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.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

It's 2014 And I Still See...


[The s]tock market lets you buy into [a] variety of good businesses...

Don’t get be discourage[d] by their somber [sombre] stories. Instead, find out why they failed. Ask whether did they know [knew] what they were doing? [full stop, not question mark]

Plus[,] when you invest in stocks [–] or any others investment[s,] for that matter [–] of fact, you must have the fundamental believe [belief] that the economy will be fine.

After a certain point, you stop wondering why and just do the needful.

People tend to ignore the fundamental[s] and [are] comfortable put[ting] their money into ventures they completely have no clue know nothing what is it about. [certain fundamentals were probably ignored when writing this sentence, too]

Once you have grape[grasped] - [is the author trying to make me happy?] these points, you will able to...

That explain[s] why he has brilliance[brilliant] views on the stocks that he owns. He is also patience[patient] and discipline[d] - [argh] when [it] come[s] to investing.

It's a living.

(No need to guess which manuscript this came from. I see enough to create examples for educational purposes.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book Marks: In Praise Of Copy Editors, Book-Ban Boosts

Author Holly Robinson "can't believe all the mistakes I made in this book -- even after eight or nine revisions, two of which were done in collaboration with my savvy, brilliant editor."

Among these:

"I crossed out 'Tuesday' because later you say it's Wednesday."

"She's fifty-nine here and fifty-eight on page 102. Which one?"

"If he Googles the land line, why is she answering the call on her cell phone?"


So here's her shout-out to all copy editors, "publishing's unsung heroes".

In China, book ban rumours are boosting authors, thanks in part to social media. A Weibo user was reported as saying:

"These days, smothering someone is as good as crowning that person—previously unnoticed but now many people are interested in his views and works. A 'smothering' order is a reading list."

Among those allegedly blacklisted are "prominent liberal economist" Mao Yushi, newspaper columnist Xu Zhiyuan, Chinese-American historian Yu Ying-shih and media personality Leung Man-tao.

Now, it's not certain whether these writers are officially banned, but over there, as in other places, an imminent sweep of banned titles tend to generate an unusual demand for them as soon-to-be-gone collectibles - which sort of defeats the purpose of such bans in the first place.

Rob Spillman at Salon wonders why Hugh Howey (Wool) keeps defending Amazon.

In a spectacular bit of short-sightedness, Howey complained to the Times that independent bookstores "blacklist my books."

So, let me get this straight—you would like your books, which are published by the company whose avowed goal is to eliminate brick and mortar stores of any kind, to be carried in the same brick and mortar stores your publisher is trying to destroy?

Spillman also chides Howey for apparently trying (not very well) to pull the wool over some eyes:

In an article in today's New York Times, Howey defended Amazon and characterized Ursula Le Guin's statement that Hachette's tactics amount to censorship as "mostly lying."

Mostly lying? That’s the equivalent of "a little pregnant."

Howey's defense of Amazon is perhaps understandable when you know that it played a role in his break-out book. Still....

Meanwhile, Spillman discusses Amazon and the impacts of its business model on publishing with author Joe Konrath ("who has self-published 24 novels (three of them No. 1 Amazon sellers), hundreds of stories, and has sold over 3 million copies of his books"), who seems to be on Amazon's side.

But, as writer Emily Gould notes, "neither 'side' is exactly easy for authors and readers to be on."

My stand on Amazon should be clear. Even if the future sides with Bezos's behemoth and its ilk, no one entity should be allowed to direct the evolution of bookselling and publishing.

In The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead mentioned Neil Gaiman's 2013 lecture at the Barbican in London, where he once said there was no such thing as "a bad book for children" ...

...adding that it was "snobbery and ... foolishness" to suggest that a certain author or particular genre might be a baleful influence upon young reading minds—be it comic books or the works of R. L. Stine.

Well-meaning adults, he continued, can easily kill a child's love of reading: "Stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian 'improving' literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant."

Taking Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books as an example, Rebecca Mead thinks that any book that that a child "avidly" embraces can be the start of his or her lifelong love of reading. But...

...What if the strenuous accessibility of "Percy Jackson's Greek Gods" proves so alluring to young readers that it seduces them in the opposite direction from that which Gaiman’s words presuppose — away from an engagement with more immediately difficult incarnations of the classics, Greek and otherwise? What if instead of urging them on to more challenging adventures on other, potentially perilous literary shores, it makes young readers hungry only for more of the palatable same?

A notebook by photographer, surgeon and zoologist George Murray Levick who was in the ill-fated Scott South Pole expedition was apparently thawed out of the Antarctic ice by climate change.

