Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Marks: Pioneer Girl, Bezos's Behemoth, And Lang Leav

Howard Yoon, literary agent and partner at the Ross Yoon Agency in Washington DC, admits that:

There's been a lot of talk about this lately, brought about by the much-publicized dispute between Hachette and Amazon. As a nonfiction literary agent, I wouldn't hesitate to agree that this industry has serious problems, and I think most of my colleagues would agree.


As imperfect as our business is, anyone who wants to write a book of lasting value, a book that can change the way people think about the world, a book that can get national and possibly global distribution in real hard copies, knows that the traditional publishing path is still the best path to take.

Let him tell you why.

Though the Amazon-Hachette spat appears to have ended, it's perhaps a matter of time before the next tussle begins.


  • "For generations, the Little House books have stood as the canonical versions of Laura Ingalls Wilder's childhood story," writes Ruth Graham in Slate. Now comes her autobiography, first drafted in 1930 and annotated and published after more than 80 years later.
  • "Anthony Powell's bleak first book is the funniest novel you've never read." This review almost made me run out and get a copy.
  • The poet Lang Leav will be in town on 30 November. Get to know her and her work (a little) before then.
  • Amir Muhammad was at the Sharjah International Book Fair to, among other things, talk about translating works in other languages. We're all familiar with how Amir's ability to ... lighten things up, but Publisher's Weekly could have picked better soundbites.
  • A Q&A with Lydia Millet, author of Mermaids in Paradise.
  • Mexico's "most erotic poet and its most dangerous nun"? A look at a new translation of the works of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.
  • "I think this is one of the strongest shortlists in recent years, containing some real literary heavyweights," said Literary Review magazine's Jonathan Beckman about this year's candidates for the Bad Sex Award.

    Among the lucky ones are The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, The Age of Magic by Ben Okri and Desert God by Wilbur Smith.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunshine On A Plate

My preoccupation with pasta dishes might have something to do with how versatile I find them. Plus, pastas are becoming a great alternative to rice in my kitchen.

I haven't come up with a name for one pasta dish I cooked up, but I suspect it might already have one: this thing with fresh tomatoes, anchovies (not ikan bilis), garlic and the optional lemon zest and hot sauce.

Let's call it sunshine pasta.

"Sunshine", because it's bright in colour and taste and relatively light. I don't know what I'd call it if you threw in, say, a few lardons of bacon or lamb ragù.

But the lemon zest fits, and I've wanted something with anchovies aka orang putih punya ikan bilis for a quick throw-together when I can't decide where to eat out.

I'd go easy with the hot sauce, though; too much and you'd have a plate of scorching Sahara rather than the tepid tropics.

Mise-en-place for "sunshine pasta"

First, your mise en place (prep): chop or dice a tomato or two, seeds removed. Thinking of keeping the wet jelly-like mess next time. Then, mince two to three cloves of garlic and slice three or four shallots (which you can substitute with a medium-sized red onion).

Pour some hot sauce (maybe two tablespoons) into a bowl and mash an anchovy or two in it, depending on the size. Some anchovies can be as big as small sardines and salty as heck. If that's the case, I won't salt the pasta water.

Boil your pasta as usual. I like mine al dente. Whether it's fusilli, shells or spaghetti, I'd add several extra pieces to test the texture - which is why I don't bother with timing here.

When it yields under your teeth like a stick of chewing gum (without the crunch of the uncooked stuff), take it out of the water. If you're going to throw the pasta back into the pot to cook with the sauce, take it out sooner, maybe a couple of minutes.

You can mix a bit of the pasta water to the hot sauce-anchovy mix but plain water's also fine. Give it a taste; if it's too salty, junk some of the sauce. Otherwise, you can adjust the seasoning later.

Sunshine on a plate, whatever the weather

Plate the pasta and toss it with a bit of olive oil to prevent it from sticking. Some would run the whole lot through cold water to stop the pasta from cooking further (from the residual heat), but I don't. Often, it's not necessary.

