Sunday, 29 May 2016

Piquantly Powerful Pestle-Pounded Pesto

Less than a month ago, I picked up a stone pestle and mortar and, minding what some said about seasoning the thing before use, ground up several handfuls of brown rice over about a week. In the interim though, I did make a pestle-pounded pesto.

And it was delicious. But by golly, it was hard work.

Like mia nonna used to do it: basil pesto, pounded by hand

Since then, I've pounded a couple more single-serve batches of basil pesto in it, with mixed results. Simply grinding the leaves won't do - you have to bash them up quite a bit, especially if they're not fresh, like, out of the garden.

Once the bashing is done, however, wah.

One theory about why the pestle-and-mortar treatment for spice mixes and pestos is better is that, in contrast to the blender, you're not whipping air into the mixture. Herbs and spices contain a complex cocktail of chemicals, many of which react to oxygen and leave behind useless by-products, like rust. Any heat from the friction generated when solids rub against the blender blades also affect these chemicals and might turn them into other stuff.

At least, that's what I heard and read many years ago. All that came back while I enjoyed the most recent batch of basil pesto pasta.

Ku lihat hijau~ ♫ Well, maybe that wasn't appropriate, but I do. Pesto's
still mostly greenish ten minutes after I made it, because science (more
precisely, because of the antioxidant lemon juice). The other yellow bits
is the grated lemon zest; wanted to waste less of the lemon.

Because my countertops are all wood-based boards, I've had to do most of the hard work on the floor, or while holding the mortar with one hand. Those basil leaves had to be bashed up real good, along with the garlic and cashew nuts.

The finer stuff: salt (if you want) or lemon juice, pepper, Parmesan cheese and olive oil can go in after that, and mixed with a spoon. I find adding a bit more olive oil helps sweep more of the pesto paste off the mortar, but I don't try too hard, and you can't really scrape it all off.

So I leave some food behind in the mortar because - call me superstitious - the mortar and pestle deserves a little reward for their hard work. Then, after a few moments, I wash it all off - without detergent.

Then I soak up any water pooling in the mortar with a paper towel. I once left a very wet mortar alone overnight and found stuff seemingly growing in a tiny patch at the bottom.

Meals like this are worth the sweat - but I wonder whether my neighbours
agree, since the equipment also makes a lot of noise

Ten minutes later, while checking the boiling pasta, I noticed that the pesto was still mostly green, and not mossy green-brown like the machine-blended pesto of yore. Even when mixing the pesto and eating it later, it still looked green.

As long as I'm not serving more than four, I will be pounding my pesto in the mortar from now on, thank you very much.

30/05/2016   Sorry, guys, just remembered that the lemon juice I added might have played a bigger role in the pesto's awet muda - but it's still mostly green because science.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Book Marks: Migrant Poet Cements Cred, Etc.

Construction worker Md Mukul Hossine, a migrant from Bangladesh in Singapore, further cemented his cred as a poet with a collection of poems, Me Migrant, published by Ethos Books.

"Angry at a former boss for threatening to cut the workers' pay, Bangladeshi construction worker Md Mukul Hossine started scribbling poetry on the bags of cement he was carrying in 2014," according to the Straits Times.

The poems "were further refined in English by local poet Cyril Wong, based on translations from Bengali that Mr Mukul had paid a lecturer back in Bangladesh $500 - or half his monthly salary - to do."

But prior to arriving in Singapore, Md Mukul was already writing poems, having started at 12 and has two books published in Bangladesh. But his parents couldn't send him to university, so he came to this part of the world.

The Straits Times also reported that:

Mr Mukul hopes his poetry can challenge the sometimes negative perceptions Singaporeans have of foreign workers, especially in the wake of the arrests of Bangladeshi nationals for suspected terrorist activities. Last month, eight radicalised Bangladeshi workers were detained for setting up an Islamic State of Bangladesh cell here.

"Sometimes"? That's something we in Malaysia might need to note as well.

Md Mukul isn't just churning poems in his spare time. He also...

...volunteers weekly as a translator at the non-profit HealthServe clinic at his former dormitory in Mandai, even though he has moved to Sembawang and it takes him an hour to get there after work.

He first went to the clinic nine months ago while suffering from indigestion and was moved by the work done there by community doctors. "I think that if I help many people, maybe God will help me too."

Mr Mukul, who is now working on a book of short stories, dreams of carving a niche for foreign workers in the Singapore literary scene.

To think it all began with scribbles on bags of cement.

The reaction to Md Mukul's story appears to be concrete proof of the allure of diamonds in the gravel. He was fortunate to meet people who helped pave the way for his poems to be published and his dreams of becoming a professional writer appears to be, as a friend said, cemented in reality. Now that he's left his handprints on the Singaporean literary scene, will his path be more smooth than rocky from now on?

Singapore's Straits Times also said that the island republic's literary scene is "enjoying a revival".


Despite encouraging interest from the rest of the world, Singapore literature has not caught on with the public here, possibly because of fierce competition from international titles and a lack of a reading culture, say industry observers and those in the literary community. This is exacerbated by hectic lifestyles which leave little time for reading, distractions aplenty and a tendency to read for knowledge and self-improvement rather than leisure and pleasure, they add.

Much of this applies to us as well, and it's dispiriting to hear this still, despite the strides being made in regional literature. We still have a-ways to go, it seems.

"Editing a book is so much more work than writing a book," writes author Jonathan Kile. Well, duh.

An excerpt, because you can never emphasise it enough: "Writing the first draft is full of triumph and excitement: You create new characters, discover new twists, and the feeling when you finish is exhilarating. But in the editing process, there is rarely good news. Editing is the art of identifying, measuring and eliminating the bad writing. It's subjective and thoroughly boring. It's as fun as putting on a second coat of paint: Not very satisfying, but it has to be done."

