Shared food conversations: Jason Phu and Nagesh Seethiah

Jason Phu, My Parents Met at the Fish Market, 2017. Installation view, West Space. Photo: Christo Crocker
Jason Phu, My Parents Met at the Fish Market, 2017. Installation view, West Space. Photo: Christo Crocker

In conversation with Sabrina Baker

In recent years, I have worked alongside Jason Phu on a number of projects, notably My Parents Met at the Fish Market commissioned for West Space in 2017. This professional relationship became a friendship, with Jason often staying with my partner and chef Nagesh Seethiah and I on his frequent trips to Melbourne. Almost every visit would become a conversation over dinner about life, politics, family, careers, love and of course food. These are also recurring topics in Jason’s art practice.

With this in mind I asked Nagesh and Jason if they would be keen to share their passion for cooking and storytelling with a larger group of friends to open up the dialogue further. We meet at the Queen Victoria Market for coffee and the two cooks go over key ingredients, favourite dishes and the colloquial family terms for specific herbs, sauces and condiments before settling upon a series of dishes, including some recipes imparted to Phu by his father and the others from the Seethiah family cookbook.

Jason Phu  Maybe I’ll butter grill some shallots. I dunno what that is, I just made it up …

Jason and Nagesh hash out the menu discussing why they’ve chosen certain dishes, “biryani is a classic for sharing,” “my dad taught me,” “eggplants just look good at the moment” and a deeper question slips into the conversation: “when inheriting and telling the stories of our parents, where does it cross the line to become exploitation, as it’s not your life.” This is a recurring question amongst the Diaspora community.

Jason asks if we know how to find a common Vietnamese herb for his salad but has no idea what it’s called. After throwing around several Vietnamese names, he finally draws a picture that Nagesh deciphers as rice paddy, a leafy herb with a cumin‑like flavour. It’s added to the list alongside mint, dill, coriander, parsley and watercress.

Nagesh’s notebook. Queen Victoria Market. Photo: Sabrina Baker
Nagesh’s notebook. Queen Victoria Market. Photo: Sabrina Baker
Nagesh and Jason at Queen Victoria Market. Photo: Sabrina Baker
Nagesh and Jason at Queen Victoria Market. Photo: Sabrina Baker
Jason and Nagesh at Queen Victoria Market. Photo: Sabrina Baker
Jason and Nagesh at Queen Victoria Market. Photo: Sabrina Baker

The pair pick their way through the markets collecting baskets full of vegetables, fish, chicken and rice. We make another stop at Footscray Market in Melbourne’s west, where many stalls are owned and operated by the South‑East Asian community, to stock up on banana leaves, watercress and the elusive rice paddy. As we drive home the car is filled with the fresh scent of herbs and vegetables.

When Jason came to visit prior to his relocation to Melbourne, his forays into our kitchen would be peppered with questions about the best way to prepare fish while he kept up a stream of Instagrams of sizzling cuts of meat. Similarly, we got to know Jason’s parents’ kitchen from his Instagram stories. These videos have recently become fodder for his practice, as in Videos for the Grandchildren I’ll Never Have (2019), a collage of video of his parent’s musings on war, marriage and family whilst preparing dinner that recently premiered on the new online video art platform You Are the Prototype.

While prepping ingredients Nagesh and Jason make frequent references to memes and social media. I lend a hand peeling a head of garlic.

Jason  Did you see the video of that lady using a knife to take out the garlic?

Baker  We had a go at it.

Jason  Does it actually make things easier?

Sabrina  It was pretty stressful. Have you seen the one of the pineapple?

Jason  Nah, I like to watch the pomegranate ones.

Our conversation shifts to parents, the role of mothers in particular. Both Nagesh and Jason grew up with mothers who worked full time while also shouldering a lot of the household responsibilities.

Nagesh  I think mum used to still enjoy cooking but was time poor, trying to look after kids, go to work and still put up dinner.

Jason  My mum worked as well, like not full time, she still had to be a house wife and look after me so it was annoying to cook. But now she’s cooking all my Grandma’s recipes again.

Nagesh  My mum is as well.

Jason  My dad cooks every day; because he’s retired he just sits at home cooking. So mum just cooks when she feels like it. She really enjoys it now.

Nagesh  At the moment there’s a culture that people are too busy to cook or eat real food. But my mum never took any shortcuts.

Jason  That’s a really good point, but there’s no such things as short cuts. A short cut is getting Domino’s Pizza. Mum’s cooking was always delicious and cooked properly.

Nagesh  It always had to be filling and nourishing.

Jason  We ate fast food. But if you’re gonna cook, you cook properly, like Chinese food.

With a multitude of TV channels and programs dedicated to the genre and kitchen hack videos popping up all over the internet, both Jason and Nagesh have developed a taste for cooking unrelated to gadgets or short cuts but rooted in a love of family and eating.

Illustration by Jason Phu for Manzé
Illustration by Jason Phu for Manzé

Nagesh  I used to cook on and off when I was young because I just enjoyed eating a lot. When we lived on the farm I was interested in home killing (sheep) and used to go fishing with my Dad quite a bit. I always grew up around food, going to the markets every Sunday and growing our own. As a kid we lived on a farm in New Zealand and pretty much only ate our own vegetables.

Jason  My mum only cooks Chinese food, whatever that means. I guess you’d call it very Beijing food, but dad’s family is from the Hainan islands and so he cooks Hainan food and Vietnamese food.

Nagesh  Is Hainan the group of islands in the south?

