Sunday, 1 May 2016

Book Marks: Cassava, Google, And Barcelona Bookstores

Sarah Ladipo Manyika, an author with Cassava Republic Press, explains her decision to work with an African publisher.

Some people are sceptical about my decision to work with an African publisher, especially given the fact that I live in America and have access to American and European agents. They ask: does my decision make economic sense? Will an African publisher do as well as a western publisher? Behind these polite enquiries, the real question that I feel is being asked is whether an African publisher can be as good as a European or an American. The assumption is that the west does things better than Africa.



The US Authors Guild's appeal to stop Google from scanning millions of books has been rejected by the US Supreme Court. Which means that "the books, both in and out of copyright, are included in Google Books, which enables users to read extracts from books and search their texts."

This verdict sounds pretty far-reaching.



Barcelona's bookstores are reinventing themselves to survive. One apparently added a cafeteria and offered cooking classes, and hosts events in its premises.

"We had to change. Either we reinvented ourselves or it was really impossible to stay open," said Montserrat Serrano, owner of said bookstore, +Bernat.

I said a little more about the future of bookstores - especially indies - a while back, and I'd like to see how this develops.


  • More books have recently been banned, including Grey, a.k.a. (Fifty Shades of Grey As Told By Christian) and Orang Ngomong Anjing Gonggong by DuBook Press. So now, you have more items on your shelf that will get you fined, jailed or both. Another book by another indie publisher, Merpati Jingga, was forbidden to sell the book, Kriminalisasi Ganja, at the 2016 KL International Book Festival.
  • For those who can't get enough of Zen Cho, here's "The Four Generations of Chang E", a short sci-fi story loosely based on the myth of the moon fairy. As Washington Post books section editor Ron Charles would say, "So. Poignant." WARNING: May shrivel the egos of aspiring writers of fiction.
  • History was made as Dr Zurinah Hassan, better known by her pen name, "Haniruz", recently became Malaysia's first-ever female recipient of the National Laureate Award.
  • "In one spasm of violence, they burned just about everything they could find". Salon speaks with Joshua Hammer about his book, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. Among the "bad-ass" librarians highlighted in the book is Abdel Kader Haidara, whose story, on National Geographic, I'd bookmarked several years ago.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

When People Thought There Was A Microsoft *Swear Word*

A Facebook post with a vulgar punchline had me chuckling and reminiscing about a linguistic faux pas years back.

In 2007, someone had published a paper on what I think was a hypothetical software tool for evaluating variables in object-oriented programming, possibly to shorten processing times.

For some reason, this fellow decided to call this software tool "Cib*i", short for "Class Invariants By *bstract Interpretation".

When the contents of this paper eventually reached Southeast Asia, the local techies and software people went wild. Because "cib*i" in the local vernacular means something else.

Naturally, few could resist the opportunity to throw a few off-colour puns. Some were puzzled - how could Microsoft, a huge multinational with a ton of resources, not be aware of this word and its significance? Wouldn't an Internet search have prevented a few red faces?

Probably not.

Anecdotes abound of word in one language meaning something else in another; long ago, it was said that the word "Malaya" raised a few eyebrows in Africa when our troops went over there for a mission - anybody else remember that?

Besides, who has the time to look for words online when immersed in lines of code and math formulae? Fiction writers probably have it worse - imagine the research to make sure their made-up words or names don't inadvertently offend people of different cultures.

One could argue that, as the world gets more interconnected, fewer excuses can be made for cib*i-like howlers that can have pandemic-like effects on business entities. At their speeds these days, bad news will find alien life in outer space before we do.

In the end, it's just not worth it. Invent your words, writers, and hope that more people will laugh rather than get angry. No offence meant, after all. And I believe people give Microsoft too much credit.

I'd already left the IT industry when news alleging Microsoft's "hottest product" of that year rippled across this region's social media sphere. The company later clarified that the author of the paper had not joined it when it was published, nor was anything of the sort being developed in its labs - at least, not with that name.

Although the word was scrubbed from Microsoft's web sites, the original paper in PDF format remains and can still be downloaded - perhaps to maintain archival integrity (this actually happened) and as a cautionary tale for others to #PlzDunCib*i.