Apparently, there's a holy war on children's books going on in Sweden. But bigger issues are also being spotlighted.

The question arises: How much purging and expiation will be needed to render a country's culture politically correct?

That question raises an even bigger one: How high is the price of political correctness in terms of "cleansing" the past and present of perceived slights, anywhere, to just about anyone?


  • "In addition to being a mother, Catherine was an author, a very talented actress, an excellent cook and, in her husband’s words, a superb travelling companion. But as the wife of such a famous figure, all of that has been eclipsed." Lucinda Hawksley, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Catherine Dickens, explores "the forgotten wife of Charles Dickens".
  • What makes bad writing bad? According to English writer and academic Toby Litt: "Bad writers continue to write badly because they have many reasons – in their view very good reasons – for writing in the way they do. Writers are bad because they cleave to the causes of writing badly."
  • Arab social media activists campaigned against prominent Arab bookshop Obeikan Publishing ("Publishing"?) for selling books by Israeli author David Grossman. What struck me (and probably everyone else reading) is what an activist in the campaign said: "The Koran does not prohibit us from learning what our enemy thinks about." Because, how do you wage a successful war if you don't know your enemy well enough?
  • "When it comes to outmoded language it is our ability to discern context and intent, not our sensibilities that are under attack," writes Will Gore, Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent and Evening Standard.
  • Illustrator, author and storyteller James Mayhew asks readers to reconsider buying heavily discounted books, given how hard it is for authors (and illustrators) to earn a buck. Someone on social media resurrected the issue of how little authors earn (or nothing) from the sales of bargain books and print overruns at such events as Big Bad Wolf, so I'm bookmarking this for future reference.
  • Some writers and literacy activists in Indonesia condemned what appeared to be efforts to ban communism or leftist movements, according to The Jakarta Post. The outcry was spurred by recent confiscations of leftist books and materials by military officials. Writer Eka Kurniawan also spoke up against the raids and confiscations at this year's Makassar International Writers Festival.
  • Say hello to Bloody Good Book, India's first crowd-sourced and mass-curated e-book publishing platform. founded in 2014 by author-cum-entrepreneur Rashmi Bansal and Niyati Patel, a graduate in English Literature from the University of London.
  • The surge in adult colouring book sales is getting the tax men's attention in the UK. While children's colouring books are zero-rated, the lines for adult colouring books are a little blur, the Financial Times reported.
  • Waterstones outsourced its e-book business to Kobo and will stop selling e-books directly.
  • This is "hybrid publishing"? From what understand of this article, the "hybrid" part is redundant.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Rehman Rashid's Malaysian Journey Continues

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 26 May 2016

One evening at Silverfish Books in Bangsar, I joined a small crowd to hear Rehman Rashid speak. He was there to promote his latest book, Peninsula: A Story of Malaysia.

Silverfish owner Raman Krishnan said that Rehman would not disappoint, and he was right. For two hours, the veteran journalist and author regaled the assembled with a tale of Malaysia, his sweeping arms cutting the air thickened by his baritone and coloured with his accent. He could go on forever and the audience wouldn't have minded.

But towards the end, I suspect some of us had begun feeling peckish, thanks in part to the aroma of the pizzas from Domino's, courtesy of some guests who also brought snacks and refreshments for the event. And Rehman did say he could go on and on if left alone, so...

I'm not ashamed to be so effusive when talking about this event. More than 20 years had passed since Rehman wrote A Malaysian Journey, and his fans have long been agitating for a sequel. After all, so much has happened since then.

I vaguely recall being at some local authors' hi-tea event at MPH, 1 Utama, in 2007. Rehman was there and he spoke about A Malaysian Journey. As I watched and heard him speak I thought, "G*d, what a self-satisfied diva this guy is."

Now, I'm telling you to get a copy of Peninsula and maybe A Malaysian Journey as well because I can't say anything else other than "You should have been at his book talks because, god, he is still a self-satisfied diva and he's awesome."

Funny, how time changes people.

Talking about Peninsula is almost impossible without that preamble above, because the book, a collection of write-ups that tell "a story of Malaysia", is but one of many narratives spun by Malaysians over the course of our lives.

The book begins with a chapter on former PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who he feels has opened up the sphere of discourse in this country, among other things, until his tenure ended. We learn how Rehman was fired from his job and how Pak Lah gave him another. We also get a bit about Rehman's youth and his time in Bermuda and New York.

Each chapter runs the gamut of the aspects of Malaysia that we can recognise. They segue from one to another in one smooth narrative, yet each is still sufficiently self-contained to be read on its own.

Among these, "Heartlands" is an exploration into parts of Kelantan, Pahang and Terengganu and the political party PAS; "Boomiputras" features the New Economic Policy (NEP) and some of the entrepreneurs it enabled; "The Third-Generation Curse" addresses the pendatang question; Swarnabumi highlights the Indian community; Vox Pop covers blogs and social media; Lost Tribes speak of the Orang Asli; and Small Town introduces us to Rehman's 'hood of Kuala Kubu Baru.

"Future Stock" spotlights the more recent migrants to Malaysia who Rehman suggests might as well be citizens considering how much they like it here. "This country is paradise, brother... paradise!" a Bangladeshi migrant gushed to him. "Your people don't know it." Well, some of us do.

Sabah and Sarawak have their own chapter, which outlines their history and his thoughts about them and not much else, because "I do not know enough to write about Sabah and Sarawak as if I did." Neither of these states, he "very strongly" felt, "was to be trifled with."