"After conservation work by the trust in New Zealand the notebook, a Wellcome Photographic Exposure Record and Diary 1910 according to the cover, is remarkably legible, with Levick's name written in the opening pages," The Guardian reported.

Other than some of his observations on the sex lives of penguins (SNRK), the notebook also contained "lists of dates, subjects and exposure details for images he took at Cape Adare – but fascinating to historians as many can be cross-referenced with images now in the Scott Polar Research Institute collection at Cambridge."

What you read in the news gets cut. But what gets cut and why?

When commissioning news stories, desk editors invariably ask for more words than they need, and writers invariably file more words than they were asked to. This is just common sense: it's better for a story to be too long than too short, because cutting it down is much quicker than padding it out.

...desk editors and subeditors generally find themselves with an article that's anything from 5% to 500% too long for the allocated space.


  • In case you missed it, the Court of Appeal upheld the ban on Kim Quek's March to Putrajaya. Sad, but the so-called march to Putrajaya is on hold sampai tak tahu bila anyway.
  • The UK publishes more books per capita than any other country. But it's only the third leading publisher in the world in terms of number of titles published after China and the US, according to the International Publishers Association.
  • Is Enid Blyton's The Faraway Tree coming to cinemas?
  • Douchebag: where did this insult come from and how to (sort of) apply it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Pork Curry Plunge

A dish I've been trying to make, perfect and call my own is curry. So on one weekend, I took the plunge.

Mis en place: prepared items for curry while shallots being fired

Nothing special: pork, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and Baba's (meat) curry powder.

Shallots being sautéed; hard to prep but work better than red onions

First, sliced shallots are sautéed in oil. Then, came the grated ginger and garlic. After stirring for a while till it smells good, in went the tomatoes, followed by the pork about ten minutes later. Thought I'd try not browning the meat first.

Pre-curry pork, tomatoes and sautéed herbs

When the meat looked all cooked on the outside, the water went in, followed by curry powder (the whole packet) and the root vegetables. After seasoning with salt, all that stewed for about thirty to forty minutes.

Final product, ready to be dried out

After which, the lid came off and the curry (which looked like pie filling - ARGH! - by now), is allowed to cook and dry out a bit for fifteen to twenty minutes. I kept stirring every six to eight minutes to keep the bottom from burning.

Final product is poured out into a bowl, finished with a bit of olive oil and served.

Not like what I'd thought it would be, but still edible

Major complaints: lumpy gravy, melting root vegetables, and still too much gravy. Also, it lacked a certain kind of sweetness (there's no sugar in the house and these days I sweeten my beverages with honey).

I picked out the most solid bits from the bowl and put them on a plate. ...Ah, that is what it's supposed to look like.

Worked much better with less gravy; wish I had some rice, though

Thinking of using another fruit, maybe grated apples. Might also want to blitz the whole lot with a blender for a finer gravy.

Still, not bad for a prototype curry.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Book Marks: Excerpts, Endings, Etc

Author Raja Azmi Raja Sulaiman was reportedly barred from UIAM Kuantan over her novel's content (I mistakenly referred to the author as "he" when tweeting this for the first time).

The article is in Malay, but the gist is that Raja Azmi was supposed conduct a dialogue session about her writing career and her novel Karkuma with students at the International Islamic University campus in Kuantan during its open day tomorrow (18 October). The university's administration apparently cancelled the event over certain elements in that novel. The author is, understandably, disappointed (also in Malay).

Part of an excerpt from The Vulgar Tongue: Green's History of Slang by Jonathon Green, which reads thus (paragraph split):

Slang's literary origins are widespread and ever-expanding. Its social roots, however, are narrow and focused: the city. If, as has been suggested, the story of standard English is that of a London language, so too is that of English slang. And the pattern would be repeated elsewhere as colonies became independent and rural settlements became major conurbations.

London's chroniclers had always noted the urban vocabularies, though none before the eighteenth century had rendered their discoveries lexicographical. The pioneer of such investigations, John Stow, laying out Elizabethan London in his Survey of London (1598), had barely touched on language (his text offers gong farmer, a latrine cleaner, night-walker, a thief, and white money, meaning silver coins). In time those who told London's story would offer a far more central position to the city's speech, alongside its population and topography.

India's home-grown thriller writers are sneaking up on international names on the best-seller lists. Some possible reasons:

Some attribute the rise of the thriller to publishers being more willing to take risks in what was once a very conservative market; others to the hundreds of millions of young, literate people in India who for the first time can afford books priced at about £1. There has also long been a strong pulp fiction tradition in local languages, particularly Bengali, Urdu and Tamil.

