We are what we eat – and how that’s sourced and prepared and served, who we eat with, when and how and where and why, all make up people, communities, countries, worlds.
Everyone has a story. It doesn’t matter if you’re a business management undergrad whose path has taken an unexpected turn towards working as a domestic helper, or a forklift driver who spent days dreaming of being an artist – and found his twin-pronged passions as a cartoonist and activist.
Those are two truths, and you’ll find them both – and more – in The Food That Makes Us, by Foong Li Mei and Szetoo Weiwen, both 30.
The roots of The Food That Makes Us lie in loss and memory. In the moment at her father-in-law’s funeral that Foong realised, that along with the passing of a patriarch, they had also lost his signature recipe for chicken rice and braised chicken feet with mushrooms. (Click the link for a Hainanese Chicken Rice recipe based on one in The Food That Makes Us.)
In the first chapter, “Don’t Forget To Remember”, she writes: “None of the family members has learned the recipe or the finesse of balancing technique and time. Just like that, we lost one recipe and a dear character who had brought the family together for at least one day every year.
“I did not want to lose more.”
So she set out on a journey of collection, collating, curating and saving that has seen the shoots of the book bear blooms of the pickled snapshots of lives, fruits of preserved stories, laughter, life, joy and memories kept alive.
“When I had the idea for the project, it was a bit hard to explain to people – they kept thinking it was just about my family, or just a cookbook,” says Foong. But what she wanted was a lens, a series about food that would also explore the country and its people.
Early incarnations of the stories and recipes were published in a series called Cooking People, in The B-Side digital magazine. Once the magazine ceased operations, Foong decided to keep the stories alive in a book. “When I started the series, it was always going to be a book – but I wasn’t 100% sure about the angle,” says Foong. “The only way for me to explore and find out was to do it.”
Szetoo, who owns art store Stickeriffic, was her journey companion. The two have been friends since they met waitressing at a nonya restaurant in high school – “even then our friendship had a backdrop of food!” says Foong – and then went through university together.
As Foong pursued freelance writing from her university days – stringing for The Sun, as well as other newspapers and magazines – Szetoo realised a love for being behind the camera.
“Szetoo was the first person I thought of when I wanted to embark on this project. She had her own vegetarian food blog, and I knew she was someone that had opinions about her food!” says Foong. Together, they invested their savings of about RM40,000 to put the book together and self-publish it with an initial print run of 1,000 copies.
“Some are people we know, like my husband and Szetoo’s mother, both of whom we wrote about,” says Foong. “Others were friends of friends of friends … this is how I do things in life, tell people what I’m working on and then ask around!”
They weren’t picky about their subjects, because of their deep-seated belief that everyone has a story – it’s just a matter of the skill of journalist and photographer, to coax it out, and crystallise it. “You can’t just ask someone what’s interesting about their life also, they’re not likely to answer you!” says Foong.
So a lot of the work they did in collecting their stories was in building relationships and getting to know the people they were immortalising. “Like when we met Tengku (Sepachendra Tengku Abdul Rashid), we had no idea of her royal links. Until we were in her house, and saw her collection of keys – which turned out to be old palace keys!” says Foong.
Each recipe in The Food That Makes Us is different and distinct, a myriad reflections of the personalities and cultures that make up Malaysia. “We didn’t want to subscribe to or create the archetype of the home cook, so we featured a single dad, a grandmother, aunties, a domestic helper, the orang asli community and well-to-do urbanites,” says Foong. Basically, a cross-section of the people many Malaysians would meet every day.
Ultimately, rewarding journeys aren’t easy ones. Szetoo gamely shot in kitchens that she had no prior experience with, with Foong holding the lighting for her while simultaneously conducting her interview.
“What I have realised from working on this book is that a lot of our kitchens are pretty dark!” she says. “But we shot in their kitchens because we realised that the only way to really understand someone is to see their home.”
And who they are is also very much reflected in how they cook and eat.
“Augustus’ singleminded passion for researching tuak is reflected in his minimalistic apartment, where most of the space is occupied by water cooler-sized bottles of fermenting liquid,” says Foong.
“Tengku keeps memories alive with her vast collections of ornaments, etc, just as she preserves the wisdom of her grandmother and mother by cooking the dishes they taught her. The orang asli cook over an open fire outside, which reflects their close relationship with the land.”
Picking out just one narrative thread to focus on in the story of a life was a difficult task, Foong found. And logistics were always a challenge, so for the fascinating story on the orang asli – with recipes for delicious-sounding lemang ikan (fish stew cooked in bamboo) and kantan sambal (torch ginger flower and chilli sambal with anchovies) – she appreciated help from Reita Rahim of non-profit Gerai OA.
With writing and photography squared, the final element to complete the book came from local illustrator Tuan Nini. Her gorgeous works introduce every new chapter and story; rather than just being artworks of food though, they are interpretations of the story, and add richness and depth.
A bottle holds the sepia-toned memories of a village, and a traditional wooden mould extrudes the verdant strings of pandan putu mayam – on individual banana leaves, but joined by some individual strands, in a story about generations, families and the ties that bind. “They reflect how the stories make her feel,” says Foong.
Working on The Food That Makes Us impacted Foong and Szetoo in ways they didn’t expect.
While Foong found a newfound sense of comfort in the kitchen, learning that it was okay to not be perfect, as long as she tried – “I still make mistakes sometimes these days, but I enjoy cooking so much more,” she says – Szetoo saw food and people in a new light. “I have newfound respect for people who cook,” says Szetoo. “It’s about doing things with your own hands, and when people cook for you, they’re spending their time on you.
“This book is about mothers cooking for their children, about keeping tradition alive. It’s about depending on one another, the community and spirit behind the recipes.”
The Food that Makes Us is available at Kinokuniya, Stickerrific, Bookalicious, and online stores. For more information, go to www.facebook.com/thefoodthatmakesus/