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From a website to the whole cultural diversity thing

"I just started with curiosity and kept asking questions, eating out and metabolising lots of facts from articles and books – anyone can do it, about any subject, about anything. Just start." Lee Lan Tram

I was feeling lazy and uninspired so decided to resort to the website thing, which is sometimes a disappointing exercise. Not this one though. Well It revealed a success story - I suppose lots of them are - and also a whole lot of questions about cultural diversity.

The author is the alarmingly young looking lady on the left - Lee Lan Tram, although it seems she is in her mid to late 30s, maybe even approaching 40 by now. I say alarmingly young, because of what she has achieved since her first magazine article published at the age of 15. The book she is clutching in her hands is one that she edited. It's called New Voices in Food, and is a collection of the work of young writers from a very diverse group of writers. One excerpt has been published in The Guardian - Learning to love beige food by Rosheen Kaul. The aim of the book was to publicise their work and to demonstrate how truly diverse the food media in Australia really is. Apparently -

"When people wanted to know what she was looking for she asked them, ‘What is something only you can write?" Bri Lee - State Library NSW

Interesting question, but one which I think is unanswerable. Somebody, somewhere has always said what you want to say. It's entirely possible that some of her writers say it better than others have, but then again maybe not. Although I enjoyed the article by Rosheen Kaul I have to say that it was not what I would call 'original'. So many people, probably sort of including myself, have had the same thoughts, and some of them have published them too.

The website - with the wonderful title - The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry is actually no longer active in the sense of its original conception - an exploration of the restaurants, bars and cafés of Sydney. Indeed at this first glance I almost went no further - well I don't live in Sydney. But it evolved and is now something completely different.

In one of her last 'real' blog posts, published in October 2017 which was entitled - 10 years ago today, I started this food blog. And …", and is prefaced with this photograph of a breakfast - well I think that's what it is, she says:

"I wanted to appreciate my own city with the wide-eyed keenness you freely deploy when you’re a tourist, when you’ve landed somewhere with just your passport and bag and you think somewhere great could be close by – or worth the extra travel time – if you just do the research or take a gamble. It’s an inspiring way to get to know postcodes or street blocks you’re unfamiliar with – or corners you’ve often walked past and overlooked."

Which is so true. And it's taken me most of my life to try and see my local environment as a tourist would. It's enlightening and makes you appreciate many things. When David and I decided to emigrate to Australia, we embarked on a rush of visits to the Royal Shakespeare Company and the like, we went to Scotland for a holiday and probably did a whole lot of other things that I cannot now remember. The point is they were things that we just took for granted when we lived there. As one does. When we lived in Adelaide for four years, for example, I do not think we once visited McLaren Vale, or the Clare Valley and only went to the Barossa once. Port Lincoln was just too far! COVID has perhaps changed things and made us look closer to home for inspiration. I remember admiring some Melbourne friends - now resident in Perth - who out of interest - each week would stick a pin in a map of Melbourne and explore the suburb that they had landed on, almost street by street. I have often thought this might be an interesting experiment. Maybe I should just work my way around the cafés of Eltham. It would be a start.

On reflection I am grateful to my parents who, once we had acquired a car, would take us to visit every castle and stately home within reach of home near the eastern end of the district line, and also on what became known as Rosemary's rural rides. For these we would take off into the countryside of Essex - yes I'm an Essex girl - with me reading the map and directing us on circuitous routes, that tried to take in every ford I could find. I was attracted by tiny roads and quaint village names and as a result we had such fun, with many stops at village pubs for a lemonade and crisps.

But to return to cultural diversity in food and Lee Lan Tram. The website/blog is still there, but it doesn't feature blogs anymore, or reviews either I think. These days - as you can see from this screen shot of the front page, it is merely directing you to her podcasts of the same name. The podcasts are interviews with foodie people - not just restaurateurs, but as you can see from the one featured here - there are also food writers, possibly producers as well. They are available to hear on the website and in various other places, including Apple Podcasts.

Then there's her Instagram account - @leetranlam. Of course there is Instagram. I can't tell you much about what is here, because, as you know, I do not have an Instagram account, but a glance makes me think that this is where the more blog like posts have migrated to.

