Thursday, 26 November 2015

Mellowing Out at Merchant's Lane

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 26 November 2015

Several weeks ago, makan kaki Melody was back in town.

However, it also meant having to chauffeur her as she caught up with the local restaurant scene.

C'mon, Mel, it's not like two hundred restaurants have opened since you went away.

We (finally) ended up at Fifth Palate, where she dug into her ramen. The next stop was another place that's opened and run by another mutual acquaintance.

Look for the teal doors next to 150 Jalan Petaling and
take a break from the city.

Merchant's Lane, located along Petaling Street, is the brainchild of the guys who opened Butter+Beans OUG. Much has been said about it, particularly its Instagrammability. From the décor to the food, every aspect was crafted to compel one to frame it within a viewfinder.

Ken Ho, one of the founders, admitted to this. "It's about creating the buzz," he said, "We want to get people to come here and share the experience."

As I sat in the tastefully hipsterised main dining area, I don't see why anyone would have anything negative to say about– oh look, a fly. Shoo, shoo.

Getting there was easy enough, especially on a Friday morning when school's out. I parked the car at a lot across a street, next to a police station. Finding the entrance, however...

(Psst, look for the entrance next to a stationery shop; Merchant's Lane is on the first floor.)

Up the wooden stairs was the kind of place that's been mushrooming in the old Chinese parts of KL, George Town and Ipoh. Pre-war chic, I call it, with rough unpainted walls, rattan chairs, stainless steel tabletops and wooden floors.

Beyond the salubrious environs of the main dining hall (left) is the
airy al fresco seating area (right). The steel-grill floors are not
for the faint-hearted.

More seats and a rattan swing-chair dangling from the ceiling, plus the kitchen and washroom, were at the back of the building, which is connected to the main dining area by an al fresco seating area that– GAAAH, why are parts of the floor made of steel grills?

Walking to and from the wash basins felt like a test of courage. Not that it deterred a couple of hijabsters, who were selfie-ing for all its worth, seated in chairs that seemed to float in the air. One of them was even wearing high heels.

"Tak gayat ke?" I asked. Apparently, no.

...Food, yes. Food calms the nerves. But I'll never understand why I also ordered coffee. Curiosity, perhaps. Thank goodness they make a good brew here.

My makan kaki's "Hongkie Beef Stew" - so good, I forgot
it wasn't mine. Same goes for the coffee.

Even the menu items are buzz-worthy. Melody chided me when I wanted the "Eat Die Me" big breakfast (no longer available). "You can put one together," she said. "One that can eat die you, your neighbours and their pets if you wanted to."

Chastened, I picked another item. She went for the plain-sounding "Hongkie Beef Stew", a bed of creamy mash potatoes covered by a thick beef stew with meat so fork-tender, it's part of the gravy. I vaguely recall Ken pooh-poohing the idea of serving the stew with rice because "I wanted mash with this."

I had to agree with Ken, and before I knew it I was taking more than my share. My skull throbbed with the familiar sensation of my makan kaki's "save me some, you glutton" glare.

Like its namesake, Merchant's Lane's "South China Sea" was the focus of much contention. Ken said opinions were divided over this dish of pan-seared salmon, eggs poached sous vide and rösti-like hash with a palate-cleansing salsa that didn't taste like any ocean I've ever swum in.

Like its namesake, the "South China Sea" appears to be a bone of
contention among patrons. I like it, however.

"Some people don't get this dish," he said. "They said they can't taste much. It's about clean, fresh flavours - that's the point."

Several even complained about the "small" amount of salmon. At over RM20, what did these people expect? As if there aren't enough reminders of how our currency is doing.

After the beef stew, a little "South China Sea" was what the doctor ordered. The fish wasn't heavily salted and still pink in the middle, while the salsa provided all the other flavours the dish needed.

With a relatively clean palate, came the hankering for a dessert. Two new menu items were introduced, and one of them caught my eye.

The people of Merchant's Lane says this dessert is "Better Than Sex".
I leave the verdict to those who know.

