Saturday, June 19, 2010

Local Books Good Enough to Eat

Haven't written yet about the KL Alternative Bookfair. Went along last Saturday afternoon and it was a very enjoyable occasion, meeting all my book-loving friends, including some I hadn't actually met in three-dimensions before.

I'm not too comfortable in crowds (agoraphobic!) and the confined space was heaving especially as next door was the Arts for Grabs event.  I did a stint on Daphne's second-hand stall, twisting a few arms to get copies sold.

It was also great to collect some very nice local books, for which I must say thanks. I think the titles speak volumes about how food obsessed Malaysians are, and how proud of their cuisine.

The first course was Rojak, Amir Muhammad's collection of short shorts, written for the City of Shared Stories Kuala Lumpur project, and published by ZI Publications.

For the uninitiated (my overseas readers who need a glossary) Rojak is actually a salad served with a sweet  sauce with fishy undertones, and it is nicely described here. It is also used in a more metaphorical sense to describe Malaysian society with all its cultural variations, and in fact it fits this dip-into sweet-sour-crunchy collection of bite-sized stories. This book is beautifully illustrated by Chin Yew and in fact has the prettiest end-papers on any local publication I've seen.

If you want a nibble, here are links to some of his short-shorts : Correspondence, 1997: My Life as an Artis (You have to know a little Malaysian history to enjoy this one!), The Sex thing With the Tempoyak*.

(*Another food note : tempoyak is   fermented durian used in sambals and sauces. it's not stinky like the fresh fruit, but has a tongue-teasing sourness ... which I love.). 

Way back, I tried to nudge the enigmatic Amir into writing some fiction, and I am so glad that the British Council's project gave him the push he needed. (C'mon Amir, you are the person I most want to read a novel from!)

You can read Bissme's interview with Amir about the book in The Sun, and The New Straits Times review is up on Amir's blog.

Next in our food literary tour is Tapai by Hishamudin Rais, also published by ZI. Tapai is a desert made either from fermented rice or tapioca.  It's the ultimate boozy pudding. (Think rice pudding made with vodka!)

Tapai the book is equally delightful.  I've been enjoying Isham's columns which tell of his gastronomic adventures in the most far flung parts of the country in Off The Edge for years, and I will really treasure this compilation. He's entertaining, erudite, and refreshingly irreverent and the book offers as much in way of social commentary as it does information about different cuisines. One example which made me giggle - he describes at one point a Melayu Baru wedding reception :
Cold food surrounded by plastic flowers ... it's as tedious as trying to haggle a student concession price with a prostitute in Soho.
If you really want to get to the heart of the country, this book would be a great place to start.  And if you need more persuading - could you resist a chapter entitled Sex and the National Vegetables?

This is another beautifully produced book, the paper feels nice, the cover illustration (a picture of Isham made out of vegetables and spices) extremely clever, and it's lavishly illustrated with colour photos. (I hope some will be up on the ZI website in time and if they are, will link to them.)

The third book with a (tenuous!) gastronomic link is Chuah Kok Yee's collection of short stories Without Anchovies.  The title refers to the ikan bilis that comes along with the hot sambal to top the steaming dish of nasi lemak (coconut rice) - which is a Malaysian breakfast staple and features in the first story.

For the moment I would like to say that I am enjoying reading this very much indeed and intend to put up something more in another post soon.

At KLAB when the books were launched we were given - nice little touch this - little plastic containers of rojak, little twists of fragrant leaves containing tapai ... but where oh where, Kok Yee, was our nasi lemak?  You owe me!

By the way, did anyone work out why the doughnuts on sale at KLAB were named after Vincent Tan?  This is still seriously bothering me.


Chet said...

I think the connection is Krispy Kreme doughnuts. The Malaysian franchise is held by Berjaya. Vincent Tan is the chairman.

bibliobibuli said...

Yes, that's it. But you know, I'm disappointed, I thought it was something much wittier.