Rehman also wrote and spoke fondly of the Malaysian diaspora, and marvels at how strong they keep the country close to their hearts. In the Silverfish talk, he posited that, despite criticisms of how the country is managed, Malaysia's multicultural experiment is a success. No other melting pot in the world is like ours and, when abroad, Malaysians seem to fit in well.

Arguably, the most poignant bits in the book involve his late wife Rosemarie Chen, whom he eulogised in a much-talked-about Facebook post and the book's final chapter. As I understand it, she encouraged Rehman to return to Malaysia and write A Malaysian Journey. Their relationship — "Tweety Bird and Sylvester on some days, Fay Wray and King Kong on others" — struck a chord with me. They sound like an ideal pair.

His writing style, which I find less irksome now, hasn't changed much. One imagines a master painter shaping grandiose vistas with broad sweeping brushstrokes as on a huge canvas, striving to convey his feelings and insights to an audience that may or may not be able to comprehend or empathise with all he had experienced. A taste:

Aeolian limestone cliffs fell to a sea of such pellucid turquoise as I had never so much imagined, let alone seen, lapping on beaches of pink sand. Pink! Seriously pink, not a trick of the light in certain atmospheric conditions. It came from the shells of foraminifera, oceanic plankton so tiny, hundreds could fit in the space of their name.

According to Rehman, a good journalist must be interested in people. He also claimed his books are so successful because it's about Malaysians, and Malaysians (like people in general) love reading about themselves.

After a brief but failed flirtation with journalism, I can say he's right on both counts. Also, I sort of get where Rehman's coming from now, and I suppose he has earned the right to be a self-satisfied diva — something he carries with aplomb, I grudgingly admit.

Nevertheless, an undercurrent of sadness and fatigue was palpable during his book talk that Sunday evening. After telling two Malaysian stories, he doesn't appear keen on writing a third, though another book is being planned. One feels as if a torch was being passed.

"We tried", he said of his generation's attempts to bring about change (also in the chapter "Gen Two"), and now it was up to the next. The end of that era's youthful idealism is captured in his description of the shift from a global to a provincial mindset, as well as the crackdowns against student activists, among whom were Syed Husin Ali, Ibrahim Ali (yes, that one) and lifelong rebel Hishamuddin Rais, who's still at it and might be going to jail.

"In 1973 we'd gone out there to beat the world," Rehman lamented in the book, "in 1974 it beat us back, by 1975 it was over..."

His admission of failure borders on self-flagellation: "I was there to see it happen because it happened with my generation. It was us. We dropped the ball. We lost the plot. We changed the agenda. Not the politicians, not the institutions, not even the citizenry at large. All were relying on us, just a bunch of students. What did we know."

So, at Silverfish, he exhorted us to write, to express ourselves, to tell our own Malaysian stories. Because after decades of being a family, we barely know each other, evidenced further by some reactions from the Semenanjung to BN's victory in the recent Sarawak state elections.

In Peninsula, Rehman wrote of "two breaths" as a way to belong to a place: the first is drawn from one's birthplace, and the last released where one dies. The juxtaposition of these two breaths underscores the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, our lives are brief and unimportant.

So, too, are our bugbears and complaints, which this veteran journalist has come to accept is part of this country's evolution. Malaysia will still be around long after we and our descendants are long gone.

But: "It is remarkable, too, what lives on after any life," Rehman notes in the foreword, offering a smidgen of hope to those hankering to make their mark in the course of their lives. "We are all etched in our collective histories; all notes on staves and letters on pages; each a bit of nonsense in itself, together a story, an epic tale, music."

Because we know so little of each other, it is incumbent on all of us to tell our own stories, so that we may know and understand each other better, so that the world knows and understands us better, and leave no gaps for those with an agenda to fill with their own interpretations of who we are, where we come from, and where we hope to go from here. And it's up to us to preserve these stories, too.

Hence, even the extremist, garish voices calling for the supremacy of one group above the others must be heard, said Rehman. Their stories are also Malaysian ones and without the voices from the fringes, how are we to get the whole picture?

And without the whole picture, how can we determine the kind of Malaysia we would want to breathe our last in?

A Story of Malaysia

Rehman Rashid
Fergana Art Sdn Bhd
299 pages
ISBN: 978-967-13390-1-5

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Hello! The Kitchen Mafia's Offers Are Hard To Refuse

One evening, a bunch of us went to Hello! at Section 17, Petaling Jaya, and had a good time. The four of us: Sam, Wendy, makan kaki Melody and I said hello to Hello! on a whim. Like many Klang Valley-dwellers, we were looking for something different, and the place delivered.

♪ Hello! from the outside~ ♫ Meet Happy Mansion's new dining hotspot.

Getting a seat, however, was difficult. When we'd decided to dine there, Melody was tasked with booking (yes) our table. Our schedule probably clashed with the dozens of others looking to have a taste of what the founding chefs had to offer.

Both had appeared on TV, it seems, and they ran an ultra-swanky place in Publika - is it still around? This restaurant in the Happy Mansion area was apparently their attempt at something different, too.

After some nail-biting minutes, Melody WhatsApped us with the good news.

The makeshift buffet, before we had to rearrange
the table. Photo by Samantha Fong.

"We have the bar seats. By the window. Look, it's SATURDAY, okay?"


Though intrigued by the menu, we opted to combine a bunch of smaller items with one or two mains for an evening buffet of sorts. Sam and Wendy tried moving the furniture a little to enhance the experience, but our first layout blocked the counter.

Surprisingly tasty Duck Jerky (left) and the Lamb Massaman.
Photo by Samantha Fong.

