eJoy of Cooking

We know that history shapes our homes. Wherever we live, and even if we’re not conscious of it, the past is always a presence. Whose History? is a project dedicated to exploring these ideas, concentrating on the area of the South Campus of the University of Liverpool. But we did not want this project only to look back. We wanted to think about the city, and the university, in the present.

‘eJoy of Cooking’ was devised in part to do that. Where the other films in Whose History? consider historical figures, or Liverpool’s recent past, in this film our focus is on the contemporary experience of students at the university today. Through their words we take different journeys, which are brought to life through Sam Butterworth’s brilliant animation, and Eric Lybeck’s vivid images of Liverpool and its food cultures. eJoy Asian Foods on Myrtle Parade, just a stone’s throw from the campus, was an inspiring starting point.

Sam Butterworth’s character designs for our characters Sherry and Richard, who guide us through ‘eJoy of Cooking’

Imagining ‘home’ in the global city, and the global university

One of the displays in the People’s Republic gallery in the Museum of Liverpool explores the idea of home. It features objects and interviews with residents who reflect on Liverpool’s many identities, and their own relationships with a city which is always beloved. As the legendary Mersey poet Roger McGough puts it in Daniel Draper and Allan Melia’s new film Don McCullin: Almost Liverpool 8, “I’ve always had this feeling that everyone, really, would rather be a Liverpudlian.”

The genius of this exhibit is that it makes sure the definitions of ‘home’ it offers are various, and making us think about how we might expand our understanding of ‘home’, and all the concepts – like belonging, identity, familiarity, and security – we tend to attach to it. It’s in this display that we find items relating to the Sailors’ Home on Canning Place, which is such an important site the story told in our film ‘Hey Joe’, as the curators reflect with sensitivity about what that remarkable building on the waterfront meant as a temporary home for thousands of seafarers who were constantly on the move. Liverpool’s docks have been a place of departure and arrival for centuries. The 2,600 victims of the Irish Famine we remember in the film ‘2600’ arrived in the city by sea, and as the Liverpool Irish Famine Trail plaque on the Pilotage House tells us, some one million Irish people left Liverpool, and in many cases left Europe, from that point on the Mersey in the hope of a new life in America. Liverpool’s status as one of the key ports in the transatlantic slave trade, explored with great clarity and vital detail in the International Museum of Slavery on Albert Dock, and written into famous addresses in the city like Exchange Flags and Bold Street, brings ideas of place, origin, belonging and identity to light in far more challenging, and still unresolved, ways. Beyond Liverpool, in modern British politics, we do not have to look far for evidence of how the word ‘home’ has been manipulated and deployed to aggressive and exclusionary effect.

The Global City exhibit in the Museum explores in Liverpool’s special and longstanding ties to China. Liverpool is home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe, which developed first in the docklands and then in the south city centre during the nineteenth century, and which has since 2000 been gloriously marked and symbolised by the Chinatown arch on Nelson Street, which was shipped piece by piece from Shanghai, Liverpool’s twin city. The University of Liverpool’s ties with China are strong. In 2006, the Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University opened its doors in Suzhou, China. XJTLU is the largest international collaborative university in China, and hundreds of students have now followed the 2+2 route, spending the first two years of their degree studying in Suzhou, and then joining the city of Liverpool’s 50,000-plus student population for the final two years at the University of Liverpool. As we developed ‘eJoy of Cooking’, we spoke to current XJTLU students in Liverpool, and listened to their impressions and experiences of life in the city and the UK. Our focus in these interviews was on eating, shopping, and cooking, but our conversations about food were by extension conversations about home, travel, memory, and tradition.

Journeys through food

As the Covid-19 pandemic set in, horrifying and demoralising reports of racist abuse endured by members of the Chinese community across the UK and beyond began to emerge, against a background of inflammatory political rhetoric, notably from then-President Trump in the United States. In an excellent article published on Open Democracy in April 2021, Isaac Muk explored the history of Anti-East Asian racism in the West, in the context of the pandemic, and drawing on his own experience growing up in south-east London.

Our early conversations about this film were informed by these distressing contexts, and a wish to foreground the voices and experience of students from China living and working at the university. We were guided in these discussions by brilliant advice from Dr Lucienne Loh in the Department of English at Liverpool, who has been active in the Covid-19 Anti-Racism Group. Rather than place the emphasis on the pandemic, Dr Loh suggested we look instead at the food cultures of the Chinese student community here. Exploring this subject through interviews with students immediately gave us access to individual yet relatable experience, and allowed the students to lead us towards issues of cultural identity, difference, and assimilation in bright, stimulating, and revealing ways.

The film is based on interviews with two XLJTU students, who we have called Sherry and Richard. As with all the Whose History? scripts, it is a verbatim piece: we have not changed any of the words our interviewees gave us. We took an empirical approach in the interviews and asked each interviewee the same questions, about their favourite foods, ingredients and brands; about their habits and preferences when shopping; whether, how often, and with whom they cook; and whether they had brought recipes from home with them to Liverpool, or would cook dishes they first tried in the UK at home in China. But these fixed starting points immediately opened up distinctive and divergent perspectives.

