Out of


Soul Meets Body

by Marla Darwin
Photos courtesy of Chiara Cui

Finding connection and nourishment from Chiara Cui’s breakout newsletter, Rough Age.

Years ago, my husband and I were fond of throwing rooftop barbecues in our apartment building. Without fail, our friend Chiara Cui would always come with a tub of her homemade hummus. It was the sort of appetizer that had all of us crowding around the picnic table, finding whatever fruit, vegetable, or flatbread nearby to scoop up the lemony, garlicky spread in our midst.

It was those notes of lemon and garlic that made the hummus so addictive that we would all proceed to ask Chiara how she made it.

A lot of us then were young twenty-somethings living alone with no helpers for the first time. We had no education in the kitchen, and a handful of us were afraid to go near knives or stoves. Friends who cook were a startling revelation.

One can of drained chickpeas, ¼ cup of olive oil, four cloves of garlic, paprika, and the juice of half a lemon. “Then blend that sucka!” is what Chiara would say about her hummus.

The recipe was breathtakingly simple and each time I made it in my own kitchen, I would feel both untouchable and cared for. If people swear they can taste the love that goes into preparing a meal, I swear that I can feel the love transmuted in every friend’s recipe.

Over time, I learned how to reach out and ask for recipes from my other friends. All of them are scribbled down inside one of my notebooks, with the names of the benefactor written beside each title.

When Chiara moved out of Manila, recipes still connected me to her. I told her over Instagram that I still follow her hummus recipe.

“I’ve modified it since then. Try sunflower oil instead of olive oil. Make it two cloves instead of four, then add cumin to the mix.”

In 2020, it seems like it gets harder to find the words to carry a conversation, with many of us buckling from the disintegration of institutions, social ties, and safety nets. My faith in love transmuting through a recipe also carries over to intimacy traveling by the written word.

These days, Chiara works as a language editor for Vietnam Television. In Manila she was a contributing writer to publications like Rogue Magazine and the Philippine editions of Esquire, FHM, and Cosmopolitan. It’s the same skills from her professional life that she’s using to write Rough Age, a food newsletter she recently launched.

Rough Age is steadily gaining a following, from friends in real life who are fans of her writing to the long-time connections built over other online platforms like Twitter. Words on a screen serve as a buffer for the various maladies a global pandemic has brought upon us. The online newsletter is apt for people living through prolonged isolation in a time of uncertainty. It’s also something familiar for Chiara (and the rest of the LiveJournal generation), who is used to sharing bits of her life on the Internet.

In a time where we cling more than ever to little joys, the promise of stepping into another person’s longings and observations can be a temporary escape. It’s an escape that reminds us that behind our digital avatars lay the invitation to communion by way of our personal histories and using our hands to make something nourishing.


Chiara with her dog, Peggy.
Marla Darwin: Hi Chiara! You write a food newsletter. How did that come about? What is compelling about e-mail newsletters as a medium?
Chiara Cui: I had been wanting to do some form of food writing for a while but could never quite pull the trigger. It wasn’t until the reckonings in food media that I finally felt like I finally had something worth writing about. This came off the heels of George Floyd’s murder and the BLM protests. At the same time, at home, people were protesting the Anti-Terror Bill, which is now sadly a law. Like a lot of people, these movements galvanized me and made me look at my own life through a more critical lens, and that kind of set things off in a trajectory to where I am now.

I think newsletters are great because your writing goes straight into someone’s inbox, like a little gift; it’s that personal touch that attracted me to the medium. My favorites are Alicia Kennedy’s, Safy Hallan Farah’s, Vittles, and Joanna Fuertes’. Alicia Kennedy’s and Vittles’ are both food-focused; Safy’s is centered more on pop culture critique; and Joanna’s is very personal. They’re all amazing and I highly recommend checking them out. 

It seems like Substack is the newest iteration in personal writing platforms. How would you compare the community developing around Substack with the ones from the previous platforms like Tiny Letter and dare I say it, LiveJournal?
Like I said, I think the best newsletters are the ones that offer some kind of personal spin on things. Or at least those are the ones I’m most interested in. My last newsletter was about LiveJournal and how I’ve realized I’ve been chasing some form of it, that sense of community, ever since. I think Substack has the potential to be that but I do think there are still some kinks that need to be worked out.

I think a big reason why newsletters have become so popular is because a lot of us are craving connections that are more than just surface-level, that chance to get to know someone more profoundly than if you were just following them on Instagram. It's that same feeling a lot of us had when we would stumble on a stranger's Livejournal or blog and would read something that resonated with us so much that we felt we knew them. We need those interactions, especially now, at a time when physical interaction is discouraged.

In the last two months alone, I've made a few new online friends through my newsletter that I don't think I would have had the chance to otherwise. I’ve written about other newsletters that I love and have reached out to the people behind them. Several subscribers have also reached out to me. It’s still early days of course but it’s promising. It’s always exciting to be able to connect with new people on topics you’re passionate about. That’s not to say that people don't make friends online in other ways, but I think having a jumping-off point of, "Hey, I like what you're about and I think I get you.” that helps cement connections in a way that might not be as easy if you were just seeing someone's jokes on Twitter and thinking they were funny. At the end of the day, it's all in how you use a particular medium and interact with other people.