The hostess, Amelia, suggested another way that worked for everyone, and applauded the duo's idea. "Bravo, you get points for creativity."

I don't think she was being sarcastic. And we ordered quite a bit.

The only thing I believe we weren't impressed by was the salted egg calamari. The batter coating was dry and there wasn't much salted egg sauce to begin with. Somebody in our group even thought the watercress soup was better in comparison. "At least it tastes home-made." Sadly, I didn't get a sip, so I can't say if it was.

The after-dinner brownie was a tad dry, probably because it was left out in the open (despite being covered) for too long. Maybe if it was fresh out of the oven...

We were sorry the nice Tortilla Seafood Pesto Pizza was so small.
Photo by Samantha Fong.

The Duck Jerky was a surprise. This posh version of a survivalist's staple is slightly chewy, smoky and sweet, with the burnt bits lending a little crunch. The pork-free menu marked the jerky and one other item as containing alcohol.

The Tortilla Seafood Pesto Pizza, which was just the right size for four, scored high among us as well. We also liked the Lamb Massaman, which was served with chunks of soft-centred bread. That allowed us to stuff the good and not-terribly-spicy lamb into the bread, like filling a pita pocket.

Hello, if it's mee you're looking for, Pak Johnny's Mee Rebus
should be up your alley. Photo by Samantha Fong.

If it's mee you're looking for, I believe Pak Johnny's Mee Rebus might be your thing. Sam and Wendy were particularly taken by the gravy, which was poured into the bowl of noodles and assorted garnishings from a pretty and tiny teapot. "It's just like pasembur gravy," Wendy noted.

The Drunken Chicken Liver Pâté came late, but it was worth the wait. I think the others arrived first because they were still preparing the pâté. It arrived on a wooden serving board with a stack of bread. But why decorate the board with shavings of Parmesan? That stuff isn't cheap.

Think they added a bit too much Chinese wine in the Drunken
Chicken Liver Pâté... hic! Photo by Samantha Fong.

By the time the pâté arrived, we were mostly full. I liked it most of all, even with the bitter, piquant tang of Chinese wine (Wendy confirmed it). That was a nice touch and an appropriate nod to the Chinese drunken chicken dish. I can't remember if I had polished the ramekin clean with my fingers - probably the wine.

We were also treated to more drama at the counter, where the manageress (I think) apologised to callers and patrons, citing lack of space ("Our weekends are quite busy!") and menu items. That evening, the "Asian Staples" were apparently sold out, except the mee rebus.

I was disappointed; I really wanted to find out what the chow mein was all about.

If you think this piece sounds rushed, that's because it is, to match that evening's dining pace: frenetic and kind of electric. That we had to sit at the window mattered little once our tongues were teased and bellies were filled.

Saying goodbye to Hello! was hard, but more guests were waiting at the door and sweeping their gazes across the dining room, resting longingly now and then at the empty tables with "Reserved" signs they probably hoped weren't there.

So, guys, who's booking for the next round?

Hello! by Kitchen Mafia
BG7, Jalan 17/13
Happy Mansion, Section 17
46400 Petaling Jaya


Wed-Mon: 12:30pm-11pm

Closed on Tuesdays

+603-7932 1929

Facebook page

Monday, 23 May 2016

A Book Launch With A Kick And Sambal On The Side

Wesak Day 2016 also saw the launch of Sambal on the Side ... With a Kick by Brenda Benedict at MPH Nu Sentral, Kuala Lumpur, around 3pm.

Published by MPH Group Publishing, Sambal on the Side is a collection of selected articles from the writer and editorial consultant's long-running column of the same name, published in the local English-language daily The Star.

Sambal on the Side, sitting pretty among the props for
the Instagram contest

Edea Nor, from radio station Capital FM, emceed the launch, which was attended by colleagues from The Star, family members and friends. The programme included an Instagram book-styling competition, where the public was invited to take and Instagram creative photo compositions with the book; prizes include a RM30 voucher from MPH Bookstores.

Those who bought the book were also entitled to a free jar of sambal tumis, courtesy of cookbook author Marina Mustafa, who also published several cookbooks with MPH.

Brenda wrote the pieces in the book to deal with the discomfort of being uprooted from place to place as the wife of an expat. Husband Oliver Haas, a German native, had a job that sent him around the globe. So far, the couple have been to Vietnam, South Africa, Washington D.C. and Germany.

Emcee Edea Nor gets the crowd going for the event

"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'," said Brenda in the book. "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.'"

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

"It was midwinter in Frankfurt," she recalled, "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."

The author, Brenda Benedict (left) with the emcee. The talk show format
was decided upon for what would be called a "book launch party".

Brenda contacted The Star, and the editor of the paper's weekend supplement then, Sharifah Intan, gave the nod. 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.

With regard to writing, Brenda started young. As the youngest child she was "left to her own devices", and she turned to books. Then, a teacher, the "fashionable" Ms Ho, introduced her to the late Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole. That was when the writing bug bit.

"I started fantasising ... imagined myself as "Adrianne Mole", lah," Brenda revealed. She also tended to rant in her own diary, particularly after a scolding from her dad.

"Did your dad ever read your stuff?" Edea asked.

"I think he did," Brenda speculated. "Curi-curi lah."

So much energy, these two

Brenda returned to Malaysia to launch her book. Mr Haas stayed behind at Bonn to unpack, having moved there from the United States. Poor fellow's a huge fan of Malaysian food, we were told, and he's making his despair at being at home known to the wife.

The author revealed that she would come home to wherever home was with a luggage (or was it two?) of Malaysian goodies, which she would hide somewhere. A typical day at work would begin with some white coffee from Ipoh, which her husband only gets to sample "on weekends".

