Monday, 29 August 2016

Shortbread Saga - Success! ... Hopefully

I'm still not writing about books and I don't care.

Now, let me share more shortbread stories.

Up till last month, the middle of each cookie I made was moist, which I assumed is normal.

It is not.

So, after more reading and a little trial and error, the breakthrough came on the night of 24 August 2016. Yes, I bake at night these days. It's the only time I'm free, apart from weekends.

Technology also captured the exact date and time (10:58pm) this
moment happened

Assuming one strictly follows the 1:2:3 ratio for sugar, butter and flour respectively:

First: dough must be almost dry to the touch and not too wet. If it's too wet, add a little flour - really a little, like about a level tablespoon at a time - until the right feel and consistency is reached. For a more buttery, rich and crumbly texture, add less flour, or don't add any more flour.

Second, the oven's temperature has to be as low as possible. Mastering my old Cornell electric oven took some time, and I got the results I wanted with a temperature of around 100°C to 110°C - analog controls, okay? But because of its age, the temp might not be like it says on the dial.

Third, watch the cookies like a hawk. I previously covered the cookies with baking paper, which I thought would give the surface even browning. But careful watching made that unnecessary.

After about 10 minutes, I rotated the tray and let it finish baking, as the heat is less intense near the oven hatch. Once the colour becomes a light golden brown, it's time to take them out to cool.

When I bit down, CRUNCH. All the way. On top of that, it was delicious, fragrant, and the texture was just right.

This French guy says it best (source: Les Petits Frenchies)

My heart leapt with joy, along with my feet.

♪ I know that it's late late late late late late
I should be in bed bed bed bed bed bed
But I'm so pumped I'm gonna bake bake bake bake
Bake it off, bake it off! ♫

I've baked several more batches since then, including one slightly big batch which found its way to a local newsroom. The response was good, I heard. Several others who were tired of me taunting them with photos of the goods on social media either have or will get a taste.

The process worked for thinner shortbread sticks (dough that's about five to six millimetres thick), but I haven't tried it for the traditional finger-thick pieces. But I doubt I'd take that route again.

Not planning to make a business out of this - for now. Maybe after I retire, perhaps?

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Messing Around In Melaka, Final

The wait. G*ds, the wait.

Half an hour into our arrival here and it wasn't yet our turn. Wendy marvelled at how the lady boss managed to keep track of the orders with a cheap notebook and pen.

At last, the "famous" fried oyster place was open, and business was booming. People gathered around a stove to watch the chef at work from a safe distance from the heat but not the fumes. Our hair and clothes remained fragrant until we reached the hotel with our bounty. No way were we dining in, not with so many lining up.

I remember a big, mostly flat griddle, more like a shallow wok, perched atop a roaring flame. The chef, a balding middle-aged uncle in an old, off-white vest, would pour a huge steel mug of cracked eggs into the wok and stir it for a while, leaving it to cook for a bit before tossing in the oysters and what looked like a sambal mix that's so dry you can probably count the chilli flakes on the surface.

Once cooked, the contents would be portioned off onto different plates, for dine-ins or takeaways. Separate batches would be processed if some of these, say, were requests for non-spicy ones.

Some of those gathered seemed to be picking some up because of the hype, including three young ladies. "How do you spell 'omelette'?" one of them asked another. Too bad her friend came to her rescue before I could step in.

Five minutes became ten, then fifteen. Not long after that, Sam and Melody suggested we wait it out at the neighbouring kopitiam, where a stall was serving noodles. We ordered drinks to avoid being chased out of the premises, but as the night wore on, the kopitiam's need for seats became greater.

A nearby table hosted a family of maybe eight or ten, and one of the daughters vanished for a bit before returning. I would see her waiting by the fried oyster stall later after we left the kopitiam; seems her family was also hankering for an after-dinner snack.

It was insane. Some of those people had been waiting for half an hour - and it would be a while more before they got theirs.

At last, we sped to the hotel with the spoils: one small(!) pack of the "famous" fried oyster o-m-e-l-e-t-t-e, with chilli. The package was opened expectantly at the hotel's empty dining hall.

The verdict registered in the awkward silence. Then, someone voiced it: "Not very special at all."

About forty minutes of our lives that we would never get back, all for a pile of dry albeit well-seasoned fried eggs and shrivelled oysters, which we could barely see in the dim light. I'd seen the chef cut the oysters with a pair of scissors, puncturing them and letting the juices run out - probably not a good idea.

"So different from the ones in Penang," Sam noted. "Those are moist, not so dry."

And the oysters are mostly whole, I added mentally. Tinier, but whole.

The chilli was a nice touch and it didn't taste awful, but we couldn't hide our disappointment. I wonder how the others, who were still waiting when we left, felt about their o-m-e-l-e-t-t-e-s.

31 December 2015...

The disappointing after-dinner outing underscored the gloom of the next day, when we packed our bags for the return to KL.

To get rid of last night's dissatisfaction, we had the hotel's breakfast. We planned on making one circuit around the Jonker Walk area, punctuated by an after-breakfast snack at The Daily Fix café and several brief stops elsewhere, before going back to the hotel.

I can no longer recall much of this day, numbed perhaps by our impending departure. The past several days had been fantastic - I wished we had several more. Melody wanted to return to Calanthe Art Café probably for the damned alluring claypot Nyonya curry laksa, but for some reason, we didn't.

On the first day of our trip, we had nosed around The Daily Fix and climbed to the upper floor where a few more seats and a tiny gallery were. Because of my fear of heights, I lingered at the foot of the stairs - g*ds, there were gaps in the staircase!

When I did make a move, I took my time. "C'mon, you can do it," Melody's voice rang out, egging me on. I felt I was being teased. I think I also heard Wendy or Sam cheering, "Go, go, go!" So happy to have them on my side.

An exhibition at the upstairs gallery on "dying trades" prompted the question whether the Melakan state government was helping these industries stay afloat - lower rents, subsidies, tie-ups with hotels and tour operators and the like - for the added touristy value. Not a bad idea if it was.

Today, we took a table near the counter and ordered a couple of coffees and a plate of those pandan and gula Melaka pancakes. Each "pancake" was about two and a half inches in diameter and was to be drizzled with gula Melaka, reminding me of the onde-onde we had on Day One.