I’m also excited to start using the 'Thread' option on Substack to interact with readers! But I’ll have to wait until I've got more subscribers.

“I think a big reason why newsletters have become so popular is because a lot of us are craving connections that are more than just surface-level, that chance to get to know someone more profoundly than if you were just following them on Instagram.”

How do you decide on your topics for each newsletter?
Because I’ve been thinking about doing some form of this newsletter for, literally, years, I already have a list of topics I want to write about. But it’s always evolving. I also do a lot of reading during the week from various sources and go with the topics that hit a nerve with me.

My favorite piece from your newsletter is "Feeling Asian." You write about confronting internalized prejudices and feeling out your identity as a Filipino expat in Vietnam. Do you already know what you want to say before you write or do you find it as you go along in the writing?
The reflections come first. I’m constantly writing things in my phone’s Notes app. And from there, I try to wrangle an overall idea for the essay and a key takeaway. It’s such a hard process, like getting blood from a stone. But somehow it works out and I’m always left with this feeling of, what? How did I manage to pull that off? It’s been probably the most, and this word makes me cringe but it’s true, ~rewarding~ writing I’ve done in years. That’s probably because I’ve put it off for so long and so now that it’s finally out there in the world, it’s incredibly freeing. That was the hardest part for me.

Rough Age is also a way for me to work through some issues that may have been bubbling just beneath the surface for years that I haven’t acknowledged, or have flat out pushed aside. My work hasn’t ever been this personal. I used to write about culture and lifestyle back in Manila. While I’ve been here I’ve been writing about travel and food. So now, it feels good to be able to dig deep and figure out how I feel about different things. 

Chiara’s tofu sisig dish as seen in her newsletter, Rough Age.
The quote you mention from The Last Black Man in San Francisco (“You don’t get to hate it unless you love it” ) is a powerful one that illustrates complex feelings coalescing into singular moments. You use it to describe what you've been feeling towards home. What are some of the trickier emotions you're parsing through right now?
I don’t think I’ll ever stop having conflicted feelings about home. This is such a fucked-up time for the Philippines and I swing constantly between feelings of despair and anger. Sometimes, you just want to close your eyes to the train wreck because it’s so relentless. Every day, we’re confronted with rage-inducing news, so you learn to pick your battles because if you absorbed everything, you’d go crazy. But even this kind of thinking, I know, is so privileged.

At the same time, I worry about the repercussions of speaking out, of my family’s safety, of my own. But I know that silence isn’t an option. That’s what ‘they’re’ counting on. If we don’t speak now, this shitshow will just continue. Or it’ll continue regardless but at least we put up a fight. That’s why that line from The Last Black Man in San Francisco struck such a nerve with me. “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” You can’t shit on the Philippines and say you hate it, but at the same time continue to benefit from the oppression of your fellow Filipinos. If what’s been happening doesn’t radicalize you in some way, I don’t know what will.

These are thoughts I have daily and I don’t think they’ll be going away anytime soon. I’m still trying to figure out what I can do to help in my own small way. While online activism is great and I think it’s important to keep sending messages out there and raising awareness about different systems of oppression, especially since that’s how a lot of young people spend their time these days, I think it can be easy to just rest on that and think you’re doing enough. It’s not. And I’m guilty of it too. But I do think there needs to be more impactful ways of fighting the system than just reposting and signing petitions, or even donating. I don’t have an answer for that right now but I think it’s important to try to find one because the alternative of just going along with life and being indifferent to what’s going on honestly scares me.

Rough Age is also a way for me to work through some issues that may have been bubbling just beneath the surface for years that I haven’t acknowledged, or have flat out pushed aside. My work hasn’t ever been this personal.”

Your recipes greet the reader like a hug after going on a deep dive with your thoughts. How would you describe the kind of food you like to make?
It’s a little all over the place. I like recipes that don’t take more than 30 minutes to make. I love all Asian food. I love vegetables and want people to love them as much as I do. It’s a little sad to me that most Filipino vegetable dishes have pork in them. I want people to see that you don’t have to use meat to make vegetables taste good. If you look at vegetarian Indian food, vegetarian Vietnamese food, Korean food, they’re so great at utilizing different vegetables and herbs. I want to figure out how to please the Filipino palate in that same way without having to rely on fake meat.

My boyfriend and I cook a ton. We rarely eat out, maybe once or twice a week. Recently we’ve been eating a lot of Japanese and Korean food. Japanese [because] we’re obsessed with Japan. Korean because Maangchi, everyone’s favorite Korean auntie (and YouTube star), just never disappoints and her recipes are incredibly easy to make and are addictive. I could probably subsist on banchan (Korean side dishes) for the rest of my life and would never tire of it. When we’re not making Asian recipes, we’re making stuff like hummus, falafel, or pasta.

And what’s the most comforting dish you’ve made so far?
There was a point in the last few months where I was making Maangchi's kongnamul-muchim every week and was just obsessed with it. It's made with soybean sprouts which I prefer over mung bean sprouts because they have more bite to them. More recently, I've started making her japchae and it's so comforting and the flavor is just so spot on. It's been so hot lately here in Hanoi that Korean food, because it has a lot of dishes you can eat cold, has been our go-to for recipes. ︎

Marla Darwin is a writer and founder and creative director of Natural Selection Design.