The launch was special because 2016 marked the column's tenth year. Her friends and some family members had been asking for a compilation of her columns. Then, Oliver said she should put it together, too.

They brainstormed the concepts for the book, including categories for the articles that would go into it. The pair settled for ingredients for sambal, and Brenda turned to her social media network for seven things that every sambal should have.

Brenda Benedict signs a copy of her book after the interview

For the cover design and assorted graphics, MPH Publishing turned to a frequent collaborator. Arif Rafhan Othman was the artist behind Zan Azlee's non-fiction comic, Adventures of a KL-ite in Afghanistan.

The remarkable thing with Sambal on the Side was that Arif delivered what everybody wanted with the first drafts.

The artist was invited to share the limelight towards the end of the interview session, where he shared his experiences working on the book and what he hoped the book would achieve.

"There's a strong Malaysian vibe to this book," Arif said, "and I hope that readers will learn more about Malaysia from it, and not just the food."

Artist Arif Rafhan Othman (centre) takes the stage with the author and the
host. Brenda also showed off her fan - or is the interview heating up?

Brenda, meanwhile, wants readers to take a leaf out of her book and, once in a while, get out of their comfort zones and into "discomfort zones". "Only when you're in this discomfort zone, will you learn about your hidden strengths ... that's when your hidden strengths come to the fore."

She also espoused the uniqueness of the Malaysian melting pot and hopes that fellow Malaysians would be aware of and help to preserve it.

Other highlights of the launch included story about Vietnam, which Brenda calls the most challenging country she was in. Despite being briefed about the culture in Vietnam, the couple didn't seem prepared for the Vietnamese's fascination with Caucasians, the restaurant with all the snakes and stuff in glass jars, and a pesky rooster whose services were most certainly not required.

"When I came out of the car [the Vietnamese] were pointing and
laughing, because they weren't prepared for the hair!"

At the behest of some audience members, the host and Arif, the author gamely belted out a few verses from an Alleycats song. Her husband is a huge fan of this 1980s Malaysian band (is he really German?) and Brenda was a member of a singing group a la the Supremes in Germany, called the ... "The Discordant Aunties"?

Not only did she have the looks but the vocal chops as well. Unfortunately, she couldn't remember the rest of the lyrics.

The event was capped with a cake-cutting to celebrate the column's tenth anniversary, followed with a book-signing and wefie session with the author.

The cake - baked by the author's niece - is not a lie.

To Brenda, Arif, Edea, the folks at MPH @ Nu Sentral and all those who attended and bought copies of the book, Terima kasiii~!

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Minty Curry Sauce With Rice And Roast Pork

Fresh from my milestone one-pot chicken and mushroom rice, I moved onto another culinary thought experiment.

How would mint change a curry?

I sometimes revisit to Mom's sour, minty prawn curry in my memories, feeling the prawns against my teeth before they yielded, releasing their goodness and adding to the spices and fresh, earthy and astringent herb in the gravy.

Partial mise en place for a Sunday lunch. The sauce can be used
for anything you like.

Instead of a full-fledged dish, I opted to make a curry sauce with mint, which I would then blitz with a blender and bring to a boil with some pieces of roast pork. But had I put a bit more thought into it, I'd have used red onion rather than shallot, because shallots are harder to prep.

I chopped the shallots roughly anyhow, since it was all going to be blended. I used fresh red chillies for heat and colour, along with a tomato, grated ginger and garlic, curry powder and a bit of turmeric powder.

The shallots were pan-fried first, and it seemed to be smoother and took less time with the wok than the stainless steel pot. The grated ginger and garlic went in, followed by the tomatoes. The whole mess soon cooked to a satisfying pulp that's well on its way towards gravy-hood.

The wok worked well. Too bad it didn't come with a lid. Nor were
there any pot lids available for it.

A quick taste made me reach for the pot of salt. A good pinch went in, then a good stir to mix it well.

I lowered the heat and tossed in the sliced chillies, seeds and all, and stirred for a bit before adding the curry and turmeric powders. Once well stirred and cooked, I switched off the flame and allowed the spice paste to cool, while checking the rice.

Yes, I had some brown rice cooking around the same time. At first, I thought I'd "use the same amount of rice" I did for the previous dish. But it turned out that the amount was just right for me. Though a good handful ended up stuck to the bottom of the pot.

The mint leaves went in whole before blitzing.

Excited to see the grains bubbling along nicely, I returned to the spice paste.

Oh dear, oh dear, might I need to add water? Thinking for a bit, I remembered the now-frozen left-over chicken stock from the previous day. I cut open the carton and scraped about two heaped tablespoons of the slushy stock to flavour the spice paste and cool it further.

I would add water later, when flushing out whatever sauce that was stuck in the blender pitcher after a good whizz with some fresh mint leaves.

One ringgit got me a small bunch of mint which was not in good shape overall, but it was fresh. I picked the better leaves and froze them in a zip-lock bag for later use.

Minty curry gravy, post-blitz. Would butter, yoghurt
or cream have made it better?

I think I used several leaves too many. Some of them were big leaves, too. But it did taste different and nice.

Hungry and impatient, I dropped the "push mixture through the sieve" step and returned the blitzed gravy to the wok. I tossed most of the roast pork into the bubbling mix and let it simmer for a bit. My word, the aroma. What a time to run out of butter.

Pouring the finished dish into a bowl, I couldn't resist putting a finishing touch to it.

Now it has way too much mint. Pretty, though, don't you think?

Did I, as makan kaki Melody put it, nail this dish. I'm not sure. Maybe I wasn't meant to. Curry is complicated and, after about a dozen attempts, one should be grateful that it's edible.

