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'Authentic to me': 2 Asian American food entrepreneurs on mixing tradition and innovation

"I wouldn't say it's authentic Indian food," said Chitra Agrawal. "It's very much inspired by my heritage, but it's authentic to me.”
/ Source: TODAY

During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.

For Chitra Agrawal and Cathay Bi, who both quit their jobs to start culinary careers, authenticity in food is a nuanced idea. They may not be using traditional recipes to make their dishes, but both feel their creations are representative of their individual stories.

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

“You add just a little bit, and it makes the dish just amazing,” she told TODAY Food. “I was making achaar from heirloom tomatoes, garlic, gooseberries, rhubarb. I wouldn't say it's authentic Indian food. It's very much inspired by my heritage, but it's authentic to me.”

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

“My grandfather comes from a region in northern China that specializes in dumplings,” she told TODAY. “To him, dumplings were the perfect food, the best food.”

Bi's business, based in San Francisco, provides small-batch dumplings and meal kits.TODAY

“I use all sorts of influences in the dumplings. For example, influences from my husband's Austrian side,” she continued. “That's not traditionally how dumplings would be made. I’m learning to be really comfortable with that. In the beginning I was feeling like that wasn’t truly authentic, but I actually now feel that that's very authentic to me and my experience.”

Another point of reference for Bi: her mother’s ability to innovate when they didn’t have access to traditional Asian ingredients.

“I learned about the importance of food from my mom,” she said. “She would use spaghetti whenever she was making stir-fried noodles. Her creativity, that creative spirit, when it came to replicating her home food through whatever ingredients that she had on hand, that's what I feel really inspired by.”

And when she goes through the process of sealing the dumplings with pleats, she thinks back to how her mother and grandfather would do it.

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

Brooklyn Delhi is also rooted in Agrawal’s family traditions.

“My father's mother, we were just very close,” she said. “I can still remember the food that she would give me. I can still taste it. They're food memories from when I was really young, and those continued on as I visited her every year in India. Every trip, we would be in the kitchen.”

The decision to leave their jobs wasn’t easy, but their deeply personal connections to their businesses have helped.

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

“Our public sales tend to sell out within a few minutes. One time it sold out in less than a minute,” she continued. “It's been great because more people want to try the flavors that we're putting out there and want to learn more about Indian food and culture.

Brooklyn Delhi sells jarred achaar, chutney, simmer sauces, hot sauce and more.TODAY

“Everything that I really learned how to make, I learned from different family members. In some sense, the Brooklyn Delhi recipes also are a way for our family recipes to live on.”

Bi recalled: “I left Google in the fall of 2019, and already that year I was starting to make dumplings, send them around to friends and family. When I decided to really start in earnest was in February 2020, conveniently one month before the pandemic hit.”

“Everything shut down. I didn't have a steady job or an income at that time,” she added. “Whenever I had a spare moment, I'd fold dumplings, and then I would stay up all hours editing footage and putting it up on Instagram. We were just trying to survive.”

Now, Dumpling Club is a reminder of the opportunities that her family worked so hard to provide her with.

“When my parents came to the states, they really came here with nothing, and I'm super cognizant of that now,” Bi said. “It's a huge privilege to be able to do what I love, to go after what I love, and that has come from years of sacrifice and hard work from my parents. Knowing that, I want to take that privilege and make sure I do something really positive with it.”