So, if somebody asks you the meaning of a word and you know it's offensive, you don't cib*i and say it's a greeting or something congratulatory, okay?

(Yes, I wrote this as an excuse to swear. The past couple of weeks have been tough.)

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Fixi Novo Gets Kinokuniya Heated Up, Fleshed Out And Trashed

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to London..."

Ouch. Hope the folks at Kinokuniya KLCC weren't offended.

So began the Kuala Lumpur launch of Heat, Flesh and Trash, a trio (triptych, maybe?) of "Southeast Asian urban anthologies" by Malaysian publisher Fixi Novo, last Friday evening at Kinokuniya. The titles were taken from the "Paul Morrissey Trilogy" produced by Andy Warhol.


Urban Southeast Asian anthologies Heat, Flesh and Trash, now
available at all major bookstores, including Kinokuniya KLCC.


And it looks like Fixi boss Amir Muhammad hasn't quite left the 2016 London Book Fair yet.

Seems that, from the time Amir saw the trilogy, he wondered if he could produce something that used the three words. These books were the result. Also, the key word was "fun". I suppose that makes sense, keeps things interesting and probably explains the popularity and relative longevity of the brand(s).

(And the good news keep coming. You guys know that Fixi, through its latest offshoot Grafixi, managed to obtain the rights to translate the back catalogue of DC Comics into Malay?)


Fixi boss Amir Muhammad emceed the event and handed out giveaways
for the contributors to the anthologies.


These three anthologies, along with another volume called Little Basket, premiered at the LBF in what was Malaysia's first official appearance. Though the stories are set in urban Southeast Asia, the contributors and editors came from all over the globe.

Of course, glitches couldn't be avoided. Amir reported that in spite of the guidelines, the editorial team received stories set in Japan (Far East) and India (South Asia). Lots of India-centric submissions, apparently. "So we sent them rejections, along with a link on Wikipedia about Southeast Asia," Amir said in his usual fashion. Some of us might have hoped he did.

To represent this corner of the world, only the durian would do. Artist moribayu was commissioned for the cover images, depicting the king of fruits in "stages of undress". Despite not knowing Amir very well, Mori submitted his work anyway. "He's trusting, prompt and quite good, so if you want some art done, call him."

Right, the contributors.


Amir, with Zed Adam Idris.


Strangely, none of the editors showed up. Some of them were from abroad and one contributor, Terence Toh, was in London, apparently. Those who were present (only a few) got up to answer a few questions and receive either copies of books their stories were in, or RM75 (each book is priced at about RM25) to spend on something else. Amir handed the money on stage: "As you can see we're transparent about our money."

I don't remember much about the first guy, Zed Adam Idris, only that his "semi-autobiographical" story, "Method" (in Heat), is set in KL, about a guy who reminisces about his past during binges of drugs and sex.

Next was- oh, dear, Catalina, haven't you recovered from that stress-related thing you mention on that other book launch? "Yes," she said, "but something else followed." Hard-working to a fault, that one.


With Catalina Rembuyan.


Catalina Rembuyan is no stranger to the writing scene, but her participation in this project (and Little Basket) surprised me a little. Her story in Heat, "Reservoir Park", was about voyeurism.

She said this park is in her hometown of Kuching, and back in the day parents prohibited their kids from going there, perhaps for fear they would be up to no good behind bushes and stuff. The title was also a play on the word "voyeur", as in "rese-voyeur".

Ted Mahsun, meanwhile, has made a name for himself as one of those spearheading the development of Malaysian sci-fi writing. Don't take my word for it, Amir suggested that, too. I think his story, "And The Heavens Your Canopy" was about ... window cleaners?


Part of the audience at the launch that evening. The guy in glasses and
dark blue shirt is the artist @moribayu (not sure if that's how it's
spelled), who drew the durians on the covers.


Zedeck Siew had the distinction of appearing in two books: "The Lordly Dragon" in Heat, and "Mrs. Chandra's War Against Dust" in Trash. I'm relying on Smashwords (thank you!) to fill some gaps.

Too bad I couldn't remember most of Amir's jokes. Fixi's boss has impeccable comic timing, and you should've been there. Fortunately, Fixi launches quite a few books each year, so you'll have a chance to see him in action.

