In recipes and stories, three cookbooks relay the immigrant experience


In the late 1990s, a literary agent said she couldn’t sell my cookbook idea unless I was on food television.

Telling the story of Vietnamese food through the refugee and Asian American experience was compelling — but not enough, she explained. I didn’t listen to her and I didn’t give up, but it did take until 2006 before my first book, “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen,” was released by TenSpeed Press.

Times have fortunately changed. This year, California authors have produced three fascinating cookbooks that illuminate our multifaceted, diverse populations.

“Hawker Fare” by James Syhabout is not so much about the eponymous restaurant as it is about the Oakland chef’s quest to reveal the gutsy flavors of Laos through its East Bay refugee community, which was established in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Syhabout and his collaborator, John Birdsall, vividly depict the “Laotian ghetto” (a large government-subsidized housing complex at 25th and Northgate in Oakland), where there were under-the-table economies (bartering!), shared network of tips (where to get the best deals) and raucous celebrations (lots of cooking, cognac, gambling and smoking). Such gritty situations capture the hustle, adventure and discovery that mark many refugee experiences — my own included — during the first years in America.

Lao cuisine isn’t well known here, because it is deeply intertwined with Thai cuisine. Isan, the northeastern part of Thailand, is where many Laotians settled over the centuries, identifying themselves as Lao Isan, as Syhabout does. In Bangkok, Lao and Lao Isan food are commonplace, the chef explains. Moreover, many Lao refugees, like his mother, cooked at Thai restaurants in the States after they arrived in the 1980s.

In establishing Lao culinary distinction and pride, Syhabout points out that when people praise Thai papaya salad and laap (a.k.a. larb), they should thank the Lao for introducing it to Isan and the rest of Thailand. The Lao migrated and traded ideas throughout Southeast Asia (Lao pho exists!), and “Hawker Fare” opens the door to understanding how they’ve contributed to the food that we enjoy so much today.

Nik Sharma, a regular Chronicle columnist, has produced a moody, visually engaging cookbook to convey his personal story as an immigrant to America. He arrived in the Midwest as a graduate student, came out as gay to his family in Mumbai, and then fell in love with an American Southerner. He abandoned his career in medical research to take up food blogging and photography in the Bay Area. Just released by Chronicle Books, “Season” offers ideas that merge the author’s Indian roots with the flavors, recipes and techniques that he has encountered in America.

Sharma’s 21st century narrative of culinary mashups, personal liberation and self-actualization speaks to current social and demographic changes. Although the population of foreign-born residents of the U.S. has been steadily increasing since 1970, it is now at its highest since 1910, according to government data released last month. Many of those newcomers are college-educated Asians, just like Sharma.

In Sharma’s book, recipes such as turkey-mushroom hand pies convey an émigré’s longing to re-create childhood favorites, whereas a date and tamarind loaf cake experiments with infusing an olive oil cake batter with the flavors of an Indian chutney. A margherita naan pizza speaks to the Indian pizza concept born in 1986 at Zante in San Francisco; that idea has seeded many mom-and-pop “desi pizzerias” and even fueled the creativity of local chefs like Preeti Mistry, as noted by Khushbu Shah in a recent Thrillist story. “Season” isn’t an homage to culinary traditions, but rather a clarion call to consider cross-pollinating foodways as the new normal.

In “Bottom of the Pot,” the debut cookbook by Los Angeles actor and blogger Naz Deravian, readers are invited to partake in the enriching flavors of the Iranian diaspora. Her dreamlike stories capture the wonders of Iran as well as the political tensions that drove her family to leave in 1979, settle in Vancouver, British Columbia, and eventually wind up in Southern California.

Deravian weaves cultural insights into her recipe-writing in ways that get you to easily pick up charming phrases like “add the chashnee,” which means adding certain ingredients to make a dish deliciously sing in its proper tone and spirit. Her refreshing candor leads to revelations, such as using a nonstick pot or Persian rice cooker to make perfect tahdig, a tricky and delicious crispy-bottomed rice specialty. Deravian’s adroit coaching enabled me to turn out phenomenal khoresh fesenjan, a chicken and pomegranate walnut stew.

Like Sharma, Deravian embraces and adopts new ingredients. Her Thanksgiving table includes feta and cranberry quince sauce baked in grape leaves, reflecting the Persian penchant for tartness. Like Syhabout, Deravian pays tribute to her mother, who turned to professional cooking to ensure their family’s economic survival

California has always welcomed newcomers and created opportunities for reinvention and self-discovery. The Golden State’s communities have been nurturing new voices for decades and cookbook publishers are finally catching up with gusto.

My story was once considered a noncommercial outlier, but similar experiences are now being celebrated in highly personal, immigrant-focused cookbooks like these. They embody the organic integration of ideas that fuels our future as they ask us to pause and consider how the American table honors — and meshes — many traditions.

Three cookbooks

“Hawker Fare: Stories & Recipes From a Refugee Chef’s Isan Thai & Lao Roots” by James Syhabout with John Birdsall (HarperCollins, 368 pages)

“Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food” by Nik Sharma (Chronicle Books, 288 pages)

“Bottom of the Pot: Persian Recipes and Stories” by Naz Deravian (Flatiron Books, 384 pages)

Andrea Nguyen is the author of five cookbooks, including “The Pho Cookbook” (Ten Speed Press, 2017), which won a James Beard Foundation Award. She lives in Santa Cruz. Twitter: @aqnguyen Email: food@sfchronicle.com

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