Cooking The Books

Bi-weekly bites & books with Cher Tan

#006

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Cook: Maggi goreng
Book: Always Another Country (Sisonke Msimang)

I didn't know what home meant or stood for till later in my life. Growing up, I was constantly uncomfortable in my body—I never could come up with a reason for why I existed, in a house that was filled with equal parts expectation, ignorance, distance and anxiety. Mostly left alone to my own devices both at home and at school (the latter a consequence of the former), social cues and etiquette were learnt through trial-and-error, each misstep a gradual formation towards a warped sense of self. In kindergarten, I was locked in a broom closet as punishment for destroying my classmates' paintings with my bare hands (through pure curiosity? malice? I'll never know). At eight, I was gripped by a senseless desire to figure out what would happen if I went to a house next to my primary school and ceaselessly press its doorbell, while still in uniform. It's not difficult to guess what happened next.

All of these things can be chalked down to childish mischief, but because they were all committed alone, it alienated me further from my peers. More solo deviances would continue to occur in the years to come, which I now understand was the result of a bored and troubled mind. My parents responded by pretending the incidents never happened, even if all of that eventually became both a cause and effect of mental illness, even if I couldn't get out of bed to attend most of my last year of high school. Maybe they never did happen.

For many, nationality and family are often sure markers of Home. The latter, for me, was non-existent in its constant denial, misinformation and silence; things I consider emotional abuse now. The former was tenuous at best: because I couldn't fit in to a society that prided conformity and a linear narrative, I was involuntarily forced out to its edges with no foreseeable future in sight, even if I did belong to a Chinese dominant majority with its attendant privileges. But my discovery of the punk subculture saved me (I wrote about it briefly in #003), providing me with the skills and wherewithal to hack my way through to try and find a home somewhere else—whether that be in Bandung, Berlin, Kuala Lumpur, London or Sydney, funds saved through months of hunger and hard work, then continued to be used sparingly through tactics such as squatting, hitchhiking and dumpster diving. The lucky result of this is that I now know Home is in my body.

As such, reading Sisonke Msimang's memoir Always Another Country made me think about the concept again. Her life is nowhere the same as mine, but the quest to discover Home is omnipresent. The child of South African freedom fighters, her life is constantly in flux, as she spends most of her developing years in various parts of the world, stateless and in exile. When she finally returns to South Africa post-apartheid, it's for the first time, as both a native daughter and a stranger. Lines like "I am acutely aware of the dissonance between being of a place by virtue of physiological heritage and being from a place by virtue of memory and experience" tells of grappling with her sense of self as she tries to reconcile her romanticisation of home with its reality. Msimang writes honestly with razor-sharp insight, her prose conjuring vivid mental images of pieces of her life, as she navigates issues surrounding race, womanhood, class and love either in Canada, Zambia, Australia or South Africa. She details memories of family, racism, sexual abuse and an abusive romantic relationship with a candidness that is heartfelt, while reckoning with often-elided complexities that arise from difficult circumstances. Of Australia, she writes, "How do you welcome people to your country when they have already taken it?" And: "History here is always ever-present and also on the verge of disappearing." 

For Msimang, she eventually contends with the fact that Home is not a place or what your passport says but in her body too, as no one place ever feels correct or true; it's what one makes of their surroundings while trying their utmost to fulfill responsibilities to themselves and their communities. In that sense, maggi goreng feels like that, albeit in a more abstract way. It was one of the first dishes I had in my travels to neighbouring Malaysia as a young adult, the mamaks similar to the ones in Singapore, but grittier and, to an immature mind, more real. New friends would be made over 24-hour mamak meals, as we stayed up all night joking, discussing music and theory next to a festering gutter. It still feels romantic.

Incidentally, and via different memories, my partner loves maggi goreng as well. Comparing many online recipes before attempting to make it in our now very-seasoned wok, he showed me how one day, and now I know how to make it too. $5 worth of ingredients can feed the both of us for days.

Home is a luxury, a metaphor, an ever-fleeting concept and a concrete reality all at once. As I prepare to move again, my interpretation of home will continue to evolve, as I find more ways to feel comfortable inside myself.

#005

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Cook: Hainanese chicken rice
Book: The Lebs (Michael Mohammed Ahmad)

The argument debating authenticity around food bores me. Histories of colonisation, displacement and diaspora have upended this question completely, rendering untouchability paradoxical. I can think of numerous examples that support this: the very Japanese tempura (which was once considered yoshoku, but is no longer as new iterations of yoshoku take its place—I wrote about this for Roads and Kingdoms last year) is adapted from the Portuguese peixinhos da horta; the dim sim is a Chinese-Australian invention, as is chop suey and General Tso's chicken by Chinese migrants to the US; the bánh mì is a resultant child of French colonisation; and there are several variations of the nasi lemak, depending on whom you ask. 

