As part of our Student Insight blog series, Eliot Gee, MA Anthropology of Food (graduating 2017) discusses their time interning at Ming-Ai (London) Institute.
A few months ago, I wouldn’t have expected to find myself standing in front of a dozen British teenagers at 9am on a Tuesday, explaining how to make sure a wok is hot enough to add oil (“Not olive oil; we want just enough neutral cooking oil to keep your protein from sticking”)… but now, it’s another day on the job!
The FUN:) Project visits schools across the U.K., inviting students to participate in quick, easy, and healthy cooking workshops. Since joining this summer, I’ve found that the work nicely complements my MA dissertation; my research interviews examined how Chinese food is perceived by migrants (specifically, how social and physical wellbeing are linked to food and generational memory), while classroom visits through FUN:) have shown me the day-to-day reality of Chinese food from the perspective of British schoolchildren.
Although South Asian food has been incorporated into the mainstream British taste at both high and low levels of cuisine, knowledge about Chinese food remains surprisingly limited beyond the performative fields of Chinatown and TV cook shows. Likewise, students’ understanding of Chinese immigrants’ culture and history is limited; most don’t know there was any “relationship” between Britain and Hong Kong. Therefore, it’s been inspiring to see how projects like FUN:) help challenge the negative takeaway association surrounding Chinese food. Offering students the knowledge, taste, and skills to feel comfortable cooking simple Chinese dishes at home is a first step towards broadening their horizons and encouraging more meaningful discussion about the diversity of Chinese cuisine and culture. For example, during our presentation we ask students to guess why Cantonese food might be over-represented in the U.K.
Last year, FUN:) conducted 70 student demonstrations, visiting schools across London and as far away as Wales, Manchester, and Colchester. Cooking in so many kitchens with all different students is always fun (let’s be honest, there are plenty of puns thrown around. The name is supposed to reflect the Chinese word for rice)! Some students have never used a wok before, so even a simple stir-fry is an entirely new experience for them. At recent trip to a special needs school, I helped a boy who was too nervous to initially approach the hot wok… but by the end of an hour, he had cooked a brilliant kungpao chicken to bring home to his family. Compared to my prior experiences teaching language and history in Asian schools, I’ve found it very rewarding to see how hands-on activity can ground even the most “difficult” students and give them something to be proud of. This is in no small part due to the encouragement of their teachers, who are unfailingly friendly and generous with their time, and tea!
We also stay busy hosting free Teacher Training Workshops that encourage teachers to become “cuisine ambassadors” on our behalf, with the bonus opportunity of a cooking skills competition. FUN:)’s sponsor, the sauce brand Lee Kum Kee, invites the winning trio of teachers to Hong Kong and China, where they learn more about the food culture and exchange techniques at a culinary school. I can testify that this year they ate to their hearts’ content, since I had to edit all of the video footage upon their return!
Despite its wide reach, the project is very small, which means there is always a range of work to be done. Currently there are only two of us at the FUN:) office! Kelly, the project coordinator and a SOAS graduate, has been with the project for over a year and does a terrific job setting up demonstrations & workshops, and developing lesson plans (among a couple hundred other tasks). Much of my time has been devoted to updating our photo, video, and presentation material. I filmed, edited, and am currently uploading and writing descriptions for a series of cooking skills videos, available on our newly formed YouTube page for students and teachers. We are also rebooting our web presence– website, Instagram, Facebook– to best connect with interested would-be cooks.
FUN:) operates as part of Ming-Ai (London) Institute, located in North London. A perk of joining FUN:) is that Ming-Ai offers connections to many segments of the British-Chinese community, hosting events at our building that include calligraphy, talks, and language courses. Other projects include spreading knowledge about British-Chinese Armed Forces Heritage, and a MA Program in Chinese Cultural Heritage Management (through Middlesex University). It’s probably no surprise that many people who work here have passed through the SOAS China Institute at one point or another.
Despite being a relatively small organization, Ming-Ai has worked with high-profile groups and celebrities. FUN:) has connections with famous chefs Ken Hom, Ching-He Huang, and Andrew Wong, among others. Recently we helped with the Hong Kong Intangible Culture Festival, hosting Michelin-star dim sum chefs from Hong Kong at the Crowne Plaza to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival, and are initiating an upcoming series of talks, cooking and paper-making workshops as part of a cultural exhibition next month at China Exchange (tucked away in the center of Chinatown).
For anybody interested in British-Chinese food culture, or building connections between the Chinese community and British schools, I strongly encourage looking into Ming-Ai’s opportunities. Both FUN:) and the British Chinese Armed Forces Heritage Project are eager to have students join in either part-time or volunteer capacities. Head here for all the details!
Please note that the views expressed in this blog are those of the author and unless specifically stated are not those of SOAS Careers Service. If you consider this content to be in breach of the SOAS values, please alert email@example.com.