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Gan Bei Gals: Food, Culture, and Identity

Written by Pai Liu

Graphic by Pai Liu

/ Gān - Bēi - Gals //

Gan Bei Gals is a culture-focused food brand founded by UT grads Gabby Phi, Jackie Fu, and Michelle Kao. The three members started out this February in Austin with a Lunar New Year hot pot dinner. In May, they participated in a food pop-up in collaboration with Daijoubu Mart at Last Straw. From their Instagram page: “We wanted to start this brand as a platform to explore our cultural identities as Asian American women. “Gan Bei” means “cheers” in Mandarin, and we think there's so much to be celebrated & shared about our respective Asian cultures. What better way to do that than through food & art?!”

I sat down with Gan Bei Gals, virtually, to chat about food, identity, and culture.

How did y’all meet and what inspired you to create Gan Bei Gals?

Gabby: We all grew up in Houston, but met at different points while we were attending UT. Michelle was VP of the Taiwanese Students Association and I met her sophomore year of college, just by going to events and stuff, and we hit it off. Jackie and I met through Spoon University, which is the food magazine on campus. I was the editorial director for a couple years and Jackie did writing and photography. At some point I introduced everybody to each other and we actually started out doing closet clean out pop-ups. We came together and realized we had a lot of excess clothing we didn’t wear anymore and wanted to find a way to one, host a fun event, and two, to re-sell our clothes in a sustainable way. We held two pop ups. The first one went really well so the second time around we invited other sellers to join. We love hosting events and the idea of bringing people together, and we all love food so it kind of evolved from pop up shops to Gan Bei Gals.

Can each of you talk about your cultural background and how that’s shaped your relationship to food?

Michelle: So, I’m Taiwanese. But, if we want to get really specific, I’m half Taiwanese and half Chinese, though I identify more with the Taiwanese side, mostly because my dad is also mostly Taiwanese and I also spent a lot of childhood summers in Taiwan where I was surrounded by night markets and the sights and smells of street food. I feel like that influences a lot of what I try to do in Gan Bei Gals, like the aspect of bringing back the nostalgic memories of my childhood summers, and then I think this part is common among Asian families, but we used to always eat together, like, at the dining table. We were never allowed to, like “food’s on the table” and then grab and go kind of thing, we all sat together and that was our family time. That’s definitely influenced a lot of how I socialize through food and reminisce through food.

Jackie: So, I’m Chinese, and I feel like food is a pretty integral part of Chinese culture. It’s actually interesting because my relationship with Asian food is basically directly correlated to my relationship with my Chinese heritage. Throughout my life, in high school and when I was younger, I used to harbor a lot of internalized racism. Back then, I hated Chinese food and whenever my parents put Chinese food on the table, I was conditioned to reject it. After going to college, I mean even in college I still held a bit of internalized racism as well, but as I grew out of those prejudices and learned to embrace my Chinese heritage, I found myself becoming nostalgic for a lot of the Chinese dishes I disliked while growing up, so yeah, it’s been a journey.

Gabby: I’m Vietnamese, My family is very food focused, we’re a big bunch of foodies, so much that our trips were planned around what restaurants we wanted to eat at. It was always a common thread and unifier amongst our family. We watched a lot of cooking shows growing up, a lot of Top Chef, etcetera. My family is really big, and we have a lot of extended family in Houston. We always had a lot of big dinner parties and family gatherings and such, tons and tons of food. We cooked a lot together as well. Similar to Michelle, it was always a point for us to eat dinner together when we were home. I am very blessed, my mom is a great chef so when I went to college I definitely missed a lot of her cooking and my grandma’s cooking. A lot of the recipes that we’ve made are family recipes through Gan Bei Gals. I think food is just kind of the easiest way for me to connect with people. I love you know, meeting up with friends to get dinner, when that’s safe to do obviously, or cooking together. I always love cooking with friends and sharing a meal with them.

Is there a favorite family food tradition or story that y’all have?

Michelle: There’s this one dish that stands out to me. My mom used to make chicken curry, the Japanese style, and would cook it with udon noodles. I remember this particular day with this dish, I think we got in trouble or something and my mom was mad at us, but then she made this dish and that was her way of apologizing. I didn’t realize it at the time because I was still mad at her so I didn’t really eat any. My dad was like, “what are you doing, you have to eat her food, that’s the way she communicates.” I don’t know why, but that’s like, the dish that stands out to me. It’s not really a tradition, but I think it’s an example of communication through food.

Jackie: There’s just like, a lot of things I remember from childhood that I really loved, but my parents don’t really make it anymore. I’m thinking of this bone marrow soup, and finding out that it was bone marrow and freaking out and never eating it again. Actually, now that I think about it, I’m like maybe that’s why they don’t make it anymore...

Gabby: So for Vietnamese people, we always honor the date of someone’s death, especially for Buddhist people, since my dad’s side is Buddhist, and it’s always a big family gathering. My grandma, on my dad’s side, always made this vermicelli noodle soup with shredded egg, this pork patty sausage thing, and shredded chicken, and it was this dish that we always ate at those events. It wasn’t that it was particularly good or anything, but it’s something that I just remember always eating at those events.

Can you talk about how you go about creating events for Gan Bei Gals?

Michelle: We don’t have a written out framework or anything, but we are working on guidelines on what kind of community events we want to do but so far. We haven’t gone off of any framework. Our inspiration mostly comes from when the feeling of nostalgia hits us, or sometimes we’ll see something at the Asian market and think, oh this is a good thing to base an event off of.