Fry up the garlic for several minutes in oil, then throw in the tomatoes, followed by a little water. Let the lot simmer for a few minutes, then start mashing with a fork until you're satisfied with the texture. I usually lift the pot off the heat for this.

Onto the heat for one more stir and in goes the hot sauce-anchovy mix. Give it a quick stir - beware of any fumes from the hot sauce - and toss the pasta in. Stir for a minute or two to let the flavours get in before plating it.

The lemon zest can go in before or after plating, but be sure to toss and stir well before serving.

Sunshine on a plate.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Book Marks: Wylie Guy, Touchy Pianist

At the at the International Festival of Authors, Andrew Wylie talks about the state of the publishing industry. He said a few other things as well, elsewhere, and they're worth noting.

  • A touchy pianist asks The Washington Post to remove a 'bad' review of one of his concerts under the EU's "right to be forgotten" ruling - and now everybody knows why it 'sucked'.
  • Literary agents share some of the worst ways to start a novel, just in time for NaNoWriMo.
  • The Boss reveals the books and authors that inspired him.
  • Not "Waitressrant" - Stephanie Danler and her six-figure novel Sweetbitter.

...Yes, not much from the book world interested me last week. Work's picking up again, and I'm hitting a trough in the creativity department.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Book Marks: Cli-Fi, Horror, And Mainstreaming Fan Fiction

Climate fiction (a.k.a "cli-fi") is hot right now; just ask Paolo Bacigalupi, who told Salon:

"I'm definitely writing my fears," Bacigalupi says. "It's almost therapeutic to at least voice a terror, to say, ‘I'm worried that Lake Powell looks low and Lake Mead looks even lower.' My brain was always wired to worry about what happens if this goes on, what happens if this gets worse?"

Bacigalupi says he's happiest when unaware of what's happening around him. "I think we've all found that. That's why really good news reporting is in decline and why BuzzFeed quizzes are on the rise. We're all happier when we know less, because the details are frightening and haven't really improved much. The more you pay attention, the more horrifying the world is."

What Bacigalupi has written (The Windup Girl, Ship Breaker) can be considered "cli-fi". The term was apparently coined by Dan Bloom, a journalist and self-described "public relations climate activist")

But what does Bacigalupi feel about that? "I didn't think of myself as writing ‘cli-fi' but I'll take the label," he replied. "I'll take any label that makes someone think they might be interested in my stories."

"Finding light in China's darkness: Why Yan Lianke writes:

I am reminded of Job, in the Old Testament, who after experiencing countless misfortunes said to his wife as she was urging him to curse God, "Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?" This simple response demonstrates that Job understood that his suffering was merely God's way of testing him, and was evidence that darkness and light must exist together.

I don't pretend that I have been uniquely selected by God, as Job was, to endure suffering, but I do know that I am somehow fated to perceive darkness. From these shadows I lift my pen to write. I search for love, goodness and a perpetually beating heart.

A book by investigative journalist Stephen Jimenez might shed new light on the murder of Matthew Shepard, reports The Guardian:

Jimenez found that Matthew was addicted to and dealing crystal meth and had dabbled in heroin. He also took significant sexual risks and was being pimped alongside Aaron McKinney, one of his killers, with whom he'd had occasional sexual encounters. He was HIV positive at the time of his death.

"This does not make the perfect poster boy for the gay-rights movement," says Jimenez. "Which is a big part of the reason my book has been so trashed."

From Fifty Shades to After: Why publishers want fan fiction to go mainstream. From The Washington Post:

"The books we love the most are the ones where you close the book and you're still thinking about those characters," said Carrie Bebris, author of the "Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries," in which the main characters of Austen's beloved "Pride and Prejudice" solve mysteries together. "We want to be drawn into their lives again, because we didn't get enough the first time."