We didn't have to wait too long for it. "Here you go, sir, 'Better Than Sex'," said the waitress as she brought the order to our table.

I couldn't resist asking, "Hard to even pronounce the name, isn't it?"

The waitress chuckled and left. Aiyoh, Ken, can change the name, ah? One of these days?

So, according to the good folk at Merchant's Lane, a combo featuring pandan-infused roti jala tucked under a blanket of mozzarella cheese and several scoops of Forty Licks' custom kaya toast ice cream (with real toast, from the look of it), drizzled with melted gula melaka, is "better than sex".

"Yes? No?" you ask?

I'd say "debatable".

But it is a delectable after-lunch or after-dinner item. Do watch out for the frozen cranberries which are– DAMN, THEY'RE SOUR! But at least they work with the richness and sweetness of the other components, prepping your palate for the next mouthful.

We didn't feel like going anywhere else after such a heavy but satisfying meal.

Meanwhile, more people showed up at this refreshing oasis of calm, with its multicultural staff and clientele. And like this country, Merchant's Lane is still a work-in-progress.

"We've got ... maybe forty-plus things lined up for the menu in the future," Ken said, adding that he's keeping the "South China Sea" (please do!) along with a few other staples. He also has plans to make Merchant's Lane a happening events venue - if he had the time and manpower.

Give it time, Ken. After almost six decades Malaysia is becoming a happening place. I'm sure Merchant's Lane will become the same – if not better.

Merchant's Lane
No, 150 Jalan Petaling
59000 Kuala Lumpur


Daily, 10:30am-8pm

+603-2022 1736

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Sunday, 8 November 2015

Book Marks: A Little Overpraised, Struggling Over Mein Kampf, Etc.

I read this with incredulity. An exhibit featuring food in a bookfest? The Frankfurt Book Festival, no less. You need a subscription to read the English version (boo).

I feel for "Lucius Maximus". The guy who chronicled the decades-long slide of Malaysian football might now have another depressing subject to write.


  • Is A Little Life 2015's "most infuriating, overpraised" novel? Someone at Salon seems to think so.
  • A gay-romance novelist is accused of plagiarising straight plots. A good time to save this helpful infographic over the types and severity of plagiarism violations.
  • More agony over Mein Kampf; one critic's arguments smell like her surname. Now I'm even more determined to pickup a copy (yes, we sell it here).
  • Extremely loud and incredibly gross? Jonathan Safran Foer's novel reportedly pulled from a school over "vulgar" passages. Several free speech groups in the US are up in arms over the decision.
  • A bunch of business-minded Cambodian kids published a primer on key business sectors in their country.
  • Denied a visa for the Kumaon literary festival in Uttarakhand in northern India, Pakistani author Kanza Javed released her book, Ashes, Wine and Dust, over Skype. No reason was cited over the denial.
  • Junot Díaz's support for the rights on undocumented migrants was called "unpatriotic" by the Dominican Republic, who then stripped him of an order of merit award. Not to worry, he still has his Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
  • The worst ways to begin your novel, with advice from literary agents.
  • This "untold history of African American cookbooks" is brief and has a lot of URLs, but one has to start somewhere.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Feelin' Down? Get Stuffed at Fork D World

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 07 November 2015

I recently returned to Damansara Perdana, where I spent almost two years writing for a now-defunct publication, following an online lead that hinted at a near-mythical object: pork biryani.

But what kind of place would prepare and serve such a cryptid of a dish?

An ordinary one, from the looks of it.

Fork D World promises comfort food in a homey setting

Just months old, Fork D World promised porcine-punctuated comfort food within its somewhat threadbare confines. A staircase at a corner led to the washrooms.

I perused the menu after taking my seat. To my dismay, I was informed that the pork biryani and other weekday specials were only available for lunch. Other notable delights included rice dishes with a stew of braised pork belly or minced pork patties, reminiscent of my mother's own (but probably not as divine); and something called yao mei fan, which can be interpreted as "this rice got flavour wan!"

