Friday, 28 August 2015

Separation Anxiety

So, an "information blitz" has begun, days (presumably) before 1 September, when many of us are supposed to separate our trash before chucking it out.

I'm all for this. For too long we've been ignoring the fact that, for the convenience of throwing everything out the door in one bag, we've been inconveniencing the folks who have to sort out the mess at wherever our garbage ends up.

And few things feel as empowering - or as hipsterish - as knowing what a difference we make by sorting out our own trash.

I just have a few questions:

  • Should we wash the recyclables before throwing them out? Imagine all the cleaning that has to be done for those who live out of styrofoam packs, plus the scrubbing down of plastic bags for your kopi C peng, pickled green chillies and whatnot.
  • And have any of you tried washing a bottle used for storing Scott's Emulsion? Your kitchen will smell like fish, and that's putting it mildly. I'm speaking from experience.
  • What happens to oil-soaked or sambal-stained cardboard pizza boxes and wrapping paper? Can these still be recycled after waiting for two weeks in the trash before pickup? Can't imagine what would've had a go at the cardboard before the sanitation staff after all that time.
  • What about items with mixed components, like glass bottles for supplements? The caps are plastic - should these be removed and disposed of separately? Same goes for milk and fruit juice cartons.
  • Leather products: shoes, wallets, belts, Moleskine covers ... where do these go? And what about stone, bricks and heavy ceramics such as old porcelain thrones?
  • Ah, yes ... used tissues. As someone with allergic rhinitis, on some days I churn out a lot of this regularly. My educated guess would put this under "Others", a.k.a. (Possibly) Biohazardous Waste, perhaps? But I guess they could be recyclable if the compunds used to treat the paper are harsh enough...

Also, there had better be a more robust collection and recycling mechanism for old electronics: smartphones, old appliances, discarded computer peripherals and components and so on coming soon. We should also be thinking of wiping that old hard drive, flash disk or SD card before disposal...

...alright, most of the questions above have been answered by this online presentation (which I learnt about before I could post this) by the Ministry of Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government (whose minister is not among Malaysia's favourite people at the moment, but that doesn't make waste separation a bad idea).

I just had to get it out of my system.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Book Marks: A Little Shorter And Less Frequently

Yes, it's been a while since I've does lists like this, but I wanted to be even more selective of what to highlight. Plus, I've been busy sorting out my life, with little progress. Right now, I might be dealing with insomnia.

GB Gerakbudaya has just announced the release of a collection of essays on what is it like to be young and Malay in Malaysia: "Edited by Ooi Kee Beng and Wan Hamidi Hamid, the collection features nine young writers — Haris Zuan, Zairil Khir Johari, Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud, Altaf Deviyati, Izmil Amri, Syukri Shairi, Raja Ahmad Iskandar, Edry Faizal Eddy Yusof and Wan Hamidi himself — who share their experiences about growing up in Malaysia."

Borders bookstore manager Nik Raina Nik Aziz's legal nightmare is finally over as the Federal Court dismisses JAWI's latest prosecution bid against her.

This case should never have stretched on for this long. Employees of a bookstore chain cannot be held solely responsible for whatever the company sells, and Nik Raina did nothing more than to earn a living. Can a Muslim employee be charged for selling beer at a 7-Eleven?

One hopes that this is truly the end of this case.

Some people aren't happy with Kate Breslin's romance novel For Such a Time. "Re-centring the story of the prisoners of Theresienstadt on a tale of Christian conversion and the salvation and redemption of a Nazi commandant who committed genocide reframes and erases history," says one critic, "and forgives the horror of the execution of more than 17 million people in order to advance a larger religious perspective."

Anne Rice has hit out at "internet lynch mobs" attacking controversial books, and this book in particular. After tweeting about this, someone helpfully provided this bit of news where Rice was alleged to have unleashed her followers' wrath on a critic of her own work.

That aside, I'm not certain that romance novels about Jewish concentration camp prisoners and Nazi officers can ever "forgive" the Nazi horrors rubbed into our faces every time they face the threat of being forgotten by whiny social justice types - what are history books for, anyway?

