For Molly Yeh, farm life and fusion cooking go hand-in-hand—or like scallion pancake in challah
Molly Yeh's new show "Girl Meets Farm" premieres on the Food Network on June 24th. Here, she tells HelloGiggles how fusion cooking is a world-opening practice, and why sometimes you have to mix disparate things to make something more whole.
Molly Yeh is not only mixed, she mixes. The food writer, chef, and baker, 29, has grown a large following from letting readers into her very specific world through her blog, My Name Is Yeh: one filled with both Chinese and Jewish flavors and a very snow- or green-filled backdrop, depending on the season, of a sugar beet farm located on the Minnesota-North Dakota border. Yeh lives on the farm with her husband, the beet farmer, whom she met while she was a percussion student at Juilliard (he played trombone) and whom she lovingly calls “eggboy” (fans of the blog know the story well: when they met, he was on a protein-packed eating regimen and ate lots and lots of eggs). My Name Is Yeh has become an online treasure trove for fusion food recipes; Yeh mixes things like scallion pancakes and challah, oranges and almonds to make Passover cake, and black sesame seeds with a traditional hamantaschen base to create something both old and new, both fusion and entirely its own.
Of course, there are recipes that just speak to places she has lived in or traveled to—many a New Yorker will feel their saliva glands swell at bagel and lox donuts, while those raised in the Midwest will savor her various tater tot-laden hotdishes. The blog, launched in 2009, has amassed a loyal following and laudatory recognition, including Saveur’s Blog of the Year title in 2015.
In 2016, Yeh released a cookbook titled Molly on the Range—a harbinger of the various media she could create in the world outside of her internet blog. (Oddly, this seems to be a trend for millennial creators—start in the virtual immensity that is the internet or social media, work your way into the more narrow, but no less tangible, space of print or screen.)
And now Yeh is entering our homes in a new way, with a series debuting June 24th on Food Network called Girl Meets Farm. Food Network is relatively diverse, in terms of featured chefs and target demographics, but Yeh’s show feels very new. In a way, her early evolution—as a food blogger and an online diarist and a photographer—represents a different journey and generational point of view than what already exists on the network’s lineup. And she didn’t, in fact, plan to be on television—it was a happy and natural development that she describes in one of her latest blog posts (a meta description of what must feel like a very meta food creation process).
We called Yeh, who, at the time, was on the East Grand Forks farm made famous on her blog, to ask how her mixed identity informs her food, what fusion recipe ideation looks like, and if she was ever uncertain about her place in the world as a mixed woman immersed in two food and tradition-rich cultures.
HelloGiggles (HG): Who do you hope to reach, or what sort of message do you hope to convey, with Girl Meets Farm?
Molly Yeh (MY): I use food as a window into my heritage. As a window into other cultures just anywhere I go, anywhere I travel. Food is my favorite medium—as a creative outlet and as a way to get to know other people and know other cultures. So whether or not people cook my recipes, if they can be inspired to understand another part of the world or another culture through food, then I’ll feel like I’ve done a good thing.
HG: Do you have a favorite thing you made or favorite episode?
MY: We used a lot of great sprinkles in the episodes. I think almost every episode, which I’m really excited about.
HG: So sprinkles are a thematic throughline for the show.
MY: Yes, kind of unintentionally. But honestly, there were so many moments while we were filming the show where I thought, “Wow, this is not just putting on a show for TV. This is a truly meaningful moment for me.” Like, for example, my dad came to shoot an episode and we didn’t often cook together growing up. I always cooked with my mom. My mom’s an amazing cook and an amazing baker; my dad loved food but with him most of my memories involve going out to eat. And so we were filming the episode that is all about Chinese food and we made potstickers together. He was telling me these stories about how his mom made him potstickers and these are stories I had never heard. That was a moment where I just had to check in with myself and realize that this is really meaningful—and the fact that it’s getting captured on video appeals to my desire to document everything.
HG: I know you wrote in your cookbook that growing up you ate many white and brown and orange foods, which made me wonder what and if you were cooking when you were younger.
MY: I always loved food and making food, even though I was also very picky. So there were specific things that I would love to make. I made macaroni and cheese. That was one of the first things I learned to make from both my mom and my mom’s best friend. And then I also have memories of making potstickers when I was little. But it was pretty much always with my mom. My dad was more the type that would introduce me to new foods when we went out to eat. I remember going out for Russian food with him or we would go to Chinatown, all the time. And even though I wasn’t really trying a lot of new things when I was little, I still would remember those flavor experiences.