Well, my memory was really shit by the time Flesh was introduced. This volume got the most submissions, more than double for the other two. Unfortunately, many involved Thai prostitutes - which says a lot about some people's perceptions about Southeast Asia. And I doubt Jimmy Kimmel eating a durian at Jessica Chastain's insistence helps.


With Eeleen Lee, who also gave some writing advice during the
brief Q&A session.


Amir also took time to talk about submissions by Filipinos, which impressed him. "They're very professionally formatted," he said. "They also include their names, addresses, word counts, and so on. So they've done this a lot. Filipinos have many stories to tell and they want to share them."

I'd suggest getting Malaysians to submit like Filipinos, but getting them to tell stories good like Filipinos is already an uphill task. One thing at a time.

Of course, expect subtle digs at the situation at home. When introducing Julie Koh, an Australian born to Chinese Malaysians, Amir was all, "See, all the good ones migrate to Australia. Look at the bunch we have to put up with."

Before Julie began talking, he pointed out, "Pay attention to her Australian accent." So that's why I can't recall what she said or what her story in Heat, "The Procession", was about, other than the fact that it was funny and satirical.


With Zedeck Siew. Zedeck's work appeared in two books, Heat and Trash.


And: "If you guys want to migrate to Australia, look for Julie."

Sure.

At some point Zedeck returned to the "stage" to talk about his other story, "Mrs Chandra's War". Air noted that he had disagreements with him and several other writers about a few potentially problematic sentences.

One of those were, "He closed his eyes and recited the yassin." Or something like that. These and other to-and-fros went on up till the last minute, complicated by the fact that the contributors were everywhere.

Amir, however, noted that the Malaysian Indian dialogue in "Mrs. Chandra's War" was almost pitch perfect. "Did you have to listen to actual Malaysian Indians talk to get it right?" he asked Zedeck, who replied, "I try." No clues as to who his muses were, though.

But is Zedeck's stuff good? Well, an acquaintance who bought Trash that evening loved his and Ted Mahsun's stories. Of course, I knew she'd buy Trash, and I told her so. "Because there's treasure in trash," she said. Mic drop.


With Julie Koh. Her parents migrated to Australia, so I guess she's as
Australian as Aussie lawmaker Penny Wong.


Besides some background in her story, "The Forsakers" in Heat (okay, pairing certain story titles with the book title might not be a good idea all the time), Eeleen Lee gave some advice to aspiring writers who want to be published. She made that distinction because she knows someone who writes and writes but prefers to "sit on them".

For those who want to be published, she said, "First, you gotta hustle. Keep an eye out for calls for submissions and submit." And pay attention to the guidelines. Otherwise, I think, you'll get URLs to more Wikipedia articles in your rejections.


With sci-fi specialist Ted Mahsun. I believe he blogs at Pena Saifai.


"Second," Lee said, "Don't write shit." Nobody can emphasise this enough, it seems. "Don't wallow in, 'Oh, they don't like what I write', etc. Sit yourself down with a dictionary and a group of beta readers and fix your stuff."

I think Lee also recommended a thick skin. "Don't be upset with what people write about your stuff in The Star," she added. She recalled something another publisher said about her writing, without naming names.

"So, what did ***** say?" Amir helpfully chipped in, drawing laughter and several groans of dread from the audience. He's done this before and, no, I've helped you out enough already.


With Tilon Sagulu.


Tilon Sagulu also contributed to Trash. His is "Bleeding Trash". For the same volume, Dr M. SHANmughalingam wrote "Flowers for KK", a story about two sisters and ... some kind of sweet.

Also present was Foo Sek Han, whose stories did not appear in the books being launched. I just felt the need to point out that he was there. Foo couldn't be present at the launch of PJ Confidential but, through an intermediary, said that his contribution is great.

So Heat, Flesh and Trash are on sale everywhere now, including at Daunt Books in London. The bookstore chain begun yonks ago, specialising in travel books, before it was bought over by former banker James Daunt and became Daunt Books in 1990.

Daunt's is now a bookstore chain and publishes as well. Books in the stores are arranged by country, regardless of genre.


With Dr M. SHANMughalingam.


Like in that other book launch, I can't recall much of this one, probably because I'm older now, and before leaving, I had a conversation about how gadget manufacturers enforce obsolescence in their products, and how powerful smartphone cameras are these days.

