I met Henry Hsu soon after I met my now husband and we bonded right away over a love of fashion, New York City, travel and collecting beautiful little knick knacks. Henry is of Taiwanese descent, grew up in Texas, went to college in Iowa, lived in New York City for many years, and now calls Oakland, CA home. Henry has studied and worked in architecture and fashion but food is his true love. He has some of the most impressive knowledge around food history, especially when it comes to Taiwanese cuisine and how it connects to so many other cultures. He has spent the last few years honing his passion for food and specializes in dumplings and an incredible beef noodle soup, the national dish of Taiwan. This interview explores Henry's inspiration, how his heritage and family ties into it all, and reminds us all that life is a constant journey.
1. Let’s start at the beginning—when did you first fall in love with cooking?
When I first went to college in Iowa, I suddenly had zero access to the foods I grew up eating, and I started calling home to ask about how this or that was made. I went to a pretty small little school in the middle of the prairie, but it was also the first time I had close Asian and Asian American friends. We would drive through blizzards just to go to the Asian grocer in Des Moines or Iowa City to get various pantry items, and we’d cook together, share stories and invariably technique and cultural stories. In the same vein, we also just did this across the cultural spectrum. I remember it was my first time making challah, midwestern hotdishes, fried yuca patties, eating rice and dal with my hands.
2. You have previously worked in other creative fields, including fashion. Do you find your past work and fields of study influences your cooking and work today?
I’ve always loved food and design. I suppose there’s some creative “making” aspect about these arenas. When I worked for 45rpm, the Japanese denim company, I traveled a lot to Japan or Europe for work with the owner and head designer. They had an immersive philosophy about life, that it should engage the five senses, so we spent a lot of our focus not just on the visual and tactile (related to fashion) but to smells, tastes, and all things contextual around an experience.
Nowadays, people scoff at those of us who are prolific photo-takers of our food, but I love it! Back in the 80s, before the phone camera, Asians were mocked for photographing everything. I’m sort of glad it’s commonplace now :). When I studied architecture in Japan one summer, our professor wouldn’t let us eat until we sketched our food first. When we got faster at that, we had to sketch, then watercolor them, haha! Needless to say, it has sharpened at least my critical eye, even if I’m horrible at drawing now?
3. How important is the connection between your family and heritage with your recipes and the food you cook?
I didn’t grow up in the kitchen; we weren’t actually allowed there, as we were expected to be studying. But I remember watching my paternal grandmother and mother toiling away, making the food that was important to feeding our family. A lot of the greens were grown by my grandfather in the backyard. This is 70s/80s East Texas mind you, so we didn’t have access to a lot of pantry items, so my grandfather tended to his garden with seeds he’d smuggle back with him from Taiwan, along with the occasional parakeet (he bred) in his coat pocket! And my grandmother would make the things we weren’t able to find out and about in Houston. Back then, as the rest of the country, Chinese food was mostly Cantonese with an occasional Hunanese or Sichuanese spot, but for Taiwanese style foods, we had to make it at home. The most similar cuisine my family gravitated towards were the Chinese Vietnamese Seafood places!
When I moved to Ecuador in 2007, I was really at a loss for where to find the foods I missed. This is when I began to make my own dumpling dough, unavailable as a store bought item so I had to figure that out, which then led me down the path to making my own versions of “nostalgic” Taiwanese foods. I felt like I was reliving my family's experience in Texas back in the 70s. Even here in the states, it was only LA or parts of NYC where one could find a Taiwanese restaurant. Otherwise, you needed to know an auntie who was selling things from their house, go to a Taiwanese church for Sunday lunch, or reside in an urban area with a Taiwan Community Center. Nowadays, it’s exciting to see young first and second generation Taiwanese seeking out food and identity through it.
4. Is there any particular cook or cookbook that has influenced your work?
Unfortunately, being illiterate in Chinese, I haven’t been able to access cookbooks on Taiwanese food up until recently with new publications like Made in Taiwan by Clarissa Wei & Kitchen Ivy, First Generation by Frankie Gaw, and The Food of Taiwan by Cathy Erway amongst others.
My biggest inspirations for cooking are my aunt in Taiwan, who cooked for a family of ten siblings! She’s my go-to in Taipei, where I always go seek her out first to chat, shop, and cook with, after a quick stop at the soymilk counter where I get a Shao Bing You Tiao and Sweet Soymilk!
I also spent a month and a half in a small local cooking school in Taipei run by this indomitable woman known for teaching street vendors and small shop owners classic Taiwanese dishes. Originally from Taichung, she was suddenly left with two kids to raise alone, and being an avid cook, several decades ago, moved to Taipei and started a cooking school. She inspires so many people to cook good simple dishes, in order to give them economic opportunities to survive. It’s a family business with her son who also instructs, and as well, is the head of the second branch of the school in Guangdong (yes, Taiwanese food is popular in China, too!). While I was there, there were so many street vendors learning new techniques and ways to streamline their street cart operations. I had classmates from HK, Malaysia, Australia; I was surprised! She’s no frills and under the social media radar but a word-of-mouth inspiration.