Then there's Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex, börek/burek across a wide expanse of eastern Europe and western Asia, all subtly different but still kind of the same, Mexican-Chinese cuisine along the US-Mexico border, spam musubi in Hawaii: a piece of grilled Spam on a block of rice, wrapped in nori.

Consequently, dialogue with regards to authenticity—whether that’s in relation to food or a person—feels to me like an implicit admonishment: "know your place and stay there". No one worries about authenticity in private; it always seems like a matter of passing for others. The search for authenticity thus appears aspirational, nurtured by the precepts of capitalism. What kind of rules am I breaking if I decide to make a sambal toastie?

But like any good Asian, I love rice. It's a huge staple of my diet; the act of shoving rice in my mouth never fails to be a familiar comfort. The starchy scent of rice cooking in the microwave always envelops the kitchen in a delightful wave, and flavoured rice remains to me the best kind. Especially when it's dry-fried with garlic and ginger, then drenched in chicken broth and a splash of sesame oil to become chicken rice. It's one of those dishes which to many has become undeniably Singaporean (or Malaysian—as both countries have tried to lay claim to the dish in the past), but is really an adaptation of Wenchang chicken rice from Hainan Island, China. 

It doesn't matter where it comes from. I love eating it from Singaporean-, Malaysian-, Indonesian- and Chinese-Australian restaurants as much as I love cooking it myself, with a lot more garlic and a dab of butter, broth made from boiling a small saucepan of drumsticks and thigh cutlets because it's more cost-efficient and I can't be bothered chopping up a whole chicken. Maybe someone, somewhere, will consider that inauthentic, but it works. There will always be a different variation.

The question surrounding in/authenticity also presents itself as one of the themes in Michael Mohammed Ahmad's new book The Lebs. A coming-of-age story with a focus on the suburbs within Western Sydney, it follows protagonist Bani as he struggles to forge his own becoming. He doesn't want his mates to think he's a faggot because he's a romantic, but skips class with them anyway. When the events that would form September 11 occur, his schoolmates celebrate it while he's afraid of what it might mean for his assimilation into white society. The characters are multi-layered in a way that's a great indicator of what a literary canon can look like if populated by more writers of colour.

Ahmad's prose is punchy and colloquial, a reflection of the lived experiences his characters inhabit, which is heartfelt, cheeky, hilarious and provocative all at once. Lines like "he gets head jobs from Wog chicks that think he looks like Brad Pitt and he gets head jobs from Aussie chicks that think he looks like Enrique Iglesias," about his half-Anglo, half-Leb friend Shaky, and "Not a poof in black leather tights with his butt-cheeks hanging out, just some guy who casually calls his ex a 'he' instead of 'she'" on the first gay man to enter his life illustrate a kind of writing that isn't afraid of desecrating an artless political-correctness but instead shows the myriad intersections identities can exist within.

The white characters in The Lebs are laughingly primitive as the script is flipped. And as much as Bani desires to be inculcated into whiteness—"White writers and actors who are progressive and civilised like me!”—he also finds them to be strange and alienating: they touch themselves while greeting him (a taboo for him), and speak in a way that performs a sense of humility he finds baffling (he aspires to speak confidently). Even the way Jo calls him "Bani-Bani-Bani", or judges him for preferring Macca's over "cheap" ethnic food, points to a condescension that I myself have observed from white folk, the kind that is so insidiously weaved into the fabric of white supremacy that is impossible to call out unless you yourself have had that experience.

The Lebs is a great tale, one that I consider the best read of 2018 so far. It subverts authenticity in a way that is refreshingly unpredictable, yet creates stereotypes out of the actual stereotypes that exist—parody, truth and imagination coming together in a brilliant brew; complexity ripped to shreds and then put together. It's symbolic of the fact that the quest for authenticity is about forgetting, a contrived misrecognition of previous behaviours. The choice doesn't always have to be between exotic caricature or rootlessness, because that’s never necessarily the whole story. 

 

#004

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Cook: Garlic mash with buttered brussel sprouts
Book: Eat Up! (Ruby Tandoh)

(*content warning for eating disordered behaviour)

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I remember saying to a friend once that I knew what every kind of vomit felt like, and rice chucks were the worst. They'd come out in ugly clumps and threaten to choke you, unlike bread spews which came out smooth and refined, or noodle pukes which left my body with a wormy weirdness, a little gluggy but still kind of manageable.

