Festival celebrates Utah’s Asian communities with food, music and more

Saturday’s event, billed as the oldest of its kind west of the Mississippi, moves into Utah State Fairpark.

(Rick Egan | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) The Arirang dance group from Korea, performs at the 2016 Utah Asian Festival. The 2022 edition of the festival is set for Saturday, July 9, 2022, at a new location: The Utah State Fairpark.

Emilio Manuel Camu calls the Utah Asian Festival a “big family reunion” — and, with 80 different ethnic subgroups of Asian Americans across Utah, it’s a big family.

This year’s 45th annual festival, set for Saturday at the Utah State Fairpark, will also span three generations, said Camu, the festival’s co-chair.

“We decided to band together our younger Asian Americans: high school, college students to alumni and young professionals,” Camu said, referring to the transformation of the festival’s planning committee.

Many of this year’s performance groups are a mix of different ages, Camu said. On the food side, he added, visitors will experience “different generations of families coming together to preserve and innovate the way that they present their cultural food with the resources available in the state of Utah.”

The festival, said Camu, who started as a volunteer 10 years ago, “shows how inter-generational our community is and how we continue to be dutiful in order to bring this festival to continue for the next 45 years.”

The festival bills itself as the “longest running continuous event of its kind held this side of the Mississippi River.”

The festival’s core tenet, Camu said, is to bring everyone together, of all different places and languages. When the festival started in 1978, he said, “our elders decided to come together to support these refugees coming in” — referring to a drive by then-Gov. Scott Matheson to relocate southeast Asian refugees from California’s Camp Pendleton to Utah.

According to the most recent U.S. Census data, Asian Americans make up 2.7% of Utah’s population, and the community is growing.

To accommodate that growing community, the festival has moved to the Fairpark from its former location in Sandy’s Mountain America Expo Center. Camu said organizers keep the admission free (not counting $5 for all-day parking), as homage to the Asian community’s beginnings in Utah, when “many of us started with no income.”

Festival food options

Moving to the Utah State Fairpark created another opportunity for the Utah Asian Festival — space to more than double the number of food and drink vendors.

“Ideally, we were looking at eight to 10 in the beginning, with 20 to 25 being super-amazing, especially with the new venue,” said Samatha Tse, the chair of the festival’s food booths. “So we’re excited we were able to get to that number.”

Camu said the festival has drawn a mix of food trucks and food booths.

“Historically, at the past two venues that we’ve been at for the past 44 years, it really has been like mom-and-pop, or even our nonprofit community organizations in the Asian community that are trying to fundraise,” he said. “So this space has allowed us to expand into these other things we’ve been trying to get, with the same focus on Asian-owned mom-and-pop shops, but also the food our Asian community loves to eat.”

For the most part, Tse said, most of the food vendors are new, or not Salt Lake Valley-based — with some traveling for the festival from Layton or Roy. Tse said she was excited to host all of them, but highlighted a few that are offering something different:

Sara Thai Kitchen — which operates a brick-and-mortar restaurant at 60 E. 800 South, Salt Lake City — will have two booths. One of them is selling popular Thai food items, including Thai iced tea and Pad Thai. “But then their other booth is actually a live cooking demonstration of their Pad Thai,” Tse said. “It blends the cultural and food aspect together, because inside the building are cultural booths and outside we’ve got the food, so it’s a fun and special situation for them.”

Xing Fu Chang will open this fall in Salt Lake City’s 9th and 9th neighborhood — and this is Utahns’ first chance to get a taste of their boba teas, made with fresh milk and brown sugar. “They bring in these little torches that they will use for each of the drinks. They put a rose on one drink,” Tse said. “They have their storefront location opening this fall, so it’s a fun opportunity to have people get a taste of what they’re bringing to Salt Lake.”

Dallas Lemonade and Thangz is a newer food truck, started by six-year-old Dallas Tupola and his mom. “He’s this little kid entrepreneur,” Tse said. “He’s really fun, too. We learned about a lot of these vendors through people we know in the community, or just through word of mouth.” Tse also credited Camu, who’s “a wonderful foodie,” for connecting the festival to more food trucks.

The family behind Kitty’s Family Dumpling moved to Utah from Los Angeles two years ago, Tse said, and weren’t able to find any authentic Shanghai-style street food — so they started a food truck.

Sushi Squad has a full vegan menu, “and a lot of the trucks have vegan options, which is nice,” Tse said, “Kitty’s Family Dumpling has all-vegan potstickers, a lot of menus are accommodating to vegans and vegetarians.”

The Yum Yum Food Truck in Layton, which serves Filipino food, was targeted by a hate crime last year, when its truck was defaced with anti-Asian graffiti. Utah Jazz player Jordan Clarkson stepped forward to help them replace their truck, and they are now back on the road.

“One of the things we wanted to highlight this year was to show the seriousness of the ongoing anti-Asian hate — our businesses have been impacted,” Camu said. “So this is a place for those wondering how they can support our community, not only can you come and learn about our culture, but you can support our businesses.”

Finally, the festival collaborated with Spice Kitchen Incubator, which connected them with two food businesses, Waterwheel Kitchen and Halab’s Jasmine Kitchen, which both serve Middle Eastern food,.

“We’re excited because I feel like a lot of times when you think of Asian food, you think of traditionally eastern Asia, but we want to make sure that more cultures are represented,” Tse said. “So western Asia, some Middle Eastern food and things like that.”

There’s only one problem with having so many booths and trucks — which were still being added at press time — so how do people choose?

“We’re encouraging people to come with a group of friends,” Camu said. “You all get in line for a different thing. And then you can come together, watch the performances on the second floor, and share, share, share, family-style.”

Camu said, the festival is meant to be a place for Utah’s Asian American community to gather, and a place for everyone else to enjoy “fun, food and culture,” and to “learn about your fellow Utahns of Asian descent.”

The festival, Camu said, is “a beautiful place to be at and really reflect on the growing diversity of all the populations of Asian Americans in Utah.”

The Utah Asian Festival happens Saturday, July 9, in the Grand Building of the Utah State Fairpark, 1000 W. North Temple, Salt Lake City. Admission is free; all-day parking is $5.