"For the longest time our books were always upstairs in the back in the wellness food, the diet food section. We were like, 'That's not where it belongs,'" Fong says about a prominent bookstore. Tam and Fong want to be recognized for spreading accessible, nutritious food that celebrates a variety of cultures, not for dispensing health advice.
Tam, who is the face of Nom Nom Paleo's blog and writes all of their recipes, used to start her cookbook writing process by wondering what dishes her audience might want to cook. With millions of readers to appeal to, Tam feared certain recipes might be too unfamiliar for some of her followers.
However, in the couple's latest cookbook, "Nom Nom Paleo: Let's Go!," Tam shares the foods she loves most. This focus might seem like a cliché of cookbook writing, but it took the stress induced by the pandemic and recent attention around anti-Asian hate crimes for Tam and Fong to unapologetically present their comfort foods. These dishes originate from "polyglot diets" built on burritos, kebabs and dim sum. Their version of Bay Area cuisine incorporates ginger scallion sauce on one page and Oaxacan pipi?n verde that mixes ground pumpkin seeds with pureed tomatillos and herbs on the next one.
We sat down with Tam and Fong to learn more about how dining out in the Bay Area and their Asian American heritage informed their latest cookbook. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Peninsula Foodist: Tell me a little bit about eating together throughout the Bay Area; it seems like it is a big part of your relationship.
Michelle Tam: I think everything important in our lives has revolved around food. I grew up in Menlo Park, and then I did a little circle around the Bay Area. I met Henry in college. Our freshman year, we were in the same freshman dorm at Berkeley. We spent our student loan money all over the Bay Area, eating all sorts of stuff.
Foodist: I really liked how you talk about this "polyglot diet" in the cookbook. It's definitely reflected in the recipes. People ask me, "What do you cook?" And I don't know. I can't just cook Chinese food for a week. I'll need to go eat something Mexican because that's the way I grew up here. Could you tell me a little bit more about how your diet in the Bay Area influenced your cookbook writing?
Michelle Tam: In the Bay Area, you're just spoiled because you have access to amazing produce. It's easy for me to source and try things, and at a lot of these specialized grocery stores, everything's so cheap and so fresh.
Henry Fong: We were originally going to follow a similar template to what we had done previously, which is: Try to figure out what Michelle's audience wants to eat, and then kind of meet them there. When the pandemic happened, it really forced us to reevaluate our priorities.
Michelle was like, "You know what, I am just going to cook the foods that I want to eat. And I'm going to put them in this book. And I don't care if it only appeals to a niche audience of folks who miss 'sort of Asian' and Bay Area immigrant comfort foods." We are focused on the foods that both of us grew up on, not just a standard middle of the road, quote unquote, American food.
Michelle Tam: A perfect example of a recipe like this is our dan tat (Hong Kong egg tarts). I was like, "I don't know that I want to attempt this." A lot of people have never had one because they've never had Cantonese dim sum. But I was like, "This is something I missed, and I want to recreate it. There will be some people seeing it for the first time. But that's okay."
Foodist: It really seems like the pandemic has changed your work. And with the pandemic, there's this topic of hate crimes against Asian Americans. Have you had any reflections on this idea of Asian American identity and how it affected your work over the last couple of years?
Michelle Tam: The last couple of years, I have really leaned into being proud of being Asian American. One thing I've noticed talking to Henry about this — we may be one of the few Asian American authors of three New York Times bestselling cookbooks but nobody ever —
Henry Fong: Nobody ever identifies them as Asian first. They identify them as paleo first. And it is remarkable, because we do consider ourselves to have a lot of Asian influence in what we put out there.
The anti-Asian hate, it's something we've thought about a lot. I remember being up in Portland with my younger son and us saying, "Hmm, do we really want to go downtown? We are Asian." I'm thinking, that is not the way I want my kids to feel living in the United States, living in progressive areas on the West Coast. How awful is it that you grow up thinking, "I can't walk down the street?"
Michelle Tam: When our parents came in the late '60s and early '70s, it was all about assimilating, being a model minority and not making any waves —
Henry Fong: Trying to blend in with the dominant culture as quickly as you possibly could.
Michelle Tam: Yeah. And so what I love now is that everybody is super proud of being Asian American, and that we are Americans. We aren't others, which I think we've been categorized as forever.
Henry Fong: In the past, I don't know that we would have been as mindful about explaining, "Where does this particular dish come from?" This is an Indian dish. It's an egg masala that we got from a friend who's Parsi. This is the heritage that it comes from, here's the story behind it.
Our editor asked us about dan tat, Cantonese, or Hong Kong egg tarts. And they were like, "Can we just call them Chinese egg tarts?" And we're like, "No, because actually, they originated in Hong Kong. They're the product of a fusion between the Portuguese in Macau, English and Chinese influences. It's a very specific thing."
Being able to say that out loud, put it in a book and try to educate folks about the provenance of foods from a very diverse Asian community is actually something that I'm very proud of.
Visit the Peninsula Foodist Instagram @peninsulafoodist this week to hear about Tam and Fong's favorite local restaurants.
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