After her latest book, Furiously Happy, was chosen as a top book US librarians would like to share with readers, Jennifer Lawson, a.k.a. The Bloggess penned a love letter to libraries (especially the librarians). It's a poignant piece, especially with Lawson's background:

When I was little my favorite places were libraries. You weren’t expected to speak, which was heaven for a shy girl with an anxiety disorder. Thousands of small secret stories were hidden in plain sight all around you, just waiting to be held in your hands and discovered. As a small girl in rural Texas, I knew that the best chance I had of seeing worlds that would never be open to me, and meeting fantastic people I’d never be bold enough to speak to was through books. I was able to see places that exist (or that had existed, and or that would never exist) through the words of the storytellers whose worlds had been bound up and shared and protected through generations of docent-guardians who called themselves “librarians”.

...sometimes you’d get lucky and there would be a special librarian there. Of course, all librarians were special when you were little. They were the guards and they were larger than life. They knew the secret codex of books. They were good witches and wizards who kept small keys around their necks, keys to special, sacred artifacts you had to know the secret password to see."

A case of a curious banning of a book in Florida unfolds as Mark Haddon's novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was pulled from a school's reading list over swear words.

A local daily, according to The Guardian, even "tallied up the appearances of swear words in the novel: 'the f-word is written 28 times, the s-word 18 times, and the c-word makes one appearance – in Britain that word is less charged than it is in the US,' reported the [Tallahassee Democrat]. 'A few characters also express atheistic beliefs, taking God’s name in vain on nine occasions.'"

Far more F-words and S-words can be found on the Internet. And if one goes through hours of TV programming in the States one might find lots of people "taking G*d's name in vain" on more than nine occasions.

Britain’s best joke at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival features Germany and a mobile phone. At The Daily Beast, Tom Sykes disagrees.

Monday, 17 August 2015

A Pasta House Called Basil

Long story short: I'd been frazzled by developments in my life and it's been eating into my writing. So I over-edited this, according to an acquaintance who has seen multiple versions of this review until she begged, "No more! Send!"

And out it went, with more typos than my usual.

I received queries from the editor of The Malay Mail Online, probably for the first time in years.

Not my finest hour.

Think the major ones have been fixed.

A pasta house called Basil

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 17 August 2015

Weeks after I’d discovered the path to al dente pasta, I learnt about a restaurant that serves mostly pasta. I thought, a bit arrogantly, let’s see how it measures up.

It measured up quite well.

Basil looks a little out of place in the row of shophouses but
has remained a popular neighbourhood joint

I dined in the first time, opting to take out another dish along with leftovers from my meal for the benefit of makan kaki Melody. I think it was a spaghetti bolognese to go, with what remained of an Oriental-styled mac and cheese. The chefs separate the sauce from the pasta — a nice touch.

I came back, several times, with Melody, Wendy and Sam in tow on one or two occasions. But the novelty wore off as the prices — and my repertoire of home-cooked pastas — grew. And I’d come to be satisfied with what I cooked myself.

But I do keep Basil Pasta House at the back of my mind, for special occasions.

Lamb Leg and White Ragù Sauce with Elicoidali (a tube-shaped pasta with
a rough texture): Lamb cubes, cream ragù sauce, white wine, button
mushroom, root vegetables and toasted cashews. Probably enough for two.

This little shop looks out of place among the row of nightspots, car washes, boutiques and other Chinese-themed restaurants along Jalan Kuchai Maju 6. Chef Alven Tan and his brothers opened the place, naming it after a favourite herb. The restaurant is a homey place, not at all intimidating.

At a corner done up to look like a living room is a bookshelf, where you’ll find cookbooks from the likes of Thomas Keller (Bouchon), Rene Redzepi (Noma), Joël Robuchon (can’t remember), Gordon Ramsay (various) and Anthony Bourdain (The Les Halles Cookbook, which I can’t seem to find).

Besides the basic aglio olio, bolognese and genovese (pesto) varieties of pasta, expect other far-out creations such as Hand-made Orecchiette (“little ears”) and Smoked Duck Breast; “Wafu”-style capellini with tuna tataki (tuna, seared medium-rare), served with yuzu shoyu dressing and lumpfish caviar, among other things; and Cheese Bucatini with crispy squid (golden egg-yolk sauce, curry leaf and chilli flakes). For some pasta dishes, you can choose from several types of pasta other than the usual spaghetti or fettuccine.

Nope, not your average “Western” pasta place. The chefs work in black chefs’ togs that seem more at home in a Michelin-starred establishment than a Chinese neighbourhood eatery. And it’s pretty good stuff, judging from the packed dining room almost every evening.

