Some of my happiest memories are of cooking.
As a kid, being held by my mum in one arm, her free hand holding my wrist and guiding my hand as we washed rice. The water was cold.
Then as a teen, marinating fatty slices of belly pork with a sauce-and-spice mix for my family before meeting up with my first girlfriend, who promptly told me that I smelled like soy sauce, but that she didn’t mind.
Then as a student, navigating the precarious world of shared-kitchen spaces and eating apfelstrudel, souvlaki and ugali for the first time.
Then as an adult, far from my family, on a too-rare trip back during which the smells and tastes of my own personal history came rushing back into me.
All these experiences, and more, have helped make me the person I am today. Each memory is an ingredient in my own recipe, a perpetual stew of family, friends and strangers both past and present. Even the bad memories have become integral parts of me. I was once violently ill after eating a bowl of mussels, and I still struggle to eat them to this day. Another time I unreasonably punished an ex-partner by purposefully sending her the wrong timings when she messaged me asking for the recipe of a dish I had once cooked for her, an act which I still sometimes wake up at night feeling guilty for.
Recently, I’ve had the great opportunity to talk with other people about their own experiences and recipes, and it never fails to engage me. These memories can be joyful, painful or anywhere in-between, but they are always, always revealing.
For Tramway #BeyondWalls, a season of creative participation and performance focusing on community engagement, I’ve been encouraging people in the Govanhill and Pollokshields areas of Glasgow to start celebrating their own food narratives and histories. This project, Home Cooking, has included recipe collection, take-home food-memory workshop packs, local snack-sharing and commissioned public posters on subjects to do with local cooking and eating narratives. It was inspired, in part, by lockdown and the inability to cook and eat directly with others, and as such the idea of the project is that it’s tied to Glasgow’s gradual easing of restrictions.
Over the weekend of the 12th/13th June, at the same time as the Glasgow International opening weekend, I drove around in a converted caravan, giving out free snacks, ice tea and recipe cards to people as I went. By the end of the project, I hope to be able to physically cook together with people and host a small pot-luck style celebration. All of these activities aim to challenge the role of transaction in food-sharing, as well as to simply bring some joy and refreshment to people as they go about their day.
It’s been amazing to talk with folk about food again. Below is a photo of some paneer tikka masala I cooked, based on a drawing and recipe given to me by someone in exchange for a fortune cookie during my socially distanced Home Cooking Convos durational event at Pollokshields Bowling Green. The person who gave me this recipe came to talk to me alongside their friend, and it turned out that while they both had shared cultural background, and both had chefs in their families, they also both had wildly different experiences of food. As the three of us talked, the friends joked about these differences and explained how they were perhaps the result of slightly different circumstances or family dynamics. As they walked away afterwards, they agreed to eat with each other again as soon as they could. From now on, whenever I make this recipe (and I do plan to make it again, as it was delicious!), I will think of those friends, their similarities and differences, as well as the warmth and humour of their individual and collective stories.
Govanhill and Pollokshields are some of the most culturally diverse areas in Glasgow, and to be able to explore the incredibly wide range of cooking here for the Home Cooking project has been a privilege. At the same time, as part of this exploration I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with other local individuals and groups who use food-sharing practices to both empower local people and to fight against social isolation, food poverty and stigma. From organisations like the Pollokshields Bowling Green, who had already hosted socially distanced group iftar events during Ramadan, to the Govanhill People’s Pantry, who continue to provide essential food at a subsidised rate using a subscription model, all the way down to individuals who cooked for their isolating neighbours during lockdown or stayed connected to friends by sharing baked goods. While this particular project is due to end by July, there will always be people looking to cook and eat with each other here. And that, I think, is exactly how a place should be.
Sean Wai Keung is a Glasgow-based poetry, performance and food maker. His work often uses food as a starting point for explorations of identity and migration. His first full length poetry collection, ‘sikfan glaschu’, was published by Verve Poetry Press in April 2021. Full credits can be found via seanwaikeung.carrd.co.