Tasting Asia, an installation exhibition by The Design Alliance (now The Design Alliance Asia), opened on 27 October 2002 at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre as part of the New Vision Arts Festival, followed by an opening at the Dewan Sri Pinang, Malaysia, on 2 June 2003 for the Penang YTL Arts Festival.
The exhibition was a reflection of Asian attitudes towards food; and an experimental collaboration between graphic designers, fine artists, and photographers from Asia, as well as Professor Leung Ping-kwan, a renowned Hong Kong poet.
A classic local dish was selected from each of the eight participating South East Asian countries, and became the inspiration for artists and graphic designers to design their three-dimensional conceptual pieces and make-believe packaging (cum-exhibition information panels), respectively.
The three-dimensional conceptual pieces/exhibition “booths” were constructed replicas of the make-believe packaging, and it also doubled up as a storage space for the exhibition equipments, such as the table, cloth, and other decoration items. This made for easy setup, packing, and transporting, as all that was needed to be done was to store everything within the box and close it up.
All members of The Design Alliance*—working from their home bases in Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Vientiane, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, and Seoul—participated in the exhibition.
*The number of tDA Asia associates stands at 13 as of January 2018.
Here, I reproduce his poems written for the exhibition as a tribute to his immense talent. I imagine it must have been difficult for Prof Leung to write for some of the food, such as Malaysia’s nasi lemak, having had little to no familiarity with them. After all, even though you may encounter these foods somewhere in Hong Kong, they may not have the original, authentic flavours as the ones found in the home countries (which may also differ slightly from village to village, or state to state).
Food: Rice and santan (coconut milk)
Despite being the fourth most populated country in the world, and home to 250 ethnic groups, Indonesians are united by their staple food: rice. When cooked with santan, it results in various delicious dishes, such as the nasi kuning (yellow rice)—typically eaten during special events such as birthdays and selamatan (ceremonial meals).
Other dishes made of rice and santan include koyabu and putu mayang, eaten by Moslem Indonesians at the breaking of their fast during the puasa (fasting) month.
India brought over spices and curry
Arabian Shish Kebab became satay
The Dutch seized the nutmeg and cumin
The Chinese came with black beans and vegetable seeds
The soy sauce landed here from afar became sweet
Numerous islands line the coastline on the dining table
One discovers nobody can colonize spices
Turmeric dyes my fingers yellow
Pandan leaves always have a strong fragrance
The fiery chili pepper refuses to bow to anyone
Hot as volcanic lava
Rugged as ocean rock. Only
Rice is our common language
Rice is our consoling mother
Rice encompasses all colors
Rice soothes the old wounds in the stomach
Food: Chicken rice
Singapore’s international, multicultural society has contributed to the diversity in the island state’s culinary offerings, earning it a reputation for being a food paradise. However, the humble Hainanese chicken rice is a local dish that continues to capture hearts with its juicy chicken, fragrant rice cooked with chicken stock, and chili-garlic dip.
Other ethnic groups living in Singapore also have their own versions of the chicken rice, such as the Malay nasi ayam (deep-fried chicken with rice) and the Indian briyani (yellow rice) with curry chicken.
Do I have the best recipe
to cook chicken in steaming water
remake tenderness in a foreign land
console parents who drifted over the oceans?
Do I have the best recipe
to make the best sauce and chili-lime dip
reconcile the taboos of food and language
readjust to the rules of the new dinner table?
Do I have the best recipe
to cook rice in chicken broth with the right texture
make it less oily to please new neighbors
accommodate to the city’s diverse appetite?
Food: Nasi lemak
Nasi lemak is quintessential Malaysian—originally a Malay dish, but greatly appreciated by people from every other ethnicity as a kind of comfort food. It is essentially made up of rice cooked with coconut milk and served with hard-boiled or fried egg, peanuts, ikan bilis (sun-dried anchovies), sambal tumis (chili paste, shallot, and tamarind juice); but you can also add a variety of side dishes, such as vegetables, prawns, squid, fish, and chicken.
Malaysians typically consume nasi lemak for breakfast, although it can also be eaten during lunch, dinner, or teatime.
Never feeling hungry when you eat it
Never feeling sad
Fewer and fewer people grow rice
Fewer and fewer work in the fields
The city develops different tastes
Yet rice always neutralizes our pain
Feeling full when you eat it
Feeling strong when you have it
Fewer and fewer people sow seeds in Spring
Fewer and fewer harvest in Autumn
The city develops different melancholies
Rice has become the bits and pieces you lost
Fewer and fewer people grind the grains
Fewer and fewer people husk rice
The city gives you scars in seven colors
The rice gives you consolation in white
Never feeling grief when you eat it
Never feeling wrath
Never feeling lost when you have it
Never gone astray
Food: Tom yam kung (hot, spicy, and sour shrimp soup)
Thai cuisine is famous for its exquisite flavours, garnishing, and nutrition—attributed to the liberal use of herbs in their dishes. Not only do they enhance the flavour, colour, and aroma of the food, the herbs are also beneficial to digestion and the gastrointestinal system.
Thailand’s tom yam kung—a combination of fresh shrimps, mushrooms, and aromatic Thai hers—is well known for its subtle hot and sour taste, and is one of the most palatable and healthy Thai dishes.
The Thai society treats their meals as a form of socialisation, encouraging relationship and care among family members; and as an opportunity to teach children appropriate manners and behaviour.
