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A Conversation on Cooking, Memory, and Resistance: Interview with Singaporean Artists ila and Kin Chui
關於煮食、記憶,與反抗:與新加坡藝術家ila、Kin Chui對談
November 6th, 2019Type: Interview
Author: Chang, En-Man , ila, Kin Chui, Sheryl Cheung (English copy editor) Editor: Rikey Tenn
Quote From: 《群島資料庫10:Chang En-Man - Snail Paradise》
Note: In June this year, artist Chang En-Man made a research trip to Singapore, a place from which African giant land snail (Achatina fulica) were introduced to Taiwan in 1932. Today, the species has become a notorious invasive species in the Taiwanese ecosystem. While the artist sought to discover local snail cuisine recipes, during her stay, she was invited to join "Makan' Makan," an event organized by local artists ila and Kin Chui as part of A Weekend Affair (a self-organised art festival/ symposium). The following is a conversation between Chang, ila and Kin Chui about food, cooking, and how these topics reveal the interconnections between the islands. (Thanks to Yeo Siew Hua and John Tung for facilitating this interview.)
Chang En-Man, “Body and Food” (現打蝸牛, performance); image courtesy of artist

Chang En-Man: Just like your case, my mother always cooked snails, and her cooking for me is accompanied with emotional memory. The kind of snails that were used in cuisine were brought to Taiwan by Japanese officers as a food source during colonial rule. Originally, the residents on the west side of the island consumed the snails. Now, there are only indigenous people on the east side who still consider snails as food, The same shift happened in Singapore.

Once when I was cooking with people from my own tribe, I noticed that they would add snails in certain traditional cuisines, as a notion of cultural interpretation and inclusion. I found it interesting to trace the journey along which the snails had been spread out from Singapore to Taiwan. So now I am in Singapore and during the very short time of our acquaintance, I was very pleased to join your event (“Makan’ Makan”). It was really touching to see your food presented on a big grass mat while we sat alongside eating. I would like to ask you some questions and also bring your ‘gift’ back to Taiwan to share with other friends. To start, can you introduce a little about yourselves.

 

ila: My name is ila. I am a visual and performance artist. Mainly using projections and my body, my work looks at different social issues, and also responds to the idea of how to look at things differently — What are the things we generally overlook? I have always loved to cook, but it is only recently that I am thinking about it more critically.

 

Kin Chui: I’m Kin. I am a visual artist, art worker. I’m also a member of soft/WALL/studs, which is the space that we are currently conducting this interview in. A lot of my works are rooted in films, but takes an expanded approach beyond the discipline itself. The core thread within them looks at histories and the notion of resistance, and in many ways, how do we also encompass such experiences.

 

 

Chang: Can you talk about how your family is related to the cuisines?

 

Kin: My family is both Peranakan and Cantonese. Both cultures revolve heavily around food. But I came to realize very recently that a lot of my food experiences were very much related to my father. I guessed in many Asian cultures as well, one’s relationship with the food in a way is the dominant mode of showing ‘love’, or the ‘care’ to one another.

 

ila: For me, cooking is really about the idea of transmission of knowledge. It is something that you share not through language but something within the body. Generally when people cook, they don’t use precise measurements or recipes, they just feel what is right and cook according to taste. There is something that can’t be modified and that interests me, how one grows up with a certain kind of food and retains memory of it.

 

"Makan' Makan' by A Weekend Affair; source: facebook.com/awkndaffr/

Chang: When did you start making food?

 

ila: I started when my mom stopped cooking. When I was in high school, I worked in a café, where I had to do a lot of food preparation, and that was when I became interested in cooking for myself and experimenting with different ingredients. As I grow older, I began looking back at the kinds of food I grew up with. As a woman, I helped my mom cook when I was growing up, even though I did not want to. I learned how to cut chili to make it sweet, or how to cut it to make it spicy. There are different ways of cutting, and I did not write them down but remember the methods even now. If you want the chili sweet, you have to cut it long, if you want it spicy, you cut it in small circles.

 

Chang: When you got into cooking, did you start with Malay food?

 

ila:  I started with things that appeared nonsensical, like mixing sambal with ikan bilis and cheese in a sandwich. Playing around with it. I also tried mimicking recipes or experimenting with things that I was not so familiar with. I wanted to make food that would provide some comfort. As I matured in my cooking, I became more interested in sharing the food I grew up with, rather than making new recipes. I used to experiment with food to understand the extent to which I could push the boundaries of cooking. But I still wanted my meals to be enjoyable. That is my general idea of grounding and sharing.

