Our spiciest issue yet — issue #23

Our spiciest issue yet — issue #23


Till this day, my parents cannot enjoy a meal—even Western dishes like grilled steak or pasta—without some chilli padi, soy sauce, and a squirt of limau juice. As a young girl, I was inspired by my family to improve my tolerance for heat, starting with McDonald's garlic chilli before levelling up to larger, spicier, scarier things like sambal or mala. 

Spices—of both the spicy and non-spicy variety—have been integral to my identity as a Singaporean, Southeast Asian, and Asian. It's something that's shared across our continent. When I was in Japan for the IATSS program, my fellow Southeast Asian participants and I would often trade spices and chilli jams, challenging and testing our thresholds of not only spiciness but also bold and strange flavours that come with each sauce.

It's therefore a little sad that something that brings us Asians so much pride and joy also comes with a dark past. Spice was what brought colonialism to the region, and the riches it gave Europe have also been the basis for centuries of exploitation that many countries are still struggling to recover from.

Part of our mission here at Kontinentalist is to celebrate all the things that make  Asia not just unique but important. We want to change conversations around something as ubiquitous as spices and chilli. These may just be flavourings in a dish, but they have changed the world—and it all started here in Asia. 

a memoji of peiying
an illustration of different chillies in asia, with children excitedly seated on the dining table
(To the tune of Alexander Hamilton, from the musical Hamilton): 

🎵How does the spicy chilli, native to South America / 
Glow up to be the hottest spice in Asia? 🎵
a picture of a mullwine with different types of spices surrounding it
Remember how Chidi from The Good Place thought he was going to "The Bad Place" (i.e., Hell) because he had consumed almond milk knowing that it was bad for the environment? (Cow's milk is actually the worst). Well...have we got news for you. Your favourite spices may have a dark past, given their roots in the slave trade and colonialism in Asia.
an animated gif showing the word "market" in english, tamil, chinese and malay, set against the backdrop of a wet market in Singapore.
Go on a visual tour of Singapore's heartlands at the pasar—the Malay word for "market". Soak in the cacophony of customers bartering, butchers, chopping, and fruit sellers lelong-ing (auctioning) their goods. Even if we can't physically be there, pasars are chicken soup for the soul. 
an image of home cooked food corresponding to different types of chilli used in them
Enough talk about food; let's get cooking! We were invited by Spice Zi Kitchen to sip tea and make yummy iddiyappam (a rice noodle dish) at their home a while back. Using food as the anchor, the mother-daughter home-cook duo educated us about the Indian-Muslim culture and facilitated discussions on the gender dynamics of cooking.
an illustration of a nutmeg with money bag next to it.
Chilli is a deeply personal thing for most Asians, which is why we needed illustrations to depict some of the more qualitative data in the "What's the big deal about chilli in Asia?" story.

When we plan our illustrations, we always start with the feeling we want to evoke in our readers. For such a personal topic, we wanted to focus on emotional impact and intrigue. We wanted readers to instantly recognise and relate to the sauces they love, while showing them the sheer variety of sauces across Asia and encourage them to learn more.
different illustrations of asian spicy sauces
To showcase the many different chillies in the visualization, simply illustrating a plate of sauce doesn't cut it, as most of them look similar despite their rich flavours and complex ingredients. Instead, we decided to depict a tray of each sauce along with the ingredients it uses.

A lot of research went into this—Mick poured through various articles and recipes, identifying common ingredients across the different sauces (though we agreed there was no point in adding the universal ones, such as salt and oil). It's important to get sources as diverse as the sauces themselves, of course! Some of us are passionate about cooking, and many of us come from different countries across Asia, so we suggested recipes that are as authentic and familiar as we could get them to be. I, for one, eagerly told him about all the kinds of Indonesian sauces I knew.

Here's a snippet of his document, listing all the references:
google doc with research and reference image of chilli
Other than finding authentic sauces and their ingredients, we also included beloved sauce brands that readers have a personal connection to. The brands have to be obscured, but those who grew up with those sauces should be able to recognise them!

Back to the feelings we wanted to evoke: while conceptualising our cover image, emotional impact was our main consideration. 
a side by side comparison of two different cover images
We eventually went for the latter of the two concepts. The first one, with small people running around a spread of dishes, is cute and would've allowed us to depict a large variety of people. However, the second one allowed us to portray a variety of people while really putting emphasis on the joy these sauces bring.

When done efficiently, illustrations can be a powerful tool to portray information while evoking resonance within readers. We talk more about conceptualisation process in our recent
blog post!
a memoji of griselda
↘︎ Happy Pride month from the Konti team 🏳️‍🌈! Did you know that a group called SAMBAL—Singaporean and Malaysian Bisexual and Lesbians—marched at the San Francisco Dyke March in 1993? Sambal is a chilli sauce beloved by Singaporeans and Malaysians alike, but living in a world in which everyone seems to like sambal—or expects everyone else to want sambal—can be lonely, too. This brilliant sambal-themed comic shows why asexuality is valid and deserves respect along with other LGBTQ+ identities!

↘︎ How did Jane Zhang cope with the fear of losing her Chinese heritage? Make data visualizations about her grandma's recipes, obviously. 
↘︎ Evacuated from the Semakau Island in Singapore some 40 years ago, the Orang Laut community continues to share their philosophy of life and heritage through food.

↘︎ Ok, MSG isn't a spice, but the slander against it must be addressed #MSGIsNotEvil. Its villain origin story started in 1968, when editors of a medical journal coined the term "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" after people who had consumed MSG experienced unpleasant health symptoms. Science has since debunked this, given that MSG is a common amino acid naturally found in foods such as tomatoes and cheese. It's about time that common sense catches up. 

↘︎ An upcoming game, Soup Pot, offers another way of preserving cultures through its detailed illustrations of local ingredients and cooking methods.

↘︎ Feast your eyes on this iconic food preparation scene from Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman, and gain a renewed sense of appreciation for Chinese cuisines.