Among other things, I was told that the new Samsung S7 can take crisp pictures in "one-candle" levels of low light. And not to buy cheap laptops (uh-oh), because I balked at RM3,000-plus smartphones. Many of these things are expensive for a reason.


After-event group photo. Partially obscured (from left to right) are
Ted Mahsun, Zed Adam Idris and Zedeck Siew. And that's @moribayu
standing between Tilon Sagulu and Julie Koh.


On forced obsolescence: is it true that the cellphone networks are being upgraded to at least 3G, which means older phones like my old Nokia 3310 can't even call out?

The things you learn at book launches.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Sambal Keeps This Globetrotter Grounded

"I've always loved sambal, whether served with my favourite nasi lemak, spread on a slice of Gardenia white bread, or plain neat," writer and editorial consultant Brenda Benedict writes in her new book, Sambal on the Side ... With a Kick.

But it wasn't until she became a travelling expat wife that she was hard-pressed to make it on her own.

Sambal, that spicy, sometimes pungent condiment many in Southeast Asia are familiar with, became a balm for her homesickness, but on some days that pang needed something more potent.

"It was midwinter in Frankfurt," she recalls, "I had been horribly homesick and I was desperately seeking an avenue to vent. She pitched the idea for "a column about being a Malaysian abroad and trying to reconcile my 'Malaysianness' with an alien environment."

Her first "Sambal on the Side" column was published in the Weekender section of The Star on 18 February 2006 and has been a staple in the newspaper ever since.

A selection of her columns are now in this compilation, published by MPH Group Publishing.

"Neither expatriate mobility training nor travel guides adequately prepared me for the mundane matters of rooting and uprooting, and they tended to focus more on the 'what' and not the 'how'," says Brenda. "So, I had to immerse myself mindfully into a 'discomfort zone', resulting in a fortnightly dispatch home of yet another occasion of having 'been-there-and-muddled-through-that.'"

These days whenever someone asks me how the Germans are, I usually say, "They're like M&Ms. Once you bite through that shell, they’re really quite sweet!"

And what a lot of muddling she's done: riding with leather-clad bikers in the U.S., separating rubbish in Germany, and haggling with "hugging taxi" drivers in Vietnam. Her unvarnished accounts of life on the go are sassy and at times spicy, like the taste of home she craves every now and then.

Each chapter has a mix of "everything": travelogue, factbook, memoir, introspection and maybe a couple of other things I can't find words for. Complex, like the condiment this collection is associated with, and more like sambal than one would think.

Although the book covers several countries: the United States, Germany and Vietnam, I seem to detect a special affection for Germany, her "second home", in the related pieces. The husband, I understand, is German.

Many people often say that Washington, D.C. does not reflect the real America. They are correct to a certain extent.

There's a certain familiarity and warmth when she relates, among other things, her quest to spike the shenanigans of some poo-some pigeons, encounters with "Denglish" (German-English) words, and her failure to spook her German friends with ghost stories - and failing because, apparently, Germans "don't have" ghost stories. But weren't the Brothers Grimm Germans?

As Brenda puts it, with regard to the latter: "This is a piece that I enjoyed writing, and I chose to feature it here because there couldn't be a starker clash of cultures than how the paranormal is dealt with in Malaysia and in my second home, Germany.

"I had written this in conjunction with Halloween, a day that still isn't much of a big deal Germany and where many still dismiss it as more of a commercial import from the U.S."

Like Christmas, maybe?

During my initial days in Hanoi, it was a matter of trial and error in figuring out [which street vendor] sold what. I also learnt that tinkling bells don't always announce icy sweet treats.

But it's not all from The Star At least one unpublished story - one about African music that will make you want to check out the names. "What I loved most were the rich and melodious harmonies that I feel only singers of African descent have been blessed to deliver with such élan," Brenda gushes.

Another unpublished piece highlights a few adventures she's shared with her husband, and it left me wishing their marriage would be long and interesting in good ways. Sounds like somebody's dream life.

Sambal on the Side ... With a Kick
A Malaysian's Take On Living Abroad

Brenda Benedict
MPH Group Publishing (April 2016)
322 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 978-967-415-330-4

RM34.90 | Buy from
•  Kinokuniya
•  MPHOnline.com
The "kick", meanwhile, comes from short notes appended to each story, which explain why they were written and whether her perspectives have changed since then.

