Since opening in 2017, Now Serving has been the place to go for all things food and cooking. Founded by Ken Concepcion and his wife, Michelle Mungcal, it’s Los Angeles’ only cookbook store, and one of a handful of specialty cookbook stores in the country. Before the Coronavirus pandemic forced them to shut their doors to in-store shoppers, visitors could browse their wide array of cookbooks and food magazines, and also pick up kitchen essentials like bench scrapers or food styling tweezers. So they were an obvious choice when it came to finding experts to recommend the best cookbooks by Asian American and Pacific Islander authors to help us celebrate AAPI heritage month.
Nowadays, the Now Serving team operates through their online store, and uses their physical space to stage and ship out orders. Although Now Serving might not have a physical display for shoppers right now, co-founder Ken Concepcion says it’s still just as important to highlight diverse food writers at large, and within the AAPI community.
“I think what’s really important is representation,” Concepcion said on a recent phone call. “We really take into consideration what we [display in our store] to show a selection that you might not be able to find in a big box retail shop or online at Amazon or something like that. Especially when you talk about mainstream publishing, you have to really push for what voices you would prefer to be emphasized or highlighted. “
Even in the few years that Concepcion has purveyed books and food media, he’s been happy to see that more Asian and Asian American food writers are able to write about their own cuisines and experiences.
“What we’re seeing now - and what we are most excited about - are books and stories about a person’s identity or about a people’s identity that may not be represented as much as it should be,” he said. “I think it’s kind of the golden age of AAPI books, and I feel like it also just started too.”
Read on to discover Concepcion’s picks, including Brandon Jew’s much hyped Mr Jiu’s In Chinatown and a baking bible from the acclaimed pastry chef behind Republique.
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My Shanghai by Betty Liu
Concepcion recommended Betty Liu’s debut cookbook, My Shanghai, explaining how it’s a love letter to Shanghai that explores Liu’s relationship with the city. “What’s also notable is that not only does she write it, but she also photographs it, and the book is organized by season,” Concepcion said. “You see that a lot in Italian or French books, where it’s organized by season, but now it’s really cool to see [that for] a city like Shanghai that’s been around for centuries. They’ve been doing it the whole time.”
Mr Jiu’s In Chinatown by Brandon Jew and Tienlon Ho
Not only is Brandon Jew’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Mr. Jiu’s, a San Francisco icon, but Concepcion named this book as a great example of AAPI authors writing about their own culture and cuisines. “It’s really the first time a Chinese American has written about his own identity and then his relationship with Chinese American food,” he said, “and also about the oldest Chinatown in the country. So it’s pretty extraordinary.”
Amboy by Alvin Cailan
“We love a book called Amboy, by our friend and neighbor, Alvin Cailan,” said Concepcion, “who really kind of speaks to what it’s like to be a Filipino American, here in Southern California and Los Angeles.“ Concepcion also said Cailan’s book pays homage to the communities throughout Los Angeles that inspired his culinary store, including LA’s Latino community in Pico Rivera.
Into The Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen
Concepcion shows Andrea Nguyen’s Into the Vietnamese Kitchen to folks who love or are interested in cooking Vietnamese food. It’s filled with traditional Vietnamese recipes and tips for newcomers to Vietnamese cuisine. “[Andrea Nguyen] always thinks about the home cook and sourcing ingredients and how challenging that may be depending on where you are in the country,” he told us. “And there’s always a little bit of history on the dishes.”
Japanese Home Cooking by Sonoko Sakai
Concepcion also recommended Japanese Home Cooking by LA-based chef, teacher, and author Sonoko Sakai. “She’s known for doing these classes for making soba and miso,“ he said. “What’s also great is that there is that focus on ingredients that you see here in Southern California in her book and in her cooking. She also highlights the amazing Japanese American purveyors and vendors.”
Serendip by Peter Kuruvita
For those looking to try cooking Sri Lankan cuisine, Concepcion pointed us toward this tome by chef Peter Kuruvita. “It’s inspired by the traditional cooking where he grew up in Colombo, Sri Lanka,” Concepcion said. “You don’t see a lot of Sri Lankan [cook]books out, let alone by somebody who is from there.”
Baking at Republique by Margarita Manzke and Betty Hallock
Republique is known as one of those restaurants that’s great for literally everything, and Margarita Manzke’s bread program and pastries are a main selling point. Concepcion said that you can see the Filipino influences in some of the pastries and desserts, like Margarita’s famous buko pie, and all of the recipes are sure to be delicious.
To Asia With Love by Hetty McKinnon
Concepcion described Hetty McKinnon’s latest cookbook, To Asia With Love as a a great reference for third culture cooking. “Hetty is Chinese, but she grew up in Sydney, and she now lives in Brooklyn,” he explained. “So the book is not just Chinese food. There’s some Japanese-influenced dishes there, there’s Korean-influenced dishes there, and it’s amazing to see her personal story through food unfold.”
Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen by Mimi Aye
Mimi Aye’s book Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen does an excellent job of highlighting the different flavors and influences of Burmese food. “It’s really great to see Burmese food represented,” Concepcion said. “It has so many different influences across Asia. [It] has Chinese influence, it has Indian influence, and there’s so much in there - so it’s really cool to see her perspective on it”
Crying at H-Mart by Michelle Zauner
Concepcion conceded that Michelle Zauner’s best-selling memoir isn’t exactly a cookbook, but that it’s still an outstanding piece of food writing. “It’s basically about her coping with and mourning the loss of her mother about 10 years ago, but it is about food as well,” he explained. “And she writes so beautifully, and it’s such a great easy read, really striking. “
Zauner, who’s also a musician who performs under the name Japanese Breakfast, has also written some great recipes too, so fingers crossed we get a cookbook from her in the future.