  • Three horror writers: Tunku Halim, Julya Oui and Eeleen Lee on Malaysian horror fiction - and maybe why it's time for our authors to look into the crypts in our backyards for a good scare. Just in time for Halloween.
  • Someone wrote to The Star asking for improved accessibility to online Malay literature. Can someone make this happen?
  • Two books: Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia by Swiss human rights campaigner Lukas Straumann and The Peaceful People: The Penan and their Fight for the Forest by Aussie journalist Paul Malone were launched in Kuching. "Surprising", considering the former contains criticisms of a former Sarawak chief minister. Then again, "the book, sold at RM105 a copy, is only available from November 3 by mail order," reports The Malaysian Insider. Didn't take long for the former Sarawak chief minister to act on the book's release.
  • Haunted by his role in the bombing of the abbey of Monte Cassino, this US airman wrote a novel that became a sci-fi classic.
  • The history of gay publishing in one career: Slate's Q&A with editor Michael Denneny.
  • Of all the evil figures in literature, does Sauron stand supreme? If he does, it might have a lot to do with his depiction in the Lord of the Rings saga, or a lack thereof: "Throughout The Lord of the Rings Sauron is never described ... All we see is his influence: the endless armies of orcs who ripple forth at his command; the tribes of men who fall beneath his sway; the scorched and blasted plains of Mordor, where nothing grows; the way his malignancy intrudes on the counsels even of the allies ranged against him."
  • Has foodism gotten out of hand? Here's John Lanchester on what's wrong with our food culture. "The intersection of food and fashion is silly," he writes, "just as the intersection of fashion and anything else is silly. Underlying it, however, is that sense of food as an expression of an identity that's defined, in some crucial sense, by conscious choice. For most people throughout history, that wasn't true. The apparent silliness and superficiality of food fashions and trends touches on something deep: our ability to choose who we want to be."
  • "Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers," says Matthew Yglesias Yes/No? (Hint: NO - not just because I'm with one). Oh, and Amazon's crowdsourced publishing programme Kindle Scout has been launched. Writer Beware lays out some of its pros and cons.
  • This might be news to some but the swastika wasn't always a symbol for evil. But is it too late to take it back from the Nazis?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Rocking The (Noodle) Boat

I probably should note that the photos were taken by my makan kaki that day, not me, but she didn't want to be identified by name. Maybe some day.

Rocking the (noodle) boat

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 31 October 2014

Like that prototype stealth ship the US wants to build, a new craze appears to have sneaked into the Klang River unnoticed ... at least, by me.

A quick search online revealed that this Thai noodle dish used to be served out of boats in Bangkok’s waterways: a small portion of flat rice noodles with pork balls, minced pork, herbs that includes lots of coriander (ugh) and a meat broth thickened with pork blood.

It came in small bowls because those boats — floating stalls, basically — had little room, and the rocking of waterborne vessels came with the risk of being scalded with hot broth. Nothing like the good old days.

Some of these boats were eventually forced on land, but the name stuck: boat noodles.

Boat Noodle co-founder Tony Lim, who has a Thai wife, said in a radio interview that he saw the potential in the dish and brought it to Malaysia.

At the time, the small-portion, bowl-stacking format is already fading in Bangkok (“Maybe they found it too troublesome” Lim said); many stalls over there serve bigger portions now. But he feels the time is ripe for the “Instagrammable” bowl-stacking experience here.

Some of the establishments that exclusively sell this dish include the Boat Noodle outlets in Subang’s Empire Shopping Gallery, Jaya One and Publika; Thaitanic (seriously?) at Scott Garden, along Old Klang Road; and another at Sea Park called The Porki Society, where one of the co-founders has a Thai girlfriend.

Bowl-tower rating: like a red cape to kiasu Malaysians (left); the
portions may be small enough to inhale, but the soups pack a punch

But it was at Zab Zab Boat Noodle at Kuchai Lama where makan kaki Melody and I got our feet wet on the whole boat noodle thing. This was the height of the mania and we had to wait for about 20 minutes for our turn.

Hungry and tired, I stewed outside, glaring at a table of three (a codger and his two sons) that ordered another eight bowls while several towers of empty bowls were still being built.

Hope the whole pile tilts and squashes you all flat, breaks into pieces and shreds you.

I nearly wept with relief when we finally got a table. However, even with three cooks the noodles took a long time to arrive. And the much-touted pandan coconut dessert had run out.