5. Where do you go or what do you do when you’re seeking inspiration?
Oh gosh, since the pandemic, coupled with living in the Bay Area, it’s a combination of needing to clear my mind before seeking inspiration, so I’d say nature! I’ve sought both solace and camaraderie in nature walks, ranging from the coast, woods, to the hills…..and always coupled with seeking out what is interesting to eat near one of these spots!
6. At Seek, we value personal style as a vehicle for creativity and self-expression. How would you describe your personal style?
MAXIMAL . ECLECTIC . PERSONAL
I love everything! It’s a problem bordering on hoarding? Haha, so I’ve embraced it and focus on things I love for aesthetic, emotional, and personal things. I focus on vignettes, and some refer to them as altars, but I think style comes together “well” when it’s natural and organically curated.
In fashion, I veer towards the CASUAL. I tend to do whatever is easiest. The last several years working in food production, and living in California, I’ve skewed comfy cotton tees and always in short pants. I love a lightweight woven shirt, never ironed, as I’ve been indoctrinated by my time at 45rpm. I also adhere to natural fabrics and if possible, natural dyes ;). I prefer a solid piece that lasts a long time, and I try to take care of my clothing. Never tumble dry a woven!
7. What’s the most recent piece of art you’ve felt moved or inspired by—whether a book, a film, an exhibit, etc.?
Not to be so food focused, but my ubiquitous collection of random pottery by Jered Nelson. I used to live by his studio in SW Berkeley, and I just thought of him as the pottery guy in the gas station. He had an open air studio in an defunct gas station with the tall station signage simply stating “California Pottery”. I would pick up random pieces, seconds on sale mostly, and have been doing so for 13 years!? I had no idea of his background (working at Heath), or that he created dinnerware for local restaurants, until he started hosting culinary events with chefs. Or that he was someone RH (restoration hardware) would ask to create a collection; he did this for them for 7 years. I remember him saying to them that he would not design a collection for them to reproduce somewhere else, that his intent was to make local pottery, with California clay, made by local potters, so he embarked on the process to build out a space to make that happen!
I use his products daily! Sarah, his wife, mentioned once…Henry has the most extensive survey of Jered’s work, haha. When everyone started gathering again, after Shelter-in-Place, they asked me to cater the get together with dumplings. Loved doing that….and was fun to be able to barter for some dinner ware. I’m having a cup of coffee right now in a pineapple shaped piece right now, as I write this. Pineapples, an auspicious charm for the Hokkien, a homophone in my language for “Prosperity Come”!
8. What’s the best advice you’ve received so far and who did it come from?
Although Asians aren’t known for giving a lot of verbal praise or accolades, especially ones parents, the most tender and poignant thing my father said to me once was, “If you don’t step outside your front door, how will people know how great you are?” This was prompted by something I think we all know well, that feeling of self doubt and hesitation that looms over many things we do.
9. And what advice would you give to someone who would like to turn their passion or hobby into a career, but is afraid to take the leap?
Oh gosh, I feel like I’m not one to give advice on this! It’s a journey and a process. Often I feel like I’m sputtering along. There’s a lot of “I should be” or “Why am I doing…” what I’m doing…I’m not very good at doing the “You should be doing” anything, so all I can say to anyone, including myself, is “Go for it!” I’ve spent a lot of time hesitating, but I’ve also had a lot of amazing experiences that have enriched my life and brought me to an understanding of the world. And it’s ongoing. At 52, I’m currently out there plugging along, alongside millennials and zilennials, thinking, OMG what am I doing?! It’s a shift, but life has been about a lot of these eclectic shifts.
10. Are there any projects you’re currently working on that you’re particularly excited about?
I moved into my apartment right before the pandemic, and then I spent an inordinate amount of time here. I’d say my personal space is very important to me, but I haven’t gotten a handle on the garden. I’m now in the process of clearing it out and conceiving how to create a low maintenance, California native focused space. I have architectural fantasies of course (my previous life before fashion) and am working with some carpenter and gardening friends to slowly hack this out.
Also, Oramasama Dumplings. I’ve been talking about Taiwanese food, cooking it, and obsessing about it, but I’m finally trying to see how I can get my food out more to folks!
11. What are you seeking more of this year?
I hope to spend more time with my parents as they get older, to cook for them and to work on my recipes, cooking my version of Taiwanese foods with all of the local California ingredients I’ve come to know, from the farmers, and local ranchers doing their best to create a local and sustainable food community.
Follow Henry Hsu @oramasamadumplings and if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can reach out to him about private events.
All photographs here taken by Naomi Phan-Quang
Happy Lunar New Year!
Those dumplings look amazing, particularly the beet ones with the beautiful dough stamp.
I like your style — and admire your priorities!
Obsessed with this peek into the genius mind of Henry! He is one of a kind, inspirational, and so much fun. And looks great in these clothes. “Never tumble dry a woven!”