Gnocchi and Spicy Bacon Tomato: Potato gnocchi in amatriciana sauce, tomato
concasse, pork pancetta, chilli flakes, Italian parsley and shavings of Parmesan.
Portions look small but surprisingly filling.

The first few months of its opening, according to the hostess, people complained about the portion-price ratio. Bistro-level dining at less than RM25 (for some dishes) and people still kvetch?

So they revamped the menu, upped the portions a bit and, inevitably, raised the prices. One of my favourites, a fettucine with Japanese lamb curry, is no more.

They also renovated the kitchen. Even so, the inadequate ventilation and long waiting times while each dish is made to order (they go by table) mean diners will end up smelling of each other’s meals by the time they walk out the door — satisfied, a little fragrant and, perhaps, planning a return trip.

Generally, it’s worth the wait. If you’re a-horde-of-gremlins-clawing-at-your-gut hungry, however, I suggest you fill your stomach with something. Perhaps an appetiser from the menu — and chew slowly, please. Maybe read a book or two. Smartphone-toting diners might want to surf their menu (available on their Facebook page) and decide before going there in person.

Orecchiette and Smoked Duck Breast, from way back when. Doubt they've
tweaked the recipe much since this picture was taken.

Calling ahead for reservations, especially for a family outing, is also a good idea.

Basil Pasta House
No. 21, Jalan Kuchai Maju 6
Kuchai Entrepreneurs Park
58200 Kuala Lumpur


Lunch - Noon to 2:30pm (last order)
Dinner - 5pm to 9:30pm (last order), closes at 10pm.

Closed on Tuesdays

+60 3-7972 8884

Just about everything my makan kakis and I tried there were good. Great-tasting and interesting flavour combinations. What I wasn’t enthusiastic about was the Oriental-styled mac & cheese. I think it was the slightly brown bits on the crispy squid. Also, the taste of a wild mushroom risotto was on the delicate side.

And I never seem to want to order the desserts. Well, when each meal stuffs you to the gills...

To this day, Basil Pasta House still draws a good crowd; some days you can see people standing around outside, waiting for their turn. So while I don’t think it needs any more publicity, maybe they can work on improving service and cooking time.

Ah yes, and the ventilation, lest diners have to fight the impulse to gnaw on their sleeves on the way home.

Monday, 3 August 2015

What's Wrong With The First Person?

Of all the events during a "festival of ideas" held recently in KL, the only sour note was a panel that talked about, among other things, how to be a better foodie and food reviewer.

I agree that "reviewers" and "food bloggers" who expect to be comped and resort to blackmail when shown the door are the spawn of Satan, and food reviews should be more than just pictures and flowery descriptions - or "wham-bam"-type commentary with multisyllabic adjectives.

But I felt slighted when the panellists described some reviewing methods that sound similar to mine, e.g., no "I", "me", "mine" in the text. At least I try to be entertaining...

And what's wrong with the sharp-edged jottings of certain British reviewers like Jay Rayner? I enjoy Rayner's stuff. As I do Pete Wells's, especially his interrogative piece on Guy's American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square.

William Cheng, a professor at Dartmouth College, has also made the case for more first-person voices in writing - in his case, for his students - in a Slate article:

The goal, of course, isn’t to assure students that it’s all about them—that is, to condone attitudes of entitlement and egotism. The point is for students to recognize that they must listen inward, harnessing a voice from deep down, in order to reach outward and contribute to society at large. Yes, I realize such advice runs the risk of sounding clichéd and sentimental: believe in yourself, the truth lies within, speak from your heart. But I’d rather see students grapple with sentiment than to have them smudge it out altogether.

Because you know what else is a cliché? The notion that good writing stands on its own merits, or that good ideas speak for themselves, or that a good paper can practically write itself. When we empower students to write with I, what we convey is: Stand up for yourself and take responsibility for what you say. Once you’ve found a voice, start thinking of all the people whose voices continue to go unheard. Behind glowing phones and laptop screens, students need to look up and speak out, to collide and connect with one another through exercises in self-expression and self-evaluation.

I posted a short version of this rant on Facebook. One respondent, a journalist with some reputation, says that use of "the first person voice sounds overindulgent but what's for me does not need to be for others. Writers should do whatever makes them happy and bear with whatever the consequence is and whatever viewers and so called experts think."

Yes, we're Asians and yes, we're also Malaysians and maybe, we don't review to criticise. Thing is, we have yet to master the fine art of giving and receiving criticism, from what I've seen on social media. We need to learn how to take it on the chin.

