Sunday, 20 March 2011

Chocolate So Good, You'll Go Insane

After not having chocolates for weeks, binging on Cadbury Dairy Milk wasn't such a good idea. My ardour for the stuff in the long-lived purple packaging, however, had cooled long before.

Months ago, I learnt that palm oil was being used in chocolate, and of the furore over Cadbury Australia "sneaking" palm oil into its products (or counting on people neglecting the ingredients list). And in the background, a "war" over whether Cadbury's is chocolate has been going on in Europe for over 20 years. The opposing camp is led by the Belgians, who are said to be absolutely anal about chocolate.

So, no. I have been eating "chocolate" all this time, not chocolate.

Not that I can tell whether some chocolate is chocolate.

But damn, I feel kind of cheated.

Though the Cadbury range from Australia and New Zealand is now available here (in cardboard, not paper packaging), I still couldn't tell the difference. Locally manufactured Cadbury's now lists "vegetable oil" - a mix of palm, illipe and shea oils - among the ingredients; you won't see that on the more expensive Australian stuff.

Then I bit into a chunk of Whittaker's.

Oh good gravy. It is good.

Whittaker's 33% Creamy Milk Chocolate
Liquid gold in bar form. Not sharing, not sharing...
(Photo is ©2011 Alex W)

See, not having vegetable oil in your chocs is not enough. You also need to have a certain amount of cocoa solids in there as well. That includes the bits that give chocolate its brown colour, sharp bitterness and the smooth buttery mouth-feel - all from real cocoa. "Vegetable oil" doesn't cut it. So why use it? Because it's cheaper and readily available. Cocoa beans contain cocoa butter, which is the oily component in chocolate, but it's not so readily available and harder to process, and is thus expensive.

Incidentally, "white chocolate" is mostly cocoa butter that had its cocoa solids squeezed out of it; pure chocolate is referred to as "cocoa liquor", which is cocoa solids plus cocoa butter. So, no, not chocolate, either.

Because of the European chocolate tiff, guidelines have been laid out over what is "milk chocolate" and "chocolate". According to these guidelines:

  • Chocolate must contain not less than 43% dry cocoa solids, including not less than 26% cocoa butter.
  • Milk chocolate must contain not less than 30% dry cocoa solids and not less than 18% dry milk solids.

Australia's Cadbury's only has 26% total cocoa solids and 28% milk solids, so that means damn, it's not quite "chocolate" enough.

But Whittaker's claims to have has 33% cocoa solids in its milk chocolate, and somehow, somehow, it shows. The cocoa taste and aroma is a tad stronger. Whittaker's has at least two variants of milk chocolate, both of which I found at Jaya Grocer@Empire, Subang Jaya. The other one is the Madagascar Milk, an "extra smooth milk chocolate" made from Madagascar cocoa beans. This one is smoother, milkier, but has less of the cocoa taste and aroma.

Which was why when, during a mini food-crawl in Subang Jaya, I was overjoyed to find that Jaya Grocer had replenished its stock of Whittaker's 33% Creamy Milk Chocolate Block. I bought two, which I intend to eat as slowly as I can; the expiry date's this October.

Oh, sweet, sweet Whittaker's milk chocolate, so rare, so sublime, so aromatic... not letting it go, not letting you go... I'll never let go, Jack...

Friday, 4 March 2011

Reading Readings

Friday, 25 February 2011

It was not the first time I came to Solaris Dutamas, and I can only remember why I was there the second time. A member of Poetry Underground invited me to a recital, which was part of the 2010 MAP KL Arts Festival. Since then, MAP has been rebranded as MAP@Publika, but it looks set to be a new, shinier venue in the local arts scene.

For weeks, the matronly Sharon Bakar, high priestess of the Malaysian literary scene, kept us up-to-date regarding the launch of Readings from Readings, a compilation of selected works that were read at readings events Readings@Seksan's and CeritAku@No Black Tie.

The launch, which took place on a wet Friday night, was one of the events scheduled for LiFest at MAP@Publika that ended on 27 February. Part of the proceeds from whatever sales were made during LiFest will go to Yayasan Orang Kurang Upaya Kelantan (Kelantan Foundation for the Disabled or YOKUK).

Copies of Readings from Readings for sale at the launch;
didn't manage to snag a bookmark or two

Several myths – my notions of Readings, actually - were busted by the release of news reports about the book. It was Bernice Chauly who founded Readings, which began at the Darling Muse Art Gallery (thanks, Sharon) about six years ago. Readings eventually moved house to Seksan's and has remained there since.

When Bernice's mother became terminally ill, she could no longer manage the monthly event. Thus, Readings@Seksan's was bequeathed to Sharon, who continues to manage it today. Bernice went on to start CeritAku in 2008.