Jason  Yep, the last untouched surf spot, they call it brown water surfing. They also call it the Bali of Russia. I never see him cook Chinese. But his dad sent him to Japan during the war and to survive he worked in a sushi restaurant. That’s why he knows how to cook Japanese food and cut salmon into sashimi. His family, all my aunties and uncles, are all really great cooks. One owns a pho restaurant in San Fran and one in France. They’re not Michelin star, but they’re restaurants.

Watching Nagesh and Jason together in the kitchen, I think I should have filmed them. They are truly entertaining, explaining to each other their favourite things to eat. Rummaging through cupboards for the right combination of condiments, Jason often pauses to watch Nagesh as he fries something in oil or layers up the giant pot of biryani. Nagesh mentions that he regularly revisits a poem Jason wrote for a dinner he did with 4A Centre for Contemporary Art in Sydney. Jason can’t remember the poem other than the topic of mushrooms, but he happily creates new poems about the fish he is preparing or how much he likes sashimi.

Our guests arrive and everyone is given a task as dinner is nowhere near ready. Arts writer Amelia Winata hands around snacks and picks the leaves off herb stems while I rope fellow arts worker Shae Nagorcka into rearranging the furniture so we can all fit around the table. James Nguyen, another recent arrival in Melbourne, sets the table and starts grilling Jason on how he’s made all his dishes. With vastly different experiences of growing up in households with Vietnamese heritage, they have different tastes and techniques. James tells stories of his family and how his aunties are making their own fish sauce in the backyard. Jason is looking for brown sugar to make fish sauce, the foundation for all his favourite dishes. Nagesh suggests more commonly used castor sugar.

Jason  No, my dad uses that, I use brown.

Nagesh’s sister Yashna arrives and their conversation slips in and out of creole as she helps with dishes in the kitchen and James remarks on the differences that take place between generations or even siblings. Although his younger brother is more fluent in Vietnamese, he speaks with an Australian accent. James, born in Vietnam, laughs about his strong Vietnamese accent and childish vocabulary. Jason has a similar experience and channels this into his art. Videos for the Grandchildren I’ll Never Have tackles this generational shift in language. We catch snippets of family stories as his parents cook dinner together and Phu films them on his phone. Jason speaks Mandarin, his Grandmother speaks three languages he doesn’t, and his Father who can speak all five translates. James also explores familial and cultural relationships in his work with his mother, brother and aunts regularly appearing in his video works to retell Australian stories from migrant perspectives.

The conversation moves from podcasts to politics, Facebook videos and travelling to the Venice Biennale. Everyone settles into silence as a mix of Mauritian, Vietnamese and European dishes are laid on a tablecloth embroidered with a map of Mauritius in the centre. Nagesh has made his favourite childhood snack, livers on toast, as a starter and the table become nostalgic for their own childhood favourites. For James, it was chewing on cinnamon leaves in the backyard; while for Amelia it was the pop tarts cooked by her elderly neighbours. James jokes about the diversity of dishes on the table and whether this is east meets west fusion prompting further memories of parents and their forays into European cooking.

Nagesh  Do your parents have a weird pasta dish?

Jason  Yeah, it’s one of the best pastas I’ve ever tasted.

Nagesh  I was thinking about my mum’s one this morning, with chicken, tomato and chilli.

Jason  Innovation, that’s what it is.

The table is full of food, and yet dishes continue to appear from the kitchen. Nagesh fries a sea perch and Jason dresses it with fish sauce. This slides in next to bowls of grilled eggplant, mushrooms, chicken livers and salads. Finally, Nagesh squeezes an enormous pot of biryani into the centre of the table. James gets stuck into the livers, whilst Yashna goes digging for potatoes in the biryani. Biryani is a treasured recipe of Nagesh’s, learned from his mother and adapted to his taste (a few extra knobs of butter at the end). We talk about favourite meals and restaurants, a lengthy conversation about durian ends with a university library being evacuated for a phantom gas leak. But somehow, we always end up back at our family dinner tables, nostalgic for our parents’ cooking.

Jason  I learned from my parents how to stir fry and cook fried rice, and I follow exactly what they do. But theirs is always better.

Nagesh  It’s just intuition.

Jason  It’s also about just cutting everything right.

Whatever we inherit, inevitably shifts and changes as it becomes our own through trial, error and retelling. James remarks “If no generation cooks as well as their mother’s, will we get to a point where we’ve lost our recipes and heritage?” A few weeks later Jason’s dad sees pictures of a flounder with curry sauce that Nagesh has cooked. But he is still waiting for the recipe to try at home. Quoting from Jason’s notebook:

To make fish sauce is to make a pungent murky reflection of your life. There are many elements that make up your life: some positive, some negative, some neutral. But like any recipe, all ingredients are important. You have to mix vinegar (the sour events), water (the neutral events), sugar (the sweet events) and fish sauce (the momentous events) together in a pot on the heat (the crucible of life, your physical body). Melt the sugar, but don’t let it burn. We often over indulge in those sweet events, balance is key. Turn off the heat to cool, and then finely slice these two to disperse through the sauce: garlic (wisdom learnt through events), chilli (passion experienced as events). Then let it sit to mix on its own, sometimes doing nothing is doing something. Finally, always make a big pot for loved ones and unexpected guests.

Photo courtesy Nagesh Seethiah
Photo courtesy Nagesh Seethiah

Link to Nagesh’ s recipe for Biryani here.

Sabrina Baker is a Melbourne‑based arts worker and writer.

Jason Phu is an artist based in Melbourne.

Nagesh Seethiah is an Art History graduate and hospitality professional, based in Melbourne.