When I moved to my first apartment in New York, I learned how fulfilling and how cheap it was to make my own food. And I remember calling up my mom for her rugelach recipe and for her Valentine’s Day almond cake recipe. I remember sitting on the floor of the bedroom in my apartment trying to make stiff peaks with a fork because I didn’t have an electric mixer. There were so many things that happened in that tiny kitchen in my apartment that were complete failures, that I would often talk to my mom about or just read about on the internet. There was a lot of trial and error during those years. Beyond that, I worked at a bakery when I moved to Grand Forks, but back when I lived in Brooklyn I would have really big dinner parties just to practice making a lot of food for a lot of people. I basically wanted my entire life to be about food. Everything I read, everything I did was just for the purpose of getting to know food better and learning more about what makes food good.
HG: Who did you make potstickers with when you were younger?
MY: When I was younger, I made them with my mom. Because even though my dad’s Chinese, my mom took a dim sum baking class when she got married to him. So I actually learned from her how to make potstickers.
HG: Do you have a specific or enduring food memory from childhood that relates to your path as a home chef or creator?
MY: I was so picky and my parents, mostly my mom—my dad was a little bit more encouraging of new foods—basically let me be picky. She was so not the type of mom that would make me sit at the dinner table until I finished my vegetables. It was always: if I’m hungry I could eat. If I wasn’t hungry, even if it was dinnertime, I could choose to not eat. I think because of that, I didn’t form any bad memories around brussels sprouts or broccoli or the type of green vegetables that I think could alienate kids because they were forced to eat them before going out to play. Our family was very relaxed around food and food was always seen in our house as this enjoyable thing, something fun to make. It was a way of showing people you love them. Anytime my mom had a friend who was going through a hard time or a happy time or whatever, she would make a basket of food for them or make them a cake.
HG: So food was a love transaction.
MY: Exactly. And to be honest, I thought that everybody was like that until I got to college and I would try to make my friends cupcakes and things and some of them were like, “Shouldn’t you be practicing instead of baking.” I was like, “What? Appreciate this very nice thing that I just did for you…I did this because I love you.”
HG: You were in New York, so that spontaneous kindness is unheard of. I’m from New York. When someone does something genuinely kind out of nowhere, you have that initial suspicion before the boundless gratitude sets in. I guess I want to know, even if it’s not from childhood, do you have a food memory that speaks to your craft and to why you do what you do?
MY: It seems like all of my memories are through food. All of my memories are, “Okay, well, what did I eat on this trip?” That is a representation of how that trip went. I guess the one food I feel would probably be my last meal and also the one food that ties so many memories in because it was there for every special occasion is macaroni and cheese. My mom would make it from scratch for my first day home from summer camp, when I was sad because I had to leave, and she would make me feel better. She would make it for any birthday, any time I came home from college. It was always just there.
HG: Can you tell me more about how your mixedness informs the food you love to eat and make, because you have a very specific perspective and trajectory with the recipes you share with the world. Some people may have just done a food blog where they make Eggs Benedict and then every six months, say, “Oh yes, I’m Chinese, here are dumplings,” but really, fusion seems to organically exist in your blog, photography, and in your cookbook.
MY: One question that I ask myself any time I’m thinking of a new recipe or a new blog post or any new piece of content is, “Has this been done before?” And, if the answer yes, then that probably means that I don’t do it. I don’t get excited bringing another avocado toast into the world because there are so many great avocado toasts in the world already. I don’t feel like I have much to add to that. But something like a scallion pancake challah, where these are two things, two foods, that I grew up with and I know so well and that I feel like I’m uniquely positioned to make and own. That’s something that I’m going to get excited about. I get excited about things that are new, that are not just taking up space on the internet for the sake of creating content.
I think that having a mixed background positions me to be an expert in these two worlds of flavor and these two stories and these two narratives. So that in and of itself affords my food a uniqueness that you’re probably not going to find in hundreds of other places on the internet. That’s a thing that I strive for in every piece of content I create.
HG: You blend these disparate elements in a beautiful way and in a way I’ve never seen before. You really meld them so that they reflect your identity as a whole rather than “it is this or that.” You become a whole, which is powerful. I know you probably have a diverse fanbase, but you probably also have people who have never taken a bite of babka or have never eaten a scallion pancake.
MY: It definitely is all over the place, all across the spectrum. I got a message on Instagram the other day from a woman who is also Chinese and Jewish who was just thankful that these are foods she feels like she can connect with. These are recipes that really resonate with people, but then there’s also the other end of the spectrum, where none of my recipes may have any words or flavors that are familiar to them.