Fork D World's menu features copywriting for the Internet generation

Parts of the menu was in millennial-speak. Copy for the Bacon Fried Rice goes: "picture a pig running thru (sic) a rice field in slow motion... weird but strangely satisfying, much like d generous sprinkling of bacon bits u find in our oriental fried rice. served wif a sunny-side up + a dollop of our homemade sambal."

"Slow motion", eh, Mr Pig? Dats Y U on de plate, mon.

While waiting for my order to arrive, I chatted up the lady boss. Jo Ann Tan had been in event management for over a decade before she went "Fork D World" and opened up this place. She wanted it non-halal so she can "cook without restrictions"; the yao mei fan is apparently her grandmother's recipe.

We were still talking when the appetiser, something called "Bacon Bombs", hit my table. But I only returned to my seat when the main dish -- a minced pork Bolognese fettucine — arrived a few minutes later.

Bacon Bombs, guaranteed to nuke your diet plans to kingdom come

I found the Bacon Bombs — eight bacon-wrapped pillows of pastry with a mozzarella centre, each skewered to a whole cherry tomato with a toothpick — visually appealing. The shine on the bacon fat, the creaminess of the cheese that pops in your mouth when you bite down, and the smell of salty, smoked and cured pork, followed by the cleansing freshness of the cherry tomato, flushing your palate for the next one...

...Fine, I was hungry. Hunger makes me wax lyrical.

Minced-pork Bolognese, meaty mouthfuls of OM NOM NOM — with
a piece of toast for mopping up left-over sauce

But perhaps I shouldn't have ordered the pork Bolognese, which was just fine; maybe I shouldn't pick dishes I can make myself. I barely tasted the bacon and button mushrooms in FDW's version because, well, so much flavour — and the aroma of various dried herbs. Still this is comfort food, and I recommend getting comfortable (like, loosening your belt) after a helping of this.

As a new kid on the block, FDW was having a slew of promos. On that evening, it included the option of a 50 per cent discount on a beverage or a complimentary dessert with a main dish or pasta. I settled for the latter and picked a plain crème brûlée, which I wouldn't mind being less sweet.

A version with coffee called the Espresso Honey Pot was off-limits; no caffeine for me after 5pm. Another dessert, a cheese tart dotted with butterscotch chips (two for RM5) was not part of the offer.

If the food hasn't killed your diet yet, the crème brûlée
will deliver the coup de grace

Later, I came down from the washroom upstairs to a dining hall perfumed with the scent of baking. Brownies, the lady boss told me. Well, I was told some of the desserts available were made on the premises.

So I didn't get to taste the pork biryani, which Jo Ann says used to be available in Damansara Uptown. (The lunchtime specials menu has since been changed — it seems they do it every month — so I probably won't see it again for a long while.)

Nor did my gut have any room left (bacon "bombs", indeed) for their fried mee hoon: a reminder of my childhood, made fresh with bacon and a sunny side up — now that's "East meets West." Made me wish I was still working nearby.

And those damn butterscotch cheese tarts were still singing at me...

What really guaranteed my return, however, was the complimentary glass of warm honey lemon. Noting my coughs as we spoke earlier, the attentive lady boss felt I needed it. Like everything else I had in this place, the drink hit the spot.

Fork D World Bistro
D2-G-3A, Ritze Perdana 1 Commercial Lot
Jalan PJU 8/2, Damansara Perdana
47820 Petaling Jaya


Thursday, 5 November 2015

Teaching Is Tough

A playground quarrel between two kids puts a teacher on a quest to set Malaysian youths straight, one student at a time

For a short while, the hashtag "Mak Kau Hijau" (Malay for "Yo momma's green" - I know, right?) was trending in the Malaysian Twittersphere. Other than how catchy it was, I had no idea what it was or how it came about.

Then, while browsing the shelves at a bookstore, this jumped out at me...