"As I revisited my columns, it became evident how my initial tenor on some subjects has either changed (or remained) or been adapted or moderated," says Brenda.

Evidently, Brenda's penchant for languages, curiosity for cultures, and sense of humour have served her well. Over time, she realised that rooting and uprooting require patience and fortitude, and the ability to laugh and let go when things go spectacularly wrong.

And: "I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I have recounting them."



Brenda Benedict is a Malaysian writer and editorial consultant who has travelled, worked and lived in different continents. She has been a columnist with The Star since 2006. Her first book, Sambal on the Side ... With a Kick, will be available at all major bookstores.

The author herself is scheduled to be in Malaysia on 21 May at MPH Bookstore @ NU Sentral, 2:30pm, to launch the book and meet readers. Keep watching this space for updates.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Book Marks: Silly Novels, Boycotts, And Shortlists

I usually avoid certain news portals, which is why I miss gems like this, from the NST (thank you, Sharon Bakar):

With names like Tundukkan Playboy Itu (Dominate the Playboy), Budak Hostel Otaknya Sewel (Hostel Kids Are Crazy) and Mr & Mrs. Sweet, Malay-language novels are riding high on the bestseller lists in bookstores around the country.

However, with themes largely revolving around love, sex, ghosts and gangsterism, parents and teachers alike are up in arms over the effects that 'pulp' Malay novels are having on the development and language of young Malaysians.

Took them long enough. Or this might be the loudest protest they raised thus far about the matter. Though I think some pulp novels are better than others.

"Teachers and parents who try to read these books feel embarrassed by the subject matter," said a language expert from the National Institute of Language and Literature (DBP).

"The direct effect is that we as a nation have become more bangang (stupid) and backward, she added. "Most of the books draw both Malay and Indian teens, between 50-60 per cent of the youngsters who read. Our kids have becoming increasingly shallow over the past 20 years. They were much better off when they were just reading Doraemon comics, at least they were fueled towards invention."

The article says more, which is quite interesting. I hope it stays up for a bit, as online NST pieces used to disappear after a while.



Travel writer and photographer Bani Amor and activist India Harris discuss how travel writing by white people can be problematic. A few passages that stuck out include: "...a backpacker wants to set themselves apart from other tourists because they may have an intellectual or humanitarian interest in a given place and are somehow less responsible for the consumerism and inequality enforced by traveler/tourist communities."



It's supposed to hurt, says John Scalzi on the cultural boycotts over North Carolina's discriminatory law against LGBTs.

Responding to opinions by people who felt "hurt" by the boycott, Scalzi wrote, among other stuff: "I understand the bookseller would like their boycott to pass her by; I understand why the other writer wants authors to think of the children. Let us also make space for the argument that those authors are thinking of the children and are leveraging what they have — their notability and the desirability of their presence — to make sure some of those children are not actively discriminated against by the state."



An author hired a publicist to market her book and is miffed that all she got for US$395 was a tweet. Naturally, she wants her money back. Generally, I wouldn't recommend marketers who charge for publicising books and stuff. But I wonder if this outfit, Ironrod Media, found the title challenging.



"The book didn't sell and yes, I was mean-spirited enough to rejoice." NZ book editor Stephen Stratford wrote the article all editors would eventually write. This is pretty instructional, and as an editor, helpful in my transition from "wanker" to, well, "editor".

I also wonder if Stratford could've saved the book for the previously mentioned author.



An "exhilarating" Man Booker shortlist has been announced, with Turkish Nobel-winner Orhan Pamuk competing with pseudonymous Italian Elena Ferrante and Chinese dissident Yan Lianke. Someone (forgot who) raised an interesting question: Will a pseudonym take home the gong?

Another announced shortlist is for the 2016 International Dublin Literary award, which includes debut novels Academy Street by Mary Costello (Ireland) and Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga (translated from French by Melanie Mauthner), Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers and Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize.



Looks like some people in Spain aren't happy about a series of programmes commemorating William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare Lives aims to reach half a billion people worldwide - the first screenings of The Complete Walk, 37 short films to represent the complete body of the bard's stage plays, took place this last weekend. The Spanish government's action plan for [Miguel de] Cervantes, on the other hand, seems far less ambitious... and leans heavily on exhibitions and conferences in big city museums and libraries.

