Zaira Asis wants to talk about the anthropological concept of cultural retention. Or more specifically, the way food helps people connect to their cultures of origin. The academic and cook would know: she staged at Flour + Water and Rich Table, and is currently pulling shifts at Lord Stanley, working with Mari Vega during her stint in San Francisco. She also was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil as a kid, with both of her grandmothers sharing Italian heritage. That’s why she started her dining series, Casa Aya, which she also calls a “speakeasy pop-up.”
When she started in January 2022, it was just dinners at her house, a chance to harvest and showcase what vegetables she had in her garden. But, then the dinners outpaced her homegrown produce. “My garden was dead, so I cheated a little bit,” Asis laughs. “I’m trying to recreate my experience with my family around the table.” She moved to the United States about six years ago to work in tech after getting a degree in international relations and completing a stint in culinary school. While she enjoyed working at a large company for almost eight years, she never lost her passion for exploring cultures and cuisines. In a way, it was a now-familiar pandemic-induced crisis. “I knew I wanted to work much closer with food,” Asis says. “As an immigrant in another country, I was fortunate my mother was a fantastic cook. Those moments around the table were way more than eating. It was a way to be connected to a larger thing: our Argentinian culture.”
That culture shows up in her menu in addition to her approach. She’s cooked roasted beets, peaches, pepper sauce, and farofa; rambutan ceviche, a vegan spin on the Peruvian dish; and sweet bread tostadas. Past menu themes included the five elements, the equinox, and Brazilian Carnaval. Maybe unsurprisingly, given her love of international studies, Asis writes about her dishes and pop-ups in a Subtack called Merienda. Her next pop-up at the Wave Collective Space will explore one of her grandmother’s cooking traditions; she turns 90 years old in November and grew up on a farm in Cordoba, Argentina.
She’s not sure exactly where she wants all this to go just yet — a permanent location or keep traveling — but she strongly believes food is more than food, and she wants to keep sharing that philosophy. One idea is through cooking classes, and another avenue is through running an atelier where she’d help businesses and brands tell their stories through gastronomic experiences. “This pop-up is so personal and dear to my heart,” Asis says. “My dream for the future of Casa Aya is to share this vessel with more people.”
Casa Aya will next pop up at 440 Haight Street on November 17 at 7 p.m. with details to follow via Instagram.