To admit to having had an eating disorder as a femme person—especially in the #cleaneating, fitness-obsessed now—is a hard thing to confront. Gone are the days of pro-anorexia messageboards and “thinspo”; like overt discrimination the language has now evolved to accommodate something else. Maybe I'm not shaping my hand into a fist and bending it towards myself to check how bony my wrist is, but the performativity that underpins the desire for control huddles in the background. Of course, disordered eating has never not been defined by control, but now the implications surrounding weakness is eliminated as we enter a more complex time of neoliberalism.

An eating disorder never really goes away. I can say that I've "recovered": binges, amphetamines, heavy dietary restrictions, calorie counting, laxatives, self-induced purging, a manic compulsion to exercise while "running on empty" all a distant thing of the past, but being around talk of diets and purposeful exercise can still be a gentle trigger. My gag reflex is shit, and hunger pangs can come on too often or not at all, even if I've eaten what is considered normal, and regularly. The distinction between physiological and psychological has become incredibly murky from years of self-abuse—I have to literally trust my gut and follow a haphazard routine, because the boundaries aren't there.

But reading chef and food writer Ruby Tandoh's Eat Up! was like a lucid validation that feels sensible and caring. Her book is the antithesis of the diet cookbook, a book that underlines the fact that food means so many things: memory, emotion, culture, politics, neurosis. She writes about food lovingly, adjectives sprinkled liberally to conjure mental images of even the most bland food, but that which could mean something profound to the right person. "Mindful eating is something that will sometimes awaken a fierce hunger inside of you, and other times have you satisfied after a single square of chocolate," she writes, her prose equal parts self-help book and private correspondence. This style of writing lends a personable cadence throughout the book, whether she's quoting figures, relating to herself, or sharing a recipe.

Eat Up! is a book about food and cooking that is so necessary now. At a time when eating feels more confusing and conflicted than ever, the cultural weight surrounding food feels at once fraught with political connotations yet so over-simplified. Weaving politics, culture, science and lived experience together seamlessly, Tandoh writes as a queer woman of colour, an ex-vegan who has also had an eating disorder, which—despite this not being a book I'd normally pick up—feels relatable in so many ways. In a world where food writing is largely dominated by cis-het white folk, this is a unique, trailblazing tome. The five years I was vegan were also the five years I struggled with disordered eating, a veiled attempt at restricting as much as I possibly could, while also using its identitarian platform to assume an ethical superiority over others. Moreover, veganism was deeply linked to efforts to disassociate from the foods of my cultural heritage, as I crunched on a single raw carrot for lunch or made a point at the noodle shop that I didn't eat meat, dairy or eggs so what do you actually have? 

Six years later, I'm still introducing my palate to foods I missed out on during this time, as I discover new ways of honouring my body away from the gaze of a disordered mind. I'm choosing to eat a tuna salad because I actually love it; I'm gorging on a large bowl of pasta an hour before bed because I want to; I'm munching on an apple for lunch because I don't have time to sit down to eat, not because I'm restricting myself; I'm making a chicken curry or sayur lodeh with plenty of fat and that's fucking fine. And I'm making a huge plate of brussel sprouts on mash at six in the evening because I feel like it, not because I'm trying to eat white or eat right. 

It's strange terrain, and sometimes it still seems like I'm wading through the swamp. I won't deny that I still fight the self-consciousness that comes with eating in public or with company, because years of eating alone in shame has nurtured an irrational paranoia that tells me someone is looking on in pity. I still occasionally feel pangs of doubt from eating "too much", and have only just gingerly approached the idea of exercise for strength and well-being without feeling like it's a dead-set route to a controlled obsession. Like Tandoh writes, "I have a body, it exists in a fragile world, and I choose to relish it."

#003

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Cook: Slow-cooked chicken and ginger congee
Book: They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Hanif Abdurraqib)

"Punk rock saved my life," the old adage goes. I don't disagree, but it changed my life irrevocably just the same. Growing up a neuro-atypical loner; a latchkey kid for most of my childhood, finding a home within sub-cultural spaces was inevitable. Everything I ever believed or felt in the recesses of my own mind became validated within a crew of misfits. The theory that came after that was like gospel, placed in my hands while they helped my life make sense in the church of the fallen.

I wouldn't still be alive writing this if not for the DIY-punk underground. But this same underground also built in me a bitter cynicism the sooner I grew disillusioned with it—a steep learning curve that gradually descended into empty sloganeering and a glorification of self-destruction that fed a narcissistic nihilism. Witnessing the same tribalism that seemed welcoming at first, to eventually give in to favour the approved. It was like a performative inertia that was discovered a little bit too late; by that time I'd spent nearly a third of my lifetime knee-deep in punk, and the outside world grew even more incomprehensible.