"Mak Kau Hijau!" by local publisher Kopi Press, on the
shelves at MPH Bookstore in Mid Valley Megamall

Note the brilliantly designed green-tinged cover and loudly screaming title. Who WOULDN'T be captivated?

Sadly, very little of the comedic writing seemingly advertised by the cover design and back cover copy can be had in the pages but I got over that quickly. It did explain the origin of the hashtag.

Apparently, someone recorded a video of a playground row between two kids where one of them, while exchanging insults, yelled "Mak kau hijau!" at the other. This video was posted to YouTube and went viral.

"Yo momma's green!" isn't exactly an artful or incisive insult, even for kids. But what irked author and teacher Emir Abu Khalil (his pen name) the most about this incident seemed to be the crass language and lack of manners.

"Stupid!" he writes. What are our youth learning, he asks. What are they being taught at home, at school? Where did they pick all this up?

Being a teacher, this affects him plenty. In his job, he sees a lot of what the YouTube video encapsulates. But his beef is also - if not mostly - for the person who recorded the video rather than break up the fight, whom he compares with those who slow down and gawk when driving by accident sites. The author seems to tremble at the thought of the young graduating into such a society.

This collection of chapters in Cikgu Emir's life as he sets his students straight through teaching and setting an example for his students to follow. Its format is what I'd describe as blookish (i.e., blog in print).

A Kopi Press book at a kedai kopi moden: at Artisan Roast, TTDI
(by the way, that's not coffee)

Each chapter is no different from a blog post: relatively short, colloquially phrased and not thoroughly spell-checked. (Maaf ye, terkeluar taring penyunting tadi. Tanda work-life balance terganggu kot.) Episodes of his schoolteacher days are spliced with musings and opinions on how to cultivate the right kind of values in students.

I found the religious bits uncomfortable; at times, reading this, I felt like an intruder, an unwelcome fly on the wall. So all that religious stuff naturally flew over my head - as did his lamentations of how young people are these days: no manners, why do they talk like this, why don't they pray ... and so on.

But there are moments of levity, made lively by the use of contemporary Malay patois, which includes local slang and English. That helped move things along tremendously. One also feels he's not quite the traditional white-skullcap fire-and-brimstone kind of person. Did he really use Miley Cyrus's "The Climb" as a teaching aid?

Some might find the shifts in the mood and tone of the book jarring as he swings between preacher and hipster. But one gets a sense of what he's trying to convey: kids are hard to educate.

These recollections and musings remind me of those of another teacher's, and it seems to me that everyone in this profession share a common goal and certain ways to reach it. Like that other teacher, Cikgu Emir goes beyond what's customary. He buys needy students lunch, maybe loans them money. He leads prayer sessions, holds extra classes. In one chapter, he even helps a student said to be under a black magic spell.

Most of the time, though, he grapples with excruciatingly mortal problems: bureaucracies, students he can't get through to, whether what he's doing is worth it, keeping in touch with his wards via WeChat...

Yet he's determined to prove to his students and the world at large that he's not a cikgu dua lima, the type who only teaches for the salary that usually comes in on the 25th of each month.

Quotable, genuine and devoted to the ideals of his faith and profession, Cikgu Emir (and those like him) is worth cheering for. And this book packs more takeaways than a day's worth that's sold at a mixed rice stall.

But I risk spoiling too much of that by copy-pasting, so I'll just end with this translated bit from the back cover:

"I'm not a perfect teacher, but that doesn't mean I can do nothing to change my students. If you can't do everything, don't ditch everything. If you understand this basic[sic], teaching and nurturing will be what you love best, because this will be your treasure in the afterlife."

Semoga berjaya, cikgu.

Sebenarnya saya tidak pasti sama ada saya perlu mengulas buku ini dalam Bahasa Melayu sebab ia ditulis dalam BM. Agaknya saya lebih cenderung dan biasa menulis dan menyuarakan pendapat dalam Bahasa Inggeris, tetapi entah apa pendapat Cikgu Emir mengenai perkara ni.