I have been told by people, who might not cook that much, “I don’t know half of the ingredients that you use. So even though your pictures are pretty, I probably won’t cook them.” And I’m like, you know what, I’m okay with that. I would rather be introducing people to new things and pushing them to learn even if they don’t make it themselves. I would rather encourage people to step outside of their experience to learn something about another culture or about another world or flavor profile. I would much rather do that than the opposite, which would be to create recipes that might be more accessible. My flavors are not new flavors, and they have long histories, but they might not be as familiar to other people. It’s not just about creating food that’s really tasty, it’s about creating food that is tasty and tells a story that is meaningful.
HG: I think it’s starting a conversation. Regardless of if you’re actually making the recipe or not, you’re engaging with something you have not seen before. Someone who is not familiar with Asian culture, is not familiar with Jewish culture, they’re being introduced to something beautiful and blended and something that might make them think outside of their world.
HG: Is there something you’ve made recently, in the past, or that you make every year that has a certain emotional resonance with you while you make it?
MY: Wow, I think any time I make oatmeal. Oatmeal was the food I had when I was little and I had to go to a grownup party with my parents and there was not any food that I wanted to eat. Oatmeal was the food that my mom would make me when we got home and it was late at night and I was starving. It was usually brown sugar oatmeal. I remember her making it in a bowl that changed colors, like one of those cool 3-D cereal bowls. It was just something that was sheer comfort for me and it brings me back to being four years old and my mom making all my food.
HG: So it seems like not only is this a comfort food but there’s emotionality to when you make oatmeal with brown sugar. Do you make it often or just sometimes when you need it?
MY: Usually during the winter. Because I remember that as a dish that was only for me when I was growing up. It wasn’t something that my mom would make for the whole family or for a family dinner or anything. It was, “Oh, Molly loves oatmeal.” It’s not about making an extravagant meal that tastes good or that’s fancy; it was just this is for nourishment and it’s warming and it’s simple. It was kind of our special thing that she knew that if ever I was hungry, it was late at night, or if it was at an odd time during the day, I would love her oatmeal. That brings me back to the house that I spent the first few years of my life in, in that kitchen and the dim light of that kitchen, and the big table that we sat at. I think one big thing about it too is that I didn’t eat it for years until very recently. So that’s probably another reason why I feel locked in to those little kid emotions that make me feel nostalgic.
HG: I know you do fusion food primarily, whether it’s just using a certain seasoning or a more major twist, but do you ever feel like something should be only Chinese or only Jewish?
MY: There are a few things that I do feel like my personal taste wants them to remain completely by themselves. I mean, I love humus, just classic humus with chickpeas and tahini and lemon juice and olive oil and nothing else. Do not put edamame in my humus. Do not make humus with black beans.
HG: No chili oil or Chinese peppers?
MY: No chili oil. No. None of that. But at the same time, if somebody wants to make a fusion humus, I would encourage them 100 percent. But something I learned in music school is that you need to learn music history and learn the mechanics before adding your own bend and making it fusion. I think as long as you still have respect for that classic humus or that classic loaf of challah or the classic potsticker, and you know where it comes from and what it means, then you definitely should put your spin on it.
One thing I love about the time we live in right now is that we have access to food from all over the world. We have access to ingredients from all over the world. It’s a really cool thing that we can make fusion foods but also honor where they come from. But it’s important to advance the conversation in food by saying you know what, hey, here’s an ingredient that when humus was invented we didn’t have, but now it’s here in 2018 and we can use this other spice and it happens to work. These two things might come from totally different parts of the world but if they taste good, why shouldn’t you eat it?
HG: I have Molly on the Range in front of me and I just flipped to schnitzel bao with Sriracha mayo and sesame pickles, which is such a perfect fusion creation. What is your process, thought or otherwise, for creating a fusion recipe?
MY: I think I’ve never felt the need to keep my Chinese ingredients in one part of the pantry and my Jewish ingredients in another part of the pantry. It’s always just been everything mixed. Everything is in my same cabinet. Growing up, I never had coloring books. I was always just encouraged to draw my own pictures on blank pages. And so I didn’t have this sort of preconceived notion that these flavors go with these flavors, and those techniques go with those techniques. It just is always what’s going to taste good together and that’s it.
HG: I think the curiosity element must be important, and the process must be very experimental, too. I’m sure you have many successes but I’m sure you’ve also made fusion dishes that didn’t quite hit the mark.