As I understand from the BBC article, the Spanish in general aren't as hot about local boy cervantes than The Bard. But perhaps it's more about the nature of their works.



James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room is judged by web site Literary Hub to have the best erotic passage. So there is a contest that's the opposite of Literary Review's Bad Sex Award, which sees more contestants.

Because, according to LitHub, "There is a good reason most awards given for sex writing are for bad sex writing: to commit to words that most intimate and personal act is generally a doomed undertaking," said LitHub. "For even our best writers, to describe sex is to veer between the biological and the euphemistic, the soft-focus and the fluorescent. It rarely works. And yet many have tried, and will continue to do so."

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Wee-vil, Wee-vill Miss You

Anybody seen Monday's copy of The Star? Did anybody notice the word play in the reports related to the cover story?


Well, even print is getting clickbait-y, I thought. That Queen
song started playing almost immediately.


As a top palm-oil producer, these pests are about as welcome as the haze or the current heatwave. Seriousness of the problem aside, I felt the writer dropped the ball after the puns. So I thought, why not go all the way and make it a poem/song thingy?


Good one. Obvious choice, but a good one, nonetheless.


With my brain burning with ideas, I barely touched my lunch until it threatened to go colder, so I went back to the office after a few bites and hammered it out. This is a tightened version of the one I put up on Facebook, which I think sums up the article(s) pretty well...


Look at all your palm trees, coconut trees
Growing tall for your annual GDP
You got mud on your face, you big disgrace
So watch us bugs put you back into your place

WEE-VIL WEE-VIL ROCK YOU
WEE-VIL WEE-VIL ROCK YOU

All those tasty palm trees, coconut tress
Gonna turn 'em all into dead trees some day
And splash mud on your face, you big disgrace
No pest control gonna put us in our place

Yessir WEE-VIL WEE-VIL ROCK YOU
(Damn right, we will) WEE-VIL WEE-VIL ROCK YOU

Bore into your palm trees, turn 'em into gone trees
Makin' lots of babies along the way
With iron jaws (CHOMP) and sharp sharp claws (STOMP)
Overrunning plantations without a pause

Singing WEE-VIL WEE-VIL ROCK YOU
(Aww, yiss!) WEE-VIL WEE-VIL ROCK YOU

All you scientists, doctors, engineers,
Swear you'll halt our advance, you say (Uh-huh?)
Ain't that egg on your face, you big disgrace?
Poor sorry excuses for the human race (Ha ha!)

WEE-VIL WEE-VIL ROCK YOU
WEE-VIL WEE-VIL ROCK YOU

One more time-

Look at all your palm trees, coconut trees
Growing tall for your annual GDP
You got mud on your face, you big disgrace
So watch us bugs put you back into your place

WEE-VIL WEE-VIL ROCK YOU
WEE-VIL WEE-VIL ROCK YOU

All those tasty palm trees, coconut tress
Gonna turn 'em all into dead trees some day
And splash mud on your face, you big disgrace
No pest control can put us back into our place

Yessir WEE-VIL WEE-VIL ROCK YOU
WEE-VIL WEE-VIL ROCK YOU (Altogether now!)

WEE-VIL WEE-VIL ROCK YOU
(Sing it!) WEE-VIL WEE-VIL ROCK YOU...



I heard later that the journalist who penned the punny reports will soon be leaving The Star. So here's to you, ma'am. Keep rocking it, wherever you go.


14/04/2016   By the way, the red palm weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus) is also known as the Asian palm weevil or sago palm weevil, which means its young are, yes, those plump cream-coloured sago worms, which will grow up to be the future killers of the palm oil industry.

That's not so comforting if you think about it. You'd have to cut open the trunk of a palm tree to get to these grubs and an abundance of them means the tree might be gone. So eating them into extinction to save the oil palms (and do a bit of national service) isn't a viable solution, even if (some would say) it's tasty.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

It. Is. Not. A. Cake

Last week, I'd read a news report about a new kind of cake that's making waves in the New York food scene. A bit more reading and research later, I concluded that it was essentially a failed attempt at making jelly.

