Community Cookbooks: Asian American Food Selfies

The Daruma-no-Gakko community cookbook, 1988.

In the early 1980s, I was a mixed Japanese American kid growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Every summer was spent at the local Japanese American summer school, which raised money with an annual fundraising cookbook. Unwritten rules dictated each family’s obligation to buy multiple copies and give them away as gifts, but the copies of the “Daruma-no-Gakko Cookbook” that remained on my family’s shelf (some for decades) ended up influencing our eating life in ways we never could have predicted.

Perhaps we were just early adopters, because in the last decade, Americans of all stripes have returning to the kitchen and are trying to improve: 42 percent of Americans in 2011 cooked from a recipe once a week. Contrary to the overall panic in book publishing, cookbooks post strong sales and are a continued favorite among booksellers.

Although books by Asian American authors or about Asian food rarely make bestseller lists, Asian Americans are eager participants in this New American cooking renaissance. We attend events, blog furiously, and litter social media with food photos. But few mediums can rival the community cookbook’s power as a lasting record of our everyday food life. They also shape it, like when my family annually forgets the recipe for ozoni, the Japanese New Year’s Day soup of auspicious vegetables and throat-choking mochi. We probably would have stopped eating it, if it weren’t for community cookbooks.

Community cookbooks are homespun publications usually organized by women and sold as a fundraiser, sometimes to the outside world but often within a small community of people. American community cookbooks began around the Civil War, and are published to this day. “They’re so localized, no one knows the first one,” says Traci Nathans-Kelly, an engineering professor at Cornell and community cookbook scholar. Their popularity may have peaked in the 1950s through 1980s, when national printing houses offered simple templates and printing services, which countless groups took advantage of. Including, of course, Asian Americans.

They are our cultural selfie, telling a story about who we are, for better or for worse. For example, Japanese American cookbooks usually include many Chinese and Chinese-inspired recipes. In “Apple Pie and Makizushi,” Valerie Matsumoto’s essay in Eating Asian America (where I also have an essay), she traces the origins of this practice to the collective memory of trusted Chinese restaurants, where Japanese American patrons could count on service without discrimination. “You go into just any old restaurant, and sometimes the waitresses wouldn’t serve you. They don’t tell you to get out, they just never came around to take your order,” remembers Katsumi Kunitsugu, a southern California-raised Nisei, or second-generation Japanese American. In gratitude to Chinese restaurateurs, their food became our own.

Other shared recipes were learned in happier times. Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi shares a community cookbook recipe for deep-dish apple pie, taught to her mother by an African American neighbor. That neighbor’s nostalgia became the Matsunaga’s novelty, and it joined the Japanese American lexicon via community cookbooks.

I didn’t realize how exceptional – and revealing – these little spiral-bound copy store productions were until I looked recently at my Japanese school cookbook’s “Celebrity Corner.” Far from the celebrities you’d expect, the book featured hometown heroes like Min Yasui, the lawyer who challenged WWII curfew orders all the way to the Supreme Court. He contributed his favorite “Shrimp with Egg Sauce,” a Chinese-influenced dish that should come out “rich, creamy and yellow.” In community cookbooks, we picked our own heroes, and they picked the recipes that sustained them. “My favorite community cookbooks include history; the contributors wanted to teach the outside world about those that wrote it. They are trying to reach a broader audience,” says Nathans-Kelly.

The cookbooks also reveal the economic ups and downs of working families. From the introduction to the Philadelphia Japanese American Citizens League cookbook, published in 2003: “In this time of daily crisis and high cost of food, today’s cooks have nothing to laugh about…No time or expense wasted in experimenting with untried recipes.” Community cookbooks are eminently practical, usually aimed at saving money or getting family members to eat more healthily. Each recipe has been tested by a home cook, and further tested by countless eaters at potlucks, holidays and birthdays.

While I grew up on Japanese American community cookbooks, a web search for vintage cookbooks reveals scores of Filipino, Chinese, pan-Asian and pan-Pacific community cookbooks. They are our link to our heritage—in America and overseas. When I cook from them, I think of my great-grandmother, who cooked everyday for five children and greenhouse employees in a foreign land called California. Her recipes were battle-tested, and although sadly none remain, I can imagine what she cooked when I follow the recipes in community cookbooks.