Mungkin ulasan ni patut dibuat dalam bahasa yang digunakan dalam buku ini agar maksud isinya, termasuk buah fikiran penulisnya, dapat dipelihara dan disampaikan dengan sepenuhnya, tanpa sebarang kehilangan akibat kekurangan atau kelemahan dalam kaedah terjemahan saya.

Jadi tujuan saya menulis nota kaki ni mungkin hanya untuk membuktikan bahawa tahap penguasaan Bahasa Melayu saya cukup untuk menghayati isi kandungan buku ini. Tapi, perlukah saya berbuat demikian?

Sekadar menulis dua perenggan pun saya dah penat. Nada kaku, struktur ayat pun kekok. Ada perkataan yang perlu bantuan Google Translate. Kemungkinan besar ini sebabnya saya jarang membaca - lebih-lebih lagi mengulas - karya dalam Bahasa Melayu.

"Mak Kau Hijau!"
Realiti Budak Melayu

Emir Abu Khalil
Kopi Press (September 2015)
166 pages
ISBN: 978-967-13523-1-1

Monday, 2 November 2015

If Walls Could Talk: Poets in Gaslight

Poetry isn't my thing. I never quite learnt how to say something in ten words instead of a hundred or so. And I've always been long-winded.

But poetry readings aren't just about words or the process of emoting them. It has a long history, back in the day when thumbdrives and cloud computing were as mythical (and probably impossible) as the spiritual beings and lands that were part of what was orally passed around - sometimes accompanied by music - and stored in heads.

Part of the crowd at the Gaslight Café that night

So a poetry reading at Gaslight Café in Bukit Damansara was a nice change of pace, especially on a rainy evening after work and the passing (hopefully) of a horrendous haze season.

This event, the tenth "If Walls Could Talk" session, was part of a month-long celebration of the first anniversary of the Malaysian Writers Facebook Group. And a good excuse to drop by the café for the first time. Gaslight's a nice spot, but I don't drink, and I didn't feel like anything other than water; what'd I'd been feeling that night was the onset of a sinus infection.

We were told Melizarani T. Selva was away on a journalistic assignment, so spoken word artist Sheena Baharudin was roped in for emcee duty. Sheena's also an educator, writer of Rhymes for Mending Hearts and founder of the local multidisciplinary performing arts gig Numinous.

"Pay attention or I burn you with my 'third eye'..." Sheena Baharudin
took the mic as emcee and poet

She tried to ramp up the atmosphere with a reading of "Moles" which I think I'd heard before, but I guess she wasn't feeling it. Or did she forget some of the words?

Anyway, she managed to pull it off at half-time and I think she should keep her moles.

The first poet to take the stage was Dhiyanah Hassan, "an artist/writer ... whose works orbit around memories and desires, tracing myths in personal narratives, symbolisms that become vital in navigating internal and external landscapes."

(I'm relying mostly on the profiles supplied by the MYWriters people because I hardly know most of the performers. And thanks to my nose, the gaps in my memory of that night were embarrassingly large and frequent. I'm also ticked off with the quality of the camera's low-light photos so I haven't been very precise with the photo compositions.)

Dhiyanah Hassan

I've known Kathleen Choo for a bit longer. She "co-founded the Poetry Underground writer's collective with the Poets of the Underground one fateful year" and, from time to time, surfaces from her currently hectic life to do gigs like this.

Nice boots, Kath

I don't think the crowd that night was prepared for Kath. She did look like she just got out of bed, threw a few things together and rushed to this event. When her set ended, however, BOOM. Where did she come from? the assembled seemed to wonder. Yes, you can believe she did co-found a poets' collective.

(Okay, she fumbled a bit, too. Some days it happens even to the best.)

And yes, she does have a spot (two, in fact) at Publika's so-called "Poetry Walk". This one has a part that succinctly, beautifully describes the pulse of a city.

YOUR poem will never be good enough for Publika's walkway floor

Oh, and she also had a brief news-reading stint at BFM89.9 a few years ago. The first few times she came on I couldn't believe my ears until I asked around for confirmation.

