“Drawing feels a lot like cooking”: Tarn Susumpow crafts delicious illustrations as if following a recipe
Created as a way of preserving her family’s culinary history, Tarn’s illustrations are rich in both style and content.
- Olivia Hingley
- 16 March 2023
Here at It’s Nice That, we love nothing more than whiling away the day talking about what we’ve got for lunch, what next viral recipe we’re trying next and the new bakery we’ve set our sights on trying. Naturally, therefore, we also love nothing more than losing ourselves in creative depictions of food. And so we’re sure you can imagine our delight when we stumbled across the delicious work of the New York-based illustrator Tarn Susumpow.
A die-hard foodie and “avid home cook”, Tarn tells us that she’s well known in her friendship group for “giving out baked goods in hand-drawn, personalised brown bags, or calling people over to eat a large amount of scallion pancakes”. This dedication to the edible translates into Tarn’s meticulously crafted vector illustrations which feature layers of finely tuned meals, groceries and vibrant tableware. In fact, Tarn sees her two passions as being deeply intertwined; when adding in each of her items one by one – nestling an egg, drawing up chopped spring onions and duplicating them – she says that “drawing feels a lot like cooking”.
Tarn’s connection to food is an emotional one, a way of keeping herself close to her family. “I have a very large and tight knit extended family, and everyone has a lot of opinion about food – how to pick the freshest fruits, which brand of fish sauce to buy, where to get the best fried chicken,” Tarn shares. “I think the way I talk about how I ate growing up can tell a lot about me, my family and my culture.” When the Covid pandemic hit, and Tarn couldn’t travel from New York to her home of Bangkok, she turned to drawing food scenes from memory as a way of comforting herself.
A key facet of Tarn’s output is the desire to create a sense of hustle and bustle in her pieces, as she explains how “it’s not just a table of food, but a meal in action”. To fully immerse the viewer in the scene, Tarn also carefully crafts the perspective of her pieces, aiming to be shown at the angle of “the person eating at a table, or cooking at the counter”. Firstly, Tarn always begins with the bowl or cutting board that’s closet, followed by filling each bowl with food, then adding all off with drinks, utensils, condiments, messes and spills before then finishing it off with colour – “a notch bolder that the real thing,” Tarn adds.
All these elements combine brilliantly in the second drawing Tarn created in her foodie series, which now stands out as a firm favourite. Kanom Jeen Party takes its name from the delicacy it depicts, a spicy fish curry – one that Tarn’s aunt would regularly make a big pot of. A lively ritual, Tarn explains that “there are a lot of toppings and everyone, even the children, gets to pitch – peeling hard boiled eggs and chopping up long beans. People would stay all afternoon and refill their dish at least twice.” Being a meal of so many components creates for a pleasingly hectic and layered visual experience: a bubbling pot of stew, delicately lined noodles, array of colourful toppings and the exceptionally cute, cartoonish boiled eggs. But the element Tarn ended up being most proud of was the vessels for the food, the vibrant green and pink baskets for the rice noodles, and the earthenware pots, which Tarn says “are something you’ll still be able to find in my mum’s kitchen today”.
Importantly for Tarn, her illustrations allow her to “document the food and stories the way I remember them – not through a tourism or marketing lens”. And so, alongside preserving her family's history, her work is also a means of offering people outside of her culture an authentic, honest perspective. “I really like that for some people, these illustrations bring back a memory and for others these illustrations teach them something they didn’t know before.” Steeped in personality, history and a deep, undying love of food, Tarn’s illustrations are a rich, flavoursome and fascinating treat.
Tarn Susumpow: Food I grew up eating: Lunar New Year altar (Copyright © Tarn Susumpow, 2022)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.