The taste was okay, but way too much mint. A sprinkle of sweetening might have made it better, but that got lost in the haze of cook, mind the pot, mind the stove and clean as you go. I'm terribly OCD about the latter - three or more dirty utensils (including cutlery and crockery) in the sink and I get uncomfortable.

Curries are best eaten with rice. Nothing soaks up and holds the gravy quite like it.

Upon tasting and reflection, curry rice sounds more
natural than curry pasta. DROOL PLZ.

Because of that, I will "nail" this dish. Or get as close to nailing it as possible.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Book Marks: Malaysia, Singapore, And Elsewhere

In the wake of the 2016 KL International Book Festival, sales of books are reportedly down by thirty per cent. Among factors blamed for this include "budget slashes in the education sector, fall of the ringgit and consumers who are tightening their belts."

Much has also been said about the accessibility of the venue, which I can attest to after attending a Big Bad Wolf books sale there once. And I heard that officers from the Home Ministry had been prowling the book fest venue and issuing orders forbidding publishers from selling certain titles.

Also: newly minted national literary laureate Datuk Zurinah Hassan is worried about Gen-Y's apparent love of racy pulp fiction. Datuk Zurinah told national news agency Bernama that "the popularity of low-quality fiction would have negative implications on the publication of more academic-oriented reading materials (hmm), as well as put the dampers on efforts to create a smart and knowledgeable generation."

And Mutalib Uthman, co-founder and CEO of of indie publisher DuBook Press, is stepping down. I wonder what he thinks of Datuk Zurinah's assertions.

Several Malaysian writers: Gina Yap, Ted Mahsun and Fadzlishah Johanabas regale online magazine Rojak Daily with their experiences in publishing.

Singapore-based publisher Epigram Books scores four wins at the Singapore Book Awards:

...half of the eight awards given out, including awards such as Best Fiction Title, which went to Amanda Lee Koe's short story collection Ministry Of Moral Panic, and Book Of The Year, for the special cover edition of Sonny Liew's graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

The Rock And The Bird by author Chew Chia Shao Wei was named Best Young Adults' Title, while Lingzi Media's The Search, by Chinese writer and illustrator Lee Kow Fong, won Best Children's Title.

Meanwhile, the works of Singaporean Tamil writers are featured at a book fair in Chennai. The piece could be a bit more detailed, though.

Oh, and a bunch of Singlish items have just been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. But shouldn't some of those be Manglish as well?

Over at The Daily Beast, Malcolm Jones thinks "it's high time we let Rudyard Kipling out of the penalty box:

"The truth is, Kipling wrote a lot of ill-conceived garbage and he wrote a lot of truly wonderful fiction as well, and it’s usually not at all hard to tell the difference. Even when it is, the effort is justified. Pondering how a writer so good could occasionally go so wrong forces us to contemplate how all of us, even the most enlightened, can be swayed and deluded by the assumptions and beliefs that hold sway in the times in which we live."

"I just don't find American literature interesting" and other stuff from Jessa Crispin, who has shut down her pioneering book blog Bookslut early in May.

"Running it takes a lot of time," Crispin told The Vulture, with regard to the blog, "and it makes no money so I’ve been pouring money into it for 14 years. We always were trying to figure out ways to keep it going. I had a meeting with my managing editor and we went through all these ideas and nothing seemed viable and we said, 'Oh, we should just close it, shouldn’t we?' "

RIP, Bookslut. But I hope Crispin will still be talking about books and stuff.

"Academic writing services" - a profile of a freelance dissertation writer or, as some would put it, ghostwriter for lazy students. This guy, however, is apparently conducting a vendetta with his job.

[Marek] Jezek (pseudonym) is originally from DR Congo, and describes a network of black academics from African backgrounds that are unable to find work in universities.

"In a sense it's an emotional retribution for a wrong that's been done to me," he says, "For me it is a way of satisfying myself and satisfying my ego, because I'm feeling rejected unfairly. I get a bit of emotional satisfaction when a student gives me a call and tells me he got 70% or 80% for the work I did."



  • The looming threat to the Australian book industry, according to Susan Hawthorne, "co-founder and Director of Spinifex Press" and "English Language Co-ordinator of the International Alliance of Independent Publishing based in Paris" (profile from The Guardian). Looks like the Australian book industry, like its wilderness, is also a unique ecosystem.
  • YA novel Bright Star by Erin Swan was selected by a computer algorithm for publication by Inkitt and Tor. However, the blog Writer Beware remains "skeptical of Inkitt's 'data driven' approach." Should editors and literary agents be afraid? Well, they said e-books would soon kill print too, didn't they?
  • Discussion panels on LGBT issues and Indonesia’s 1965 tragedy went on during the ASEAN Literary Festival (ALF) in Jakarta, despite protests from religious groups. Kudos to the organisers of ALF for standing firm. On a remotely related note, some Indonesian writers and literacy activists recently protested against the banning of books by the Indonesian military "in an apparent attempt to prevent a feared revival of communism."
  • Reader and book critic John Self (assuming that is his name) on reading. No excerpts from me. It's really long, but worth a read.
  • Useful for anyone writing recipe books: ten pet peeves of a cookbook copy editor by copyeditor Suzanne Fass, who wrote a post for the blog of writing coach, author and freelance editor Dianne Jacob.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Of Heroes And Food At Gee & Geek

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 13 May 2016

The skies poured as makan kaki Melody and I arrived at Gee & Geek. Earlier, one of our dinner companions Instagrammed a video of the place. Odd, that there was so much daylight. Turned out they'd been there for about an hour already.

