Anna Sulan Masing

A Ballad on Archiving

Food and drink are storytelling practices that we take with us as we migrate. We can often examine power structures when looking at how food, dishes, ingredients migrate – they tell a story. When I explore these narratives in my work I am asking: how has the identity of the ingredient, or dish, changed when space and location changed? And, how has the movement of people travelling, or trading, with these foods affected the meaning of them? With the movement of food we can trace the story of people; we can see who is allowed to travel, how they travel and why. Food is also about labour, who has laboured in the fields, and do they have equity in the product – where are the power dynamic when trade, market and economies come into play?

Through my podcast project Taste of Place, a 10-part narrative series produced by Whetstone Radio Collective, I investigated our relationship with nostalgia, through the story of pepper. This was sparked by my discovery of Sarawak pepper in European spice markets and on British Michelin starred menus. Sarawak pepper was an ingredient from home, it was a plant that dotted the landscape ofhome, and it was, and still is, produce that is grown by indigenous peoples of Sarawak, a Malaysian state on Borneo island.

So few people know of Sarawak - and if they do it is in the framing of the ‘exotic and wild’ Borneo - let alone about the communities that grow this spice, now made famous by high-end Western uses. I know this because I am from one of those communities. I am Iban and we grow Sarawak pepper; I have yet to meet someone in the UK (who hasn’t lived in Sarawak) who have heard of the Iban people. Finding this pepper in Western spaces made me question two things: firstly, if there is so little known about the origins, and especially the people, then this pepper is being ‘sold’ through exoticism and the labour behind the spice has been eradicated. Secondly, it made me think of my own relationship with the space of Sarawak, a place I call home; the light green leaves of the pepper plant paint a picture of nostalgia for me, it was a vision of a carefree childhood. Therefore, I had to re-see my childhood space, as a place of labour – pepper plants were not just part of landscape, but were a farming product. It was from this standpoint, of questioning my relationship with space and nostalgia, that I began my research into pepper – the ingredient that changed the world.


When I was asked to write about my archiving practice, I was thrown a little. That isn’t what I do, as a journalist and food writer I feel like I merely scoop up information. I envisaged an archivist as someone with careful attention to detail, ordering carefully selected information and carefully filing it. It seems such delicate work that my somewhat vigorous – and at times righteous anger – approach to ‘work’ is in opposition to. Therefore, the idea of An Archive rubs against me, sits uncomfortably in any notion of methodology, as it feels traditional.

But, I do believe in trusting how others see you, and your work. The Cambridge dictionary’s definition of archiving is:

verb [ T ]
UK /ˈɑː.kaɪv/ US  /ˈɑːr.kaɪv/
to store historical records or documents in an archive

So much of my work is to undo history, to complicate any linear concept of the past, and re-imagine it so we can build a future where the marginalised have the power to craft and mould our own future. Pepper was the product that came into Britain on the very first East Indian Company ships, it kicked off the colonial project. Therefore, I had to document and look at colonial history, but with a focus on pepper I found hidden histories – I learnt about the thriving pre-European colonial trading systems from the Borneo jungles that reached to the shores of China. The British Empire began to look tiny, compared to these vast histories and global trade routes. In this piecing together of stories that aren’t often heard about in the UK, I was re-sorting historical records.

My work starts as making imprints across multiple mediums and platforms, which I gather together to build a narrative. And, most importantly I often make public this gathering of information – to make knowledge easily accessible (more on this later).

Therefore, I am an archivist.


Archiving to me is a living breathing thing, it is documentation of work that I will dip back into. Archiving is a way to change the canon.

When researching Taste of Place, I looked for experts in history, food and nostalgia and I found white academics. And so I chose to look broadly at the topic of history, of food, and of nostalgia – as well as interviewing historians based at Yale, those that had published books, and a food scientist working with Michelin starred restaurants, I spoke with a Mauritian artist of South Asian heritage, a Black South African supper club organiser, a US-based perfumer of South Asia heritage, a Sri Lankan anthropologist and chefs and cooks of various diaspora. And together we built a canon of history tellers, story makers and expert opinions on pepper that was diverse and complex.

