24-year-old graphic designer Christal Sih discusses “Grandma’s Recipes“, a self-initiated design project that became the first cookbook released by Singapore-based publisher Math Paper Press.
What motivated you to do this cookbook?
This book was actually a design project I started while interning at BLACK Design in Singapore, with guidance from creative director Jackson Tan. Inspired by an exhibition I had seen in New York, I wanted to combine a traditional Singaporean craft with contemporary design aesthetics.
A design collective called Field Experiments had worked with Indonesian craftspeople to create really unique products; I wanted to do that with my own culture, too. After looking around for enduring traditional crafts in Singapore, I realised I needed something that I had a personal connection with.
It’s not cool to be sincere in graphic design, but it’s the only way I know how to do things! Food has always been a consistent theme in my work, and it hit me that I had a ‘master’– my grandma – at home this whole time.
Why was it important for you to preserve her recipes?
Certain signature family dishes have always been a part of my life. In a way, they’ve acted as glue between the different generations of my family. For instance, despite generational gaps, we all love chicken curry.
My grandma, now 78, learned how to make that dish because my grandfather and great grandparents would have it after church. When my dad went to the US for his semester abroad, he brought along two frozen jars of it with him.
I do cheat and use ready-to-cook curry when I’m in the US; but, it’s definitely not the same! I want to be able to eat curry that tastes exactly like my grandma’s for as long as I live.
Also, as much as Singaporean food is celebrated, there’s just less emphasis on the actual making of it. The process and ingredients are just as important and reflective of our culture too.
Describe the process of curating these recipes.
I was attending an art university in Baltimore at the time, and I had a month to compile all the recipes when I was home during the winter break. My grandma and I decided which recipes to include in the book, although it was mostly determined by what I was craving the most at the time.
As she was laying out the ingredients and cooking the dishes, I’d alternate between taking notes and snapping photos. People are surprised to know that I only used my iPhone to take the pictures in the book, but my grandma had no patience for me to faff about with a DSLR while she’s cooking away.
How was it collaborating with Math Paper Press on this book?
It was such a great experience working with Math Paper Press; they believed in my project and supported my vision for it. It was their idea to turn it into an actual recipe book, as there were just visuals and writings before. That was a good move to broaden our audience.
Their feedback and editing made it the best specimen of what a Singapore cookbook could be, but they also my respected decisions about keeping some of the weirder things. Cooking can be gross, and my grandma does hardcore stuff like cleaning out a chicken’s insides; somehow, I wanted that in the book.
Which is your favourite recipe from this book?
My personal favourite is the recipe for Dark Sauce Chicken! It’s one of the few recipes that I can follow faithfully, even when I’m away from home. For a dish that’s super tasty and impressive to guests, it’s pretty simple to make. I have to bring my own dark soy sauce from home, though!
What would you like people to take away from this recipe book?
It’s pretty corny, but I hope that Grandma’s Recipes motivates Millennials like myself to not just eat, but actually learn how to cook and help preserve certain Singaporean food traditions.
On a personal level, I also hope that it will make Singaporeans think about our culture’s idiosyncratic relationship with food, and how it is a bridge between different generations in a family.
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