As the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world and museums and galleries everywhere went into lockdown, we were inspired and heartened to see the launch of various creative initiatives aimed at reaching out to audiences and providing much-needed access to art. The Mori Art Museum, closed since 29 February 2020, launched an online initiative, Stay Home, Stay Creative – MAM@Home, encouraging art-lovers in self-quarantine or lockdown to “remain creative even in times like this”.
The initiative includes online screenings of video works, a 3D exhibition walkthrough, online learning programmes and, one I have particularly enjoyed, Artists Cookbook by MAM. In this project, the Museum invited artists around the world to share favourite recipes, photographs and stories, urging audiences to try the recipes, enjoy the experience, stay creative and expressing the hope that these would help us ” … keep [our] immunity and peace of mind”.
Judging from the surfeit of images of sourdough bread, banana bread and burnt Basque cheesecakes surfacing across social media, many of us have, indeed, found the rituals involved in making food – the weighing, measuring, cutting and chopping – meditative and therapeutic, qualities we have desperately needed in these challenging and surreal times.
The recipes from Artists Cookbook by MAM include several by well-known Southeast Asian contemporary artists. The first of these that I tried making was what seemed to me to be particularly comforting recipe – for peanut porridge – by artist Heman Chong. (All recipes can be found on the Mori Art Museum’s Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts.) Here are the ingredients and instructions on how to make Peanut Porridge (for Starving Artists), in the artist’s own words:
“When you find that you’re in deep shit, you can cook this simple dish and allow it to bring your spirits up – just a little.”
“It’s a great dish to cook if you have to feed 20 starving artists.”
There are only two ingredients needed to make this dish – rice and raw peanuts, in a ratio of 1:1. To this, you need only add tap water. I used brown rice when I made the dish, for an added nuttiness, and yes, I was one of those, in the artist’s words, “slightly OCD” people who washed the peanuts and removed the skin before cooking them. (Was I supposed to remove the skin? The recipe doesn’t say so, but I thought it seemed reasonable … ).
Bring the rice, peanuts and water to a boil and then turn the heat down and simmer for a couple of hours. The artist advises that you not stir the mixture, unless you prefer a thicker congee (stirring breaks up the starch off the rice and thickens the water).
“Enjoy the smell of the peanuts and rice cooking in your kitchen. This smell is important to nourishing your soul. Along with all other processes in life, it is the journey that matters, so enjoy it. There is no rush to get anywhere.”
The congee is ready when the peanuts have softened and the rice has become fat and fluffy. Some people prefer the rice completely broken down, making an almost smooth paste, while others prefer to retain a slightly grainy texture it, as I do. Add a little salt, or soy sauce, and some pepper if you like. It’s entirely up to you – you can’t go wrong with this simple recipe.
The experience of reading about, making and slowly savouring the taste of Heman Chong’s Peanut Porridge was everything that I had hoped it would be, in a time when we are all struggling to find balance in a world that is spinning out of control. It is just the kind of dish you would expect from the multi-hyphenate artist-curator-writer, whose artistic practice so often involves rigorously stripping things down to their barest essence, while encapsulating their purest, truest qualities. This uncomplicated, minimalist dish is love and comfort in a bowl.
“Eat it slowly. Savor its simplicity. Think about everything that requires very little in life that gives a lot of pleasure. Be positive. Share this congee with the people you love.”