Some stories, like this one, start with a death.
“This book began with an end—it was the death of my father-in-law that got me thinking about starting this project,” Li Mei recalled. “When he passed away due to a sudden heart attack, one of his relatives lamented that they had not only lost a man they loved, they would also not be able to taste his one-of-a-kind braised chicken feet with mushrooms dish anymore.”
“My husband and his brother helped out with cooking the Hainanese chicken rice every year… but unfortunately the boys never learned the braised chicken feet with mushrooms dish, which unique flavours came from balancing technique and time. When we lost my father-in-law, we also lost the recipe—the taste of home that we cannot get anywhere else—in one fell swoop.”
During her father-in-law’s funeral, she wondered if other families experienced her pain too. Losing not just a person, but also all the unique and special flavours they carried with them in their heads for their families.
And that’s how the book came to be.
To Capture Memories
Just a regular ol’ Malaysian recipe book wasn’t enough for Foong Li Mei. She is determined to infuse as much nostalgia as she can into her book ‘The Food That Makes Us‘, a project that she describes as ‘a collection of Malaysian stories and home recipes that shows when we make food, food makes us too.’
“We would like to provide an alternative in the Malaysian food books genre by discussing Malaysia not just through its food selection, but also through the everyday Malaysians who cook them,” Li Mei explained.
Li Mei’s passion project will feature ten stories of home cooks in Malaysia and what it means to labour over Hainanese chicken rice, putu mayam, tuak, achar, sambal, popiah, pork confit, and many more mouthwatering treats from the kitchens of Malaysian home cooks from all walks of life.
From suburban moms to a native from the Semelai tribe, the team truly tries to cover their bases when they decided to try and reflect Malaysia in a book.
Art aficionados will also find something to enjoy in this book as each chapter is lovingly illustrated by Malaysian artist Tuan Nini, who captures step-by-step pictures as well as the sweat and swearing that only a kitchen can generate.
Compiling The Stories
Roping in a longtime photographer friend Szetoo Weiwen to collaborate on her book, Li Mei began her project in 2013 with no one else to help. They could not afford anyone else, so Szetoo would hold lighting equipment in one hand as she took pictures with the other. Li Mei would also help hold up reflectors as she jotted down notes.
The pair also faced other self-inflicted difficulties in the name of authenticity.
“There was no studio setting to portray the people and the food in the best light, because we insisted on capturing them in their most authentic element: their own homes and kitchen,” Li Mei said.
“The price is that we could not control the lighting or the space Szetoo had to stand to get her shot. Sometimes we had to get creative, other times we depended on luck.”
The book’s niche is in the stories it tells, but Li Mei tells us that those stories were not easy to get.
Why? Think about your own grandparents. And then try to imagine how they would act if someone suddenly came up to them with a photographer and notepad to record what they say, and you probably have the right idea.
Furthermore for the purposes of recording, they had to slow down every cooking process so that it would be recorded.
“Dishes took twice as long to make. It’s no wonder that some people we approached turned us down. But even when someone agreed, we weren’t sure if they’d be chatty or reserved. We just had to meet them and find out. Thankfully, all of them had an engaging story to go with the recipes they want to preserve,” Li Mei recalled.
But Li Mei would not change the experience for the world.
“When we interviewed people for this project, we were always amazed by the food that they make and how the way they cook reflects their personalities and history, their environment and their eating philosophy.”
It has been 3 years since the project started, and Li Mei’s team is now five (wo)men strong. As the team is passionate about retaining their vision, they decided to self-finance the book. The team have since opened pre-orders for the book and had a crowdfunding campaign in Indiegogo. They feel very encouraged by the response they have gotten for their passion project, locally and internationally.
“One of them, who is a Malaysian living in Australia, told us that she knew this book is going to make her miss home so much, but she still can’t wait to get it,” Li Mei recalls delightedly .
If you’re curious about trying out some of these home recipes for yourself, Li Mei leaves with a final warning.
“I’d like to note that we are not claiming that the recipes in our book are the best versions. These are family recipes, which may or may not be the taste that everyone is used to. It is their taste of home. However, we do try to provide tips on how you can modify the dishes whenever necessary.”
But she does hope that at the end of it all even if she, the team and the featured home cooks in the books are long gone, their memory would continue to live on a shelf in a kitchen somewhere in a lovely home.
The team prepared a video of a sneak peek into the book, which is slated to be released sometime in December.
Thia story might have began with a death, but now recipes and stories have a chance to live on in the book instead. As a method for preserving memories go, you can’t really go too far off with a printed book.
Feature Image Credit: The Food That Makes Us