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Malaysian cuisine hits its literary stride

Food-writing anthology inspired by late Fay Khoo points to a more sophisticated future

A food stall in Putrajaya: "Telltale Food," a new anthology celebrating Malaysia's culinary diversity, stands as a testament to Asia's loyalty to home cooking in the face of so many foreign temptations.     © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Fay Khoo was a prominent Asian food writer and a bold, brassy advocate for Malaysia's culinary diversity until her death at 48 three years ago. Now her legacy has been extended with an anthology of entries from top contestants in the Fay Khoo Award for Food+Drink Writing.

But "Telltale Food" is about more than cooking -- each of the 31 entrants seems animated by this citation from British literary critic Terry Eagleton: "If there is one sure thing about food, it is that it is never just food. ... [F]ood is endlessly interpretable, as gift, threat, poison, recompense, barter, seduction, solidarity, suffocation."

Drawing mainly on a country where dining traditions are deeply connected with family and identity, "Telltale Food" not only captures the steadily increasing sophistication of Southeast Asian fine dining, but stands as a testament to Asia's loyalty to local home cooking in the face of so many foreign temptations. More significantly, in a region where restaurant reviewing has too long resembled paid advertising, this ambitious volume shows the potential for more serious examination of Asian cuisines, and for food writing as a more sober profession.

"The introduction of Michelin ratings in Singapore and Thailand has helped raise the general level of our restaurants and descriptions of them," observes contributor Loh Yi Jun, who also pens a blog titled "Jun & Tonic." But whereas Southeast Asian cuisines are now widely acknowledged as world-class, writing about it "definitely has a ways to catch up," says Loh.

Still, says the book's editor and awards director Bettina Chua Abdullah, a former CNBC business anchor who became close to Khoo on sailing outings, "I think we've shown here that the food writing genre is huge and that you can envision making a living helping to preserve food heritage." More than 40 articles were submitted for the inaugural 2017 competition, and many more over the next two years, by contestants aged from 15 to 84. Abdullah says she was "simply astounded by the range of what was sent in."

"Telltale Food" editor and Fay Khoo Award director Bettina Chua Abdullah. (Courtesy of Chammaine Tan)

Among the disparate contributors are a number of budding scribblers and columnists, but also an accountant, an animator, a food marketer, a former pastry chef, a social worker, a young female golfing prodigy and a Malaysia Airlines flight attendant. In general, all the pieces prove that the power of food to trigger associations remains as strong as ever; the French writer Marcel Proust's famous "madeleine moment," in which the taste of cake dipped in tea starts a journey of memory, is alive and well in the East (even when pandan-flavored).

So deep-seated are the associations that one submission, which was not included in the book, was titled, "What to cook when someone stabs you in the back."

The anthology has practical as well as critical aims, containing many recipes within the personal narratives. But in step with the literary tone, none are mere measuring-cup listings, and all are placed within complex contexts of passionate preparation populated with enough aunties, grandmas and cousins to fill out family portraits of all Malaysia's varied ethnicities.

"Telltale Food" contributor and blogger Loh Yi Jun. (Courtesy of Loh Yi Jun)

One entry uses food to illustrate the entire cycle of life, from babyhood to giving birth. Another captures how the loneliness of a failed marriage is soothed by the balm of a Friday night cooking ritual (done to Billie Holliday blues), while a third turns a time-honored preparation for tamarind fish into foreplay for a romantic seduction.

"Many of the stories in the anthology point to the enduring role of food as prisms for history and memory," says contributor and budding writer Aizuddin Anuar. "Together, the stories strike me as very anthropological. ... One is able to latch onto the humble notion of food ... to then grapple with global questions of love, family, identity, grief."

Most entries display a profound knowledge and understanding of food and its traditions, despite one purposeful descent into the rhythms of "Chinglish" to evoke Hainan Chicken Rice, as in "So scared A-Ma scold but what to do, must tell her." (Thankfully, there's a much-needed glossary at the back, as Malaysians tend to assume everybody knows the difference between mee soto, mee goreng and mee mamak.)  

Only infrequently do some of these excited amateurs fall into the trap of overwrought "overwriting," such as one competitor's suggestion that "reining in your desire [for ice cream] would be as hapless as a circus midget trying to walk a rabid Great Dane." In contrast, Loh uses exceptional brevity to encompass not just Malaysian spices, but the whole history of the nation in the colors "Green, Brown and White."

Top: Fish vendors. Bottom: Malaysian breakfasts have something for everyone. (Courtesy of SC Shekar)

Loh says he entered the competition because "there's such a need for better food writing and this is one of the few initiatives, with so few outlets for food writers to show their mettle or engage with other writers." A former student of chemical engineering, now 27, he switched to culinary school and worked in the kitchen of New York's prestigious Blue Hills Restaurant. Yet he still considers his recipe-filled blog a "personal hobby."

It is only through writing for international websites that he feels he can explore more serious topics like the origins and meanings of dishes. "While Malaysians take pride in our local food and talk about it constantly, we sometimes don't know how to go beyond the superficial -- just finding the best nasi lemak," he says.

There are some focused homages in the anthology to individual ingredients: rice and cassava, coconuts from an Irishman's perspective, a marvelously detailed account of the evolution, and ultimate degradation, of the modern maraschino cherry, and a lifetime coming to terms with the humble but essential onion, which Raja Ummi Nadrah, an occasional blogger, comes to "tolerate ... despite their annoying traits," as one would a marriage partner.

Top: Hand-painted tiffin canisters serve as trophies for the Fay Khoo Award. Bottom: "Telltale Food" contributors and Abdullah, standing, second from right. (Courtesy of Chammaine Tan)

The youngest contributor pays tribute to Hong Kong's famed egg tarts in her definition of "joy," although she identifies them rather broadly as plays on "Western custard pies," not mentioning their connection to Portugal's most widely exported pastry.

There is also ample sociological analysis of the steady disappearance of street food amid rapid urbanization and the impact of supermarkets on small-scale farming and tropical produce such as pandan and makrut lime. One essay ends with a challenge to international TV chefs: "When will Jamie [Oliver] and Nigella [Lawson] learn to use these ingredients?"

American Serena Lee was just 16 when her piece was shortlisted for the award. (Courtesy of Serena Lee)

Only two restaurants are featured, neither in Malaysia. In "A place in the back," Shahriar Khan, a graduate of the University of Oxford, reveals how he fulfilled a lifelong ambition to prove himself as an accomplished waiter at The Ivy, in London's Covent Garden. More than any review, the piece pays tribute to the motives beyond profit that drive outstanding dining and how every great eating establishment functions as "boot camp, factory, Swiss watch, theater, tightrope circus all in one."

The only piece that passes as a way of rating a meal is a celebratory visit to Bangkok's Gaggan restaurant, told in the form of a play, with as many vignettes in dialogue as there are courses.

These tell-alls are best when they show the intimacy that food writing can achieve. Most Asian food magazines focus on the food and beverage industry or on glossy compendiums of recipes, with too many appreciations of Asian flavors and culinary meanings penned by Western critics. But much of the continent could profit from this anthology's example.

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