Photo depicting Kat Lieu cutting a bundt-shaped cake on a kitchen counter.

Kat Lieu’s Subtle Asian Baking Brings Asian Flavors to Your Favorite Sweets

by Amanda Ong

After 13 years as a physical therapist, Renton-based Kat Lieu never expected to become the face and founder of Subtle Asian Baking, a Facebook community dedicated to baking with Asian flavors that has over 150,000 members. Lieu had only started baking in 2017, but when she started the page in light of other popular Facebook pages Subtle Asian Traits and Subtle Asian Cooking, it skyrocketed into a massive community of Asian baking enthusiasts. 

“Because of COVID, I got so nostalgic for my mom’s food,” Lieu said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “So I’m missing all these amazing delicacies and delicious snacks and goodies, mochi, milk bread, mooncakes, that you can find across Asia. Now, you’re stuck at home. You can’t find it at home, and then Asian American bakeries were shuttered. I was like, I need some sweets. I need some stuff that makes me comfortable. I need to make Asian-baked goodies. Why is there nothing online? So I made it.”

Photo depicting a plate of Vietnamese honeycomb cake.
Lieu’s Vietnamese Honeycomb Cake. (Photo: Jake Young)

Lieu is half-Vietnamese and half-Chinese, and she grew up eating her mother’s Chinese desserts. She had little experience, however, with baking Western desserts, but that changed after she moved to Renton in 2017. At that point, she started baking often, frequently incorporating Asian flavors. She had no idea so many people were feeling nostalgic for the same flavors and craving baked goods. 

Earlier this year, Lieu released her cookbook, Modern Asian Baking at Home: Essential Sweet and Savory Recipes for Milk Bread, Mochi, Mooncakes, and More; Inspired by the Subtle Asian Baking Community. Publication was a longtime dream of Lieu’s, who had tried to publish fiction in 2008. However, she was told by publishers it would never sell with an Asian American woman protagonist, and she had to self-publish it. Still, it was a point of pride for Lieu. 

Modern Asian Baking at Home was published traditionally and met with great praise. “It’s really a dream come true,” Lieu said. “Something that I still can’t grasp when I physically hold [the book] in my hands. I have one proudly in my bedroom. So when I wake up, I see it.”

Since finding success through Subtle Asian Baking, Lieu has become a full-time content creator. More than that, she has found ways to give back to her community. She recently hosted a cooking lesson with Dash of Soy Culinary School that raised over $1,000 for Asian Counseling and Referral Service. She wants to focus on doing more for the Chinatown-International District, and she currently sells macaron stencils and gives proceeds to the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDPDA).

Even in a world as sweet as baking, working as an Asian American woman has its challenges, including the racist comments that crop up on her content. For example, when Lieu posted videos to TikTok of matcha- and black-sesame-flavored desserts, many uneducated commenters said they looked moldy. Racism extends to the print world as well. After publishing Modern Asian Baking at Home, she says she felt even more aware of how Asian Americans have been gatekept from publishing after finding only three books on Asian American baking, one of which was published by a white man. Lieu hopes her work can help shift that reality and express the pleasure and pride in her community’s foods.

“It’s building a love and joy for Asian culture through Asian baking,” Lieu said. “And then building pride for people who are part of the AAPI communities, and also expanding that knowledge so that we don’t gatekeep.”

Vintage photo depicting a young Kat Lieu sitting with her grandmother at home in the '80s.
Kat Lieu with her grandma circa 1985. (Photo courtesy of Kat Lieu.)

For Lieu, Subtle Asian Baking is opening up new spaces that Asian Americans deserve, especially as they have historically faced massive underrepresentation. Currently, she is hoping to make Subtle Asian Baking into a nonprofit and is writing a second cookbook.

“For someone who had to honor her parents and go into physical therapy, because that was [the only way] they thought that I could succeed … I’m proving a lot of people wrong now, and proving my parents wrong, proving to myself that I could do this,” Lieu said. “So I think it’s something that’s connected the Subtle Asian Baking group so much, because there’s so many people who are so proud of it.”

Editors’ Note: This article was updated on 11/08/2022 to remove information about Kat Lieu’s future career decisions as they have changed.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Kat Lieu had only started baking in 2017, but when she started the Facebook page Subtle Asian Baking, it skyrocketed into a massive community of Asian baking enthusiasts. (Photo: Jake Young)

Before you move on to the next story …
The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With over 900 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us get to 1,100 Rainmakers by the end of the year and keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible. 
If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn't have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference. 
We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!