Encouraged, Melody ordered a gula Melaka cupcake, which proved to be overkill. Sweet, sweet - albeit slightly dry - overkill. We had no complaints about the coffee.

I think we will be back here again.

Unfortunately, we can't say the same about another café.

We stumbled onto this place, which shall not be named, on our last trek around the historic Chinese quarter for this trip. We'd heard about it from other coffee enthusiasts and were curious.

While our noses were still at the door - is that a ... a motor vehicle inside the shop? - somebody burst out from inside, going, "How many people?" She looked around at us clustered around the entrance. "Minimum one drink per person, okay?"

Banyak tak cantik.

Taken aback, we hesitated before declining. Among us, Sam was the most perturbed - and offended - by this. Years in customer service and café-hopping honed her opinions of how customers should be treated and how coffee should be made. The bad vibes stung and lingered like burnt espresso on the palate until we stepped into the low-key but more accommodating Localhouz.

However, its cosy charm did little to soothe Sam's rancour - and Wendy's, as it turned out. "Un-ac-cep-ta-ble," Sam said. "Even if you're selling atas (posh) coffee, customers are king. You still need good customer service."

Wendy agreed. "That was not very professional, coming out and telling customers they can't come in unless they order one drink each." Nor was there a sign telling people about this 'rule'."

Eventually, it boiled over into a couple of one-star reviews on the café's Facebook page. It seems they were not alone. Many would-be customers were also caught off-guard by the brusqueness of the staff; some who swallowed their pride spat out middling to unfavourable thoughts about their coffee.

However, it seems this café won't be changing its MO any time soon, thanks to the constant flow of visitors to this city. We (me, using the royal plural) wish them all the best.

On the way out, I noticed belatedly that Localhouz does not encourage photography within the premises, although that rule might have applied to the paintings on the wall, which seemed to be for sale.

On a table beneath one of these paintings, lay a familiar book.

Whose copy was it?

"One of our staff's," the lady at the counter replied. "She's a fan."

A fan of Senpai's in Melaka, who works at a great place with great décor at 53, Jalan Tokong, 75200 Melaka? What were the odds?

Damn, forgot to ask for the staff's name to personalise a copy of the book. I hope she's still working there.

Anyway, Localhouz. More comfy and welcoming than that other café. I liked Localhouz's lemongrass juice. Too bad we had stuffed ourselves before stopping by, or we'd have sampled more stuff. The loh mai kai (glutinous rice with chicken) looked nice.

Preparing to travel can be a pain. The packing and the sense of being uprooted is uncomfortable for those not accustomed to a jet-setting life. Homebodies like me find having to travel particularly discomfiting, regardless of the distance.

I don't hate my life. I just think more needs to happen in it. That also means I needed to get uncomfortable.

But once you're away, the discomfiture ebbs, and perceptions start changing. Time seems to slow down and you're compelled to follow suit.

When you're miles away from the life you've known for a long time, you're also away from the things about it you don't like. And you begin to wonder why you didn't notice that before or do something about it.

Seeds for the next getaway were planted as I surrendered myself to the embrace of the high-pressure shower of my hotel room - a monsoon deluge compared to the shower head at home. Thoughts of what I would be returning to crept up, chillier than the morning showers I've had (before the heater eventually kicked in) on this trip.

A familiar discomfort emerged, that of the homecoming, triggering recollections of the past few days and making packing up difficult. Writing this brought it all back, and reading this again will, too.

I don't - or want to - recall much of the journey home. The weather was hot when we hit the highway and I stopped to top up the fuel tank on the way out of Melaka. Wendy and Sam reached home first, more than an hour before we did.

Back home, beat and thirsty, I washed my feet, turned on the air conditioning and laid on my bed. My body recognised it, and I relaxed. Sleeping on alien beds is hard. But my bed felt way too comfortable, like the grip of satin-wrapped chains.

So this is what it means when you're "too comfortable".

I wasn't relaxed. I was lethargic. And this lethargy, among some other stuff, was keeping me from doing things.

Strange, I thought. I'd gone as far as Melbourne, apart from Jakarta, Bangkok and Sabah. But it was after this Melakan getaway that more pieces fell into place - and kept falling.

I don't want to live like this.

My feet grow restless.

I need to get away again.

Like, perhaps, a runaway prince from Palembang all those centuries ago.

If you encountered this page by chance, I suggest starting at Part 1, followed by part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 and part 6.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Chaplang Kafe, A Neighbourhood Hangout Reimagined

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 24 August 2016

About two years ago, makan kaki Melody brought me news of Butter + Beans' opening in OUG. This year, she told me B+B was closing down for a revamp.

Perhaps it was inevitable. Some similar cafés had appeared in the neighbourhood in its wake and I guess patrons hankering for that ambience were now spoiled for choice.

Outside Chaplang Kafé + g-Lat, formerly Butter + Beans @ OUG.

I had initial reservations about the "new" Chaplang Kafé + g-Lat.

"Chaplang" is a Malaysian term that means "odds and ends", while "g-Lat" is another way to pronounce the Malay word for "lick."

Two weeks ago, I finally dropped by and tried their aglio olio pasta with rendang chicken. The flavour's more subtle than I expected, but the dish worked.

Back there, days later, I bumped into the co-founders of Chaplang. Yong was with his family that evening, so I chatted with Ken.

"Tell me about this place," I asked him, while waiting for my breakfast pizza.

"What happened with Butter + Beans?"

The Chicken Rendang Aglio Olio Spaghetti might just be the go-to pick
for the terminally undecided.

According to Ken, he and Yong had some kind of agreement with the management of Butter + Beans in Petaling Jaya to open the OUG outlet. It's not a franchise thing, he insisted. But B+B didn't work out, so the space was transformed into Chaplang + g-Lat.

The latter is a joint venture with ice cream brand Forty Licks. The all-Malaysian flavours, which include Neslo, red bean, bandung, durian (yes!), kaya toast, teh tarik and coconut/gula melaka, are unique to the g-Lat range being pushed in Chaplang.

And yet, "I still have people asking for vanilla and chocolate," Ken said exasperatedly.

Many, he said, come for the ice cream and waffles, which is fast becoming a draw.

The waffles were nice, and even better with ice cream. But even for hungry old me, polishing off a waffle with just two scoops of ice cream was a feat.

The Breakfast Pizza is best eaten fresh out of the oven.

