in the real world, I think, will just make me a better recipe developer too. And if I write a second book or another baking book in the future, all of the stuff—that is very, very valuable.
Alicia: Well, and you were kind of talking about this in discussing your mom's twist on different classic Midwestern American recipes. But I always think of the Midwest, ’cause I'm from New York, as having its own distinct food culture, too, which it does, obviously. How does it influence your cooking style, if at all?
Kristina: I think the biggest thing that growing up in the Midwest has affected the way that I cook is that I find it very difficult to cook for one to two people. But I do it all the time, because I just live with my fiancé and my dog. So it's just, I guess the two and a half of us. I don't make scratch food for my dog.
But I naturally just love to cook for a lot of people. That's where I feel most comfortable. I like making family-style meals, or multiple desserts to share. Everything's family-style. You need options. And I think growing in the Midwest, even if you didn't grow up in an Asian American family, that's just how the Midwest is. Potlucks. school functions are bringing a bunch of casseroles and tray bake things, a ton of cookies. I think there's a very kind of warm and hospitable food culture in the Midwest. I think there's a deep appreciation of kind of fluffy doughy breads, and a lot of cheese and cream cheese that I love and have carried that on to adulthood. [Laughter.]
Alicia: Yeah, and now you live in San Francisco, which you also credit with influencing your cooking style. So how has California kind of built upon that style you developed around your family and also among friends, in growing up in Ohio?
Kristna: Yeah, it's such an interesting hybrid of all these different influences based on where I live. So I actually moved out of San Francisco last year, but I live in the East Bay now just adjacent to Berkeley. So I'm still in the Bay Area. And I think even doing that move has kind of changed my food a little bit.
But just solely California, I think it—I think in a way it has almost spoiled me in the way that I cook, because we just have such incredible produce. Any fruit and vegetable I could ever imagine is here, and it's so incredibly fresh. And there's a lot of amazing Asian-owned farms here. So I have access to just, I don't know, heritage variations of bok choy and stuff. It feels there's an abundance of all this thing, all these things I can work with.
But I try to maintain a really realistic approach with the way that I recipe-write. I know not everyone's gonna have this access to this very specific variety of bok choy or cabbage. But I think just being in California, just—it's a really wide palette of stuff that I could kind of experiment with. And I used to be kind of a picky eater when I was a kid, but now I have just this love of vegetables and like fresh produce and fruit throughout the seasons. And I think that's how California has changed me.
And also just being in California, where there's so many different cultural backgrounds and so many restaurants that represent that, my own knowledge of food has just expanded so much just by living here.
Alicia: Well, and your book Mooncakes + Milk Bread is a love letter to Chinese bakeries and Chinatowns everywhere, including the Cleveland Chinatown where your family had its restaurant when you were growing up. Why was it important to you to give these places and their recipes their due in a cookbook?
Kristina: I think because these restaurants have been somewhat overlooked for a super long time. So my grandpa had a bunch of restaurants throughout the years, some in Chinatown, but the one that I actually grew up in, it was his last restaurant before he retired. He actually picked it, picked the location based on where my parents bought a house to raise my brother and I, which is in West Ohio. And so that was his last restaurant.
But our tie to Chinatown and also our love of just Chinese food and restaurants, I think that was just something that needed to be celebrated. And it's kind of shocking to me that even the year 2021, there's been more opportunities to highlight it. But I think that it deserves so much more celebration. Chinese American restaurants have been such an important part of, I think, general culture. Even entertainment, Hollywood culture, a background of different movies and things like that. But to be celebrated in a very real way is special. And I think that's why a lot of people really relate to this book, because they finally feel like it's seen.
Alicia: And it's such an illustrative book about, with techniques. Your hands are in it pulling on dough, or ways of illustrating the movements that you would make to make a certain type of bread. So what inspired your level of visual explanation?
Kristina: So it's actually interesting, ’cause a lot of people have brought that up. They're like, ‘I haven't seen a cookbook with so much step by step, visual guides before.’ And for me, it wasn’t even a question about whether or not I would include these things in there. I just naturally when I was—I shot all the photos myself. And so it was really great, that as I was recipe testing, I could kind of be like, ‘Oh, I should probably shoot this process too.’