About 400 writers, poets, and performers have been hosted by Readings and CeritAku combined. From the number of works that have been read so far, it is hoped that the compilation will be the first of several volumes coming out from these two events.

Dinner, coffee, and The Academy
I had arrived early for dinner. Dazzled by the variety of rather expensive choices, I settled for a more pedestrian fare of roast pork rice and iced coffee – the perfect set for the bewildered, indecisive Malaysian (Chinese) diner on a budget.

From certain expressways in the Klang Valley, Solaris Dutamas was easy to find. I took the Sprint Highway route from PJ, and then turned left into the direction of Sri Hartamas. At the traffic light junction, I turned right into Sri Hartamas (turning left takes you to Desa Sri Hartamas, Mont Kiara, and beyond), kept left as soon as possible, and turned left at the next traffic light junction. I was on Jalan Sri Hartamas.

I drove on, past the Hartamas Shopping Centre and another traffic light junction. I drove straight, past a massive white elephant on the right, which stretched on to a major traffic light junction. I turned left, and on my right, Solaris Dutamas. See? Not hard at all.

Damyanti Ghosh (second from left) samples some of the
books being sold; Jeremy Chin is the bald guy

Killing time at Solaris Dutamas is impossible. Not a single bookstore within reach and no affordable coffee in the area was worth sipping; maybe if arrrhem Artisan Roast would open a branch there. I eventually ended up at MAP@Publika, where a bunch of pianos sat about, items of a silent auction for YOKUK.

I met Sharon and Shahnim Safian, lecturer and module leader at The One Academy's Multimedia Department (and apparently, Sharon's niece). Shahnim and I have seen each other at several Readings at Seksan's but I never introduced myself. Though I'd already eaten, I accepted Sharon's invitation to dine at the PappaRich on the other side of the complex. I felt it was strange that nobody wanted to open a restaurant or even a snack bar closer to Publika. Can't the artsy indie food makers The ahem Cookie Cat and The arrrhm, arrrhem Last Polka do something?

"Look," Shahnim said on the way out, pointing at someone standing at the lobby area. "That lady looks like a painter."

"Yeah," I agreed. Unkempt hair, baggy clothes and one of those "recyclable" bags slung on one shoulder. She definitely had the basic bohemian-grunge look down pat.

Traditional Malay ensemble Dewangga Sakti opens the launch

We met Chong See Ming and her family at PappaRich. It says a lot when their mains arrived earlier than my toast. Sharon expected people to turn up late; it rained earlier, and though it's been over two years, it seems nobody can find their way to the venue, and those who make it to Solaris Duatmas can't find Publika's exact location.

I got to know Shahnim a bit more, thanks to her business card. "The One Academy?"

"Yeah," she said. "Don't I look like an artist?"

"You need to be a bit more bohemian."

"Well, I'm sporting a rocker look tonight."

I pause for a drink. "My sister went to One Academy. When she graduated she went to do sales instead. She's good at it. Ruthless." It was painful to recall. "Now she's in Singapore, plotting world domination."

Shahnim offered little comfort. "That happens to many of the graduates."

"The place screwed up my sister," I said plaintively. I wasn't apportioning blame. We're all victims of the systems we immerse ourselves in.

Lots of books, and those who write them
The crowd was starting to trickle in when we returned to MAP@Publika. It seemed everyone was there, and by "everyone", I mean everyone I've seen or were reportedly seen in at least one of the Readings@Seksan's.

Leon Wing came with someone I haven't seen in a long time. Eugene Chua, from what I heard, had returned home – Terengganu, was it? My memory fails me. Both Leon and Eugene had been attending almost every single Readings session since it began, until the recent ones.

Buonasera, Mr Brian Gomez! Ah, he remembers the e-mail interview he did for Off The Edge - one of the best, I feel. He's doing fine, but does he really want to give the Home Ministry 10 per cent of the proceeds from sales of Devil's Place? Not at the current sales rate, it seems.

And why is Amir Muhammad always selling books lately? He was manning one of several tables where various books, DVDs and other publications were on sale – some of which were his. When he wasn't there earlier, I'd bought one book. I'd never thought I'd see a copy of Lethal Lesson after the so-called scandal broke. Only two copies were left. I didn't hesitate.

"The author was a 'plagiarist'," I told the volunteer sales assistant after paying.

"Err, we're not supposed to tell people that," he said.

"Plagiarist", in quotes, because I don't think she warranted such a weighty label. I'd already said something about the case, so I won't be repeating myself here.

Jordan Macvay was by himself that night. Not only was the traffic bad, he couldn't locate Publika. Many of those I spoke to would express similar sentiments. And who can possibly miss Karl Hutchinson? The man can pick himself out of a crowd.

