Every so often, when humankind is lucky, a creator comes along that rips open a new portal—one that welcomes a sense of okay-ness amidst the mess of being human.
That’s what Jonny Sun does.
The screenwriter and New York Times best-selling author and illustrator has an acute ability to make you feel seen while in the company of his work. Take, for instance, this segment from his latest book, Goodbye, again: “Living in a place feels like it’s bookended by parallel experiences,” writes Sun. “You move into an empty space feeling uncertain about it, and slowly, you let the space hold onto the uncertainty, so you don’t have to. And when you leave, you leave it again as an empty space, taking back the uncertainty that you were storing in it. It ends with an empty room, the same way it began, although you’ve changed in all the time in between.” Sun’s words reveal glimmers of truth that ease the burn that can come with feeling anxious, sad, confused, or any of the other emotions we humans so often feel yet too rarely admit.
Via his best-selling books and newly launched newsletter, ‘A Small List of Knowable Things,’ Sun—who studied architecture at Yale, recently wrote for the TV series ‘BoJack Horseman,’ and is working toward a doctorate at MIT—consistently delivers words and visuals that serve as a gentle invitation to giggle or sigh with relief.
He also sheds light on the nuances in life, which is why we wanted to steal a few minutes of his time to talk about what food and cooking unveil to him. What Sun reveals is exciting: What we eat can be an entrance to seeing new facets of life—and learning more about ourselves. As he says, “There’s something so cool about how food is tied to memory and these things that can’t really be explained or rationalized.”
You consistently juggle a lot in your career. Do you have any rituals around food, or certain dishes, that help you stay focused or grounded?
For me and for my wife, as we’ve moved around, a ritual has always been to explore new places. There is something about being on the constant search for foods we've never had before or places we've never tried. There’s always something that sparks in my brain when having something I've never eaten before and absolutely loving it. It’s incredible that something I've never eaten before can feel like such a comfort food.
Then there are common elements in the overlapping Venn diagram that relate to something from my childhood or some other foods that I've had. Also, since the pandemic, everything has been in a state of stasis in a way, so making new things has been one of the few things that we can find newness in. That’s a backwards way of saying this is a grounding ritual, because, really, it’s a grounding ritual based on being surprised.
So much of your work has a rawness and honesty about your feelings and experiences, which lends a sense of feeling seen for your readers—it does for this reader. In this light, are there foods that make you feel seen?
Lately, I think a lot of it has been about tapping into childhood memories. Over the pandemic, the earlier stages of it, my wife and I started documenting our cooking. We started just focusing on making food and really trying to pay attention. Neither of us had cooked with a steamer basket before, so we got a bamboo steamer basket—and it kind of blew my mind. I feel that there are cooking methods for everyone where there’s a disconnect that you think, this is something that's so good that I would never be able to do. For me, it was anything related to dim sum and the idea of steaming things has always been in my head a restaurant thing. This has always been a cooking method that feels so distant and cool and exciting, that I didn’t even know how to begin to process how to do it. But we ended up just getting a steamer basket and started using it—which was exciting.
The specific food I'm thinking about is Huā juǎn, which is a steamed white bread that is folded with scallions. It’s a green onion bun, basically. When we made it, it brought me back to like this memory of something my grandma used to make. I had also had it in a Chinese bakery. There's a technique to it that I learned. So, there’s a crafting part, a method, where you keep folding it over itself and then you use a chopstick to create a twist and a knot. Then you set it down and the steam expands it into a folded shape that kind of opens up a little bit. That was like a dish that anytime I had it in the past, I had no idea how to even go about making it. It was so satisfying to me.
Also because I really like the craft part of cooking. The physical part. My wife and I just started getting into making pies. For the lattice shaped pies or for the specific edges of a pie, she says it’s my job because I love that stuff and I have the patience for it. ‘And I'm like, yeah, that is like my favorite thing.’ All of that tie into like into this Huā juǎn because, the idea of making things with my hands is something that I like. I’ve always been into craft and origami and while in architecture school, I had always been into making physical models. But it was never something that I really connected to like the practice of making food until later in my life. In a way, that made me feel more seen than anything. This thing that I never thought was related to food I'm now discovering is so much a part of my passion for cooking and for food.
It's easy to think of food in binary terms. We eat it, we get pleasure from it and nourishment. But we also imbibe food in other ways. Considering this, and thinking about the intersections of illustration and writing and aesthetics and building in your work, how does food feed your creativity?