We got eight bowls each: four of the (supposedly) pork-blood broth and clear tom yam soup each. All bowls had the prerequisite pork balls, a little minced pork and some bean sprouts. Looking critically at the bowls, I spooned some oil-soaked chilli flakes into my first bowl of tom yam noodles.

At a boat noodle restaurant, this is average (for a table for two)

Which might have been a mistake. Because after that I couldn’t tell whether the blood-broth noodles were also spiked with chilli.

In spite of the heat, I found myself preferring the clear, citrusy and spicy(!) tom yam variant, which also had a sprinkling of crushed peanuts. I felt the thicker and heartier blood-tinged broth didn’t need the coriander.

Melody and I were assured the recipes are authentic. Considering the competition and the portion size, I don’t think the players would rock the boat too much. I vaguely recall the guy we spoke to, presumably the manager, say his wife was Thai (I see a pattern here).

The concept is minimalist and certainly Instagram-worthy, but I can understand why some might regard the dish as "not for human eats one."

Zab Zab Boat Noodle
43G, Jalan Kuchai Maju 7
Off Jalan Kuchai Lama
58200 Kuala Lumpur


Business Hours: Daily, noon to 10pm

Facebook page
Boat Noodle at Jaya One (with a real boat and a road sign) was singled out for minute servings of cool congealed noodles. I’d visited the place before and after the criticism and it looks like the owners were watching the social media channels.

Other complaints include the serving size. An option to lump multiple servings into one bowl is available at Zab Zab but I’m not sure about the others.

Things appear to have cooled down for boat noodles of late. All fads fade away, but I can’t help wondering how long the spicy, hearty flavours in the little bowls will stay afloat in our fast-changing culinary landscape.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

"If Migrants Can't Work The Wok, How Lah?"

Strangely enough, it wasn't the announcement of the ban that seeded the thoughts for this op-ed, but another opinion piece in The Malay Mail Online weeks earlier that seemed to support the ban as it was being mulled.

One of the offending phrases was, "A French masterchef once told me that you can never beat a French chef when it comes to cooking a good French cuisine."

Even if that's true, can anybody identify "good French cuisine" by taste? When even food snobs can be tricked into thinking McDonald's is organic? And do you care who is making your 'Thai' boat noodles?

Hell, maybe the idea of "authenticity" in cuisine (Thanks, Robyn Eckhardt) is bullshit all along.

Still, I thought they'd never go through with it. But 2016, the year this ban goes into effect, is a long way off. Anything can happen in between.

If migrants can't work the wok, how lah?

First published in The Malay Mail Online, 29 October 2014

So, foreign migrants will not be allowed to cook hawker food in Penang.

The move, ostensibly, is to safeguard the authenticity of Penang's street food culture. Nobody wants to eat hawker food made by foreigners, it's been claimed. The thought of a Myanmarese, Nepali or Bangladeshi frying char koay teow, dressing jiu hu char and stuffing pie tee is just too traumatic for gourmands who endured long hours of travel to finally bask in the glow of one of Malaysia's street food meccas.

I don't know if I should be appalled, angry or amused (or maybe all three) at this.

First of all, most of today's Penangites were descended from foreigners, who brought and shared their own food cultures with the locals. How else did this unique panoply of aromas, colours, flavours and textures arrive and evolve into what we're Facebooking or Instagramming today?

Former chef Tony Bourdain, one of my favourite writers, seems fine with the Hispanic migrants cooking French food in the restaurants he's worked in, saying that they have better work ethics than some Americans. They pick things up, he says, can take it on the chin and cook French cuisine right. Can't migrants to our shores be similarly taught?

Second, how do we determine whether something tastes "100 per cent Penang-mari"? I doubt many Penangites — even those who've never left their neighbourhoods — could agree on one set of flavours that represents the state. Let's not mention the "outsiders", including the sons and daughters of Penang who've been away from home for so long, who probably can't tell, either.

Food writers and lifestyle people tend to lament "the passing of a legend" or "the fading away of an institution" in terms so melancholic you'd wonder if they're mourning the passing of a country's founding father.

