MONTGOMERY, Ohio — For Edward Zha and Katherine Wen, cooking is about more than food.

It’s about celebrating their Chinese heritage and sharing it with others.

That’s more important than ever now, they said, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the anti-Asian rhetoric that has accompanied it.

“During this crisis, like, Asian hate and all that, we really need to be proud of ourselves and show who we really are,” said Edward, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Mason Middle School.

“We shouldn’t be ashamed of showing our culture and things that we enjoy,” added Katherine, a 15-year-old sophomore at Sycamore High School. “I think with food, you don’t really need to know a certain language or be part of a culture. Anyone can enjoy food from any culture, so I think that’s really nice.”

The teens have been honing their cooking skills – and building their pride – as part of a new youth program launched by the Greater Cincinnati Chinese Cultural Exchange Association. The program has eight youth leaders who oversee its three pillars: sharing food, performing arts and storytelling.

Felicity Tao is smiling in this photo. She has black, chin-length hair and is wearing glasses and a blue, embroidered top.

Lucy May | WCPO

Felicity Tao

“I cannot tell you how excited I am, because I personally see the growth of these youth,” said Felicity Tao, the association’s co-chair. “I really think all of these young kids have the potential to be leaders in the community. They can really serve the community, and it’s always a way for them to discuss their passion.”

Edward and Katherine lead the cooking group, and both will be sharing what they’ve learned during the Asian Food Fest this weekend. They will oversee a secret menu booth and serve some of their tastiest dishes.

‘I get to find my true identity’

Edward will be making Biang Biang Mian, a spicy noodle dish that he first tasted at an authentic Xi’an restaurant in Columbus that his family likes to visit. It’s named for the sound that the dough makes when hitting the board as it’s being prepared.

He likes the dish so much that he got a recipe from YouTube and learned to make it himself. Now Edward sells the noodle dish to neighbors and friends.

“I always loved cooking, and then since COVID came in, my mom had a lot of Zoom meetings, because she’s a Chinese teacher,” he said. “Most days I would cook lunch or dinner by myself. And I would use YouTube and watch a lot of simpler dishes. And gradually I went to harder dishes and my own cultural dishes.”

Katherine said she started cooking more during COVID-19 quarantine, too, and usually made lunch for herself when she attended classes virtually last school year.

Edward Zha cooking noodles for Biang Biang Mian. He is wearing a dark blue t-shirt and is using chop sticks to stir a pot of noodles.

Lucy May | WCPO

Edward Zha cooking noodles for Biang Biang Mian.

For the Asian Food Festival, she’ll be making Zongzi, or sticky rice dumplings. Her Zongzi will be wrapped in reed leaves and stuffed with dates, although she said other varieties can be stuffed with meat or egg yolks.

“Zongzi is eaten for a holiday. It’s the Dragon Boat Festival,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to cook food from your culture and celebrate traditional holidays and be able to show it to people who’d like to learn.”

Edward joined the GCCCEA youth program a few months ago, he said, because cooking is his passion.

“My family is, like, really into cooking. My dad’s cooking is better than my mom’s – don’t tell her that,” he said with a grin as his mom stood a few feet away. “I feel like whenever I cook with them, I get to find my true identity with them. And it’s a lot of fun.”

Katherine enjoys cooking, too, she said, but joined the youth program primarily to meet people.

Passion, enthusiasm and commitment

“I’ve made a lot of new friends through this program,” she said. “And also volunteering with a lot of festivals and things, it’s just a lot of fun being able to help the community with things like that.”

Tao said Edward and Katherine have taken charge of the secret menu booth for this weekend’s Asian Food Festival with very little involvement from GCCCEA’s adult leaders.

“They were planning, and they were deciding on the menus, and they will cook some of the food on-site as well,” she said, in addition to staffing the booth to sell the food and talk with people who stop by. “Their passion and their enthusiasm and their commitment make us think they can run this program, and we will support them however we can.”

It’s all part of the goal of the youth program to help youth embrace their cultural identity, become strong leaders and serve the community, she said. While the group is open to youth from any background, Tao said, it has been especially important for Asian American youth during the pandemic.

Katherine Wen ties string around a reed leaf as part of her Zongzi preparation. She is wearing a crop-top argyle sweater and has long, black hair.

Lucy May | WCPO

Katherine Wen ties string around a reed leaf as part of her Zongzi preparation.

“We are very proud of our heritage culture, and there is no reason that they don’t belong here,” Tao said. “So by discovering themselves, connecting with others, hopefully they will find it’s a little easier for them to embrace their own culture.”

The Asian Food Fest will be from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 9, and from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 10, on the new Court Street Plaza on East Court Street between Vine and Walnut streets in downtown Cincinnati. More information is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.