A big part of why we aren't growing up as people of letters is because we're too mindful of what others think, so much so that we can't trust our own opinions and the sum of our knowledge. News of fellow Malaysians being derided or punished for having unpopular opinions don't help.

I don't want to be pressured into being a "better" foodie, food reviewer or writer. Nobody should. And I want to write in a way that's most comfortable for me, for my voice. If one becomes good in the process of writing, it will show.

Ultimately, the audience decides what's good.

Tell you what: I'll do my thing and I-me-mine my way through my own foodie journey. And if I want to, every third word in my future reviews will be drawn from a list that includes gems such as "unctuous", "succulent", "yummy", "aromatic" and "earthy".

Because I can.

Because I want to.

And because, as Professor Cheng said, there's "no voice without I."

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

For The Love Of It

When I review restaurants, the last thing I expect is to get comped. I only eat what I pay for, so there's a risk that any freebie will go to waste.

But one day, on another visit to this one place, I got a freebie in a paper bag with a note scrawled on it. They'd kept asking me whether I wanted dessert and decided on their own that I did, even when I did not.

I don't expect things like this, either. Running a restaurant, or writing and publishing a book ... it's hard, thankless. With GST, it's even harder - and the folks at this establishment are not passing the buck to their customers - yet.

And there are so, so many restaurants out there, as there are books. So when you spot a good thing, you want to support who made it, and you want it to be there on certain days.

But I'm only one person, one stomach. I'm not the bottomless pit I used to be over a decade ago. Nor do reviews last long enough to be of help these days.

And some of my favourite places have closed down or changed character. So I'm thankful for the ones that are left, whose owners and staff are still going strong and still doing their thing.

I'll be keeping this bag for a while. The contents didn't go to waste and, though empty, the bag will continue to sustain me. As long as there are people out there, banging out the good stuff for our enjoyment and sustenance, I will never run out of words.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Other Hero(ine)

A certain former prime minister spoke at some "festival of ideas" at Publika one weekend.

But I could barely keep it in when I saw this other person on the first day of the festival. Think I almost squealed.

Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz told me she's been manning the Borders stall since the first festival and I couldn't believe it. And I'd been following the case since it broke.

I find her more relatable. Both of us work with books and, I think, feel confident that the right to legally earn our livelihoods is protected by the state.

At least, I think we used to.

To put it simply, Nik Raina was persecuted for selling a book that JAWI, the Federal Territories religious affairs department, has deemed "bad". However, it has had its case against her thrown out several times, due largely to how it was handled.

In spite of this, JAWI is going to appeal this case to the Federal Court, and there's a possibility it might be reopened.

Many are baffled by the dogged pursuit of the Borders bookstore manager by the religious affairs department. Didn't the Syariah High Court already drop her case?

Her plight casts a pall over every Malaysian; no longer can we view the authorities as protective parental figures. We are frightened to speak up or do something - anything. We are cowed into meekness, forced to blindly obey. To follow our hearts or believe what our gut says is right can be considered treasonous.

This is no way to live.

Which is why Nik Raina and Borders Malaysia's decision to take on JAWI over the former's case gives us hope.

26/08/2015   So it seems Nik Raina's legal nightmare is finally over as the Federal Court dismissed JAWI's latest prosecution bid against her. Kudos to Borders Malaysia for sticking with her to the end of this case.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

On The Verge Of A Conversation: The Cooler Lumpur Festival 2015

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 17 June 2015

"We are on the verge of a conversation."

These are the words of Umapagan Ampikaipakan, Programme Director for the Cooler Lumpur Festival, now in its third year at Publika, Solaris Dutamas. A phrase that will become a milestone along Malaysia's road towards a developed, thinking nation.

That is, if we get around to talking to each other.

"Malaysians are on the verge of a conversation," Umapagan told The Edge. "We're not there yet, but interestingly we have found, even last year, that every time I looked out into an audience during question and answer time, when people are talking ... I can see people almost throwing their hands up and on the verge of wanting to contribute to the conversation. I think it's our job to tip them over the edge."

I wonder if he sneaked in that "edge" bit for the paper's benefit?

"Crossing the Cultural Boundaries of Food" at Cooler Lumpur 2015, with (from
left) Ben Yong, John Krich, Gaik Cheng Khoo and moderator Zan Azlee (not in
this photo - sorry!).