And I think it was important for the success of a lot of these recipes. Because since this is the first comprehensive book that covers a lot of these Chinese bakery recipes, there's not a lot of frame of reference for a lot of people. Every recipe in this book has at least a photo to demonstrate what the final thing should look like.
But in a different type of baking book, if someone just had a version of chocolate chip cookies and maybe there was no photo with it, I think people could still visualize what that would look like. But then with some of the breads, or how to laminate the pancakes in here, if you're like ‘I don't totally understand what that means?’ As hard as I tried to make the written recipe as clear as possible. I'm a visual learner. Just having the photos in there to show how many turns and what a coil looks like? Again, it encourages people to make the recipes more when there's something like that to help you.
Alicia: And I mean, people do tend to be really stressed about baking. But you have such a down to earth voice. And through that illustration and that kind of level of detail, you really do make each recipe approachable even if it has a lot of components.
And has baking always come naturally to you. Has that always been something that you were good at?
Kristina: I think it's a complicated answer, because I love to also cook the savory. I almost would say that that comes even more naturally for me.
But I love the process of baking, because—and I think you've already alluded to it. You can probably tell by just reading the book, I’m very process driven. I love figuring out the success of individual components and figuring out how they work together. Again, it's that architectural mind-set in a way.
What really got me to love baking was that when I was in middle school, I kind of just got really obsessed with figuring out how to make the best cheesecake or really fudgy chocolate cake ’cause those are things that my family didn't know how to make.
And when I set out to make those things in my kitchen, it was the one time in the kitchen that I would be alone because my grandma wasn't there and my mom wasn’t there trying to tell me like ‘Oh, you should do this and this and this.’ ‘Cause if I was trying to make dumplings, I would have 50 opinions about how I should mix my filling or my dough. So I think baking for me has always been therapeutic in that sense, that allowed me that kind of quietness to kind of really figure out my own style and methodically think about each step of a recipe.
And I think that part of baking comes really natural for me. I feel I'm haunted by the process of making French macarons because, I have like a 30 percent success rate with them now. So I wouldn't say that all parts of baking come super natural to me. I still have my fair share of fails and struggles of different recipes.
Alicia: Well, they're very difficult. And I feel the weather is always going to be either on your side or not with them.
Kristina: Oh, totally. I feel when I made them in my apartment in San Francisco, I was like if the Muni bus barreled too hard by my apartment while I was making them it would mess them up. [Laughter.]
Alicia: But what also helped you to focus on bread and yeasted dough? That's also an aspect of baking that people get very stressed out or aren't, don't find approachable.
Kristina: Yeah, there's something about the word ‘dough’ that just strikes fear in the hearts of a lot of people for some reason.
When people have asked me about advice on starting to work with dough, I actually tell them to work with a non-leavened dough first just to kind of get the feel of what a hydrated dough should feel like. And obviously, of course, it's if you have a good recipe. And so in the book, if you tried making the dumpling dough or the pancake dough in here, they're very similar. And that's a really good way and low stress avenue to kind of get used to kneading dough and knowing what it should feel like and handling it.
And then if you feel a little bit more comfortable, you can start going into the milk bread or the other kind of yeasted doughs in there. Some people like to just add instant yeast into their dough and just call it a day. And it is really easy if you feel comfortable and know for a fact that your yeast is alive. But for some reason I've been burned. Different yeasts say that it was alive or it didn't expire yet.
And even though I add in there, I didn't activate. And so, I think just getting used to using active dry yeast and blooming it in warm milk or water and seeing that it's literally alive and bubbling? I think that's a first step in kind of just feeling comfortable like, ‘Ok, this thing that is the deal breaker for my bread is alive? I'm good now that it’s really bubbly and stuff.’
So it's definitely a process, but I have a pretty extensive intro to the milk bread recipe that kind of, ‘Here are all the different parts.’ And things that you should look for. Again, just making sure people feel comfortable.
Alicia: For sure.
You mentioned social media earlier about how your DMs on Instagram have become sort of a recipe hotline. But I was noticing that you kept your blog up, that you have a huge following on social media and on Instagram. How are you balancing that? And what is your day to day life now, now that the cookbook is out?