The main event, however, is the Bulatan Kampung Pandan Waffle: a pandan waffle (what else?) with four - FOUR! - scoops of ice cream and lashings of their version of pandan kaya. Just thinking about it made me queasy. Ken, however, claimed that a food blogger polished off a whole Bulatan Kampung all by himself when he was here.

Can I have the pandan waffle with just two scoops of ice cream? I asked Ken.

Senior citizens like me should watch what and how much we eat. Alas, that option was unavailable, but he thought it might be good to have, for an extra ringgit or two. Make it happen, Ken - please?

Then, I spied a customer asking about the missing pastries. She probably knew this place back from the days when this was B+B. My breakfast pizza had gone cold, having arrived long ago. But it was nice to have a long chat with a human outside of work.

The monster dessert that is the Bulatan Kampung Pandan Waffle
(not mine). Share with a friend or three.

It was a good pizza, but the mushrooms' strong flavours were more assertive, perhaps due to the temperature. I noted that the crust was still nice and crispy, even though the pie had gone cold.

"I like it myself," said Ken, regarding the pizza crust. "I got the recipe from someone in Australia."

I recalled that he'd sampled sauces for his other food venture; when the owner cares enough to test the goods himself, the place should be in good hands.

The duo, along with a third partner I have not met, aspire to turn Chaplang into a neighbourhood hangout and go-to venue for indecisive diners.

"That's hard to do," he admitted. People are spending and eating out less these days.

I don't usually choose to wind down my days with soupy things, but the
Tom Yam Penne (no longer sold, alas) was an exception.

But the ice cream and waffles are a good idea, I feel. Who can resist a sweet treat?

"I consciously avoid having the same stuff the nearby cafés offer," he said.

A week later, I was back again, slurping their Tom Yam Penne.

Chock-full of seafood (watch out for galangal slices, kaffir lime leaves and the lemongrass stalk), the dish is good for cold lonely nights, but the battered and fried fish fillets don't make much sense in a soupy dish.

Draining the bowl, I began missing Butter + Beans less and warmed up to the idea of this being a neighbourhood hangout.

The food, décor, the whites and greens of the interior, the cartoons and borrowed quotes I dubbed "Chaplang-isms" on the walls made this café more open and welcoming than its previous incarnation.

Chaplang Café + g-Lat
53, Jalan Hujan Rahmat 3
Taman Overseas Union
58200 Kuala Lumpur


Mon-Wed, Fri, 11am-12am
Weekends, 10am-12am

Closed on Thursdays


Facebook page

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Messing Around In Melaka, Part 6

This episode took place at night, so I couldn't take enough good pictures - or, rather, I felt my camera couldn't take good night pictures after seeing Sam's iPhone in action. Hence, this text-heavy episode.

"In two hundred metres, turn left, master."

A shiver went down my spine. Man, I could get used to this. Maybe I should install that app and the voice pack.

"Yes, 3PO," I replied to the Waze app on Sam's phone.

This evening, it was my turn to chauffeur the girls around the city. We went searching for some Nyonya restaurants for dinner after finding Melody's recommended spot, Amy Heritage Nyonya Cuisine, was closed. She'd got us itching to go there with her dramatised narrative, so we were crushed when calls to the place went unanswered.

The Bulldog Café, where we ended up for a Nyonya dinner

Having no luck in one or two other places, including one called Nyonya Makko (my g*d, the lines of people outside), we eventually settled for the Bulldog Café, another stop along that witch's Melakan food trail. We parked at a lot near the Ramada Plaza Melaka and walked there.

An institution dating back to the 1980s (so I was told), Bulldog Café recently shed its old-school Nyonya interior for a more modern look: white-ish walls, steel and wood furniture and strategic lighting. Much like the contemporary hipster places in KL. Perhaps that's why no one laid siege to it.

A fish pond for koi laid before a stage for live acts, also festooned with lights. The only reminders of its former identity was the folding wood screen by the front door and a framed newspaper page from a few decades ago.

Pai tee

I scoffed inwardly, gutted that Bulldog went 21st century to stand out from the tradition-touting tourist traps in the Jonker Walk area and beyond. Progress, I think they call it.

Eating these dishes with rice in such polished, angular and well-lit settings felt even more incongruent, so we were all grateful they were nice. The pai tee - pastry cups with fillings of crunchy sliced vegetables, were delightful, as was the piquant ikan goreng cili (fried spice-coated chunks of mackerel) and kangkung belacan (water spinach stir-fried with fermented shrimp paste).

We wished we had two orders of otak-otak (a spicy, savoury fish cake), gleefully tearing off bits of it from the banana-leaf wrap. Though delicious, Bulldog's ayam pongteh, however, wasn't as potent (or as salty) as the one from The Melting Pot - not enough bean paste, perhaps?


At least they didn't muck around with the recipes too much. There are reasons these flavours endure, even if architectural and interior design styles do not.

...Fine, the Violet-haired Witch had been spot on. Melody loves reminding me to look past that blogger's hair, manic grin and stick-thin frame, noting that she's always forthright with her opinions, unlike some other bloggers whose words have to be taken with a pinch of salt these days.

Needing to walk off our meal (I had two servings of rice), we resumed Melody's short hotel trail. A quick search on the Internet (see how ubiquitous Google is with smartphones?) we learnt that the distance to The Majestic hotel was walkable, so off we went.

The ikan goreng cili

Formerly the home of a Chinese tycoon named Leong Long Man, The Majestic was eventually acquired by YTL Corporation and reopened in 2008. Other notable high-end YTL hotels and resorts include the ones on Pangkor Island (expensive, but worth even a night's stay because I've been there) and in Tanjung Jara, Terengganu.

Again, we weren't chased out; lost at the spa area, one of the staff directed us to the restaurant area, one floor up from the lobby.

The lobby and lounges retained much of its old identity, which is what many visitors come here for. That also made me feel awkward wandering around the place. And the stairs sighed when I stepped on them on the way up to the restaurant.

The restaurant was largely empty. One Caucasian couple toasted each other with red wine at a table. We saw a guy, the pianist, walk up the stairs, sat at the instrument, unfold some music sheets and start playing. Which was our cue to leave.