The piece was submitted in a hurry, so I forgot to contribute some of my own
photos - not sure if they'd be fine, anyway.

The theme of this year's Festival, Dangerous Ideas, promised all that and delivered — as best as a string of hour-long panels and conversations could at a time when temperatures are high and all we feel like doing is lob invectives over stupid things being said and perceived threats.

According to Hardesh Singh, Executive Director of the festival, "Dangerous Ideas is focused on responsibly unearthing ideas and exploring how these ideas shape our behaviour, environment and societies. In this age of instant information, ideas spread like wild fire. We'd like to harness the contagious power of a great idea and the potential it holds to inspire transformation."

Arend Zwartjes, Cultural Attaché for the Embassy of the United States, Kuala Lumpur, feels the same. "For true innovation, there must be a market of ideas and the freedom to explore expression. Fundamentally, for any kind of progression individually and as a nation, it is necessary to cultivate ideas of all kinds, especially dangerous ideas."

Zwartjes is aware of "what Malaysia has experienced in the last few months, the last couple of years" but feels it's an important time for all Malaysians to have these "uncomfortable" discussions, and that "it's good to have those dangerous ideas out there, good for your society to have conversations, to allow the space for conversations."

"Ban This Book!" A Cooler Lumpur 2015 panel discussion on book banning and
censorship, with (from left) Ian McDonald, Sarah Churchwell, Ovidia Yu and
Sharmilla Ganesan.

A lot of ground was covered, from the language of protest, fast or slow journalism, book censorship and sacred cows to the future of photojournalism, the power of caricatures, and sex and sexuality in the 21st century. A Fringe Food Festival on the grounds — a culinary micro-Cooler Lumpur — had discussions on foodie-ism, out-of-home food enterprises and a workshop on food writing, among other things.

At the festival's opening on June 12, Umapagan also announced the DK Dutt Memorial Award for Literary Excellence (for Malaysian-English Writing), conceptualised by author Dipika Mukherjee and Sharon Bakar and named after the late Delip Kumar Dutt, who was the principal of CYMA College (Penang) and the president of the Schools Sports Council of Malaysia.

Shikha Dutt, daughter of Delip Kumar Dutt, launched the award. Submissions opened on June 14 and will close on July 31. The awards will be announced and presented at the 2015 George Town Literary Festival in Penang, scheduled for this November.

Umapagan also spoke about the difficulties in organising and running a festival and, after thanking the sponsors including the British Council Malaysia, the US Embassy in KL and BMW Malaysia, acknowledged his parents' contributions, to the amusement of the audience. "You will get paid back, I promise... you will see that money again, it hasn't disappeared."

"There are NO spaces between (or was it "around"?) em dashes!" thundered Zen
Cho (OMG I love her) as she launched Fixi Novo's latest anthology,
Cyberpunk Malaysia, at Cooler Lumpur 2015 with Amir Muhammad.

He also apologised for the absence of Delhi-based novelist Chandrahas Choudhury who was supposed to deliver the festival's keynote speech at the opening ceremony. Flight delays, we were told.

This year's festival, which ran from June 12-14, also saw the scheduling of some last-minute events, including the much-hyped one with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, titled "My Most Dangerous Idea." From what's been reported, the event delivered in spades.

For Umapagan, Mahathir's presence at the festival was symbolic. "I had a lot of questions as to, ‘Why did you invite him? This is supposed to be a platform for free ideas and you know he did a lot in his tenure to restrict those ideas.'

"But I think one thing Hardesh and I always endeavour to do is make this a platform for everyone, irrespective of your ideas," said Umapagan. "This is the one place where you can come and talk about it ... and leave as friends, Have a con-ver-sa-tion, right? That's what it's all about and that's what we're trying to do."

No sacred cows were killed during the panel "Killing Sacred Cows: Comedy in the
Age of Offence" during Cooler Lumpur 2015, with (from left) Jason Leong,
Harith Iskander, Lindy West, and Ezra Zaid moderating.

Though I would have wanted to hear what other voices *COUGHISMAPERKASAPEGIDACOUGH* had to say. Maybe next year? Or have we heard enough from them to know that it'll be more of the same and will remain so for the foreseeable future?

That, I think, was missing from the festival: a chance to see some truly dangerous ideas panned for what they are. For better or worse, ideas are part of who we are. In conversations, good ideas shine, while bad ideas teach.

If conversations die, where would we be as a civilisation, a people, a nation?

So, let's keep talking.