The main draw of the "raindrop cake" is a HUGE drop of water that's been reinforced with a bit of agar-agar, a gelatin-like substance extracted from seaweed. It contains only enough agar-agar to maintain its appearance as a gigantic drop of water; it dissolves into a puddle after about half an hour on the plate and it is more fragile than most jellies.

Hence, my bemusement and annoyance at New Yorkers paying US$8 for what I consider the 1MDB of jellies: something that looks good but lacks substance and is not structurally sound. And it's as if Westerners haven't heard of jelly before.


♪ Raindrops keep fallin' on that plate, like the hipsters hankerin' for a
taste; gotta Instagram it, then ooh and ahh over it, raindrops keep fallin'
on that plate, keep a-fallin' ♫ (not my photo; taken from NDTV Food)


As someone helpfully pointed out a few hours after I tweeted the recipe and origins of the dessert, the so-called "raindrop cake" - a.k.a. mizu shingen mochi (水信玄餅) - came from Japan. A company in Yamanashi Prefecture in Central Honshu made this transparent interpretation of the more conventional shingen mochi, said to have been named for Shingen Takeda, a medieval Japanese warlord. It's been around since 2014, I believe, and you can find recipes for it and its variants online.

Mochi in Japanese means "cake" or "biscuit", but there's nothing in the waterdrop thingy that suggests it is a cake in any way we are familiar with; hence, perhaps, the inclusion of the roasted soya bean powder (kinako) and brown sugar syrup.

Yes, it has no calories and is ephemeral, clean-flavoured, vegan and transparent. Much Zen. So healthy. Wow. The Japs nailed this embodiment of the Zen philosophy with aplomb.

BUT.

Whichever way you look at it, it is. Not. A. Cake. Just a blob of not-very-dense jelly with soya bean powder and sugar syrup on the side.


Yes, I made one. Or something close to it. Because I wanted to see
one for real and am too frugal to pay US$8, plus the airfare to
New York and accommodation. Used a bowl instead of a mould.


So I posted a hysterical tweet about it, throwing in a veiled and possibly racist reference to Calvin Trillin's controversial Chinese-food poem in The New Yorker. Like some, I thought Trillin was making fun of New York foodies who seem to get thrown for a loop each time something emerges from the mysterious East and start writing poetry.

Kaya toast that's "implausibly tall and as porous as coral", sealed with "celadon-hued coconut jam"? Blue glutinous rice that "spent the night with a fistful of morning glories"?

And muah chee (a local mochi-esque snack) that looks like "larval nubs of hot mochi pitched in roasted ground peanuts, sesame seeds and sugar"?

Okay, whatever. After all, it's not the first time you guys found toast trendy. And it seems this fad was also imported from the East.

(By the way, the flower that "spent the night" with the glutinous rice is more likely to be the blue pea flower (Clitoria ternatea). You're welcome.)


Water, agar-agar and heat. I didn't measure exactly how much jelly
powder to use, but it's less than what you'd need for normal agar.
I panicked at first because it didn't seem to set properly. Then,
the mixture started to gel...


I suppose it struck a nerve. Westerners have been accused of cultural appropriation (curry powder and Eastern noms de plume, anyone?), or exoticising otherwise common stuff from the East. Their antics inspire a range of emotions from amusement and bewilderment to annoyance and outrage.

Granted, it may have taken a long time to get the waterdrop illusion right and importing the ingredients from Japan can add to the cost. And maybe Americans aren't used to the idea of eating something that looks like a blob of solid water or, as some have said, a silicone breast implant.

Also, we Malaysians are almost as (if not more) kiasu when it comes to chasing food crazes - remember the salted egg yolk croissants? I'm sure they're still flocking to that little Petaling Jaya bakery. Let's not mention the verbal spats we've had with Singaporeans and maybe Indonesians over who "owns" what dish.

But still...


Not a lot of agar-agar is needed, but the jelly powder did colour this
prototype a little. And I think it's still too firm. Still, go me. I
totally geeked out when it finally came together.


Agar-agar is cheap, especially in Malaysia, and this thing made out of it was sold in New York for the price of two Starbucks beverages. And, as you've already seen, the centrepiece can be replicated with a little time and effort.

But above all...

Sore wa kēkide wa arimasen.

It. Is. Not. A. Cake.