My mother jokes that I was born with red pin-prick skin because she ate so much spicy food when she was pregnant. When I look down at my hands de ella I see her de ella hands — petite shape, slim fingers, the faint raise of veins that perhaps, when I was born, were coursing with garlic, chilies and lime juice, the holy trinity of my mother’s cooking.
The permanent callus on my middle finger, that one’s all mine, from gripping pencils.
I don’t come from a family of writers, but I grew up writing. And I’m looking down at my hands now because I was asked to write a story for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, or AAPIHM as it’s shortened to.
IfI asked my parents, they wouldn’t know what this jumble of letters means. I would have to explain to them that this catch-all acronym casts a wide net, lumping together East Asians, Southeast Asians, Desi people, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders. AAPI also encompasses mixed-race people and Asian adoptees. It’s a clunky term, used in the media, but rarely in everyday conversations with people who would fit under the AAPI umbrella.
The truth is, there is no AAPI Heritage Month for me. I celebrate our existence every day that I’m alive. My body carries my mother, my mother’s mother and the ancestors that came before us. If we are what we eat, then my genes must have traces of marinated river crabs, cilantro and fermented fish sauce, as well as McDonald’s hamburger — my teenage mother’s first meal in America.
And as a journalist, I believe we have a responsibility to show up for diverse communities all year, not only during the holidays or when tragedy strikes. So, for AAPI month, I want to share a few stories that we at The Arizona Republic have told over the past year or so.
They are stories about the foods we eat. But they also offer a glimpse of the many ways we’ve made metro Phoenix home.
Sray Campanile and Jenneen Sambour were two strangers who met for the first time at the Verde River, just east of Phoenix. Their mission: Find enough clams to stir-fry for cha kroeung leah. Asian clams are native to East Asia, including Cambodia, where their parents immigrated from. The freshwater species was first recorded in Phoenix in the 1950s. Since then, clam digging has become a summer hobby for Cambodian American families as they search for a familiar childhood taste.
If you like this story, you might also like: The low-down on why water spinach, a vegetable common in Asian stir-fry dishes, is outlawed in Arizona.
For Desmond Martin, no beach trip was complete without a stop for shave ice. He now runs his own West Valley food trailer serving shave ice with housemade haupia whip. Martin grew up in O’ahu and comes from a blended lineage: Part Native Hawaiian, with some Japanese and Filipino heritage. Soft and fluffy Hawaiian shave ice, like Martin’s family tree, represents the multicultural history of the Hawaiian islands.
What started as a luxury desert in 11th century Japan called kakigori, the icy treat became more widespread after ice harvesting became easier. It eventually made its way to the Hawaiian Kingdom through Japanese immigrants, who were brought over to work the sugarcane plantations for white settlers.
Now, it’s an essential after-beach snack on the islands. But don’t call it “shaved ice”. In Hawaiian Pidgin, the ‘d’ is dropped. “If it says ‘shave ice’ you know it’s from Hawai’i or at least the idea is basically from Hawai’i,” Martin said.
If you like this story, you might also like: Grabbing a bite in Mesa, where this Polynesian couple sells plate lunches and snacks for the homesick Pacific Islander.
Langar is an important part of every Sikh gurdwara, it’s a community kitchen that offers free meals to anyone, regardless of faith or caste. Prior to the pandemic, volunteers at Guru Nanak Dwara in Phoenix served 300 to 400 people for each langar after prayer service.
Vicki Mayo said langar is about more than just food, it’s about sevā, the concept of selfless service. When COVID-19 disrupted langar, members of the Sikh community started making takeout food and running a food truck to deliver meals instead. Dubbed ‘Langar on Wheels,’ the food truck is still in service today.
The late Nick Oza, an Indian immigrant and Pulitzer Prize winner, captured the photos and video that accompany this story.
If you like this story, you might also like: This recipe for murukku, a crunchy snack, from a Desi radio host.
Great Wall Cuisine, the longstanding dim sum restaurant in Phoenix, wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for Ming and Judy Luk. The high school sweethearts met in Hong Kong and moved to Arizona in the late 1970s. Decades later they took over Great Wall Cuisine, turning the American Chinese restaurant into a banquet hall that serves dim sum and traditional Cantonese food. The couple has since retired but Ming still frequented the restaurant until her death in 2021.
If you like this story, you might also like: A deep dive on dim sum restaurants in metro Phoenix and how traditions have changed for the next generation.
KiMi Robinson, The Arizona Republic’s resident boba expert, has traversed metro Phoenix in search of the best milk tea shop and found it in a Glendale strip mall. Owner Alvin Nguyen and his family landed in the state of Hawai’i after they left Vietnam as refugees. Nguyen eventually moved to Arizona and in 2019 opened Aloha Tea, where the labor of making his own tapioca pearls has attracted a loyal following and earned him a victory in the Arizona Asian Chamber of Commerce’s Battle of the Boba, which he won by popular vote in 2020.
If you like this story, you might also like: This review of Phở Thành, a quinessential Phoenix restaurant.
Follow the reporter Priscilla Totiyapungprasert @priscillatotiya on Twitter and Instagram.
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