Monday, 30 June 2008

Unseasoned Joy

I didn't write anymore for Fried Chillies after this, because my new job began to take its toll, stress-wise. The warnings I got, including one from the Fried Chillies editor, were completely ignored.

Joy Cafe
This unassuming cafe tries to keep everything healthy. And guess what? It takes nothing away from the taste, proving that you need not sacrifice taste for the sake of health.

first published in Fried Chillies, 30 June 2008

"No salt?!"

My jaw hit the table with a thud.

"Not a grain," says Mr. Dennis Ng, of Joy Café, a place he runs with his wife, Joyce. "People from far away as Subang, Damansara, KL, Shah Alam all travel here for the food." The passion isn't just in their cooking; it's also in its preparation and serving. Their big bowls aren't for the portions, or for show - it's to prevent the waiters' thumbs from dipping into the food. Nor do the cooks grab noodles with their bare hands - each serving-sized portion is wrapped in plastic, to be used only when needed. And they're organic noodles.

This was only my second time in Joy Café. During the first time I had their toast bread and chicken curry. They also have it served with kaya and butter which you have to spread it on yourself. I also had the orange white coffee; it was my first encounter with the fruity variant of my favourite brew. The taste had me begging for more. Another interesting flavour is the blackcurrant white coffee - a full-bodied concoction with a blackcurrant taste.

The menu of the months-old café is packed with the usual fare kopitiam fare: nasi lemak, "special fried rice, laksa with the addition of their braised dishes and a few other items. They also have brewed Chinese tea, and at least one dessert for each day of the week: double-boiled lotus root, red bean, etc - all served in a green-painted environment that instills a Zen-like calm while you wait. You wouldn't need to go anywhere else for breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner and supper.

I took another look at my half-eaten bowl of lamb brisket. Nice, tender chunks of lamb brisket (what else?), swimming in delicious brown gravy with a bevy of ginger and water chestnut slices. The gamey smell that gave it character was subtle enough not to offend. Such a flavourful dish - and no salt was involved? That's like hearing "no, there's no MSG in our kway teow soup".

Lamb brisket isn’t the only dish in this category – there’s also beef brisket, which can either be served with rice or noodles. I opted for the rice version. My brisket came in a separate bowl; on the plate, the mound of rice is dotted with black sesame seeds at the top, accompanied by a single fried egg (sunny side up) and some stir-fried lettuce.

My makan buddy for the day meanwhile, found her fried rice intriguing. It looked absolutely packed with goodness: finely sliced spring onions, long beans, fried egg, bits of minced pork and preserved radish which brightened up an otherwise mundane dish. And not a single ear of corn, green pea or diced carrot anywhere.

Again, Mr Ng satisfied our curiosity. "The fried rice is made from freshly-cooked rice," he explained. "Overnight rice is not fragrant enough. The pork is braised for three hours in a stock made from over a dozen different herbs and spices, before it's minced and added to the rice during cooking." And yes, no additional salt is used in their braised dishes.

We looked at each other and shrugged. Isn't it the nature of proprietors to sing praises of their own food? Still, I'd rather let my food do the talking. I took a bite of a lamb brisket. It talked, alright - like Barack Obama. With the water-chestnut pieces, the meat and gravy was a hearty dish that went great with rice or noodles.

My friend’s fried rice was also telling her things as well, something to the tune of "Yes, we can! Yes, we can!" She gave me some. Not only was it flavourful, there was also texture. A welcome departure from the boring old frozen peas-carrots-corn variety.

"So how was it?" I asked her, actually doubting my tastebuds. Hailing from Ipoh, another great food capital, she would know better.

"Very good," she said, emphasising each word for effect.

Our vote was unanimous. Joy Café is a shoo-in - and we barely even scratched the surface.