MY: Oh, for sure. It’s definitely experimental. I feel like I go back to this idea in the brainstorming phase for my recipes: Chinese and Jewish food have so many similarities. Both of them have dumplings. Both of them have flatbreads. Both of them have really hardy, carby, delicious foods. So that helped with some overlap because I know that a schnitzel is going to go well on a nice deli piece of bread. What’s a nice deli piece of bread? Oh, a bao. A steamed bao. Let’s put those together. And so a lot of the work I feel is done for you when you line up those two cuisines and see what the similarities are.
HG: Absolutely. But you live on the North Dakota-Minnesota border: is there a total absence of food from your cultural backgrounds or have you found pockets or places that include them?
MY: There’s one bagel place in Fargo…
HG: Just one?
MY: …Called Bernbaum’s. Yeah, that was actually a really difficult thing for me when I moved here, not having the bagels or pizza that I was used to in New York. I’ve since found some great pizza places but they’re different. But the bagels, if I want them and I’m home, I have to make them myself. But there’s this bagel place in Fargo that has the Scandinavian kind and it’s really quirky and cool. It’s different than a New York bagel place, but I love it. And then the closest dim sum to me is in Winnipeg, Canada.
HG: Is there any sort of Chinese restaurant, any community of Chinese people in this area or not really?
MY: Very few. There’s one Chinese place that when we get Chinese food, that’s where we order from and it’s good. But any time I’m scrolling through Instagram and see those beautiful hand-pulled noodles I want to go to New York immediately because they’re so good and I just want them. But I think it might be one of those things I’m going to try to make from scratch eventually.
HG: You could do a hand-pulled noodle kugel. Now I’m trying to give you ideas.
MY: Oh my gosh, that would be so good.
HG: I know you’ve said you worked at a bakery for a bit, but is that actually where you learned to bake? Because to me, you have the talent of a professional baker.
MY: Thank you. I learned to do a lot of things at the bakery like frost a cake, make a bulk orders of things, and just the work ethic of standing over a counter making hundreds of cookies in one day. But most things I learned from my mom or from reading or from trial and error. I would say at the bakery I learned the process of perfecting something.
HG: I recently saw your fresh mint and olive oil cake with labneh and honey, which obviously speaks to the flavors of Israel.
MY: It was like magic.
HG: Yes, and I think you use, especially in your desserts, a nice amount of rosewater and tahini.
MY: Yeah, I love rosewater. My mom is Ashkenazi Jewish, and the desserts that I grew up with were coconut macaroons and babka, so no rosewater. But I went to Israel for the first time, maybe five or six years ago, and that inspired me to incorporate more rosewater, more tahini.
HG: I’m going to pivot a little bit. Many mixed people, or people who have been immersed in different cultures growing up, or immigrants and children of immigrants, have uncertainty about their identities when they’re younger. Have you ever felt not Jewish enough, or not Chinese enough?
MY: I definitely have had those moments where I don’t look like a stereotypical Ashkenazi Jewish girl and so people never assumed that I was Jewish. There were moments where people would be like, “Oh, you’re Jewish?” And it was like I felt the need to prove my Jewishness. But these days, though, in 2018, where it is becoming so much more common to see Jews of all different heritages and all different backgrounds, I definitely feel more confident in it and it just makes me happy. Yeah, there were moments where I didn’t feel like people were taking our shared identity seriously. At the same time, though, I feel like there were so many moments in which I was completely embraced, like at summer camp. The camp that I went to in Wisconsin was a Jewish camp. My difference there, the fact that I was Chinese, was totally seen as a cool thing. People there were so nice about it. I think a lot of it is finding the people and the friends and communities that do honor those differences and don’t see them as a reason to exclude you from the community.
HG: I know you were talking more about your Jewish heritage just now, but did you ever feel unaccepted by any Asian groups you encountered or has it always been people met you and understood you for who you are?
MY: I find it funny because I think my situation was a little bit unique. In music and at Juilliard there were a lot of Jews and a lot of Chinese people.
HG: So you were with your people naturally.
MY: Yes, and maybe it would have been different if my path was different. But in food blogging too, there’s a huge Jewish community and kosher community that I love connecting with, and then there are many Chinese bloggers who are great and who I also love to follow. I don’t know what other industries would be like, but I think the fact that I have been in two worlds that are filled with my two heritages helped. So I have never felt like I needed to hide part of me.
HG: Have there ever been any specific instances of racism in response to your work?
MY: I wouldn’t call it racism but I think that the one thing people might react negatively to is seeing a recipe that their family made now being fusionified or turned on its head. Again, I don’t think that comes from a racist point of view, it comes from a traditional place, a place of not wanting to try new things, which my reaction to that is, well, you are just no fun and bye. I think it’s a dangerous idea to not want to blend cultures. Fusion is how different cultures exist harmoniously in food. You can create a dish that has flavors from cultures that might not have always gotten along but now it’s this delicious, fun thing that comes from blending them. I think it’s a matter of having an open mind and not just being open to food from other cultures but also being open to people from other cultures. That’s the important thing.
