Tracing Migrants' Memories Through Recipes

Cheng Jen-pei

2019 / June

Lee Shan Wei /photos courtesy of Cheng Jen-pei /tr. by Geof Aberhart

meal can be a conduit for memory. From images to ideas, through her lens Cheng Jen-pei is able to crystallize that sensation. Her “Recipe Evolution Movement” collection uses physical objects to express artistic illusions, capturing the tastes that linger on the tongues of migrants and sketching out their feelings toward their homes and families.

As diverse cultures blend together in Taiwan, almost invisible changes in cuisine come alongside the shifts in culture. Slowly but surely the familiar dishes of homelands past take on elements of their new locale. As these old wines are put into new casks, new, richer flavors emerge.


Connecting recipes with thoughts

Sense memories can be almost timeless. “Recipe Evolu­tion Movement” connects deeper thoughts with the senses of taste, smell, and sight. The full gamut of emotions is in play as they are injected into images of food. The artist, ­Cheng Jen-pei, uses food as a design element to take the viewer on a journey through feelings and memories.

Since childhood, ­Cheng has had a keen interest in food, and over the years she has traveled the world, experiencing the culinary cultures of different peoples during her time as a resident artist. These experiences are what inspired her to create visual art that connects cuisine with its people.

In 2014, ­Cheng was selected for the Ministry of Culture’s Residency Exchange to France program. Following on from her work “Your Cuisine, My Recipe,” she embarked on the experimental works “Food Sculpture Project” and “Make a Wish and Let Me Feed You.” For these, she invited strangers she met on the street to become participants, describing to her the cuisines of their homes, which ­Cheng would then make. These participatory art pieces inspired ­Cheng to contemplate more deeply the connection between food and memory. After returning to Taiwan in 2017, she set to work on “Recipe Evolution Movement.” Interviewing immigrant spouses, ­Cheng depicted the oral histories and inner worlds described to her by making use of her artistic and observational senses to create representative meldings of ingredients and objects.

Recipes for life

Earlier this year, ­Cheng Jen-pei put the results of this project on show at Tai­pei’s Jut Art Museum. Each piece tells a life’s story.

One piece, Mirage Mountain, pairs Hakka salted pork, red vinasse, and fermented tofu with Vietnamese spring rolls, lemongrass, and shrimp salt to tell a tale of joy. Through the care and comfort provided by her husband, a Vietnamese spouse has found belonging, a home, and someone she can depend on in Taiwan, as well as a mother-­in-law who loves her like her own daughter and has considerately begun learning Vietnamese cooking. Such is her new life that when she and her husband visit her family in Vietnam, she often finds herself missing her mother-­in-law’s cooking.

Another piece, Aromatic Courtyard, tells the tearful story of a woman who came to Taiwan from Shan­dong, China.

Fragments of cement, tile and brick are used in the work to symbolize the interviewee’s childhood home, poor but full of love. The artist also uses spiked flower holders to symbolize an oppressive external environment that leaves one feeling constantly on edge and unsettled. A bowl of corn jasmine tea creates a light aroma that infuses the air with fragrant memories, while corn kernels strung together on wires stand proud, representing persever­ance in love, holding on through the hardest times until the light shines through again.

Fresh Sprout uses woven garlic chives as a backdrop, resting against colored cloth that represents the traditional mo­tanka dolls sent over by the interviewee’s sister in Poland, which symbolize blessings. Mixing pork in with rice, ­Cheng highlights the care and consideration of the Polish interviewee’s Taiwanese husband; after she initially didn’t dare eat meat after arriving in Taiwan, with loving encouragement he helped her to integrate into Taiwanese life. The only element close to food from home is the dumpling skin, colored with beetroot and spinach juices and stacked with white cheese, pickled cucumber, and a honey “crystal ball,” a showcase of the rich intermingling of East with West, of Taiwanese tastes with Eastern European styling.

The element of these “recipe evolutions” that takes the most time and effort is coming up with the designs, figuring out how to use visible foods to depict invisible states of mind. Fragrant Poetry, for example, involved a complex process of carefully preparing meat jelly in such a way as to represent the snowy scenes of Ukran­ian life. “I wanted to condense homesickness into a single point,” says Cheng.

Homesickness is not a matter of physical distance—even living in a neighboring country, one can still miss home. In the beautiful image that is Sweet Frost, ­Cheng used precious souvenirs gifted to the Japanese interviewee by her parents to symbolize her being “the pearl in their palm” (a Chinese expression roughly equivalent to “the apple of their eye”), and her always carrying with her thoughts of her parents.

In moments of emotional fragility, edamame can help her chew over thoughts of home, while a leaf of shiso can turn sorrow into tears.

Collecting local flavors

The Hong-Gah Museum, which has cultivated deep local roots in Tai­pei City, embarked on a one-month effort starting February 23, 2019 entitled the “Bei­tou Local Flavors Collecting Project.” ­­Cheng and Tai­­pei Municipal Shi­pai Elementary School’s Senior Academy were among the participants in the project. The aim was to use local foods as a medium to awaken the memories that lie deep in the recesses of interviewees’ minds, the bitternesses that have transformed into sweet memor­ies through the fermenting process of time. The older women of the Senior Academy, under ­Cheng’s guidance, were like sprightly schoolgirls, their creative energies ignited and their simple works brimming with vitality.

Exotic foreign dishes are always entrancing, creating an assault on the tastebuds that differs from familiar local flavors, a representation of the differences in culture that lie within different foods.

Historians record history in words, painters capture scenes with paint, musicians convey emotions through instruments, and ­Cheng Jen-pei sculpts cultures through food, bringing out the memories of lives by capturing those sculptures in photographic form. Looking back through centuries via images of dishes, we can get an insight into the lifestyles and cultures of those who have gone before us, a glimpse of how things have evolved over time.

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