Feeding the imagination

A series of picture books gives children and adults a taste of traditional culture by exploring the history and origin of popular Chinese dishes in a new and contemporary way, Mei Jia reports.

As Emeril Lagasse, the US celebrity chef, once noted: “To really get to know a place and its people, you’ve got to eat the food.” Food serves as a key to every culture and, in China, glutinous rice paste, moon cake, spring roll, eight-treasured rice congee, Yangzhou-styled fried rice and dried persimmon are delicacies commonly seen on dinner tables across the country. To Sichuan Fine Arts Institute associate professor Mou Aili, they are her inspiration for a series of picture books that she hopes will “pass Chinese culture and the wisdom it involves on to future generations”.

Mou is not the first to focus on Chinese food in picture books, which has been a trend in publishing circles over the course of the past decade, especially where food related to a particular custom or certain event, like Spring Festival, is concerned.

Despite the dishes having a rich history in terms of their origins and related tales, Mou is trying something different. By employing new, contemporary storytelling, she turns them into fresh and tasty stories for both younger readers and adults.

The six-volume offering This is Chinese Taste was published with the arrival of this year’s Spring Festival. Celebrated illustrator Xiong Liang hails the series for the plot, which combines the traditional with the original, “it does justice to the delicious food, with decent stories,” he says.

Mou, as the writer of the six stories, says that, when faced with the vast array of Chinese dishes, she selected around 50 before deciding on a final 18 around which to develop the stories. The first six books will be followed by a further two collections.

“The composition process is not that easy. Sometimes it goes smoothly and sometimes I found myself stuck, lacking smart and funny ideas, until my mind was lit up by the spark of a thought,” Mou says.

She found a breakthrough with setting characters.


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