San Francisco poet and star of the independent film Infinity and Chashu Ramen, Hiroshi Kashiwagi, 92, is a frequent contributor to community cookbooks. He and his wife Sadako host epic holiday meals on his family’s farm in Loomis, near Sacramento. While he has a documented distaste for tofu, he feels completely different about fish, and contributed “Saba no Suzuke: Mackerel in Sweet Vinegar Marinade” to the “Daruma-no-Gakko Cookbook.” It’s an ode to his Issei (first-generation) mother, who made it from fish caught by her husband in San Pedro, California’s original “Japanese fishing village.” Kashiwagi reconstructed the pickled fish recipe from memory: “My mother, like most Issei, never worked with a recipe so I went by how her sushi tasted, the memory of it. Community cookbooks are fun because the favorite recipes are often based on memory and kind of hit or miss,” he says. Nathans-Kelly, the cookbook scholar, concurs: “Though community cookbooks call for ‘everyday food,’ people send their best recipes. They submit their tried-and-true,” she says.

How will future generations eat? Not what they aspire to eat, or write on restaurant menus. Day-in, day-out eating life will be built from what we cook at home. There are no more Japanese fishermen in San Pedro, but scattered across the world we’re still cooking with neighbors, hunting for recipes, and hoping to save some old-time tastes and pass them on. We still need channels like community cookbooks to express the quirks and cherished customs of Asian American food. The Internet is great, but I don’t get how food blogs can be passed on to grandchildren, or survive hurricanes, or be written from prison. Until someone comes up with another solution, I’ll be preheating my oven for Senator Daniel K. Inouye’s Banana Bread with macadamia nuts and Hawaiian cane sugar. I know the recipe’s been well-tested.

—Nina F. Ichikawa

Nina F. Ichikawa works in food policy and was the inaugural food and agriculture editor for Hyphen magazine. Her writings has been published in Al-Jazeera America, NBC Asian America, Rafu Shimpo, Grist and Civil Eats. She twitters @ninaeats


Photo by Flickr user Suzette


Daniel Inouye’s Banana Bread
2 c. sifted enriched flour
2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. soda
1 c. Hawaiian cane sugar
1/2 c. shortening
2 eggs
1 c. mashed bananas
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 c. chopped macadamia nuts

Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, soda and sugar into bowl. Add shortening, eggs and 1/2 c. bananas. Stir to combine ingredients, then beat 2 minutes at medium speed on electric mixer or 300 strokes by hand. Add remaining bananas and lemon juice. Beat 2 minutes more. Fold in 3/4 c. nuts. Pour into greased, lined loaf pan, 8 1/2 x 4 1/2. Sprinkle 1/4 c. nuts over top of batter. Bake in moderate (350 degree) oven for 1 hour.

Margaret Inouye
Daniel Inouye
United States Senator

Hiroshi Kashiwagi’s Saba no Suzuke (Mackerel in sweet vinegar marinade)

Photo By Flickr User Jenny Downing


1 mackerel (medium)

Cayenne pepper or 1 green chili pepper (seeded and quartered)
1 lemon (medium)

Sweet Vinegar Marinade

1/4 c. white vinegar
1/4 c. rice vinegar
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
Stir and heat until sugar and salt have dissolved; cool before using.

This is a special favorite of mine which few will touch. You will need 1 medium-sized fresh mackerel (freshness is crucial). Have the fish cleaned and split, the head, tail, and bone removed. Salt the pieces heavily; the salt should be visible on the surface; and refrigerate for 2-3 days. Then soak the fish in water to remove some (not all) of the salt taste; change the bath every 15 minutes; repeat this process a few times. Meanwhile, make the vinegar marinade.

Take the fish out of the water, pat dry with paper towel, and peel away the outer skin (start at the edge and it will come off in one piece). Then carefully remove all bones; tweezers are available but fingers are more efficient. Now slice across from the skin side into bite-size pieces. Put the sliced fish into a jar or, if serving as a dish, in a flat rectangular dish or bowl, and pour all of the sweet vinegar marinade to cover. Sprinkle cayenne pepper or add the hot pepper; squeeze lemon juice over-all. Store in refrigerator for 2 days.

Of course, it will improve with age. If serving at once, arrange the pieces on a platter (if you can duplicate original shape of the fish, so much better for looks), and garnish with parsley. A touch of red–beni shoga or red ginger–would add a nice accent.

I keep mine in a jar so I can enjoy it for several days. What’s good about this dish is that only real fish lovers will eat it (at least at our house) so I can have it all to myself. It’s absolutely smashing with drinks. To rid the fish odor from the hands, rub some lemon juice.

Hiroshi Kashiwagi
Poet, playwright, and actor
San Francisco

All recipes reprinted with permission from Daruma no Gakko, a summer school program for children to learn about their heritage to develop strong, positive self-images and identities through the study of Japanese American history, literature, language, music, art, food, field trips and community involvement. The summer school began in 1979 and is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. The recipes are from the Daruma-no-Gakko cookbook published in 1988.

OtM logosThis story is a part of Off the Menu: Asian America, a multimedia project between the Center for Asian American Media and KQED, featuring a one-hour PBS primetime special by award-winning filmmaker Grace Lee (American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs), original stories and web content.