“Food is politics,” says Ming-Cheau Lin, author of the cookbook Just Add Rice and the food blog Butterfingers.
Her statement is as bold as her purple hair.
Ming-Cheau, 30, a copywriter and patisserie-lover, moved to Bloemfontein with her family when she was 3. Between the late 1970s and early 1990s South Africa saw an influx of Taiwanese immigrants, approximately 2 000 plus, who started manufacturing businesses across the country.
Ming-Cheau says the then government had offered Taiwanese people incentives to move to South Africa because Taiwan was not part of the UN, which had boycotted all relations with South Africa due to apartheid.
In her book, she admits the situation was not ideal but she also credits her parents for their bravery in starting afresh in a foreign land, all to provide opportunities for their children.
In the early 90s, her father, Kingha, a qualified pharmacist, started working in a plastics factory. Ming-Cheau says growing up as a Taiwanese immigrant in a largely Afrikaans culture was like “sticking out like a sore thumb”.
She speaks candidly about the trials and tribulations they faced as a family. Seeing her mother mocked for not speaking proper English made her work harder at perfecting her accent, she says. Being mocked herself for the “foreign food” in her school lunch box is another painful memory.
But it wasn’t all bad. Ming-Cheau’s childhood memories are also filled with family dinners where quality time was spent over bowls of rice and communal dishes. “Culturally, we’re all connected to our families through food.”
She said when you’re an immigrant you have to work harder at preserving that food culture. She moved to Cape Town to study brand communication between 2007 and 2009 and specialised in copywriting.
She has also obtained an international diploma in patisserie. It was during her time studying that she started asking her parents for recipes of meals she had grown up eating. She found Taiwanese cuisine was not well represented in South Africa and if she was going to enjoy some of her favourite dishes she would have to cook them herself. She started the blog for recording the recipes and this is how Butterfingers.co.za, which eventually evolved into a cookbook, Just Add Rice, was born.
“I had to unpack my own identity to start loving my own food,” says Ming-Cheau. During this time, she combined her passion for writing and her passion for food to create a platform to teach people about her culture and heritage.
“Food is politics. Food is part of our culture and ‘culture food’ is not the norm of a European society,” she says.
Just Add Rice has been a revelation for Ming-Cheau who has received heart-felt messages from people who relate to the stories in her book. Two years ago she married her best friend, Kyle van der Holst. Having a husband of Dutch origin has expanded her palate as she also dabbles in Dutch recipes from time to time.
As for being a “third culture kid”, Ming-Cheau says she’s learnt to embrace it. She works as a freelance copywriter, specialising in food content and concepts in both digital and traditional media.
She also offers talks on being mindful in a multi-cultural environment, which focuses on the harms of cultural appropriation and stereotyping. Add three dogs to the mix and it’s safe to say she’s got a full plate.