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From Pop-Tarts to Happy Meals, a food writer recreates American classics with an Asian flavor

The cooking series is as playful as it is cathartic. Frankie Gaw conjured up fun brand names and designs to go with each meal. <br>
Frankie Gaw
The cooking series is as playful as it is cathartic. Frankie Gaw conjured up fun brand names and designs to go with each meal.

Toasted sesame flavored Cheerios. A Pop-Tart topped with strawberry lychee frosting. And a Lunchable that includes a fried pork gua bao, cucumber salad and a Yakult.

Frankie Gaw's social media page is filled with videos of creations like these — items you won't usually find at your local American grocery store.

That’s the whole point, says Gaw, a Taiwanese American food creator and author of the cookbook First Generation.

“I asked myself, in an alternate universe, where the world is much more inclusive and embraced all of these diverse flavors, what are the things that Asian Americans would want to see?” he said.

Gaw talked with NPR about how his hit social media cooking series “Turning American classics Asian" came to be, and its origin as a tribute to his family and his Midwest upbringing.

The grocery store seemed stuck in time

The idea sprouted after a trip to his local supermarket. Traversing through the aisles, Gaw noticed that much of the food stocked on the shelves resembled what he saw as a kid 20 years ago. Meanwhile, ingredients like soy sauce and miso were still strictly grouped in “Asian” or “International" aisles.

“Restaurants have been embracing more Asian ingredients, and it feels like grocery stores have remained the same," Gaw said.

For many immigrants and children of immigrants, food is an intimate part of identity. For Gaw, straddling between the “Asian” aisle and the rest of the grocery store was also symbolic of his upbringing in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Growing up, Gaw felt like he was living a double life. In public, Gaw enjoyed McDonald’s chicken nuggets and fries. At home, he feasted on his grandmother’s beef noodle soup. It took time for him to embrace his dual-taste palette.

Years later in his Seattle apartment, Gaw began experimenting with his childhood favorites. He tinkered with Campbell's cream of mushroom soup and turned it into congee. He infused mac and cheese with miso. He went as far as designing the packaging for each meal as if he owned a food company.

Gaw shared his concoctions on social media. It took off. His food and his experiences at the grocery store resonated with people, especially other Asian Americans.

“It was a surprise. I didn't realize how many people had similar experiences as me," he said.

A love letter to his kid self

“Turning American classics Asian” is not just about Gaw’s appreciation for Asian flavors and ingredients, or a diss to American staples. Instead, it’s Gaw’s way of paying homage to both — and on a larger scale, to the experiences of Asian Americans.

“I have always straddled this sort of in-between space,” he said. “Growing up in the Midwest, I never felt Asian enough. But then, being with my Asian family, I didn’t feel American enough.”

Had matcha flavored Twinkies or strawberry lychee Pop-Tarts been around when Gaw was younger, he thinks it would’ve helped him embrace that in-between experience.

“If I was in a generic American grocery store and then I saw rice cakes, I think that would’ve allowed me to break down the walls of, ‘Oh this only exists within my home,’ ” he said. “And I could’ve existed as my whole self out in the world.”

The project also relates back to his family and growing up in the Midwest

Gaw’s journey into cooking and his first cookbook were motivated by his father, who died in 2014 from lung cancer. Revisiting his father and his paternal grandmother’s old dishes was a way to grieve and keep his father’s memory alive, Gaw said.

In this cooking series, he also reminisces about the time spent with his mother. It’s because of her that Gaw was able to indulge on Lunchables, Twinkies and Pop-Tarts as a kid. She wanted to make sure he would fit in and make friends.

“My mom would stock the entire pantry so that when I go into lunch period, I was like the number one kid in the cafeteria with the best lunch,” he said.

The project also stems from Gaw’s Midwestern roots. In his neighborhood, restaurants were synonymous with fast food and Olive Garden was the place to go on special occasions.

Late nights with his parents at the McDonald's drive-through were common as a kid, Gaw said, because his parents were often exhausted after long hours at work. “It was a reminder of how much they had to hustle,” he said.

In Gaw’s version of a Happy Meal, he steams buns and marries ground pork with scallions and ginger, topping it off with a chili crunch ketchup.

As he cooks, he thinks about his father, his mother, his grandparents — and the comfort that these dishes would’ve brought them as they were adjusting to life in America.

“I think they always felt like they were on the outside breaking in," he said. "To see their food at a fast food institution, I think it would've made them feel like they have a seat at the table."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.
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