Kristina: My life is sort of all over the place, but in a good way.
So yes, I still have my blog,
. And I feel there's this strange shift that people don't really have blogs anymore. They have newsletters and things like that. And I think it's all the same. It's just on sort of a different platform. And I think I'm going to have the blog forever, just ’cause it's been a part of my life for so many years now. And in a sense, diary entries in a way because I have to keep them very personal.
But for a really long time actually, I was really consistent about sharing a recipe or even two recipes a week. And I think that since the book has come out, I've been just a little busy. I still have recipes that come out maybe every other week or so. But I think it's just a really great stable place to kind of house all these recipes that I produce for free for people.
But I don't know. I try to be really good about balancing my social media and my cookbook writing, work balance and all that stuff. And I think right now because it's the holidays, it's a little crazy. I feel at the end of the year, for any profession, it's always really busy ‘cause you're trying to wrap up loose ends. But I think especially in the recipe development world, everyone wants a million recipes for their holiday baking, whatever and all that stuff. And so right now, I'm kind of in a rush to develop a bunch of recipes before I go home for the holidays.
But I try to divide up my days. I'll have full recipe development day, so that I'm in that mind-set. I block out full days where I am editing photos, editing videos, for Reels or TikToks. And then I do that. And then full days where I'm writing. That's just kind of how my mind is wired. I can't bounce around. It's really hard for me to—especially when we're writing. When I was writing my book, I had to lock myself in my bedroom. That was the only place I could actually write. I locked myself in my bedroom all day to write a bunch of headnotes until I couldn't anymore.
So that's normally what I like to do. I wish I could say that I'm normally that organized. [Laughs.]
Alicia: No, I have the same struggle. It's trying to do newsletter days. I have a book deadline next month. So I'm—Yeah, it's the—Yeah. [Laughter.]
Kristina: You'll get there. It'll be done.
Alicia: I agree. I'll get there. It will be done. But at the same time, it's like, ‘How?’ How? So I'm always asking everyone like, ‘How are you keeping it all together? How did you do it?’ To try and understand how we're all supposed to balance these tens of thousands of things all the time.
Kristina: Everyone's just spinning in circles just trying to get it done.
Well, this is a question I ask everyone lately, but how, for you, would you define abundance?
Kristina: That's such a good question. [Laughs.] It’s probably very insightful for whoever you ask for.
I almost see abundance as being content in what you have, if that makes sense. I think having too much is not exactly abundance in a sense, because having too much, for me, overwhelms me. And so I think abundance to me is one, feeling comfortable in what I have, feeling comfortable and content with what I have in terms of my life, my people, and maybe the groceries in my refrigerator. Just having the perfect, perfect amount that there's no waste and not too little.
Alicia: Right, right.
It's interesting, because people either define it that way, which is how I think of it, or people are like, ‘No abundance is the gluttony of the American superwealthy.’ [Laughs.]
Kristina: That overwhelms me. That makes me feel uncomfortable. I actually hate when I—Well, I sort of love a big grocery store. Because it's not something I'm used to in the Bay Area. I love seeing like, ‘Oh, you have 20 different varieties of oats here. That's amazing.’ But in my own house, when I feel I have too much stuff in my kitchen, I feel trapped. And that's not necessarily what I feel abundance should make you feel. You should feel freedom, if that makes sense.
Alicia: Exactly. [Laughs.]
Yeah. For you, is cooking a political act?
Kristina: I think in a way it is. I will have to admit that I don't think I'm as vocal as I should be with different kind of my political beliefs. But in my food, I think it's my own way of kind of subtly expressing the way that I feel in terms of the cultural politics of things. Especially in the last year when there was so much Asian hate, especially in the Bay Area and stuff, my food, for me, is a way for me to share my pride in my own culture with other people and for other people to also share in that pride. I did a dumpling fundraiser, just to raise money for Bay Area Chinatowns and stuff like that. And so that's how I like to use my food as a political stance.
Alicia: Well, thank you so much for taking the time today.
Kristina: Yeah, thank you so much. This has been such a great conversation.