Joy Café
540, Jalan Riang 11,
Happy Garden,
58200 Kuala Lumpur


Sunday, 29 June 2008

Flying High With Elmo, et al

After an absence of a few months, I returned to Seksan for a Readings session. There was my resignation, red tape at the old workplace, a two-week pseudo-sabbatical and the adjustment period after my job switch.

Yes. I'd been busy. I needed a break - and an excuse to take my digital camera out for a spin. It couldn't have happened at a better time. The June session featured a star-studded line-up which included ex-airliner captain Elmo Jayawardena (picture, right), Lydia Teh, Jacqueline-Ann Surin and Kam Raslan. Other surprises included the presence of Farish Noor, Eric Forbes of MPH Publishing and Shahril Nizam... .

I've read quite a few of Farish Noor's articles; his Egyptian travelogues were particularly intriguing. He had emerged from a heated exchange of words with a bunch of UMNO people, and he'll be on his way to Indonesia. What? The Indons will be voting soon?

There was supposed to be a book sale or something, but that never materialised. Pity. I did want an autographed copy of Shape of A Pocket (Surin wanted to talk about an MPH readings - wonder if it'll happen?). A lucky draw was held during the intermission, where books were given away. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children was among the prizes, the so-called Best of Booker.

(I'd withhold judgement until I've read it, but I think it got BoB because it's Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.)

The intermission was special because we had a live band. The boys of Dewangga Sakti put on a great mid-Readings performance, and an encore when the session concluded. Their CDs were also available for sale.

But it didn't exactly get off on a good start. The roar of buzzsaws and a shower of sawdust from the KL Municipal Council's tree-trimmers' work ruined the generally calm Bangsar atmosphere. Sharon tried in vain to get them to buzz off. Although I repeated Sharon's request in a less-civilised tone, they wouldn't budge. They even had the cojones to pose when I brought out the shooter.

I was so loud I surprised myself.


  • The afternoon's Readings took off with Captain Elmo J. He'd written his novels between flights; nowadays he's training other pilots. He read an excerpt from his book, Sam's Story.
  • Lydia Teh read a piece of fiction from a soon-to-be-released work - a departure from her usual brand of non-fiction.
  • Jacqueline Ann-Surin read one of her spiked articles on the controversial topics of religion and Lina Joy from Shape of A Pocket.
  • The author Shahriza Hussein wasn't feeling well, so his friend read an excerpt from his novel, Legacy. Before starting, however, he took some time to add a disclaimer: Legacy is "fiction".
  • Clarissa Tan crossed the Causeway to be here. She took her time with her piece, while - curiously - doing some kind of shuffle. It was hard to focus for a clean shot. There's more good stuff being read this time around.
  • Unfortunately, I couldn't get a single sharp shot of Kam Raslan on the mic with optical zoom; zooming affects the photos, apparently, Only the shots I took without zooming were relatively OK. Much hilarity ensued as Kam recounted a chapter in the Datuk's tales. It does sound funnier when he reads it.

Overall results from my digicam were mixed; light was a major factor, not to mention my unsteady palsied hands. Despite all the homework and research I've done, my sharpshooting attempts were thwarted by my coffee habit. Maybe I should have waited a while more, spent a bit more to get the Powershot A570IS or Lumix FS3 instead.

Never again shall I scorn optical image stabilisation features.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Going Green By Going "E"

An offer to sign up for electronic monthly statements came with my latest Citibank snail-mailed statement. "Go Green, Go Paperless". It's secure, fast, no late delivery worries, and most of all, signing up before 30 June gets you 888 Rewards points.

Hmm. Well, with the exception of the 888 Rewards points it does sort of appeal to me. I've had mail victimised by inept postmen, or drenched by the rain. And I can look it up in any place that has a computer and an internet connection. And I'll be saving trees. Mmm, how about a hug, tree?

And that's the problem right there.

Barring old Webzilla here at home or the PC at the office, there aren't a lot of times I can get my hands on a wired computer - which also applies to a lot of people. What about computer glitches? Like power outages, they have the predatory instinct to pounce when they're least expected.