Outside The Majestic Hotel Melaka

We had fun looking at the menu. Now I wish we'd taken photos of it. The mark-ups were majestically insane: fried rice and fried koay teow at upwards of RM30 - for street food, mind you.

Still, there must be something about the hotel, since we saw a Myvi parked outside on our way out. Maybe the owner's being frugal so he can vaycay here from time to time.

Oustide, our itinerary was diverted towards a walkway and its many signs detailing the many benefits of walking, so we walked. This place was near the river, where motorised tour barges plied.

Some of these barges sported the mascot of home-grown snack food Mamee. The dry noodle snack used to be in every school canteen, tuck shop, hawker stand and bread-vending motorcycle in my childhood. Only now I learnt that its origins were also in Melaka. A Mamee Museum in the Jonker Walk area also attested to this.

As we walked, I couldn't help noticing the "smell of the sea", reminiscent of shrimp or, if you fancy, belacan. The aroma made me feel peckish, despite the dinner we had.

We crossed a bridge and ended up in a Malay village. At first I thought it was a resort built like a "model village" for visitors. Minutes after setting foot there, it dawned on us that, despite the modern-looking façade of some of the houses, this was the real thing.

Kampung Morten lay near the mouth of the Melaka River, holding steadfast against the tide of development - modern touches such as street lamps, paved walkways and a fresh coat of paint notwithstanding. This village was said to be founded by one Othman Mohd Noh in 1920 and was named after Frederick Joseph Morten, a British land commissioner. It has the distinction of being the only Malay village in the heart of the city.

We saw statues of beduk, the drum that's typically beaten to assemble a crowd for prayers. We also saw a pump station near the bridge - the village looks like it's almost at the river's maximum height. And we also spotted a burger stall called "Morten Burger". I resisted ordering one - where will I wash my hands? Never mind that we'd just eaten.

Leaving Kampung Morten, I felt glad the state government kept this village pretty much as is. Too much of Melaka is being roughly dragged by the neck towards the 21st century and beyond.

Compared to The Majestic, the atmosphere in the lobby of the Ramada Plaza Melaka was festive. Families gathered here and there, kids were running around, and it was noisy. At a set of armchairs near the bar, someone was being interviewed and filmed.

From the look of it, this was another potential hotel. But the glint wasn't in Wendy's eyes, so I guessed we could forget about moving here tonight.

Melody insisted on spending a few minutes here, sinking into one of the plush armchairs near the interviewee. Near the bar, I noticed a piano, but no one was at the keys. Instead, an open laptop sat atop the piano, all wired up.

I went for a closer look and suspected that the laptop was the "pianist" for the evening. I thought only hipster cafés had their sound systems hooked up to a digital playlist.

We finally left with little comment on either hotel. Our best bet for the next possible trip is still the Swiss-Garden Hotel and Residences Melaka - yes!

But we still had to wrap up the evening. To this day, I thought we could've done better.

If you encountered this page by chance, I suggest starting at Part 1, followed by part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5. Part 7, the last chapter, is here.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Balik Kampung To Oz Via This Yellow Brick Road

Uncharacteristically, I arrived first at Plaza Batai and turned the car into the sun-drenched parking lot. "Arrived," I WhatsApped my dining companions. "And it's crowded!"

Seems this Yellow Brick Road is a well-beaten path these days.

Yellow Brick Road and Wicked Pancake Parlour, on a more relaxed weekday

Opened by the brains behind The Red Beanbag at Publika, this site houses two places. Yellow Brick Road is where the brunches are, while the Wicked Pancake Parlour is upstairs - though that distinction disappears when a line forms outside the door and seats become scarce, as it did that Saturday around noon.

A few WhatsApp messages later, I put my name on the waiting list. The fifteen-minute wait was less torturous because of a light dim sum breakfast, but the girls, Sam and Wendy, were near famished.

Even though we finally had seats - upstairs - we waited a whole hour for our food to arrive. In the meantime, it was catch up, shoot the breeze and sample my latest batch of home-made shortbread. Sam had been to London and she'd brought back a packet of the same from Sainsbury's (SCOFF).

The flavours of the Malaysian heartland in the Balik Kampung dish
will make you do just that (photo by Sam Fong)

Having been here many times on her lunch breaks, Sam thought we'd all should have a go at this place, inspired by The Wizard of Oz and a symbol of the founders' journey in food, business and life. We had a tough time deciding what to order, to avoid having two of the same thing.

Plans for dessert were scrapped. We thought we could order that later, if we could still eat. Then the wait stretched for over half an hour. Who knows how much longer we'd have to wait after our food arrived, and by the time the sweets came we'd have digested our lunch.

Pulled Beef Benedict, with the kailan-like centrepiece (photo by Sam Fong)

Wendy decided to forgo the flat white, but not just because of the wait times. Though the overseer was a Malaysian Barista Champion, Sam didn't endorse the coffee. We took her advice; she was the snobbiest when it came to her cuppa. "If you want we can go to Sitka (next door) later."

I looked around. Don't think anybody heard that.

Whimsy seems to be the theme in the menu, from the names of the items. Wendy's Balik Kampung is a big plate of turmeric rice with mango kerabu, a poached egg and ayam percik covered in delicious percik gravy. The egg was overcooked, as the yolk had almost hardened, but she liked it.

Close-up of the Eggs Norwegian v2.0 (photo by Sam Fong)

Apart from the onion rings and cornflake-encrusted toast cradling the Hollandaise-covered poached eggs and slices of smoked salmon, nothing else set the Eggs Norwegian v2.0 from others of its ilk. I just wanted fish and eggs and everything else seemed run-of-the-mill to me that afternoon.

The flavour of Sam's Pulled Beef Benedict (which I didn't try), she said, was not as assertive as she'd expected. The broccolini stalk looked too much like kailan to her, which enhanced the Asian look of the dish. It looked yummy, at least: pulled beef with poached eggs on an English muffin.

Days later, The Impasta Returns! The marinated soya bean bits
take some getting used to.

But the Ginger Flower Beer with a bit of torch ginger was another story. One sip connected me to my Penang Nyonya roots.

Then, Wendy and Sam swapped dishes. Sam couldn't finish the rice, and she'd peeled the skin from the chicken. I had some, which is how I know it's delicious. The full plate might be too much for one to handle, however.

I guess the long wait time for the food and the crowded dining hall dimmed my enthusiasm for this place even more. And I'm too old and jaded to be piqued by cutely named menu items.

