My moments of joy are around the dining table, starting with rice, whose aroma is my favorite in the world: the signal that dinner will soon be ready.

In the Asian American Pacific Islander community, food is how we show love. It’s how we communicate, how we cope and find comfort. Instead of hugs, my family piles more into your bowl.

“Food brings us all together,” said Martin Yan, who became the first Asian American to have a cooking show in 1978. “That’s the reason why in Asia, particularly China … we sit at a round table and talk to each other, face to face, in front of food.”

And like our food, the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community is diverse. The places we come from encompass more than 50 countries and territories, each with numerous ethnicities. Asian Americans make up almost 6 percent of the U.S. population and are the fastest-growing ethnic group, according to Pew Research, increasing by 81 percent between 2000 and 2019, from roughly 10.5 to 18.9 million.

To honor the community, Congress in 1978 designated May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, according to the U.S. Census, “to coincide with two important milestones in Asian Pacific American history”: the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to the United States on May 7, 1843, and contributions of Chinese workers to the Transcontinental Railroad, completed May 10, 1869.

Our diversity is lovingly displayed in our dishes. When I first dated my future husband, we bonded over cooking, fusing our mothers’ recipes for the meatball entree lion’s head (shīzitóu or 獅子頭). This was the first of many compromises we made after he asked which of our mothers cooked better. We both may be Chinese, but he and his family hail from Hong Kong, while I was born in Memphis to parents from Hunan, China, and Taipei, Taiwan. His palate is a little sweeter, mine a little spicier. His question could have easily led to our first fight, if we couldn’t agree that our moms’ cooking styles were special in their own ways.

Writer Marian Liu toasted with boba at her wedding.
Writer Marian Liu toasted with boba at her wedding.
Liu has been making wontons — and dumplings — on a regular basis during the pandemic. She learned how to make and fold them from her mother.
Liu has been making wontons — and dumplings — on a regular basis during the pandemic. She learned how to make and fold them from her mother.

LEFT: Writer Marian Liu toasted with boba at her wedding. (Orange Turtle Photography) RIGHT: Liu has been making wontons — and dumplings — on a regular basis during the pandemic. She learned how to make and fold them from her mother. (Marian Liu/The Washington Post)

Food has also been a source of my community’s pride and pain, how many of us introduced others to our culture and how we first felt different in that “lunchbox moment.” When I was little, I would have given anything to transform my mom’s home-cooked meal of dumplings into Lunchables and Doritos. This sad thought lingered when I started to work and the smell of my leftovers escaped the microwave.

“Those childhood memories are very embarrassing but very humbling,” said Jo Koy, a Filipino American comedian, who recalled how his mom would pack Filipino food for lunch in a Cool Whip container. “My mom was the original recycler. So she didn’t throw away anything that had a lid. … Of course, I’m going to be embarrassed, but I also had to eat lunch.”

Food is also how we are exoticized. Not too long ago, “Fear Factor” dared contestants to eat the Chinese delicacy thousand-year-old egg (pídàn or 皮蛋), something my mom would serve with breakfast.

“The ingredients in these dishes were by far not trendy nor sexy growing up,” said Christine Ha, a Vietnamese American chef in Houston, the first blind contestant on the Fox show “MasterChef” and the 2012 winner. “It was a lot of food that was odds and ends of animals and things that didn’t really smell great, like fish sauce.” For her, it was comfort food, even though she was “embarrassed about bringing it to school. But as I turned into a young adult, I really missed those flavors that reminded me of my mom’s table and kitchen.”