I have a good friend. Her name is Meera Lee Patel. She's a writer and illustrator. Literally, the first conversation I had with her—and she's also someone who really loves cooking—she was asking me, ‘were you always a creative person?’ This was right after my first book came out and we were getting to know each other. And she asked, ‘were your parents creative?’ Meera and I are both kids of immigrants and we were bonding over the fact that we have so many shared experiences and we ended up in this creative space. I said, ‘I think they were, but their profession isn't necessarily one that you would describe as part of the creative arts.’ Then she asked, ‘do they cook a lot?’ And I said, ‘yeah, they love to cook.’ And she said, ‘that's the creative part! That is that energy!’ And my mind was blown. I never ever put together the fact that cooking is an inherent creative act. You’re making something out of nothing. It doesn't get more elemental than that.
You grew up in Calgary. What foods from your upbringing in Canada and your Chinese heritage most speak to you today?
What’s interesting, and maybe what people don't know about Calgary, is that there is a robust Chinatown. My comfort foods came from the little areas of the city where all the Chinese restaurants were that my parents would always take me to. My grandparents also lived in Calgary, and my uncle also moved there. So early childhood food memories were related to stuff my grandparents would make.
Some of the best days of the year would be when we'd all get together at my grandparents' house and we'd sit around the dining table and do hot pot. My grandparents had a little portable gas hot pot stove. We would just sit for hours with all the ingredients and sauces spread across the table. Hot pot is, essentially, just stuff boiled in stock, but it’s so comforting and so flavorful. And I love the ritual of it because you start with your meats and your vegetables, and then at the end of the meal, the way that my family always did it, you’d do your noodles, which benefited from the fact that you’d been spending the last two hours making this very robust and rich and deep stock with everything that you've been boiling in it. By the end of the meal, the hot pot base is so imbued with the flavors, the depth of the meat and the vegetables and the shrimp and the fish. That ritual is always so amazing.
There are certain things for which I have no cap on. I will literally eat myself sick. And hot pot is one of them. It's also one of those foods where I have it rarely enough that when I have it, I need to fill up the tank because I can’t see when I'll have it again.
There’s also this very homestyle dish from my childhood. I’ve asked my parents about it and they said that they didn’t make it, so I’m not exactly sure where it’s placed. It’s maybe something my grandparents made. Essentially, it’s vermicelli noodles with vegetables and a sesame paste in a soupy stock thing. It's a very light dish. Before the pandemic, my wife and I were at a restaurant called Woon in LA, which is a Chinese noodle place we love, and they had this special dish— I don't even remember what the dish was called now. I ordered it and it tasted exactly like what I had in my head of what it would taste like. It unearthed something deep in like my childhood memories, but I still can’t exactly place where it came from. There’s something so cool about how food is tied to memory and these things that can’t really be explained or rationalized. Having something that can unlock a memory of a feeling where I can't remember the specifics of anything, but I can remember like the feeling and the flavor. That has been embedded deep within my memory more than the context or the events or the setting or the place surrounding it. That is exciting.
You’ve recently launched a newsletter, A Small List of Knowable Things. What was your inspiration?
I wanted to honor memories a little more and try to parse certain personal things and untangle them. Or, really, pull them out and look at them a little more. It’s mainly because the process from my latest book, Goodbye, again, felt like such an emotional one. That was a two-and-a-half-year project of sitting and writing and not really knowing what the end game was, but then looking at all this stuff and being like, oh, there are some common threads here.
The initial part of that process was just sitting down and writing about something that I felt really compelled to write about, and I missed that. I missed the bite-size process of that so I thought a newsletter might be a really interesting way to force myself to draw and to write and continue the practice of reflecting and writing. Hopefully, it’s an excuse for me to sit down and write a little bit every week and so I can continue to practice being able to do that, I guess. And I hope people like people like it. It’s a continuation of the style of my latest book, and it’s a freeform, kind of more organic and less fully-shaped version. So if you want to join me in my weekly sort of scramble, I would love that.
I also want to create this spontaneous deadline. If I didn't have this project, all of these thoughts would go unearthed. So I like creating that pressure almost, and it's a light pressure. But it's a personal project and a personal deadline where I'm like, This is really cool. Every week, I get to do this.
Words by Stacey Lindsay. To learn more about Jonny Sun, visit jonnysun.com. You can subscribe to his newsletter, A Small List of Knowable Things, here. You can purchase his latest book, Goodbye, again: essays, reflections, and illustrations here. Portrait by Rozette Rago, huā juǎn photo by Jonny Sun.