Not long after we arrived, copies of the menu were pounced upon, while peckish Melody also entertained herself with the nacho crumbs left by our companions. All of us had been here at least once before.

The sign at Gee & Geek wasn't lit until after I took a few shots.

Located near the Taman Bahagia LRT station, Gee & Geek boasted specialties made with their house-made bacon and roast pork belly. We joined Pat; her boyfriend, Ted; and Windy (yes), a mutual acquaintance of Pat and Melody's. Ted was also scouting for venues for a Mother's Day dinner; he would book a table at G&G for it later.

We decided on picking five items and sharing these - quickly, because at least one dinner party would be arriving and Melody was hungry. "Order now!" she went, "before the other guests overwhelm the kitchen!"

Names of menu items went back and forth among us. "The salted egg yolk pasta?" someone piped up, referring to the G&G crown jewel, a pasta drenched in a sauce of salted duck-egg yolk and garnished with curry leaves, slices of cili padi and a few chunks of roast pork.

"That is a must-have when eating here," Ted assured us. "Always on the list by default."

G&G's Creamy Bacon Pasta, with egg and creamy wobbly yolk.

Drinks were a bit trickier. When the lone waitress came for our order and Melody asked for a flat white, I asked whether it would be okay to have my Frosted Mint Chocolate later. At her hesitation, I caved and said, "Okay, bring it now."

Said waitress would come back to confirm our order, tell us that the roast pork was still in the oven and would be piping hot when it came out. They also gave us small plates with cutlery, knowing we'd be sharing. Wished I'd left a bigger tip.

I liked the flat white - sorry, Melody's flat white. Strong, with a double shot of espresso. At a coffee appreciation session in KL earlier, Pat was informed that flat whites generally don't have milk foam on top and, hence, no latte art. "Many cafes in KL add that layer of milk foam," she added. "And cold-brew coffees have more caffeine than espresso-based drinks."

Isn't it typical of some Malaysians to have breakfast around the clock?

Still, this coffee was too strong for my current mood. So I much preferred the Frosted Mint Chocolate. I even asked for another after we were done with the meal.

When the Creamy Bacon Pasta arrived, Pat got Ted to swirl the plate to wobble the yolk of the poached egg on top so that she could shoot another video. I cut short the debate on who should break the yolk by driving my fork through it.

Stop looking, guys. It's not like I just killed someone.

I found chunks of what tasted like roast pork belly in a sauce I thought was a bit sweet for a carbonara - probably to balance the savoury bacon, which wasn't terribly salty. No complaints all around.

Grilled Salmon Steak, with garlic cream sauce, butter-poached
vegetables and coleslaw.

Most of the smartphone cameras rushed to grab shots of the GG Big Breakfast when it arrived. Somebody (me, I think) complained of the low light. Though the helpful waitress suggested moving the dish to a better-lit table, Windy volunteered by turning on her phone's flashlight feature.

Not much can be said about the breakfast set - nothing bad, anyway. But Melody was impressed by the scrambled eggs sitting on the toast. Few places, she would say, can get the eggs right.

We did feel bad for the A La Goma Grilled Chicken Pasta, which remained mostly neglected. It's not bad by itself, though the goma (Japanese for sesame) sauce and chicken paled in comparison with the other items on the table.

G&G's signature Roast Pork and Salted Egg-yolk Pasta

The last time I came here, I surprised Melody by ordering the grilled salmon. I was craving a little fish after eating land animals for a long stretch. This time, we got one large salmon steak instead of the two small ones I was served, and more broccoli. The fish was fine, though the sauce might be a little salty to some.

(For some reason, there's another "Grilled Salmon Steak" on the menu, perhaps a no-frills version of the one we had.)

Generally, "house specials" are rarely worth the hype on the menu. Not the salted egg-yolk pasta, however. Reminiscent of Chinese "butter cream-sauced" dishes, with the cili padi and curry leaves, it hit all the right notes.

The roast pork provided a hearty meaty touch to the dish, and the skin was delightfully crunchy, pairing really well with the rich, creamy sauce. I thought it could have used more chilli.

By now, none of us could take another bite. Almost every dish had cream in it. So I recoiled when Ted, at one point, dipped his spoon into a pool of amber-hued oil in the plate for a taste.

You're in medical research, dude. Shouldn't you know better? Knowing him, however, he'd just shrug and say, "YOLO."

What a wonderful evening. The rain had stopped when we'd nearly emptied our last round of drinks.

As if G&G's staff couldn't be more helpful, Melody got her milk tea done "Hong Kong style" by the barista. Of course, after she bombarded the poor waitress with questions about the beverage ("I want to know what I'm getting," Melody said, a tad imperious) and trying her luck with "Can you do it Hong Kong style?"

And when I stopped outside to take a photo, they turned on the lights to illuminate the sign.

Real heroes, this bunch of geeks. I almost forgave them for putting the Green Goblin on a list of superhero-themed drinks.

Gee & Geek
No 46, Jalan SS 2/4a
47300 Petaling Jaya


Monday, 9 May 2016

Remembering Roger Ebert: One-Pot Chicken Rice

About three years ago, the famed writer and film critic Roger Ebert passed away. The news brought back memories of an article he wrote, extolling the virtues of the humble one-switch rice cooker.

Back then, I'd barely cooked anything myself, even though I'd written about food for a couple of publications. When told of this during a lunch date, Em, a journalist and former colleague, was surprised. She believed that to write about food, one must have cooked some - or risk looking like a hypocrite.

Partial mise en place for the one-pot rice. Counter-clockwise from top
left: one large yellow onion, chopped; eight brown mushrooms, sliced;
brown rice; and two (I think) cloves of garlic, finely chopped.