But did Char Koay Teow Auntie ever want to be an institution? Maybe all she wanted was to get out of the house or put her kids to school so they won't have to slave over a stove like she did.

Then some rube from CNN encounters her stall and elevates her signature dish to UNESCO-heritage status — when she's on the verge of retirement. What if she's adamant on closing shop and not selling the business off to someone for the sake of preservation?

For every "institution" hyped up in the press there might be a dozen or so somewhere in the boondocks or a quiet alley, hidden from treasure-seeking hipsters, serving a clientèle selfish and smart enough not to share their little gems with the outside world because they know what will happen if they do.

Cooking isn't something you can totally pick up from books. You need stamina, a love of food and the drive to see food happen in your life and share that with people. Maybe that's why I feel some of the best cooks work out of their own kitchens.

Preserving a range of flavours for commercial or entrepreneurial reasons can be even more daunting. You need pros — people trained and drilled to churn out the same things, day in day out. If the descendants of Char Koay Teow Auntie would rather go into sales or blogging than stepping up to the stove and fling flat rice noodles, cockles and bean sprouts all day, an chua-leh?

For me, the bigger issue is how are we going to preserve the hawker fare we grew up with. The hints of cultural jingoism in the response to the foreign cook ban suggests Penangites feel the street food culture is best preserved by keeping it in Penang. I wonder what Bangkok residents feel about the rise of boat noodle places in the Klang Valley.

If the dishes peddled by the hawkers are so unique to the state, we shouldn't be too picky about the custodians. A street food academy or the introduction of modules on street food in existing culinary courses might be more helpful than not letting foreigners in the kitchen.

To assume that our local food culture is done evolving is a fallacy. No culture or civilisation is ever done evolving, except when it's extinct — or insulated from change. Penang's street food culture is no different, and it will eventually fade away if we don't learn to let it flow with the times.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Some Scenes From Kolumpo Kita Punya!

These days I let pictures do the blogging, so here's a bunch of them during the KL Writers and Readers Festival on 18 October, a.k.a. "Kolumpo Kita Punya (Kuala Lumpur Is Ours)!"

Publications for sale at the Merpati Jingga booth; one of the few I could
note, thanks to Raja Azmi's novel Karkuma

Many of the usual suspects (those I've heard of) have set up booths at Dataran Undrgrnd, a cool spot with lots of shoplots and even a fountain underneath the historic Dataran Merdeka.

At left: Liew Seng Tat (I believe), manning the booth for Arif and Zan; and
who I think is the blogger/poet who mysteriously calls herself GDSJHT

Merpati Jingga, Selut Press, Lejen Press, Dubook Press, Sang Freud Press, Terfaktab, Fixi (of course) and many others were present at the one-day event.

It's been almost two weeks since then, so I'm having trouble remembering what most of the photos were about. Maybe each booth should've sported bigger banners or something. So much to take in, so little room in my head - and not enough stamina to last till the evening.

The atmosphere was lively - and got livelier towards the afternoon. When I walked in a book discussion was taking place between the moderator and the guests: Zan Azlee and Arif Rafhan Othman (Adventures of a KL-ite in Afghanistan) and Azlinariah Abdullah (Air Mata Kesengsaraan Rohingya (The Rohingyas' Tears of Anguish)).

From left: Arif, Zan and Azlinariah share stuff about their books with
the audience

Business at many booths seemed brisk. Events like this, featuring local indie publishers, are more common than people think. The industry is vibrant - maybe it's just that they're not coming up with what certain observers of the industry like to read.

Myself, I've a pile of unread books and I'm already a little bibliophobic from the reading I do at work. Money's a bit tight. And I didn't go in to 'cover' the event. I used to enjoy things like this - really enjoy - until I got into publishing.

A separate area held a KL Zine Fest for - what else? - zines. A poetry
performance session took place there, and the performers were so ...
spirited I thought a fight had broken out

Still, I feel heartened by what I saw that day.

All these people, all these books, all the voices and creativity ... it's vibrant, loud and alive.

It's all good.