But who knows. Weirdo is as weirdo goes. You can't rewrite history. And when the idea of weirdness is flaunted as cultural currency in the individualistically aggressive '10s all you can do is try and shake it off like a second skin while holding on to the important bits. As a result, coming across Hanif Abdurraqib's essay collection They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us was like re-visiting an old home. Reading it felt like reading letters left behind by an old friend which would speak to the cognitive dissonances that lay behind the ambivalence of someone who used to be submerged in love, but now carefully watches from a distance, their keen eye only taking in what is useful.

Hanif writes reflective odes to the music and bands that he feels a kinship for: Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Carly Rae Jepsen, Defiance Ohio, My Chemical Romance, Nina Simone, Fall Out Boy, and more. It's not all emo and punk, and within these essays is a deep reverence for music which either used to or still continue to rouse in him introspection and unadulterated feeling. Sometimes race is profoundly interweaved in his narratives, but they are also equally not, and I think about the gentle tightrope that racialised people walk on: having to constantly negotiate with something that simultaneously doesn't always define you. 

They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us contains so many lines that speak with tenderness and understanding, such as "the mission of honesty becomes a bit cloudy when we decide to be honest about not loving the spaces we have claimed as our own." Or like how a band Hanif used to love years ago is "standing on a stage and weaponising decade-old bitterness that doesn't exactly echo to the corner of nostalgia that I thought it would." He writes in a sad, retrospective way—a style which borders on emo, an obvious nod to his musical influences—that feels so familiar to me from so many years of zines and Livejournals. 

But the collection is also steered from the vantage point of someone who consumes markers of whiteness while inhabiting a racialised body. It's a strange double consciousness to reckon with, and for a long time I myself struggled to understand my place in these tastes while resisting the urge to reject my very being.

My relationship to Chinese food feels similar. Having spent years rejecting Chinese culture, borne from a complicated relationship with my family and a deep yearning for the proximity to whiteness, made me also reject the food. The conversion to veganism further sealed in that disdain. It's a sense of ambivalence that feels similar to the one I feel for punk now: if you stand too close the cracks will destroy you. Slowly boiling down congee in chicken broth feels like nourishing the cracks. Eating it feels like a hug afterwards.

It's a constant work in progress. I'm pulling all the fragments of myself together to form a patchwork that will eventually become a comfortable, inauthentic quilt.

#002

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Cook: Fried hokkien prawn noodles
Book: Exit West (Mohsin Hamid)

I think about noodles a lot. And when one of my favourite Facebook groups (out of more than a few dozen which I absolutely loathe) Foodie Cuties started a thread about noodles, I just had to mention some of the noodle dishes I love. The wet, thick slurp of an udon noodle; the equally wet but irresistably chewy laghman noodle; the smoky hug of yee mee cooked over an open fire in earthen claypots; the MSG-loaded deliciousness of maggi goreng; the broad yet soft charred flavour of a flat rice noodle either in a pad see euw or char kway teow; the wide, thick rope of a biang biang noodle that curls warmly in your mouth—my ode to noodle is a long, long list that wraps around my fingers, familiar and comforting like the back of my hand, terrain that keeps revealing itself so long as I remain interested.

And so when my partner and I acquired a wok over the sluggish holiday season last year it only seemed logical to start making noodles in it. The fried hokkien prawn noodles of my youth were sadly taken for granted, easily gotten for $3 a pop from food stalls, manned by hawkers who toiled for long hours with little profit. But the move to a new country as a first-generation migrant-settler meant that these sorts of comforts were one of the first things to disappear, which points to why so many others before me often set up food businesses of their own, if only to make a crumb while attempting to feel closer to the old country from a distance.

In Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, his characters are attempting to flee the old country ravaged by war. Secret agents talk of doors: portals that open up into strange new lands, escape routes that cross borders into freedom. "Location, location, location, the estate agents say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians" early on in the book a nod to the possibilities some are allowed while others are not. I'm a privileged immigrant having moved countries by choice, even more privileged when the two countries are not that much different, in possession of a linguistic arsenal from the same colonisers. My place in the immigration game feels like a relaxed yet tenuous rope: the cultural capital I am able to tap into from being a member of the "globalised creative class" helps me blend in, but I have zero safety nets to speak of—no dole, uni degree, moneyed relatives, a parent's home. As late-capitalism looms bigger in all of our lives, these class conundrums will only keep sustaining itself, creating precedents previously unheard of as we scramble to make sense of what was previously unknown. Borders are simultaneously blurring and tightening—"[...] it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart."

