How One Designer Explored Her Chinese Identity Through an Illustrated Cookbook

"Though broken Chinese cuts my mouth like glass, the taste of home soothes the wounds"

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5:53 PM HKT, Thu July 11, 2019 2 mins read

Growing up Asian in America, there’s one shared experience that virtually everyone can identify with: a pressure to assimilate. For many people, that meant losing a grasp of your mother tongue, changing the channel on songs your parents listened to growing up, and otherwise avoiding anything that made you “different” from your (white) peers.

These days however, a growing number of young Americans are revisiting their Asian heritage with newfound interest and appreciation. That’s precisely what designer Gabrielle Widjaja did through what she felt brought her closest to her Chinese side: food.

Designer Gabrielle Widjaja

In her self-published article on Medium, Widjaja asserts that in Asian households like the one she grew up in, food is often the language of love. She writes:

“In Asian households, we don’t often say ‘I love you.’ Instead, we say, ‘Have you eaten yet?’ This is a deceivingly simple and mundane question. But for us, it bears the weight of relationships, of family, of connection.”

Feeling a growing disconnect with her identity, she decided to write, design, and illustrate a cookbook easy enough to digest even if you aren’t a seasoned chef. The resulting book — titled 你吃了吗 / Have You Eaten Yet? — is a lush love song to Chinese culinary culture, garnished with quirky drawings and personal stories on growing up Chinese in America.

“Everyone has different levels of discord in relation to their heritage,” says Widjaja. “I grew up very out of touch with mine. But across the globe, we’re seeing a surge of people pushing back against whitewashing, which plays a role in our determination to reconnect with the richness of our identities.”

The recent college graduate created the book for her program at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), saying that by making it she felt like she was going against a core tenant of being a designer: working for others. “I felt that to be a good graphic designer you couldn’t, shouldn’t, pursue personal work. It felt selfish. Plus,” she adds, “making personal work makes you vulnerable.”

Widjaja illustrated every dish by hand, as well as every step of each recipe and every ingredient used. The recipes included are a cross-section of common Chinese dishes, including stir-fried tomato and egg (fanqie chaodan 番茄炒蛋), ginger scallion noodles (congjiang chaomian 葱姜炒面), and red braised pork belly (hongshao rou 红烧肉).

“I started with these same dishes when I was first learning to cook Chinese food,” says Widjaja. “Because this book was meant to be an introductory course to Chinese cuisine, I selected the dishes from simplest to more complex, with a range of flavors and cooking methods in mind.” She adds that while some might feel a few of the dishes are more Chinese-American — such as egg drop soup and “Hokkien” noodles — she chose to include them since “they’ve influenced my taste quite a lot growing up in the States.”

Accompanying the book is a homemade quilt decorated with illustrations of the featured dishes. Widjaja chose to make a quilt for its connections to heritage and timelessness, seeing it also as a “literal metaphor for the term ‘comfort food.'”

Writes Widjaja:

“Though broken Chinese cuts my mouth like glass, the taste of home soothes the wounds.”

The designer says the feedback she’s received has been overwhelmingly positive, and is now considering crowdfunding the book to be published for wide release.

More info and images from 你吃了吗 / Have You Eaten Yet?​​​​​​​ can be found here.

All images courtesy Gabrielle Widjaja

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