In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, as far back as February (and weeks before hundreds of restaurants, bars and cafes closed or made the move to takeaway), Asian eateries were already bearing the brunt of the virus’s impact on the hospitality industry.
Michael Souvanthalisith and Muriel-Ann Ricafrente run Sydney design company Studio Mimu, and watched as some of their favourite noodle joints, hole-in-the wall diners and family-run businesses quickly lost customers. The two artists, themselves of Asian descent (Souvanthalisith is Lao with Thai and Japanese heritage, while Ricafrente is Filipino), wanted to help.
“We were walking through Chinatown one day and Ho Jiak, which usually has lines out the door, was empty,” Souvanthalisith tells Broadsheet. “Even the Friday night markets whittled down until there wasn’t anybody.”
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Enter More of Something Good, an online art project that serves as a visual menu of different artists’ favourite Asian eats across Melbourne and Sydney. The website is like a love letter to Australia’s vibrant Asian culinary scene, filled with illustrations of much-loved dishes and local hidden gems.
“As designers, we know the effects of art and how it can heighten community and connect you with other people,” Ricafrente says. “Everyone loves food and I think bringing art and food together is something that everyone will understand.”
The pair approaches artists with two simple questions: what’s your favourite dish from an Asian restaurant in your city? And, why? The artists then illustrate their chosen dishes and explain what it is they love about it. The selection of dishes is diverse, as are the different art styles and design aesthetics in each illustration.
There’s sate ayam (chicken skewers) in peanut sauce from Indonesian eatery My Delight as illustrated by Audrey Alim; the thick biang biang noodles from Burwood’s Xi’an Eatery, depicted by Joy Li; Thai street food sai krok isaan (fermented pork sausage) from Yok Yor Thai Food Factory in collage form by artist Rachel Song; RaRa Ramen’s ebi mazesoba (dry, soupless ramen with prawns) by Nani Puspasari (who also worked on the restaurant’s branding); and more, from various cuisines and suburbs around the city.
“There are a few artists on the MSG menu that talk about the childhood nostalgia that’s linked to this food, and that’s a really big thing for us,” Souvanthalisith says. “It reminds us of friends and family. And in times like this, those are things you want to keep close to your heart.”
In keeping with the site’s menu theme, a section called the Chef’s Special features Asian takeaway picks from well-known chefs and restaurateurs. First up is Dan Hong of Sydney’s Mr Wong, Ms.G’s, Lotus, Queen Chow and The Establishment, who penned an op-ed for Broadsheet in February urging Aussies to keep supporting their local Chinese eateries.
“He’s kind of been at the forefront of all of this and a really big champion of going out and supporting the local restaurants,” Souvanthalisith says.
More of Something Good’s name is tongue in cheek, referencing not just MSG (monosodium glutamate), a staple ingredient in Asian cooking, but also the stigma surrounding it and the so-called “Chinese restaurant syndrome”.
“My mum said to me one time that if MSG was bad for you, we would have been dead a long time ago,” Souvanthalisith says with a laugh. “And I love that you can take this thing that people see as bad and just flip it on its head and reclaim it. Why shouldn’t MSG be More of Something Good? Why can’t we turn a situation like Covid-19 and put a positive spin on it?”