The Minimalist dish of pancakes with butter and maple syrup is wickedly
good - the way pancakes should be

Sure, I Wanna Be Kaya too by selling things like Drew Berry More and Sweet Mash of Mine, names of which are Oately Amusing. Since many cafés opt for a similar Minimalist look, it's one way to stand out. But why no sign of the "Wicked 'Wich of the West" or "Corn in the USA (Uniformly Seasoned Amberjack)"?

However, I am pleased to learn they use coffee beans from Artisan and are selling chocolate from the Artisan offshoot, Seniman Kakao - another day, perhaps. And, as expected, things were much better on weekday evenings, like when I returned for the pancakes days later.

The chicken char siew of The Impasta Returns! (with exclamation mark) was moist and tender, not overly seasoned. But the marinated soya beans (macam taucu je) and what looked like tofu cubes were a little heavy on flavour.

And for something "minimalist" the plain pancakes with butter and grade A (medium amber, I think) maple syrup were wickedly good. For me, any place that serves the basic stuff near-flawlessly won't screw up their more elaborate offerings.

I guess, like the overused, oft-crowded thoroughfares of this city, this Yellow Brick Road isn't such a bad place during off-peak hours.

Yellow Brick Road & Wicked Pancake Parlour
8-7, Jalan Batai
50490 Kuala Lumpur


Daily, 9am-10pm
Kitchen closes from 4pm-6pm

Facebook page

Monday, 15 August 2016

MPH Writer's Circle: On Saleable Malaysian Fiction

After attending panel discussions on various topics over a few years, I found myself among several other panellists - including publisher and writer Amir Muhammad, author Tunku Halim, and editor Eric Forbes of MPH Group Publishing (the panel's organisers) - discussing "Malaysian fiction that sells" during the MPH Writer's Circle event at MPH Nu Sentral on 13 August.

Frankly, I felt more like a seat-warmer than a contributor on that panel.

(Disclosure: Since I'm also from the organiser's side, I participated in my capacity as a book reviewer, though I do not have an idée fixe with regard to what makes a perfect book. That was from the sales and marketing executive, who I used to mercilessly tease for her lack of general knowledge. Seems she's wised up since then; she probably threw that term at me in revenge.)

The discussion was two hours long, but I think we started a bit late, the audience had little to ask the panellists, and there wasn't enough time to go deeper into some of the topics.

The question of what type of Malaysian fiction sells has been asked frequently and, I feel, has never been adequately or satisfactorily answered. Not even by this all-male panel (I was told all the female writers the organisers wanted to invite were unavailable for that date). I also felt that we just scratched the surface with the questions we were given.

The discussion opened with the question of best- and worst-selling genres of fiction. Horror and thrillers topped the list (and, with regard to BM fiction, the usual suspects), while the worst-selling genres are sci-fi and fantasy - even for Fixi titles.

Would a best-selling Malay fiction book do well if translated into English (and vice versa)? Fixi boss Amir Muhammad suggested that the draw with certain translations - whether from English to Malay or vice versa - is mostly the novelty. Maybe some would want, say, a BM copy of King's Joyland to see what the story would sound like in Malay. Besides, many Malaysians are already bilingual, so what's the point?

But the popularity of translated works depends on the story and the translator's skill. And not all phrases were translated: Amir said that in a BM translation of an English novel, the phrase "ham and cheese sandwich" was mostly untranslated from the original.

What about illustrations for fiction books? Eric Forbes said no, as works of fiction tend to be text-driven. However, Tunku Halim's Fixi novel, A Malaysian Restaurant in London, has illustrations by "Chee", a comic-book artist. "We put in the illustrations because there weren't enough pages for the book," Amir admitted, drawing laughter.

How important is the cover for fiction books, and is it more important than for non-fiction? Quite important, from what I understand. A couple of times, Tunku Halim's collection, Horror Stories, was referenced. The cover sports a pair of scared person's eyes and a "negative" review from the New Straits Times: "the most unpleasant book I've read". Because "unpleasant" draws more eyeballs than "boring".

This isn't a new tactic. A trio of horror (or, what I think are horror) novels began with the title Jangan Baca Novel Ni ("Don't read This Novel"). And who can resist a request to "wreck this journal"?

How important is it for the theme to be localised? Should the story be based in Malaysia? An upcoming Fixi book, the audience was told, is set in the US, but dialogue is in Malay, "and it works". So, it's back to storytelling and writing skill. I chipped in (I think I did), begging the audience not to write anymore "Malaya in wartime" stories or the like. Brian Gomez's Devil's Place was touted as a quintessential Malaysian novel, one locals will "get" because it's, well, so Malaysian.

How important is it for the author to be well known? Can a first-time author succeed? Authors can be well known without having published a book first, e.g., the Komik Ronyok guy, who has thousands of followers on social media. And, believe it or not, that British housewife who made millions from Twilight fan fiction had a fan base before she was published on dead trees.

What is a good price range for for English and for Malay local fiction books? One figure came up: RM19.90 - bien sûr, the average price of a Fixi novel. Because, Amir claimed, once the price goes into the twenties, people begin to reconsider. Fixi's boss also cited "the Big Bad Wolf factor" in pricing, but he's learnt to work with them; Fixi published limited-edition short-story anthologies for the event: Malam for 2014 and II (Dua) for 2015.

What is a good sales figure for local fiction books in English and Malay? Can't remember the quoted numbers, but I think upwards of 3,000 copies for English, while popular Malay titles can reach the 100,000 mark. Successes like Horror Stories (over 20,000 copies) are rare.

Okay, submissions: full manuscripts or novel concepts? When Fixi accepted synopses and first couple of chapters, they got lots of submissions but most were Hunger Games-style dystopian themes. Ergo, full manuscripts, please. Complete 'scripts also help speed up the publishing process, and it's nice to have an almost-finished product to work with.

Fiction authors CAN use ghostwriters to help them complete a manuscript, but the panellists don't seem too thrilled with the idea. Amir cited Naomi Campbell's novel and an incident where she was asked about something in the book and she was said to have replied, "I haven't read that far yet."

On the viability of pen-names: well, if you're going to make a buck by writing naughty stories, it's best to hide behind one to avoid bringing shame to the family. There was also the case of Patricia O'Brien, a.k.a. Kate Alcott and J.K. Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith.