The hottest is pepper
The hottest is water
The hottest are her lips
The hottest are your ear-plugs
The hottest are their official announcements
The hottest are your gossip columns
The hottest is her body
The hottest is his gaze
The hottest are their basic law
The hottest is our self-censorship
The hottest is her smell
The hottest is your big nose
The hottest is her passion
The hottest is your indifference
The hottest is your nakedness
The hottest is her eternal neatness
The hottest are his eyes
The hottest are her moods
The hottest is her dimple
The hottest is when you are vulnerable
The hottest is your language
The hottest is your silence
Food: Larb (Sticky rice with meat)
‘Larb’ was originally a word used by Lao people to mean receiving something from an endeavour (e.g. hunting, fishing, or doing business). If someone is able to get a good haul from their hunt or at sea, or is successful at business, they are said to have ‘larb’.
This word later became the name of Lao’s favourite dish by virtue of the fact that people like to celebrate their successes and winnings by eating the tastiest food. As such, larb is always served at happy occasions such as winnings, weddings, and other receptions.
Larb is made of minced meat or fish, and a variety of ingredients/spices such as ground roasted rice, roasted egg plant, garlic and onion, shallots, hom huead, hom haw, fresh coriander, galanga, ginger, dried chili pepper, and fermented fish and salt (spices differ depending on whether the larb is made of meat or fish). It is traditionally eaten with sticky rice, and can be served raw or cooked.
Sound of the cleaver drumming on the chopping board
calls forth our expectations for a warm supper
The meat slowly matures under the beatings
Shredded vegetables become more complete
Glutinous rice has its tender charm
holding together all the daily shattering
Time spent in preparing a dish
slowly accumulates into an exquisite flavor
Ho Chi Minh
Food: Oc hap la gung (Stuffed snails in ginger leaves)
Cuisine in Vietnam differs vastly between north, south, and central regions, but they are united in their consumption of rice and noodles. Vietnamese meals are also not complete without fresh vegetables and herbs.
Another favourite food among the Vietnamese is the oc hap la gung—the best said to be in Hanoi. While stuffed snails in ginger leaves seem to be the most popular, snails can also be cooked with green banana, pork skin, soya curb, and perilla leaves; or with other ingredients to suit different occasions or weather conditions.
Snails are fat, meaty, and tasty only in October, hence the name ‘Snails in October in Hanoi’.
I was picked up from the water field
added dried mushrooms, lean meat and onion
fish sauce and pepper
added a blade of strange ginger leaf
to be put back
into my shell
to make me more tasty
I was taken out
my own geography and history
given exotic colors
paid high prices
just to place me
into my unknown
Food: Poon Tsoi (Basin feast)
The poon tsoi is a dining tradition practised in the wai tau villages (walled villages) in the New Territories of Hong Kong, where people of lower statuses (e.g. farmers, fishermen, servants and helpers, etc.) are not allowed to dine in the main hall during banquets thrown for special occasions. Instead, they are served in the front yard, with assorted goodies arranged in big wooden basins.
Another story of the poon tsoi’s origin revolves around Wen Tian-xiang, a well-respected general of the Song Dynasty, and his troops, who arrived in the Xinan County after fleeing from the Yuan army. They had to depend on the locals for food: dry eel fillet, dry squid, radishes, soya sticks, red bean curd, and pork. The ingredients were then piled into wooden basins borrowed from the fishermen—thus starting the tradition of poon tsoi.
Today, poon tsoi has become a signature dish of the wai tau villages. Assorted delicacies are arranged layer by layer in the basin, and each basin is intended to feed twelve people.
There should be roast rice-duck and pan-fried prawns on top
Order of the classes are clearly laid out in layers
But the poking chopsticks gradually reverse
the lofty five-spice chicken and the lowly pigskin
The Sung army once sought shelter here after defeat
wolfed down the fishermen’s reserves from big wooden basins
dined on the beach in crude circles, with no elegence of the past
Away from the capital, they tried wild flavors of the rural folks.
Unable to stay on top, they collapse with gradual consumption
No escape from touching bottom colors, whether you like it or not,
no way to block exchanges between humble mushrooms and rare squids
Reversed relationships taint each other and affect the purity on top
Nobody can stop the meat juice from trickling down, and let
the bottom-most turnip absorb all the flavors in all its sweetness.
Food: Bibimbap (Stone-grilled rice)
Bibimbap is a popular Korean rice dish with mixed ingredients and gochujang (hot pepper paste), and is known for its taste and nutritional value. Research indicates that the bibimbap was created based on the conventions of the yin-yang and Five Element Theory, thus resulting in a dish that features vegetables of various colours to strengthen different parts of the body.
There are many regional variations of the bibimbap, although the most famous variation is the Jeonju bibimbap. It is typically topped with soy bean sprout namul (seasoned vegetable dish), Hwangpo-muk (yellow mung bean jelly) from buckwheat jelly, gochujang, jeopjang (femented soy sauce), and seasoned raw meat.
That many vegetables
each in its own pride and beauty
What hands shake the bellflower?
string them into a tune to put around one’s neck
Cut the cucumber into half-moons
dipping them in sesame oil
Massage the lettuce tenderly
let it play a melody of the haegum violin
Transform the mushrooms into ten long drums
beating through the weeds of autumn chill
Arrange the bean sprouts disheveled in tumults
long daegum flutes orchestrating in the crisp of dawn
Let the beets tell the secrets of their hearts
and dye all the faces red
Each with its own woe beneath the beauty
that many vegetables in a dance entangled
Falling into shape in a heated stone basin
change our rice into a song of mixed colours