Stories of Asian American Food Culture in Arizona

My mom jokes that I was born with pinprick red skin because she ate so much spicy food when she was pregnant. When I look down at my hands, I see his hands – a small shape, slender fingers, the slight elevation of the veins that, perhaps, when I was born, ran with garlic, peppers and juice of lime, the holy trinity of my mother’s cooking.

The permanent callus on my middle finger, that one is all mine, because of the gripping pencils.

I don’t come from a family of writers, but I grew up writing. And I’m looking at my hands now because I’ve been asked to write a story for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, or AAPIHM, for short.

YesI asked my parents, they wouldn’t know what this jumble of letters means. I should explain to them that this catch-all acronym casts a wide net, grouping together East Asians, Southeast Asians, Desi, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders. AAPI also encompasses people of mixed race and Asian adoptees. It’s a clumsy term, used in the media, but rarely in day-to-day conversation with people who would fall under the AAPI umbrella.

Ranjani Venkatakrishnan and her mother, Anuradha Venkatakrishnan, pose for a portrait while holding a bowl of murukku at the Venkatakrishnan's home on November 5, 2020 in Chandler, Arizona.  Ranjani plans to share her mom's murukku recipe on radio show Blaze

The truth is, there is no AAPI Heritage Month for me. I celebrate our existence every day of my life. My body carries my mother, my mother’s mother and the ancestors who preceded us. If we are what we eat, then my genes must have traces of pickled 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 come forward for diverse communities all year round, not just during holidays or when tragedy strikes. So for AAPI month, I want to share a few stories we at The Arizona Republic have told over the past year.

These are stories about the foods we eat. But they also offer insight into the many ways we’ve called Metro Phoenix home.

Sray Campanile and Jenneen Sambour were two strangers who first met at the Verde River, just east of Phoenix. Their mission: find enough clams to sauté for cha kroeung leah. Asiatic 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 fishing has become a summer pastime for Cambodian American families looking for a taste of familiar childhood.

If you liked this story, you might also like: The truth about why water spinach, a common vegetable in Asian stir-fry dishes, is banned in Arizona.

(L-R) Desmond, Laura, Alyssa and Anthony Martin stand outside the Happy Honu Shave Ice Family Food Truck at Arrowhead Farmers Market on April 16, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona.

For Desmond Martin, no trip to the beach was complete without a stop to shave some ice. He now runs his own West Valley food trailer serving shaved ice with a homemade haupia whisk. Martin grew up in O’ahu and comes from a mixed lineage: part-Native Hawaiian, with Japanese and Filipino heritage. Soft and Chewy Hawaiian Shave Icelike Martin’s family tree, represents the multicultural history of the Hawaiian Islands.

What began as a luxury desert in 11th century Japan called kakigori, the frozen treat became mainstream after harvesting ice cream became easier. It eventually made its way to the Hawaiian kingdom through Japanese immigrants, who were brought in to work on the sugar cane plantations for white settlers.

Happy Honu "hawaiian paradise" the shave ice is flavored with passion fruit, orange, guava, lilikoi and haupia, and topped with haupia whip and li hing mui powder;  April 16, 2022;  Glendale, AZ.

Today, it’s a go-to snack after the beach on the islands. But don’t call it “shaved ice”. In Hawaiian pidgin, the “d” is dropped. “If it says ‘shaving the ice,’ you know it’s from Hawaii or at least the idea is from Hawaii,” Martin said.

If you liked this story, you might also like: Grab a bite in Mesa, where this Polynesian couple sells lunch plates and snacks for homesick Pacific Islanders.

Langar is an important part of every Sikh gurdwara, it is a community kitchen that offers free meals to all, regardless of religion or caste. Before the pandemic, Guru Nanak Dwara volunteers in Phoenix served 300 to 400 people for each langar after the prayer service.

Vicki Mayo said langar is not just about food, it’s about sevā, the concept of selfless service. When COVID-19 disrupted the langar, members of the Sikh community began preparing take-out meals and operating a food truck to deliver meals instead. Nicknamed “Langar on Wheels”, the food truck is still in operation today.

the late Nick Ozaan Indian immigrant and Pulitzer Prize winner, captured the photos and video that accompanies this story.

If you liked this story, you might also like: This murukku recipea crispy snack, from a Desi radio host.

Great Wall Cuisine, Phoenix’s longtime dim sum restaurant, wouldn’t be what it is without 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 Kitchen, transforming the American Chinese restaurant into a banquet hall that serves dim sum and traditional Cantonese dishes. The couple have since retired but Ming still frequented the restaurant until his death in 2021.

If you liked this story, you might also like: A deep dive on dim sum restaurants in metro phoenix and how traditions changed for the next generation.

Owner Alvin Nguyen prepares a milk tea drink at Aloha Tea & Coffee on Thursday, March 10, 2022 in Glendale.

KiMi Robinson, the Arizona Republic’s resident boba expert, walked through the Phoenix subway in search of the best milk tea shop and I found it in a mall in Glendale. Owner Alvin Nguyen and his family landed in the state of Hawaii after leaving Vietnam as refugees. Nguyen eventually moved to Arizona and in 2019 open Aloha Teawhere the work of making his own tapioca pearls attracted a loyal following and earned him a victory in the Arizona Asian Chamber of Commerce’s Boba Battle, which he won by popular vote in 2020.

If you like this story, you might also like: This reviews of Ph Thanha quintessential Phoenix restaurant.

Follow journalist Priscilla Totiyapungprasert @priscillatotiya on Twitter and instagram.

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