The H-word made me uncomfortable, to say the least.

Not too long after that, I started trying out simple recipes, from Western-style carrot and mushroom soups to pastas and curries. I'd even prepared food for other people, a couple of times.

Recipes for rice-based dishes, however, remained untouched. I managed to find plenty of excuses to put it off. Until the day I ran out of cooking gas.

Marinated chicken, cut into pieces. Didn't think it and all the mushrooms
and onion would brown properly in the rice pot, so...

On impulse, I took home a plain rice cooker - after paying for it, of course. The same kind of pot Ebert used for the one-pot dishes in his article. I used it to boil my pastas at first, because the left-over basil pesto I made was dying in the fridge. Spurred by minor successes in this, I began contemplating those one-pot recipes, starting with a rice dish.

So on Saturday, I assembled the ingredients.

Nothing complicated: just brown rice, chicken, brown mushrooms and mixed Italian herbs, with one chopped yellow onion, a bit of garlic, and chicken stock. The chicken - two deboned drumsticks - was marinated overnight with salt, pepper, mixed herbs, finely chopped garlic and rice bran oil.

As I prepped the ingredients, problems emerged: too much chicken, too much mushroom (about eight went in, the whole small pack, basically) and too much onion for one person - and one 1.8-litre rice pot to handle. So much for frying everything in that pot first. I was also spooked by several power outages in my area recently, including one that happened in the afternoon.

New wok to the rescue! Properly browned chicken (and
everything else), at last.

So I browned the marinated chicken, which I cut into pieces, in a made-in-China non-stick wok without additional oil. The utensil worked pretty well for what I assumed was a knock-off, and I ended up pan-frying everything I used in it. I fished out the chicken and left a bit of the juices and fat on the wok for the next stage.

Most of the chopped yellow onion was browned and reduced quicker in the wok on medium heat; it would've burned in the stainless steel pot I'd been using before. "Most", because I'd set aside some raw chopped onion as a "vegetable" to be added to the pot to cook.

Or maybe the onions got "browned" by the mushrooms that followed. Once the 'shrooms were sufficiently sweated out, a bit of chopped garlic went in.

Browned chicken reunited with sauteed mushrooms, onion and garlic.

The superbly browned chicken (by the wok) went back into the wok for a few tosses, then, the brown rice. Earlier, I'd washed and soaked the rice in water for a bit, according to the instructions on the pack, for softer rice. Of course, I drained it first.

(So, technically, not a one-pot meal. Sorry, Mr Ebert.)

A few minutes later, all of it went into the rice pot, with a sprinkling of more mixed herbs and chicken stock. Instead of the rice cup, I used the blue earthenware rice bowl, with a helpful border near the top. One measure of rice to two and a half measures of chicken stock. I also tossed in a couple of good-sized cloves of crushed garlic.

At the last minute though, I added a sprinkling more rice and a bit of water, just in case. This was the first time I cooked rice in this apartment.

Raw brown rice getting tossed with the good stuff. Coming together nicely.

After turning on the pot, I ended up adding a bit more rice, with a bit more water. I didn't mind if it turned out a bit soggy. A short while later, I wondered why the pot wasn't scalding hot. One look at the control panel and- silly me, I didn't set it to "Cook".

Unlike the pasta, I didn't have to mind the pot so much. While boiling pasta, the water would bubble violently and creep out of the pot, creating a mess. The designer had the foresight to put the power socket under one of the handles, to keep spills away. Sone would argue that all the other ingredients with the rice would minimise violent bubbling.

It must've been about half an hour or so before the pot decided that the rice was ready. Even before it was set to "Keep Warm" the pot was releasing aromas of cooked chicken, mushrooms and herbs. If I'd used arborio rice it would've made for a workmanlike risotto.

One-pot chicken and mushroom rice, ready for lift-off in the new rice
cooker. Another milestone in the kitchen.

The result? Delicious.

So delicious, I went out to specifically buy microwaveable takeaway containers and pack a portion for makan kaki Melody. Her input was crucial, and I had a good feeling about this important dish.

"Yummy", came her verdict via WhastApp. "Like claypot chicken rice." Which is not a bad thing.

Of course there was a hiccup. A lot of my kitchen adventures have at least one.

Scraping the bottom of the pot, I found blackened bits which I thought was burnt rice and stuff. Scraping a bit more, most of the black bits came off easier than I'd expected. But the taste ... savoury, strong and Marmite-like. I suspect that, because I didn't stir the pot intermittently while it cooked (does one have to?), some of the goodness at the bottom caramelised and started to burn.

Finished product, with a clump of dried mixed herbs on top.
And the bottom of the pot had something else...

I ended up cooking enough for four fastidious people or a pair of famished ones. One measure of rice, I would learn, was enough for a hearty meal for one epicurean editor, provided the dishes were good.

Most of all, I'd fulfilled a vow - kind of - to the late Roger Ebert. I'll be cooking more rice dishes for sure now, as I'm starting to get tired of pasta. And I'll be writing more entries like these with the hope that more people will take the plunge themselves. These are different times, though, where more young people are already doing more, and not just with rice cookers.

When they'd heard of me boiling pasta with a rice cooker, several Facebook friends, including Em, responded with messages of encouragement. Their input was also important, particularly Em's. She provided what I believed was the final nudge.

Here's looking at you, Mr Ebert. Thanks for everything.

"So," I wrote in reply to Em's comment, "So... can I write about food now? *looks hopeful*"

Her response: "Hahah yes. Clearly *tongue emoticon*"

My rice was yummy, but so is validation for a dish well done.

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.