The "Go Green" exhortation is also misleading. You need electricity to get connected, and electricity burns coal or gas. How much CO2 will I be burning while checking my swanky, clean and earth-saving monthly e-statements?

Let's not forget that the PC and electronic hardware industry is a major polluter. Mercury, dioxins, plastics, you name it. The gold contacts on your RAM? You don't want to know how they pull the stuff out of the ground.

See? I can look at the bright side.

But the eternal question remains. Pollute or denude? Talk about a rock and a hard place. Maybe I should just cancel the card... .

Shiny, Shiny India

I absolutely hated this book. The polemics. The dogma. The ivory-tower arrogance. The author tries to be balanced, but I can't help feeling that the overall argument was, well, one-sided. I suppose I should offer thanks that the original copy is lost. The paper kindly provided the heading.

The next super power of the world

first published in The Star, 22 June 2008

A big budget production boasting seven- or eight-digit figures. A star-studded cast supported by legions of extras. Theme-park-sized sets and stunning panoramic backdrops. An epic-length script with the promise of a fairy-tale ending.

The latest Yash Chopra blockbuster? Hardly. It's Mira Kamdar's Planet India. A quick peek at the Web (Mira who?) made me realise that Planet India is the well-researched, painstakingly documented work of a renowned, well-published Indian-American intellectual who's affiliated with a couple of think-tanks and regularly speaks at high-powered gatherings on world affairs.

Some books inform, others entertain. Planet India is mostly information. India's successes on the international stage are well-catalogued in this volume; even the list of notes and indices are long enough to warrant their own chapters. Kamdar portrays India as an awakening juggernaut in language that calls to mind the phrase, "shock and awe". 1.2 billion Indians at home; 20 million overseas. Eight-figure investments by software giants. Growth by percentages by so-and-so year.

She enthusiastically throws facts, numbers and platitudes about her beloved India with heavy-handed determination of, say, presidential candidates from the US.

" goes India, so goes the world."

"No other country matters more to the future of our planet than India."

"...actually, we are already living on Planet India."

Thankfully the author stops short of saying "the rupee will replace the dollar as the international currency".

However, Kamdar doesn't simply wax lyrical over India's enormous potential to rock the world. About halfway through, India the gold and silicon-chip-paved utopia gave way to India of 600,000 villages, home to the detritus left behind by the leaders of the pack in the race towards wealth, progress and knowledge: the hard-core poor, the dispossessed, uneducated who are left to fend for themselves in backwaters and slums ruled by criminals, corrupt officials and tyrannical landlords. There's also a glimpse into its volatile political scene, deep religious divides and long-running feud with Pakistan. The India of Kamdar's fevered imagination seems so far away - but still within reach, she says. Apparently, they even have their own Vision 2020 (so it's a race, then? May the best country win).

Of course, this is a sales pitch for India the world power and center of enlightenment, not India the land of superstition, outdated customs and temperamental nationalism. I suppose I can't fault the author for her optimism, not when so many others feel the same way. For instance, the slogan of a budget airline reflects the light on the horizon: "Every time we take off, the whole economy looks up." It's so bright, it blinds.

Buried somewhere underneath the pile of numbers thrown so liberally into the manuscript, are morals, lessons and interesting anecdotes that help salvage the book from becoming a mere paperweight. There are wise words by Deepak Chopra, as well as uplifting ones by the students for whom things can only get better. I wouldn't have felt so annoyed had she given more prominence to the ordinary people of India, instead of blinged-up executives, socialites and crorepatis (millionaires).

Reading Planet India is like panning for gold in the Ganges. It's hard work, going through the facts, numbers, and feel-good slogans to find the little nuggets that enlighten, enrich and inspire.

Planet India
The Turbulent Rise of The World’s Largest Democracy

Mira Kamdar
Simon & Schuster UK, Ltd
320 pages
ISBN: 978-1-84737-068-6