And all those Malay romance novels? Not all penned by women, as this story reveals. Many contributors to the series of romance novels from the likes of Harlequin and Mills & Boon hid behind pen-names too. When Amir revealed this during an edition of the Cooler Lumpur Festival, however, I was surprised.

Finally, the "general advice to aspiring fiction authors" bit. Tunku Halim said to write what you love, and one needs passion for the subject being written. Eric added that stories also have to be well written and well edited; once that happens, one is well on the way towards getting published. Well-polished manuscripts also make editors happy.

Someone in the audience wanted to know how to go about starting to write and what's a good word count. Eric was all, "don't think about word counts when writing". Amir suggested submitting to international literary journals, where the criteria, including word count, is set. Some journals charge a small fee, he added, to ensure those who submitted were serious about writing.

Another audience member asked about the viability of e-books. Well, digital publishing hasn't quite taken off as expected, especially in this region. Seems the two biggest e-book players, Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iBooks, aren't keen on operating here. Amir illustrated why: at a book fair, he saw someone nonchalantly taking photos of an already heavily discounted cookbook - basically pirating it.

Seems part of the problem isn't just the lack of quality fiction, but also the lack of quality readers.

I vaguely remember calling readers and book-buyers risk-averse, unadventurous and unwilling to explore other genres or stories that are harder to relate to - perhaps one reason why sci-fi and fantasy titles have failed to take off. I believe it was Tunku Halim who said that they can't get into these genres in general because they lacked the capacity to imagine the worlds unfurl in their heads as they read.

Then again, things like, say, a Snow White/Avatar mash-up is probably way out there for most people.

Amazingly, it was revealed that a bestselling genre - and one said to be popular on the e-book platform - is erotica. "Amazingly", because I never thought it would come up in this discussion.

Before the panel convened, I spoke to two acquaintances in the audience about the possibility of making it big - if it was legal - by churning out lewd awek tudung fantasies. I was being hyperbolic, but I was surprised when they agreed with me and contributed other premises for the genre.

Hearsay abounds regarding writers, including a few local ones, who made international bestseller lists with what is essentially smut. I haven't read any of those, so I can't comment further. And the organisers are not encouraging that sort of thing as a career path.

I suppose the holy Grail, the magic bullet, the philosopher's stone of writing (legit) best-selling Malaysian fiction (you can take home to your parents) remains elusive. so I'm not sure if we achieved much with the panel discussion, other than make the scene even more daunting for aspiring authors of fiction in the audience.

But I guess one way to get things going and people writing, hopefully, is to keep talking.

MPH Group Publishing editor Eric Forbes, i.e., the chief, had a little more to add as a primer for aspiring authors.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Getting Precious About Publishers

A long time ago, the administrator of the Silverfish Books Facebook page published what looks like an open rejection letter and all the poets lost their minds. From the two brief anecdotes offered in that post, it seems Silverfish doesn't want poetry from lazy-ass writers or loud, pretentious perasan poseurs.

However, it's as if Silverfish meant, "Why bookstores shouldn't publish poetry."

I find it sad that after all this time, the knee-jerk response is still strong in the arts community. Many of the dissenters appear to be incensed that it came from Silverfish of all places.

Some of the reactions to that Facebook post were dismaying, and that invitation to a poetry event had that "come here and we'll prove you wrong" vibe I didn't like.

I don't think it would've been taken up.

But the Facebook protests bothered me for a long while.

I hesitate to trot out the term "circle jerk" because many of those involved are light years from being jerks. However, it's hard to look at the local arts scene as a whole and think otherwise.

The tragedy is that it's not intentional. Most times, it's a lot of mutual back-patting, with the hopes that the continuous encouragement, especially in the wake of bad reviews, poor sales or empty chairs at an event, will "keep their spirits up" and "move them along".

"The reviewer might have a point"? "I see how that might be bad for the work"? "Maybe there is something wrong with the presentation"? Not so much.

Prose is hard to sell. Poetry, even more so. People who buy books or attend readings want some ROI for their time and money. However, not every piece of work hits the mark.

If publishers are rejecting poetry because of their business model and their apprehension over the saleability of poetry, what does echoing that achieve, other than provide false comfort to writers and fuel the "anti-establishment" rage machine? Is it really just one party's fault?

I think people put too much stock in their annointed institutions of free speech and the arts. Silverfish has moved to Bangsar Freaking Village II where the rent's like up here and business is tough. You wanna talk to them about championing the arts?

The current venue for a regular poetry-reading event has started implementing some sort of cover charge, fed up over patrons' reluctance to "donate" or buy stuff from there. And some of these patrons are from the old crowd or cheerleaders for the performers.

Never mind the institutions. What does that say about our regard for the arts?

There is a scene, and it has a base and a support system. Growing that base is the challenge, I feel. Because at some point, after a degree of success, some feel satisfied to be where they are and not plan for bigger things - at least, for the moment. So things stall.

In an old article where I allegedly took a dump on a regular prose-reading event, I was also - selfishly, perhaps - trying to sort out why, after all the sessions I've attended, I still felt like an outsider - besides trying to figure out where this little movement would go from its tiny alcove in KL.

From what I can see, it still feels like an open-door private party, albeit one that travels on occasion. But has that spirit of sharing and encouragement been passed on? Any way of finding out if it has?

Maybe the organisers are content with being a regular gathering of like-minded people who inspire the art passively, without overt evangelising. Whether poetry or prose, it feels perturbingly familiar.

I wonder how the novices feel when they're being lined up with more established figures. Do they feel insecure, inadequate, nervous? Or are they even aware that their stuff might be remotely, well, not as good? How many of them consult the senpais in their midst, or do they feel too intimidated to even ask?

Deep in the collective glow of the joy in meeting up and catching up, it's hard for the stalwarts in the game to pick up on things like the apprehensive loner, the nervous wreck, the intimidated kohai. The ones with the courage to ask gets the dibs.

Opening doors is easy; the hard part is getting them to come in, stay and grow. We have a long way to go when it comes to educating people about things we like and believe in.

As a publisher, we never say, "You suck. Don't EVER pick up a pen again." It's usually, "You suck, according to our business model. Try again, or you can find another publisher."