These days she describes herself as a freelance journalist and she regularly contributes to magazines such as Gourmet Traveller, and Good Food as well as to SBS, which has 132 results for articles by her on their website.

Again, these are more general articles, or reviews of restaurants and exhibitions and so on.

And finally we come to what is perhaps her main focus these days - Diversity in Food Media - the title of yet another Instagram account and an SBS catalogue entry. It seems that these consist of stories from people of differing ethnic backgrounds, talking about the food that connects them to their family, and their culture.

I found a couple of interviews with her and read her own writings on this topic, with which perhaps I slightly disagree. One statement goes like this:

"Perhaps the image most people have of ‘food writer’ is so bourgeois precisely because many food writers are unrepresentatively bourgeois. I think anyone can write about anything as long as they have respect and cultural context and understanding. But so many people who cover food just have really similar lives. They’re often white, often from really privileged backgrounds. The way they spend money is not necessarily representative of how other people may spend money." Lee Tran Lam

"An even broader problem is the chicken-and-egg of who gets to write about food and what foods are therefore valued." Bri Lee - State Library NSW

I do think this is true up to a point - certainly in the 'mainstream' media but that's not really where it's at these days is it? This ignores the supermarket magazines - full of, food from here there and everywhere in the world - directed at the lower half of society. Yes - in a bastardised form perhaps - although not always - but surely that just shows how migrant cuisines merge with the dominant cuisine of a country. Every one of those magazines is full of Asian noodles, miso, nachos and various other Mexican foodstuffs, not to mention hummus and co. Then there is SBS which has an entire food channel that includes food from everywhere. Then there are the multitude of cookbooks from various ethnicities, not to mention where, as I have already said, it's really at - social media - Instagram and Tik-Tok in particular it seems. This is where the real action is. Where trends are made and unmade. She berated Adam Liaw for saying:

“90% of food bloggers in Australia are skinny Asian girls who don’t look like they eat any food.”

And yet he could be right. Certainly I have come across a few in my blog wanderings, - and if not Asian, ethnic of one kind or another. Besides is this not what she would like?

One of her main beefs is that because Asian food is generally cheaper and suburban it is not respected in the same way as European cuisines, quoting the only Michelin starred restaurant in China - headed by a Frenchman. There is a certain truth to this I suppose, but what about expensive eateries like Flower Drum and Lee Ho Fook? In the wider world surely there is more excitement over ethnic chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi and David Chang of Momofuku than people like Gordon Ramsay these days?

"Lee Tran Lam is challenging preconceived notions of what the food landscape is really all about while tackling head on the damaging stereotypes many of us accept of when we consider what diversity looks like."

says Elizabeth McDonald of Time Out. What is the stereotype of diversity? I wonder if she means that if a particular food of a particular cuisine, which is perhaps, shall we say, a little extreme - like that Italian cheese crawling with maggots - if that food is toned down to be accommodated by the dominant cuisine of another country, that is wrong. Is it destroying tradition or is it evolution?

But let me not quibble. This is obviously a very talented, very energising and energetic, enthusiastic and determined young lady with a mission and she should be applauded for the work she has done, is doing. I'll just leave you with a few more quotes - mostly from that blog she wrote about how it all began:

"Anyone – from a three-year-old to a gastroenterologist to a taxi driver – has an opinion on what’s worth eating."

"I think, beyond your appetite, curiosity is a fantastic way to engage with food. There are so many entry points to having your world broadened this way"

"food is so much more than something that keeps hunger away: it’s about geography, culture, the environment, history, immigration, the traditional custodians of the land, health and well-being, it’s about who gets to make the food, who gets to enjoy it and who gets celebrated for it. It’s about traditions and technique, as well as wild experiments and innovation."

And I almost forgot. She has a sandwich named after her - the Lee Tran sandwich which is a Charred broccoli and Parmesan focaccia which also contains chilli mayonnaise, capers and caciocavallo cheese. It was from a restaurant where she ate often and loved this toasted sandwich in particular and so they named it after her.

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