Sharon Bakar (left) and Bernice Chauly officially launch the book
in a somewhat conventional manner

Jeremy Chin was there, still hawking his first novel. Haslinda Usman had her very own table for her late father's books. Saras Manickam bought a book and would later have it autographed. Damyanti Ghosh bought a copy of Readings From Readings, and Leon signed his piece in the book. Hey look, it's Liyana Dizzy and Catalina Rembuyan - and yes, I can tell the two apart. And is that David TK Wong?

Oh, there's Maizura Abas. I walked over to say "Hi". She said Chicken Soup for New Moms or Sup Ayam bagi Para Ibu Baru will be out; she has a piece in it.

It was strange to watch Dina Zaman read on stage. Struggling with astigmatism, she held her script at arm's length and read an excerpt from her contribution to the book, "How to Stay Married". A pity it was actually a short piece of fiction. A saviour for Hollywood and footballer marriages remains out of reach.

Uthaya Sankar's mastery of the Malay language puts other non-Malays to shame. It became sort of a live show with audience participation when he read his piece in the book, "Cat". The satirical piece revolves around a house pet who, among other things, spouts philosophies in several different languages when interviewed for the civil service. A translated excerpt:

"What a stupid interviewer," he read. "Isn't it obvious that Italian cats go 'miew, miew, miew', German cats go 'miew, miew, miew', and French cats go-"

"Miew, miew, miew," went the audience.

"-and Japanese cats go-" Uthaya paused for the audience who, right on cue, picked it up.

"Miew, miew, miew."

How Pavlovian. And creepy.

"-and Hindi-speaking cats go-"

"Miew, miew, miew."

No prizes for guessing what Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan cats sound like.

I failed to get Unimagined on MPH bookshelves and was afraid the author wouldn't speak to me on that account. So it was an enormous relief when he shook my hand.

"You're too kind," said Imran Ahmad of my article on him, which included his need to lose about 15 pounds before he could look more like James Bond. "Twenty-five pounds would have been more accurate."

He added, "And my shirt wasn't tucked in because it was so hot, and it was an action-packed performance." So it was.

Saras Manickam (left) in a hurry to pose while getting
her copy of Unimagined signed by Imran Ahmad

Like me, Imran bought an ice-cream for charity. MAP also provided refreshments: coffee, tea, kuih and sandwiches. The bingka ubi (sweet potato pudding) was smashing. Who made this? They should open shop in Publika.

However, only strawberry ice-cream was available, which was a bummer. Seeing Imran eating ice-cream reminded me of a picture of him and a sundae, taken during the 2009 Ubud Writers Festival. "My UK publisher never bought me a chocolate sundae," went the caption.

Sadly, we didn't buy him any ice-cream, either. We hope there will still be an opportunity.

Like I said, "Everyone". I could go on and on. Bernice and Sharon said some very nice things, but the voice recorder I had chose that day to die on me, and the exact words just vanished into thin air. My heart sank.

Peter G. Brown and Markiza didn't play anything during the launch – not when I was around. However, traditional Malay folk ensemble Dewangga Sakti opened the event with a few numbers. I couldn't stay for the Panda Head Curry gig – my head was starting to pound, and Eugene and Leon needed a ride to KL Sentral.

"...not one or the other, but one and the other."
"Malaysian writing is not one or the other; it is one and the other."

I think that's Bernice Chauly's reply to the question of what Malaysian writing is and who Malaysian writers are.

As I look at the crowd, comprising Malays, Chinese, Indians, and Others who are united by a common love for the written, sung and spoken word, it makes sense. I could add that anyone who loves this country and anyone who writes about Malaysia or from Malaysia is a Malaysian writer.

However, from the number of familiar faces representing the Malaysian literary circle, I still see an impenetrable, tight-knit clique that's hard to enter or get close to. Even in smaller gatherings such as Readings, those who attend know each other and tend to form little solar systems that unwittingly shut out strangers.

A writer I know personally has refused numerous invitations to a Readings session. "I don't want to get to know them." Harsh, but I sort of understand. I used to believe writers were an elitist bunch who, among other things, write or type in longhand, insist on proper grammar, and advocate the death sentence for plagiarists.

Jade-Yi Lo reads her piece in the book to an audience

It's not just a perception problem. From my observations, literary events such as Readings host writers who read and write a lot. My writer friend writes but doesn't read widely. From her viewpoint, it's not hard to see why she'd feel out of place – useless, even, amongst galaxies populated by constellations of (literary) stars.

Writing is more than grammar, ethics, e-books vs dead trees, and Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. Hearts and arms must be open to bring people in from the cold. If we're going to get people to write, we need to make the newcomers welcome and help them mature and improve without inadvertently cutting them down to size or leaving them out of the big picture.

Writers are human. Sometimes, people forget. A reminder might be in order.