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Mirabelle Dominé-Walley: What winning the Yan-Kit So Award meant for me.

 

The Oxford Cultural Collective hosts the biennial Yan-Kit So Award for Food Writers on Asia, which enables aspiring food writers to fulfil their dreams to research, travel and create original work about any aspect of Asian food.

 

The submissions closing date for the next Award is 30th April 2019. For full details on how to enter, follow this link.

 

Mirabelle Dominé-Walley, who won the award in 2013, reflects on time spent in Vietnam researching and writing about the food legacies of French colonial rule.

 

 

What was the focus of your award winning literary project?

My project was to research vegetarian food in Vietnam. I was a strict vegetarian at the time and looked into the country’s indigenous, vegan, Buddhist cuisine, learning from chefs in pagoda kitchens, from specialist caterers and home cooks. My own mixed French colonial family from Saigon left for Marseille after the French defeat in Vietnam in 1954. This shaped my interest in the legacies of French cuisine in Vietnam and French-Vietnamese hybrid dishes like Bánh Mì – Vietnamese baguettes – and French desserts adapted to incorporate tropical flavours. Food became my means of exploring national and family history. Subconsciously I think I associated the over consumption of meat with French decadence and violence, so my focus on vegetarianism was my way of treading lightly through a country still ridden with the trauma of colonialism. I had only been to Vietnam once before, and so did not feel a sense of entitlement towards it, despite my roots.

 

How did you use your financial grant that came with the Yan-Kit So Award?

The £2500 grant went very far! My proposal included my project photographer and partner, Luke, and given that we stayed with Vietnamese friends and used local transport, it pretty much covered all of our travel and accommodation costs for the two month trip from Hanoi down to Ho Chi Minh City. It also helped me pay for Vietnamese language lessons before heading out, which Freya Aitken-Turff, the Yan-Kit So Award administrator, helped to organise.

 

Mirabelle with a nun in a mushroom shed, in a pagoda garden close to Huế

 

What impact did winning the Yan-Kit So Award have on you?

The award has had a highly formative impact on my career and on me personally. I won it a year after completing my Bachelor’s degree in English Literature, aged 22. It strengthened my CV and helped me refine my research interests, which formed the basis of my MA in Postcolonial and Global Literature at Queen Mary University. This in turn enabled me to develop my writing skills and knowledge of Vietnamese/Indochinese history and decolonisation, as well as of European writers on Vietnam such as the novelist Marguerite Duras. Most importantly, it has helped me better understand my mother’s family and my cultural inheritance, which always seemed opaque to me growing up, and which made our relationship very fraught at times – something I now realise is common for descendants of those in the European postcolonial diaspora.

 

What food related projects are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on a second draft of my book! My MA has proved invaluable in helping me synthesise culinary, sensual and historical data. I’m featuring my cooking on my food instagram, @thejadecave, along with Luke’s studio photography. I live just outside of London and am lucky to have a vegetable patch, which means what I’m cooking is more in line with the seasons and more organic than when I lived in London. I am no longer a strict vegetarian: whilst most of the meals I eat and cook are vegetarian, I would call myself a pescatarian these days, both for health reasons and because the cuisine of Marseille and Vietnam, my two major gastronomic influences, are both so heavily indebted to the ocean that over time I have found its pull irresistible!

 

What do you hope the future holds for you as a food writer?

I would like to further explore the cooking of the Vietnamese diaspora around Marseille, and to go to Vietnam again to visit friends who cook vegetarian food at the pagoda temples on national feast days. I would also love to explore the coastline of Vietnam, as a pescatarian, and better understand the cuisine of Provence.

 

The submissions closing date for the next Award is 30th April 2019. For full details on how to enter, follow this link.

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