For Taste of Place I kept all the recordings from the interviews and all the transcripts. One episode was based on 50 pages of transcripts, 3.5 hours of recordings, notes from six different books, images of my outside table as I edited the transcripts into a script. The cat and dog, my coffee, and my lunch also in shot. The sun illuminating the grass. The episode was cut down to 32mins. All of the above was captured in the episode. The archive seeps in.

This archiving became a podcast series. But it is also a body of work in its own right; a reference of me, and for me, as a professional story-maker. It has been the basis of other work. I have written a Guardian article, essays about flavour, and deep-dives on the history of booze - plunging back into my episode notes and transcripts. It has been background information for filming, where I have sent directors images of my pepper farm trips and other research trips, to explain the identity of me.

When I have given talks, or hosted dinners, I have sent the images from the official Taste of Place photoshoot as profile imagery. Through these I am documented in the process of ‘making’. I am made real. But importantly, it has allowed me to see the connections across all my work and see how, despite the mediums I work in, or the many hats I wear, or the seemingly wide range of topics I write in, everything is connected.

This sharing – with people, with different projects – is what I see as imprinting. Through sharing I leave little marks; like mycelium, archiving can operate as a mycorrhizal networks reaching out and connecting individual ideas and transforming them into nourishing action and works.


In 2021 I was invited to attend an artist residency with other East and South East Asian women. Artist Moi Tran, who organised the event explained that the way to change the canon – the voices that are always seen as experts – was to reference each other. To hold each other up as experts. We are to build our own reference system and from there, we can change what voices are considered of value. And that, to me, is also archiving: to continuously reference the voices and stories that often don’t get valued. We make ourselves an archive. Our bodies become the archive, and we inscribe our stories into and onto the spaces we move through. We bear witness to our bodies and our stories and retelling them to each other, so we will always remember. We hope that others will listen too.

Through the act of making a podcast that was anchored in my nostalgia, in challenging my perception of childhood space, I was able to document my story in history. I spoke about how my story started when those violent trading ships first set sail East. My voice in people’s earphones became an intimate documentation of history through my body, my voice.

I use the medium of Instagram Stories for my work too, this is a fairly literal look at archiving. It is also a personal and embodied look into my work – as I travel, the ‘audience’ can travel with me, can virtually embody the spaces I am in. My inner world, my personal life gets entwined with my active research. Instagram stories sits at the intersection of work and personal, and I exploit this space and ignore the algorithm’s (capitalist) thirst for engagement. It is here that I post in abundance. It is a way to take notes; as my work is often about being in a space it allows me to make notes in relation to images, and forces me to think about what I am seeing and understanding in bite size, accessible language. It also feels accountable as I have to justify why this is an important piece of information to share, and I am open to be challenged by people as they can (and do!) reply. I trial out ideas, gather found information. I relish in the fact that it disappears… but also can be retrieved. Instagram’s ‘archive’ is when tech succeeds: the only organisation is date.

When I travelled to Sarawak to interview pepper farmers I could feature these experts through Stories, they were seen and heard by my mostly global north audience. I hope that capturing pepper in a farm recentres this everyday spice into a product of labour to be valued. This too is building a new canon, documenting things I found interesting or beautiful without editing or framing, creating references that are new to me and maybe others. Instagram stories feels like archiving in a scrapbook fashion, and I continue this idea across other mediums – notes on the app on my phone emailed to me, so I can create word docs with half-finished paragraphs that get filed meticulously; and I save my favourite photos on googledrive, accessed via my phone. My most important archive sits in my hand. And these archives – these moments – all came out when I sat down to write a podcast episode.

Archiving feels like moving images: it is making tangible a discarded idea or feeling. Archiving feels like being rooted, and being in motion. As I move forward with a concrete idea (I will file away the less stable notions for another time), with a rooted sense of place photographed and timestamped on my phone. Archiving feels like digging your fingers into the soil of your favourite house plant, on a warm winter’s day where the dry top soil from the afternoon sunshine hides the deep roots of moisture, keeping the plant softly alive. There is always something just in reach, just below the surface that you can dig into, to push the work into fruition.

Anna Sulan Masing

Dr Anna Sulan Masing is a writer and academic. She is co-founder of Cheese magazine, and the public research platform Sourced which investigates our global food and drink systems. Anna Sulan’s podcast series, Taste of Place by Whetstone Radio Collective about the history of pepper, launched in 2022 and her debut book, Chinese And Other Asian, will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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