Dill magazine promises a serious exploration of Asian food

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Dill magazine, which urges its readers to "journey deep into the cuisines of Asia," is one of the handsomest print publications to arise in Chicago in quite some time. The inaugural issue, devoted to noodles, appeared last month. Its 130 pages contain ten articles and 26 recipes, printed on heavy stock, with an elegant cover shot of nine nests of noodles in different colors and sizes. It looks substantial enough to rate a permanent place on a cookbook shelf—which was what founder Shayne Chammavanijakul had in mind from the start.

Shayne Chammavanijakul - AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt
  • Shayne Chammavanijakul

"I wanted a print publication," she says, "something you can hold in your hands." Though she'd heard from lots of people that print is dead, she remained stubbornly devoted to the idea of making Dill a physical object. She thought that, in addition to being easier to cook from, a print magazine could more easily disentangle itself from the 24-hour news cycle, as well as from the fixation on trends that drives so many food blogs—it'd be better able to stay true to its mission of exploring the social and political background of recipes used by home cooks and mom-and-pop restaurants.

"If you Google 'noodles recipe,'" she explains, "a lot of things come up. There are a ton of variations. Some are reliable, some are not. With this magazine, we have a curation of high-profile writers who have experience and credentials."

Dill's ambition alone would make it worth a look, but maybe the second most remarkable thing about the magazine is that Chammavanijakul's only previous publishing experience has been working at her high school paper (though she did rise to editor in chief by her senior year). The first most remarkable thing is that Chammavanijakul is 19 years old and about to start her sophomore year at the University of Illinois.

Chammavanijakul relied heavily on a network of family and friends to fund the magazine and provide introductions to many of its contributors—and to Tippy Jeng, who served as editorial coordinator and helped her navigate the world of printers and event hosts. But the vision for Dill is entirely her own.

It began two summers ago, when Chammavanijakul traveled to Bangkok to visit her grandmother. Her family usually went back every other summer to see relatives, but this trip was particularly significant because Chammavanijakul's grandmother had just been diagnosed with two forms of cancer. (She's since recovered.)

Dew Suriyawan prepares boat noodles at Immm Rice & Beyond in Uptown. - COURTESY DILL MAGAZINE
  • courtesy Dill magazine
  • Dew Suriyawan prepares boat noodles at Immm Rice & Beyond in Uptown.

"I spent a lot of time with her that summer," Chammavanijakul recalls, "talking with her, hearing her stories. She’s Hakka Thai, so she has her own subculture and her own stories to tell. Her ancestors immigrated to Thailand from China. I spent a lot of time cooking with her and learning more from her. On the plane home, I had a realization that there are so many stories yet to be told of these immigrants who have their own subculture."

A few years ago, Chammavanijakul began reading lots of food magazines and websites and noticed that writing about Asian food often concentrates on celebrity chefs and famous restaurants. She figured that a niche existed for a magazine that explores Asian cooking in what she calls "a detailed and nerdy way." She also knew that some people wouldn't take a college student seriously, so she decided to recruit professional writers instead of relying on other young, inexperienced journalists. Through family friends, she was introduced to Leela Punyaratabandhu, who through her blog SheSimmers and her cookbooks Simple Thai Food and Bangkok has become recognized as one of the greatest authorities on Thai cooking in the States. Punyaratabandhu introduced her to Reader senior writer Mike Sula, who wrote a story for Dill's debut issue about the lagman noodle makers at Jibek Jolu, Chicago's first Kyrgyz restaurant. Other contributors include cookbook authors Robyn Eckhardt and Pat Tanumihardja. All the writers were happy to provide stories and recipes, especially since they would be paid.

"I believe in paying for journalism," Chammavanijakul says firmly. "All the writers were so stoked. What made me happy was that other people seemed to be excited, to be starting the project and pushing past celebrity chefs. It was such a blessing that they were able to share their expertise and share their stories for a tiny start-up project run out of a garage."

Sula says that Chammavanijakul and Jeng were nothing but professional and competent, and he's already accepted another assignment for the second issue.

A bowl of the Malaysian noodle dish asam laksa - COURTESY DILL MAGAZINE
  • courtesy Dill magazine
  • A bowl of the Malaysian noodle dish asam laksa

The theme of the first issue—noodles—was chosen in honor of Chammavanijakul's grandmother, who loves them. Also, noodles are a universal comfort food across Asia, ranging from Filipino pansit and Indonesian soto mi to Kyrgyz pulled lagman and Chinese shaved noodles to instant ramen, described by author Vincent Vichit-Vadakan as "the foodstuff of last resort." The recipes range widely in difficulty: at one end, simple stir-fries, and at the other, a boat noodle recipe that has an ingredients list a page long and could easily occupy an entire weekend.

Work on issue one began last summer, after Chammavanijakul graduated from Saint Charles High School. She used her earnings from her job at Chipotle and donations from family and friends to pay the writers and the printer. During winter break at the U. of I., when she was back in Chicago, she and some of the contributors had several long recipe-testing sessions and photo shoots in Chammavanijakul's garage. The production didn't always run on rails, but the name Dill came to her easily.

"Dill magazine is a fun, easy, sweet, simple name," she says. "Not a lot of people know that dill is used in Asian cuisine. It symbolizes that we want to go past cilantro, lemongrass, and ginger and shows people that we want to cover things they might not know about or have overlooked."

The debut issue of Dill has a print run of 10,000 copies and a cover price of $20. Chammavanijakul acknowledges that this is steep for a magazine. It helps, she says, to think of it as more of a book. She also hopes to get more advertisers for future issues (there's only one in the first) in order to make it more affordable.

Dill held several special events over the summer, and Chammavanijakul says she's been talking with possible collaborators for dinners and cooking demonstrations. Issue two is already under way; Chammavanijakul won't say what the theme is, but she promises that it will include reporting from Asia, and that it will be available next February. In the meantime, bonus recipes and a glossary of ingredients are available as free "premium content" on the magazine's website.

Chammavanijakul wants to avoid comparisons between Dill and the recently folded Lucky Peach. "They had a bro-chef vibe," she says. "We're nerdier. We cover obscure topics not usually seen in mainstream media. We published pad thai recipes that never appeared in English before. It's been a big learning experience for everyone."

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