The social life of food

It didn’t take long, in these conversations, for individual preferences and domestic habits and patterns around cooking and eating to be expressed in terms of social and family life. One of our interviewees, from northern China, told us that her flatmate is from Manchester and has introduced her to British food – including baked beans and mashed potatoes. Our interviewee doesn’t enjoy cooking for herself, but with friends and family it’s a different matter: “We use food to celebrate at home.” At home, both interviewees said their mothers do most of the cooking, and both spoke of their own family traditions with food, and dishes passed from their grandmothers to their mothers, which they have only ever encountered at home. Our other interviewee does enjoy cooking, and while he will routinely cook for himself, again he spoke of the joy of cooking with and for friends and family – in his student accommodation in Liverpool, and at home in Shanghai, where he cooks with his family “just to have fun”.

In this storyboard from Sam Butterworth’s animation of ‘eJoy of Cooking’, Richard describes the cut of beef which is known in the south of China as ‘the hung dragon’.

Food, of course, has its own languages – one of our interviewees spoke of the terms used to describe specific cuts of meat, for example, and how these can vary regionally in China. And in the UK, the cuts themselves are different, so to buy them he needs to find specialist butchers. Both interviewees spoke about finding ingredients in Liverpool which are familiar to them from cooking at home, though our interviewee who was keener to cook explained that he tends to carry recipes from home in his head which he has tried to replicate in Liverpool, sometimes with different ingredients. His favourite ingredient of all is eggs: “It’s an ingredient that you can use to cook both western food I learned in Liverpool and the food from my hometown.”

‘to see the different world’

In each interview, we had a strong impression of the students’ sense of the city and its surroundings, through their favourite shops, cafes and restaurants: from the rural baker who makes an enviable steak pie, to Crust, the pizza restaurant on Bold Street. The interviews highlighted the breadth and diversity of food cultures in major cities. Our interviewee from Shanghai, for example, told us about the huge popularity of Italian restaurants in Shanghai, many of which are run by Italians living in the city. But he was more sceptical about some of their offerings – strawberry spaghetti, for instance, which, while creative, to him just tastes strange.

It is habitual to categorise food in national terms – though a country as vast as China, with its richly varied regional cuisine, reveals the limits of this approach. The food that tends to be described as traditionally British kept coming up in our interviews: despite their acknowledgement of its debatable reputation in world gastronomy, and despite a strong reservation among one of our interviewees and her friends from China about the overly sweet, sweet food in Britain, fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, steak pie, and those beans and mash were all favourites of theirs since moving to Liverpool.

But the Shanghai strawberry spaghetti stuck with us, and our conversations also threw up some other images which we wanted to make sure the film brought to life in all their wonder and surprise. For example, our character Richard talks not just about fusion food in Shanghai, but also about a British dish he’d heard of and couldn’t quite believe: the famous Cornish stargazy pie, a fish pie, said to have been created in tribute to a brave sixteenth-century fisherman from the village of Mousehole, in which the heads of pilchards are left sticking out of the pastry in a manner arguably rather less romantic than the name of the dish suggests.

To bring these visually vivid words to the screen, then, we decided that a mixed media approach could achieve things which film alone might not be able to convey. We were delighted to welcome the brilliant animator Sam Butterworth to the team: her beautiful visualisation of the words of our interviewees takes us on an imaginative journey in which we also see live action of key places in Liverpool, including our creative starting point, eJoy Asian Foods. The British food which is mentioned appears in all its colours and textures in Eric Lybeck’s still and moving images. And mobile phone footage of family meals takes us back to the heart of our conversations, and the shared and intimate domestic experience of food prepared and enjoyed together.

As in the other films in this series, music plays a vital role. ‘eJoy of Cooking’ is accompanied by music from Xiaoxiao Hou, who plays her arrangement of Weili Hu’s piece ‘Market Place’ on the Guzheng. Xiaoxiao offers an evocative account of the history and character of the instrument, which brings us back into the realm of the visual which is so central to the film:

The Guzheng 古筝 (gǔ zhēng) – also known as the Chinese Zither/harp – is a plucked string instrument with a tradition dating back more than 2,500 years.  It has at least 16 strings each with movable bridges. The modern Guzheng usually has 21 strings, generating 4 pentatonic octaves by repeating C-D-E-G-A.  It is usually 64 inches (1.63 meters) long and has a large, resonant cavity made from Wutong wood. This instrument is the fusion of Chinese history and culture. It is not only an instrument, but also a piece of art and decoration. It shows a close relationship between painting and calligraphy, such as carved art, painting, shell carving with jade, and so on. The strings – once made of silk – are these days almost always made from nylon-coated steel, which increases the instrument’s volume as well as changing its timbre.  Performers of the Guzheng often wear fingerpicks on one or both hands, which are often made from materials such as ivoryresin or hard plastic. 

Guzheng has a very sophisticated character – gentle but powerful, expressive but introverted. In Chinese classical music, Guzheng were often used to represent things as grand as mountain, also as delicate as streamlet. Guzheng players are always elegant and peaceful, like they just walked out from one of the Chinese paintings. The way to play and demonstrate Guzheng music is connected very closely to Chinese philosophies as well as other art forms in Chinese culture.

Xiaoxiao Hou

The character we have called Sherry speaks at the beginning of the film about the experience of travel and living away from her home in China. “It’s the opportunity,” she says, “for me to . . . to see the different world.” Our conversations with our interviewees opened doors to many different worlds. In the film, we seek, through varied media, and sound and image, to step through them.

You can read more about the background and approach to the film in our Inspiration & Recommendations section.

Another image from Sam Butterworth’s animation for ‘eJoy of Cooking’