 

Kin: I started properly making food when I first moved to Vienna to study. In the craving of certain foods and certain dishes that is more familiar to one’s palate, in a remote place, one would have no other choice but to prepare it. It wasn’t that there was a lack of food choices, but cuisines less immediate to the region, if available, were also much more expensive. I started from basic dishes like congee using my father’s recipe, as he was the one who would usually do the cooking in my home. I remember the story of my father taking the responsibility of preparing the reunion dinner meal within our household. In such occasions, the main dish was usually buah keluak. My maternal grandmother didn’t give my dad the recipe, as she had already ‘retired’ and did not want to be involved in matters relating to the household any longer. So he painstakingly cooked it for three years before she actually gave her approval. As we only prepare the dish once a year, he had to try change it bit by bit based on my grandmother’s feedback each time.

Historically the household belonged to the realm of the matriarch, a space governed by the women of the household. Recipes were usually passed on to women, as it was also a currency in itself. But my mom was of a generation where the ideology of practicality was advocated by the state, so within the frame of a postwar Singapore where the mode of production shifted towards an industrial capitalist one, towards a ‘rebuilding’ of what became the nation state, a lot of women took to the workforce. It was also a situation of ‘modernizing’ as well, and you know, cooking for the family was seen as ‘less modern’ so she’d never quite picked it up, similarly I speculate it was in reaction towards stereotypes of the Peranakan household. But my dad always loved food, and it was his way of showing his affection. He also really liked to cook and experiment in the kitchen. In many senses my love for cooking developed from his love for it. My mom only very recently started to pick up cooking, as previously my dad was the one who was willing to put in the labor for it. She was always the more practical one, but I mean in making such a gesture also goes against the gendered division of reproductive labor, I think it’s quite Feminist Marxist. (Laughing)

 

‘Xenoctober’ in soft/WALL/studs, 2018; courtesy of soft/WALL/studs

Chang: What is the traditional cultural background of your cooking?

 

ila: The kinds of food I cook has no specific cultural background. There are some Indian elements, there are some Malay elements, and some Arab spices. There is also some method of cooking like steaming that is very Chinese style. So I do not specifically follow just one culture. Because Singapore is already so mixed, there is so much migration. It’s very famous for Malaysians and Singaporeans to get in the argument about where is local food originates. For example, where is the origin of Laksa? Who has the best Wan Tan Meer? Everything is so blurry in terms of its beginnings, because we all eat the same foods without a very strong sense of ownership.

When I mix something, I mix it in a way I am comfortable with. I don’t make laksa the way Singaporeans usually do; I make it like how my auntie does it, which is Johor Laksa, and that is completely different. Some dishes do have specific recipes, but overall the influences come from everywhere. The version I make is not traditional. Because what is traditional? How do you define ‘tradition’? For example, now we blend chili, but traditionally chili should be grounded.

 

Kin: I have a similar perspective as ila. You pick up what you have learnt from previous cooking attempts, drawing from certain situations and contexts. I learned so much from cooking with refugees in Vienna (how they prepared their curry base, for example) while we were occupying the Votivpark during a protest in 2012. How has that experience influenced my own development in cooking. How do these practices of sharing within the kitchen with and alongside others inform how we approach things. I have to say there is one particular thing that influences me a lot. It’s the Chinese philosophy of flavors — the idea of five flavors. That becomes the entry to many things: if the flavor is not right, what other component could one add in? Otherwise, you just pick what you want and what you can get for a dish. Traditions can be heavy like a weight, but when you can bring in other styles and concepts, why not?

 

 

Chang: Please recommend me some local snail dishes.

 

ila: You can make a dish called ‘singgang,’ which is made with a light fish soup base. Cut some chilis, onions, with a bit of ginger and garlic. There is also lemon grass, turmeric, and coriander, and assam water (including tamarind). Basically it is tom yum without the coconut milk. Here you use chilli padi, then just let everything boil. I think the soup will taste very well with snails. You can also add some crunchy vegetables. When preparing the snails, remove the slime, because the soup is supposed to be clear. Or maybe you can consider cooking the snail rendang beef style, in which case you would not need to remove the mucus.

 

Kin: The last time we spoke, I mentioned my interest in how we can push the earthiness of snail cuisine, because most the time when people cook snails, they try to eliminate the earthy flavors like one would with escargots in French cooking. How can one expand that particular taste? I’m actually thinking about this now – although it is very bourgeois. Visually it will be nice to have the snails paired with buah keluak paste. It’s how these layers of flavors and textures will be presented, I’m thinking of just a thin layer of buah keluak, with butterfly pea flowers on it with the snails siting on them. It resembles the snail walking on the earth. The flower gives that bit of blue that often appears as a decorative element in Peranakan cuisine.

See Also
The Snail Recipes by Singaporean artists ila and Kin Chui ,ila, Kin Chui