Deep down, some of us DO care. It's just that we are not wagering OUR money, and those who own that money might have other priorities. When a bad bet means five-figure losses and a lot of pulped copies, many would prefer to err on the side of caution.

Picking the chaff from the grain is a tough and imprecise process. Gatekeepers do get it wrong, which is why it's the "fine sieve of time" that ultimately decides what makes something a "classic" or, at least, worthwhile.

It's not as if writers have no other avenues. Self-publishing is now easier, thanks to technology. Do you even need money or the validation of the traditional players these days? The small presses are more helpful in that regard.

So, "Go ahead and self publish your poetry. If it survives 20 years, you're a poet. If not, you're not." Hardly comforting for those who want to make their mark yesterday. But if you have so little faith in the industry, why don't you just let time - and the market - decide?

But keep at it. Even with the help of crusading independent outfits, it'll all be gone if you don't sustain the momentum.

Safest thing is to "keep your day job."

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Messing Around In Melaka, Part 5

We passed by the Dutch Square, where Christ Church and the Stadhuys were. When the Dutch took over Melaka, the Stadhuys (State House) was built as the administrative centre. We skipped this part.

On my last visit, I was turned off by how much the area had become like KL's Central Market - kitsched up to thirteen with souvenir stands and overly kitted-out rickshaws, which blared music and had spinning or flashing lights. Now, the rickshaws have themes: Captain America, Avengers, Doraemon, and even the girls from Disney's Frozen.

Themed rickshaws (not at the Dutch Square)

Remembering something, I asked The Ladies to wait at a huge corner shop - more like an emporium - after we crossed the bridge over the Melaka River. I hurried to the Dutch Square, encountering a mime in green clothes and full-body make-up on the way and, at the Square itself, a pair of buskers: a young guitar player and a much younger girl who was belting out popular hits. Shouldn't there be a minimum age limit for street performers?

Back in 2007, I had peered into a cannon near the clock tower and saw it had been "repurposed" as a garbage can. Lacking a camera of my own, I'd asked Melody to help me take a picture of the inside. This will go viral, I thought at the time.

The photo vanished, a victim of Melody's overzealous digital housekeeping.

This time, I had my own camera. And smartphones were more ubiquitous now.


Signs of people messing around with Melaka

Looks like they done cleaned up the cannon, but seems sum varmints still wanna mess with Melaka.

Returning to the emporium, I looked around for The Ladies, but they were nowhere. I whipped out the phone and WhatsApped them. By now I was already accustomed to this gadget and what it offered - near total connectivity to everyone else who's similarly wired.

Then, I spotted Sam, who waved me over to where Wendy was. We soon headed back towards the hotel to meet up with Melody and reported our morning's findings.

In our absence, Ms Freelancer had charmed who she said was the hotel's cook into a conversation. He even put up an extension cord for her laptop as she worked in the dining area and offered to buy her lunch.

I can see why the hotel's sales manager that night was cautious around Melody. Unlike the cook, he probably had some experience with her ilk. Probably from how writers and journalists ask questions. Her good looks might have helped, too.

We showed Melody the murals, plus some of the other sights after that. Sam finally took a photo of me on the bench in front of the drooling devil bull, but left before I suggested posing in the "hey, what's that smell is that rain OMG OMG OMG DROOLING DEVIL BULL AAAAH GET IT AWAY GET IT AWAY CALL THE POLICE" manner. I did a lot better with a similar parade of drawings in Penang's 3D Museum two years ago.

"...It's behind me, right?" (Photo by Sam Fong.)

Later, Melody suggested having lunch at some place visited by a blogger I referred to as "a violet-haired witch". We found it easily enough, thanks in part to the Internet.

From the outside, you can't tell what kind of place the Calanthe Art Café is - not without the letters on the shopfront that spelled "Malaysia - 13 States Coffee". As part of her research, Melody stalked the violet-haired witch's blog, leading us to follow part of the latter's Melakan food trail on this trip.

Presumably named for a group of terrestrial orchids (editing manuscripts on botany helped), parts of the café's interior is reminiscent of what I'd dub "desert island" chic: overhanging vines and plants, recycled wood, creepers and such.

A pile of junk was heaped in a corner, including an antique TV from Sharp (I was only yeay-high when I watched it, OMG!) turned fish tank, assorted enamelled steel kitchenware, and an old painting of some bloke. Nearby was a fish pond and an old well ("my grandma's shower", said Sam).

Outside Calanthe Art Café

Melody chose the most out-of-the-way nook in the café that made me glad I packed mosquito repellent. A walkway of planks over mostly white rounded stones led to it. G*d, would the waiters even know we're here?

From the length of our waiting time, it seemed they didn't - for a while.

Like Chawan in KL, Calanthe offered a choice of coffee from all the states in Malaysia. The girls ribbed me over ordering "Penang coffee": "We're in Melaka, drink the local stuff!"

Maybe I was homesick, or just having a taste of how Melakans do Penang coffee. Anyway, since all three beverages (including the two "Melakas") were on ice, they weren't all that appealing. Ice waters everything down.

The food was more satisfying. My "golden" nasi lemak was particularly wonderful, as was the chicken rendang served with it. Wendy sort of regretted picking the tom yam noodles, which she felt was bland in taste and presentation. And is it common to have celery in tom yam?

Melody took her cue from the blogger and was soon writing micro-paeans to the Nyonya curry laksa. Rich and spicy, the chilli and coconut-milk gravy was elevated with a dollop of what we think was ground Vietnamese mint. The pungent, earthy herb lent a dimension to the laksa we had no words for-

Golden nasi lemak, because plain white just won't do at a historical city

"I'd come back for this," said Melody.

Yes, the exact words! Thank you, Mel.

But then, came the dessert. I'd only heard of kuih batik for the first time, despite it being around for ages (I was told). This sinfully decadent local fudge-like brownie is an unbaked mélange of crumbled Marie biscuit, sweetened condensed milk and Milo - household items in the average Malaysian (or, maybe even Malayan) kitchen and synonymous with "comfort food".

Which might explain the sugar-high plateau we'd ended up in.

I'd come back for this. After about a year on the exercise bike.

"I can make this," said Melody the recipe thief. At my look of reproach she went, "C'mon, it's easy!"