The thrillers also provide a sense of accountability, which resonates with readers in a country of deep inequality where systems of justice are profoundly flawed. Many feature investigative journalists on the trail of corrupt big businesses or politicians in league with the police or judges.

Apparently, Benjamin Hale (The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (Twelve, 2011)) can't review a novel because he didn't like it. So he wrote a letter, presumably to an editor, to explain:

This book has been an anchor around my neck ever since you sent me a galley back in the winter. I have finally clawed my way out to page 700-something and still the remaining 300-some pages loom ahead, foreboding and without promise. At some point in the more than six months it's taken me to get this far into the book, I started forcing myself to read it by taking it to the gym with me. It made sense for the task of reading this book to accompany my trying to lose weight on the stationary cycle: both are joyless, laborious, repetitive chores done in a state of squinty-eyed perspiration and only in the distant hope that, eventually, I will finally get rid of something heavy.

No clue as to which novel he's referring to (I really want to know!). But it sounds like one of those that are laboriously difficult to read - and possibly write. A "good" book by some standards but "difficult" by others.

Could this be a creative way of commenting on whether "good" books must also give the reader some pleasure in the slog, or merely a rant by someone who can't finish a book and wants out of a commitment?

From how The Sopranos ended, an anatomy of endings. Why do we seem so hung up over "The End"?

Endings haunt us because they are our mortality formalized. They give us a simulated symbolic version of our own endings, which are either the Clincher, sudden and unexpected and ironically right, or else the Closer, the deathbed gathering. The grim trick, of course, is that, as long as we maintain the sense of an ending, it isn't over.

...As long as a sense of the ending hovers, the story goes on. We close the book, leave the theatre, shut off the screen, and return to the world, bewildered, maybe, but still breathing. In this way, a bad finish is a great gift, indignation at an unsatisfying ending being the surest sign of life.

Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower is "rediscovered" through her re-issued works. What to expect:

Harrower's writing is witty, desolate, truth-seeking, and complexly polished. Everything (except feeling, which is passionately and directly confessed) is controlled and put under precise formal pressure. Her sentences, which have an unsettling candor, launch a curling assault on the reader, often twisting in unexpected ways. And although her novels can feel somewhat closed, and tend to repeat themselves in theme, her prose is full of variety.

"North America is a crime scene"? An excerpt from An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. A taste (paragraph split):

Jodi Byrd writes: "The story of the new world is horror, the story of America a crime." It is necessary, she argues, to start with the origin of the United States as a settler-state and its explicit intention to occupy the continent. These origins contain the historical seeds of genocide. Any true history of the United States must focus on what has happened to (and with) Indigenous peoples—and what still happens.

It's not just past colonialist actions but also "the continued colonization of American Indian nations, peoples, and lands" that allows the United States "to cast its imperialist gaze globally" with "what is essentially a settler colony's national construction of itself as an ever more perfect multicultural, multiracial democracy," while "the status of American Indians as sovereign nations colonized by the United States continues to haunt and inflect its raison d'etre."


  • Fixi is calling for entries for Cyberpunk: Malaysia, the next Fixi Novo anthology, which will be edited by Zen Cho (Spirits Abroad (Fixi Novo, 2014)). The deadline's 31 December. The first entries came in several hours after the announcement. It's like these writers have something lying in wait somewhere for just such an occasion.
  • In The Guardian, The Man Booker Prize in numbers. The Prize is significant this year because it's been opened to American authors, but it was Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North that scooped up this year's award.
  • From The New Yorker, some chef stories, including Anthony Bourdain's "Don't eat before reading this", plus pieces on Mario Batali, David Chang, Julia Child, Alice Waters and Grant Achatz.
  • Why do books come out in hardback before paperback? The Economist explains:

    Known as "windowing", this sales strategy is also used in the film industry, where titles are released in the cinema several months before being sold on DVD. Like cinema tickets, hardcover books generate more profit per unit than paperbacks. And just as cinephiles like to see films on the big screen, collectors enjoy the hardback's premium quality. ...Hardbacks' durability means they are also popular with libraries. And they hold a certain snob value, too: literary editors traditionally don't review paperbacks.

    Also from The Economist: the future of the book.
  • Ten grammar mistakes that aren't - sort of.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

MPH Warehouse Sale 2014, Part II

Yes, it's back, from 21 to 26 October at:

MPH Distributors @ Bangunan TH,
No 5, Jalan Bersatu,
Section 13/4, Petaling Jaya
Call 03-7958 1688 for directions

Hours: 8am to 6pm

The map to the venue is here.

Kindly note that the Petaling Jaya City Council has made several roads around PJ into one-way routes beginning 12 October 2014; details can be found here (PDF file).