Jackie: For our Lunar New Year dinner, it kind of extrapolated off the fact that we wanted to host something for our friends and we thought, what if we extended it to a like-minded community. We were all in town that day and if I had gone home, my parents and I would be going to someone’s potluck, and we wanted to replicate that experience.

This past summer, against the backdrop of racial protests, there was a lot of controversy at Bon Appetit and the food creative world with issues of racism and cultural appropriation of Asian foods. What do you think about the issues surrounding that and also the appropriation versus authenticity debate?

Michelle: For me, authenticity is important and we’ve talked about this internally. It’s important to me from a culinary aspect, but after talking internally about it, I realized that just because something is authentic that way doesn’t give me the right to say that something is culturally authentic, if that makes sense. For me, I definitely take a lot of care to understand the right cooking processes. For example, we cooked a lot of Sichuanese dishes for the Daijoubu pop-up the first week, and I got those recipes directly from my old roommate who taught me alot during quarantine about how to make food from his region in China. They dry fry a lot of food before they add the spices and learning the process is what makes it “authentic.” But just because of that doesn’t give me the right to label anything, though I would love to tell a white person that Alison Roman’s stew recipe is not authentic.

Jackie: We’ve all had this conversation before and came to the conclusion that everyone experiences their culture in a different way, and we can’t be the arbiters in that way. As for appropriation, I’ve noticed that Asian food has become more and more culturally mainstream lately and that also makes it more vulnerable to appropriation. Lately, there’s been a ton of white chefs who’ve been profiting off that “exotic,” “novelty” aspect of Asian food and marginalized culture’s food in general, and there’s absolutely no regard to helping those cultures achieve equality. That’s a huge issue now when a ton of restaurants are shutting down because of COVID-19 and also increased sinophobia in the United States. Especially in New York City, where I am right now, it’s really really obvious. All of the Chinese restaurants in my area are on hiatus or have shut down permanently.

Do you think the quest for authenticity was started in the white community or by Asian diaspora?

Michelle: I don’t know the literature around this issue and food, but in general I feel like the quest for authenticity is Western. I think there’s discomfort around accepting differences and paradoxes in the world within Western thought. Western capitalism has made everything routinized and “logical.”

Jackie: I do almost feel like it’s a Western idea because if we were searching for authenticity, I think what we would be asking is, “What is a good Vietnamese restaurant that we would go to?” We would just be asking for a restaurant in general versus a white person maybe asking, “What is a good authentic Vietnamese restaurant we should go to?” so they need to have that qualifier versus someone of that culture who may not.

Michelle: Side anecdote, I remember one time in Seattle, I was at a fairly authentic Taiwanese restaurant, verified by me, a Taiwanese person, and at the table next to us, there was a white guy who was talking very loud about which dishes were authentic to his white family who were politely nodding and stuff. He also made it known to the whole restaurant that he spoke Mandarin and studied in Taiwan.

Food is a very important aspect of how Asian Americans stay close to their culture, but how can we do this without falling into the traps of consumerism?

Michelle: There’s the whole notion of “boba liberalism” and especially with boba itself, since it’s so well known, it’s dangerous for all Asians to continue to only connect that way and present it as our culture and at this point even our personalities; it’s very narrow. At Gan Bei Gals, we think it’s important to expand what people know and show what doesn’t have a lot of exposure yet. I think the critique is valid, but also food is just one of the easiest ways to connect with your culture. I feel because we’re so far removed from it already, there’s so many layers to an Asian American, whether you’re first generation, second, or later on, any way to connect to your culture is something to hold onto. It’s hard. I think a willingness to learn more beyond what you know is probably a good way to step away from what capitalist consumerism directs you towards.

Jackie: This is something that we do try to keep in mind, hopefully what we’re presenting is not purely consumerist. For most of our events that we host, I think we’re trying to subvert that through food and design so there’s differentiation between consumption versus creation. We’re making the food and drawing the line there. Also, Michelle mentioned with design, we’re trying to take influences from historical Chinese and Asian graphic design, and try to honor our heritage and history in that way.

Can you tell me more about how your Daijoubu pop-up recipes came to be?

Gabby: My mom and grandma cooked a lot while I was growing up, and something I think of when I think of comfort food usually are my grandma’s recipes. She had this specific dish that she always made; it was my favorite. It was this tomato red rice, and she usually made a cornish hen with a soy sauce base and veggies. It was something she always made when I came to her house and it was something I connected with her through. I learned to make it in college and still make it to this day when I’m craving a savory rice and chicken. I tested it out on a very large scale for the Daijoubu pop-up, and I made literally forty servings of it in one giant pan. It was a little insane. I think I got a workout out of it, and I was literally using a small shovel to mix it all up and fry it. I feel like it really means a lot to me whenever I can share my family recipes, for one, they're really good and food is also really important to my family.

What’s next for Gan Bei Gals?

Gabby: We’ve been thinking alot about what we can do virtually, and it’s definitely hard to have that sense of community when we’re not all there in person. Some things we’ve been thinking of are making food kits and cooking together on a Zoom call. Other ideas we have are a make-your-own hot pot kit, a zine for holidays and sharing recipes. We’ve been thinking about doing a tea series where we’re pairing up teas and snacks and centering conversations around that.


Stay in touch with Gan Bei Gals on Instagram: @ganbeigals


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