Artist Ruby White, 25, learned to make silver needle noodles in a bid to connect with her Malaysian roots. Ahead of a Both Worlds documentary on her pop-up noodle restaurant, she talks about the art of cooking.
I was born in Australia, in Melbourne. I moved to Auckland when I was 17. It’s like I’m not really white enough to be white, and not Asian enough to be Asian, so it is like this limbo between these two places.
It’s a very similar story to a lot of other people’s who are either half cultures, or they've grown up looking different. Being Asian, but growing up in a western society with mainly white friends, you identify as being western. For a large part of your youth you reject that other side of who you are. I guess when I became older, maybe around 21, it was the reverse. I wanted to really embrace it, and own who I was.
The reason I wanted to learn to make silver needle noodles is because my mum’s side of the family run a noodle shop in Miri, East Malaysia. It’s been going about 60 to 80 years. My great grandmother started making the noodles - which originate from a region in China - just to make money, and they became really popular. It’s a really difficult noodle to get right.
The noodles are such a significant part of my family’s history, and it’s getting to a point now where people of my generation are better off getting a job somewhere else - hospitality is really labour intensive and people don’t want to do that work, and so all that knowledge is going to get lost.
My family in Malaysia grind their own rice flour fresh, and that’s quite a critical part in the flavour and the texture. But I don’t have a rice grinder, and I tried to source one but they’re just impossible to find. My way of trying to get around grinding the rice was to cook it, mash it, and add other stuff to it - and that meant the flavour was really ‘ricey’.
I went to Elam School of Fine Arts. In my final year I started doing food and art and combining them together. I started doing pop up restaurant events, but I was also building furniture for the events and creating chopsticks and ceramics - it wasn’t just the food. Everything was hand made. It was a bit challenging trying to convince people that what I was doing was art and not ‘someone cooking’. I think that was part of the reason why I started building furniture - so it was this whole experience.
Food - especially Chinese food for me - is something that I find is undervalued, especially in New Zealand. Whenever I did pop ups it was charged - I never did food for free because there’s so much labour that goes into it, which changes what I do - it’s not classified as relational aesthetics, because it’s a monetary exchange. It was really challenging and I learnt a lot doing it but I still don’t feel like they were 100 percent what they should be, I still feel like I need to keep going with my learning.
I have friends who’ve taken part in the Metro cheap eats this year and pretty much all the things on that list are Indian and Chinese food - there might be one or two pizza places. It’s facilitating this idea that ethnic food should be cheap. But there’s as much skill and time and skill that goes into making a dumpling as ravioli. Every single noodle I did was hand rolled - I spent at least nine hours for the pop up.
For me, making noodles was about trying to educate myself on my family’s history and culture and getting closer to my family as well. I only speak English, so there is a limited amount of stuff that I can do with my relatives - the older family members who don’t speak English. Cooking is a really nice way of just spending time. It a language that - if you enjoy cooking - you don’t need to talk.
*Edited for clarity and brevity.
Both Worlds and The Wireless' video of Ruby White was funded by NZ on Air.