HG: That is. So I don’t even know how to refer to him, like your husband, do I say Eggboy, do I say Nick? I’m not sure what to say.
MY: You can say husband!
HG: I wanted to know what are your husband’s favorite dishes that you make?
MY: He really likes it when I make shakshuka. It’s a dish that I introduced him to when we first started dating. And then we both really like making pizza, because every Friday we have pizza and we just love having whatever different toppings are in our fridge or from our garden, whatever. It’s always something different. My favorite dish to make always is going to be cake because I love frosting cakes and decorating them and letting my inner child unleash with marzipan because it’s kind of like edible Play-Doh.
HG: Is making cakes a creative or precision process? Is it both?
MY: It’s all about reflecting my creativity. There are some things that people can take liberties with that I don’t think are as widely known. I went to this baking class given by Claire Ptak from the Violet Bakery in London [editor’s note: Ptak is behind the elderflower and lemon cakes featured at Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s May 19th wedding reception] and she says that she mixes her cake batters like she mixes soup. So, she’ll taste them. If it needs a little bit of this or a little bit of that, she’ll add different flavorings. I thought that was the coolest thing.
HG: So, did you introduce your husband, I’m sure you did actually, to both Jewish and Chinese cuisines? How was it to introduce someone who had never experienced these things before?
MY: It actually made me learn more about them, because he’s a curious person. Like he would ask me questions about these new foods and to me, they were just foods that I ate growing up. I didn’t often think to dig deeper to learn more about them. And so, if he did ask me questions, I wanted to know the answers, too. And then he was pretty much open to everything. There was one thing that I made him that he didn’t like and that was polenta. But other than that, he’ll eat pretty much everything, which is awesome. It’s really fun to hear him say the word shakshuka in a kind of Minnesotan accent. He’s a really good person to get feedback from because he’ll be very honest with a new recipe, if it’s not quite there or if it’s good or if it has too much of this and that. And so I like having him around.
HG: Has he really embraced those flavors? Does he sometimes out of the blue say, “I really need noodles right now”?
MY: Yep. He even got me a Russ & Daughters care package for my birthday.
HG: That is the most loving thing I have ever heard.
MY: He wanted the bagel and lox…it was pretty epic. We ate it on the tractor.
HG: Speaking of farm life—I don’t want to say you live in the middle of nowhere, but it is sort of, probably, your own insular world.
MY: It is in the middle of nowhere.
HG: It seems to be this world in which you have access to really fresh ingredients but also the space and time to think about making things in a certain way. How has farm life influenced your cooking?
MY: Well, for the first time I do have a garden and I have fresh eggs. Right now we have this huge rhubarb patch, and a lot of what I cook has to do with not wanting to waste anything. And then my cooking also reflects the seasons so fiercely now: when the apples are ripe on the tree, then that’s when we make apple pie and no other time. When in the winter we don’t have as many eggs from our chickens, then we don’t use as many eggs. And then in the summer, all of our vegetables are starting to come up and that’s just to me using fresh ingredients at their best and not adding a whole lot to them.
Being on a farm has helped me get really in tune with the seasons and in tune with various levels of quality of ingredients and get creative with ways to use them. I remember last year we got zucchinis the size of our calves, and so I learned to make zucchini noodle lasagna. I just learned all these new zucchini recipes. The same thing happened with squash. We eat a lot of vegetables here, which is awesome.
HG: It feels very old world but new world. Now, in 2018, people are wanting to scale back and use the most fresh ingredients and go to the farmer’s market and to farms, and just try to replicate that experience in their apartments in whatever city they live in. I have to ask, though, do you think you’re in this farm life for the long run or do you think you might ever move back to a city?
MY: I think it would be cool to retire some place a little more warm and maybe with more delis.
HG: Could that be in the Midwest or back in New York?
MY: Maybe Florida or Hawaii or North Carolina.
HG: What’s the best part, the most fulfilling part, of being both Chinese and Jewish?
MY: The carbs.
HG: The carbs. I like it. Keep it simple. It doesn’t always have to be “Oh, my world has butterflied…”—it can just be carbs.
MY: I really do feel lucky that I was brought up in a family that really values hard work and music and food, but I feel like you could say that about so many cultures. It’s not necessarily unique to them. So, yes, carbs.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Girls Meets Farm premieres on the Food Network on Sunday, June 24th at 11 a.m. ET/PT.