"Sweetened condensed milk, not creamer," I told her. By the way, anybody notice that most of the "sweetened condensed milk" brands out there call the products "sweetened creamer" these days? Why is that? Could it be that there's little of what one might call "milk" in them?

The nyonya curry laksawas great, but I never figured out whether
the herb paste that made it better was normal or Vietnamese mint

"I'm more interested in the curry laksa," said Sam, reminding me of my wish to get a pestle and mortar. I shared this, perhaps unwisely.

Sam turned to me at once. "If I get you a pestle and mortar, you learn how to make this." She pointed at what was now a bowl half-filled with laksa gravy. "Deal."

Hey, wait, don't I have a say?

We left Calanthe and wound up back at East and West Rendezvous, where Melody also purchased some dumplings. She and I shared one later, and it was delicious. But I still held back on buying my own.

Wandering around, the afternoon heat eventually got to us. We escaped into the same food emporium, the large one that sold more "local" goods. This one stocked items from local brand San Shu Gong - literally, "Old Third Uncle" - which I knew for its bird's-eye chilli sauce. Nothing quite like Nando's, unfortunately. In a chiller and huge buckets of ice, bottles of iced coffee and honey-lime drinks.

Again, I bought nothing. The lines at the cashier counters put me off.

Kuih batik - who needs fudge?

Leaving San Shu Gong, I found the girls inside an Ochado outlet on the opposite side of the road, seeking refuge from the heat. A few minutes later, we left for the hotel, but not before picking up something.

In Melaka, there's always a famous "something you gotta try". We were not sure if this was a famous putu piring stall, but we were curious, peckish, or both. The stall appeared to be manned by migrant workers. Making this dessert, said to be a Malay take on the Indian putu mayam (string-hoppers), is hard work and requires special equipment, so we got a batch of five or six. We were ashamed to order less.

We watched the staff sandwich a filling of, yes, gula Melaka between scoops of rice flour in funnel-shaped moulds and cover them, allowing the steam from the boiling water below to cook the contents.

Getting the right consistency for the flour is tricky: too much water makes it goopy and too little leaves you with something dry. The flour has got to crumble the right way. Much later, I wondered if the consistency had something to do with the way the batter is treated, like the idli served in Indian restaurants.

Not the "famous" putu piring, but still nice

Back at the hotel, the crumbly, white rice-flour cakes proved a welcome pre-lunch treat. Melody approved. What else can you say when the flour bits disintegrate and do that soul-soothing carb-rich medley with that familiar scent and sweetness flooding your mouth? Shut up, trilled the putu piring, and enjoy.

A drink helps, as the flour can leave your mouth and throat a bit parched.

If you encountered this page by chance, I suggest starting at Part 1, followed by part 2, part 3 and part 4. Read part 6 here.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Idli-ng Away At An Indian Kitchen In Bangsar

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 01 August 2016

I was one of many who skipped the balik kampung exodus during Raya — wisely, as it turned out.

But where to go?

A couple of friends of a friend, Sam and Wendy, volunteered the Idli Only Café in Bangsar. Having recently binged on a series of YouTube cooking videos by a Hyderabadi chef, I was intrigued. And can a café only sell idli to get by?

Not really.

At the Idli Only Café and Indian Kitchen, you'll find much more
than steamed rice cakes.

Turns out the Idli Only Café shares the same space as a restaurant called the Indian Kitchen. Once inside, however, there's no distinction, other than the two sets of menus patrons get when they take a seat.

The idli is a little steamed cake made of fermented black gram and rice; the fermentation, according to online sources, breaks down the starches and makes them easier for the body to process. Idlis look a little like putu piring, sans filling.

Idlis are traditionally eaten in South Indian households for breakfast, though that's not a firm rule. They lack a distinct taste, so they must be eaten with chutneys, sambars, stews or the like.

Sam, who's become a fitness freak after spending a year transforming herself, is naturally wary of carb-heavy meals. She also proclaimed that she's not a fan of idlis.

The marvellous butter podi idlis: good on
their own, even better with chutneys.

Nevertheless, she came along because she'd spied this place while out to lunch at another place and decided to try it.

We had a tough time selecting dishes from the menus. I recognised many of the terms but not what all of them meant (should've paid more attention to the videos). Still, what a joy to behold. Everything you'd want for an introduction to Indian cuisine was available.

For me, the only major blip in the otherwise heavy and luscious lunch was the mutton rogan josh. The sauce for this Kashmiri specialty had a slightly bitter note that discouraged me from taking too much of it.

A pity — the meat was succulent and tender. Wendy had ordered it at the advice of the waiter because she wanted something with sauce. Well, kabhi khushi kabhie gham...

But we loved the butter chicken and the mutter paneer: Indian cottage cheese and peas in a tomato-based gravy. The butter chicken's buttery, silky and mildly spicy gravy was such a hit, I wished there was more of it to eat with the breads.

Garlic naan, tandoori paratha and butter chicken.

Not bad for a dish that was said to have been invented to make use of some leftover chicken tandoori. The tandoori paratha the ladies had ordered had more charring than I'd expected, but nothing an extra dab of gravy couldn't fix.

Wendy had also ordered a three-piece idli set with a spicy red chutney, a sambar and some coconut chutney, so we could each sample one. That was what we came here for, after all. After the first bite, though, we wanted more because the butter podi idlis were butter-fried spice-encrusted marvels that were good enough on their own.

A podi is a spice mix that's also eaten with idlis; one famous type is milaga podi, which is referred to as "gun powder." But, in this case, the idlis were coated with a podi (didn't ask for the name) and fried in butter. Sam loved them, and Wendy even more so.
"I'll come back for this," said Wendy.

So would I.

Then, Sam passed around her glass of lime and mint and everybody wanted seconds of that, too. Sweet, tangy and refreshing, it was just what we needed after a rich and heavy meal. No longer used to feasts of carbs, Sam was the first to slip into a post-meal torpor.

The rest of us joined her not long afterwards.

My gaze wandered from the dining room to the medley of Bollywood song-and-dance numbers on the screen, some of which featured Datuk Shah Rukh Khan. My senses and mind were already worn out by the culinary equivalent of an SRK/Kajol number, which is why this account has to stop here.

Just drop by, and let the food speak for itself.

Idli Only Café & Indian Kitchen
64, Jalan Maarof, Bangsar Baru
59100 Kuala Lumpur

Daily, 8am-8pm