Next was Uthaya Sankar SB, who I consider one of the eminent writers of the Malay language. His fluency in Malay is still something you have to see and hear for yourself.

Uthaya Sankar SB

Of course, his Tamil's pretty hot, too. He opened his set with a short Tamil poem and said, "One thing about poetry readings is that even though you don't know the language, you can still appreciate the poem."

Nari! Nari!, his much-publicised book of Indian folk tales, was one of the many on sale. I bought a copy and- wa lau, they have serial numbers?

Lara Hassan "has been writing from when she was little, although Across Dreamlands (2015) is her first published collection of prose and poetry. She released limited copies of her unpublished chapbook, Small Talk with the Moon in 2009."

Lara Hassan ... any relation to Dhinayah Hassan?

Wani Ardy and The Guitar Polygamy "embodies the spirit of self-discovery and wonderment." Described as a senikatawati (nice), hers was perhaps the most unforgettable performance of the evening. She performed several pieces from her books, published by Sang Freud Press.

Wani Ardy and The Guitar Polygamy: seriously awesome.

Vocalising her poems to the tunes of the band, it was almost like she was singing, yet not quite. What I can get was that something ancient and spine-tinglingly spiritual was going on, even if the instruments were electronic. About thirty seconds into each piece, I imagined many of the patrons were internally moaning F—.

One of the poems, Gula Melaka (page 73 in her book, Langit Vanila, I believe), was particularly memorable: a chaste taste of the kind of intimacy a woman feels in her lover's embrace - with a local flavour.

After the half-time break, the event resumed with readings by Khor Hui Min. A book editor in educational publishing, "her most recent publications include three poems published by Eastlit, and two short short stories published in 'As Life Found Me' from the Taylor's University 'Stories From...' series."

Khor Hui Min

Michelle Leong "is a banker by qualification ... yet a passionate writer". I'd heard about her book The Black Cheongsam and even flipped through a few pages. But I don't know much else.

Michelle Leong

I was equally sheepish to know nothing of Dr Raja Rajeswari Seetha Raman, who "earned her Doctorate Degree in Malay Literature from Academy of Malay Studies, University Malaya. She has a collection of poem and 30 anthologies(!) published by leading publications in Malaysia.

"Recipient of the National Literary Award(!!), her poems have been translated into English, German and in the process of translation in Thai language(!!!). Her book, Mekar Bunga ("Blooming Flower"), is a compilation of 50 poems on various themes such as nature, humanity, patriotism and love for peace."

Dr Raja Rajeswari Seetha Raman

Dr Raja's delivery of her poems was strident and stirringly patriotic. I don't know if the others felt the urge to place a hand on their chests as she read.

When Dr Jayati Roy showed up, I wondered why she looked so familiar.

MYWriters billed her as having "a varied cache of experiences as an educationist, having spent many years as a lawyer, banker, management consultant and professor. Her earlier publications mainly focused on school text books and non-fiction. She is currently completing an anthology of Malaysian short stories and poems."

Dr Jayati Roy

Her book, In the Shadow of My Pen, translated from the Bengali (Amar Kolomer Chaya), "recollects her early life and shares many of her varied experiences growing up in Malaysia."

Then I remembered. She appeared in another book, albeit under an alias. The author of that book had sampled her bright, delightful wit and spoke to me about it, but it was only on that night that we had a taste of it - and clamoured for more.

Angelina Bong was the last official poet for the night's line-up. The Sarawak-born poet and visual artist "with a background in Fashion Design ... represented Malaysia in the lingual arts-poetry category at the 3rd Delphic Games 2009 at Jeju Island. Since then, her poetic performances have travelled to South Korea, South Africa, Botswana, Australia and the UK." (Damn, what's with everybody's impressive CVs?)

Angelina Bong

Her set brought another kind of unearthly feel to the space at Gaslight, one that's more like a forest setting. Apt, considering her background.

Overall, a wonderful evening. And I'll be sure to keep an eye on some of these performers' future appearances.