Mohsin writes lyrically, a pensive tone peppering the entire book. Migrants barter with time, not goods or money, because time is all you have at the beginning when your prospects are still in the process of being negotiated. His characters Saeed and Nadia meet during a fraught time, then fall in love and leave their birth country via a paid-for secret door when war slowly descends. Stress from constant proximity and being in a foreign place sends rifts through their relationship: they are surrounded by nativists at all times, as well as other migrants who play "survival of the fittest", trying to demarcate hierarchies borne out of the same sense of desperation and insecurity.

Being blind about class assumes a false meritocracy that creates reasons for disenfranchised communities to fuck over one another. I remember—while waiting for my visa restrictions to lift—working at a food stall in an outer suburban shopping centre in 2013 with other recent arrivals my age, and while they were jealous that I could navigate public life as an "invisible migrant", I was jealous that they had a bottomless pool of money being sent to them from a distance to make life in a new home better. And while they expressed discomfort towards Aboriginal folk, I moved to create a distance from their anti-blackness, at the same time ashamed to be seen in their likeness.

Exit West's prose seems deliberately simplistic: a tale that uses magical realism to point to the tensions of our current political climate while explaining the complexities that arise out of it. Migration is akin to being in a quantum state, levels in a video game one leaps between, and where not only the air and water differs, the individual by association changes as well.

 

#001

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Cook: Pesto pappardelle
Book: The Town (Shaun Prescott)

2018 started off strangely: the holidaze went by in a flurry, then it was slap-bang into 2 weeks of 40-hour work weeks, leaving me with a sense of disorientation in unchanging Adelaide.

The Town provided some respite. Shaun Prescott's dry, maudlin prose reanimated the general mood, my own self-pity and the narrator's merging into one sad sodden pile. Interestingly, Prescott's book was also the first by a white author I had read since the beginning of 2016 (I wrote briefly about this journey in Catapult here)—amidst the hype, I had to know if I would care to read another white author again. It turned out that its suburban gothic outlook was exotic in a sense that seemed familiar yet very far-removed. The town's locals were nondescript white people I have had contact with, complex in their simple ways. I say this with a slight facetiousness.

Despite The Town's setting being an abysmally scary tiny country town somewhere in the middle of NSW, I couldn't help relating bits of its nature to Adelaide. I moved here in 2012 from the big smoke, and as much as I try to divorce its size from its character, the place hasn't ceased to look or feel less like a country town. Between 2015-2016 I lived in an apartment with my partner in the middle of the CBD, and for $100 a week (each) it felt like I conducted my activities within an inner-city suburb that year.

The bland characters in The Town talk about nothing; local publican Jenny's irritated dismissal at the narrator's curiosity reminiscent of the times I would relate a conversation about a mundane facet of life to a piece of art in a thoughtful way, only to be met with disinterest (insinuated here: "don't be a wanker"). They also do a whole lot of nothing: local alternative Ciara's faux-worldly, anti-intellectual busywork comparable to some people I know, their deliberate routines fulfilling a sense of inner purpose, yet ritualistic to the point of meaninglessness. Prescott isn't afraid to weave slangy colloquialisms into his sooky self-effacing prose either: words like "bash" and "prick" sit alongside "an indictment" and "same trajectory". "They're towns, Jenny told me. Of course they're there." made me laugh out loud for ages. He's taking the piss, but seriously.

More often than not, I call Adelaide "Toilet Town", especially as I prepare to sever my ties to it and return to the big smoke. Laughing at the city openly in front of its defensive denizens is not borne out of a superiority complex, but rather an exercise in seeing the responses you elicit. I refuse to keep face with someone who could be related to someone else I work with in order to "keep the peace"—when everything is three whole degrees of separation "keeping the peace" can unwittingly turn into "losing yourself".

But as Prescott writes, "no town continues to just be a town", and as the people in it either leave or build upon it its disposition will continue to change. Already, more and more migrants are settling here in conjunction with its selling-point as a lower-tier, less expensive city; in the last 3 years I've seen more and more niches come out of both food and art which points to something bigger. I may only be able to count on one hand how many friends I have in my midst who will truly enjoy and understand a brunch of yum cha with me, but luckily we have pasta.

I have a sentimental fondness for pesto: it was one of the first things I learnt to cook (and then gradually perfect) by myself. My young feminist self had finally warmed up to the idea of cooking (it wasn't oppressive!), while my white-leaning self hoped to distance myself from the Chinese food my mum had cooked for me up till then (it's oppressive!). It felt like I was cloistered in the language of power. Being able to cook anything from mapo tofu to braised soy pork belly now, the unencumbered-ness that seemed limiting a decade ago is now viscerally embraced.

We come full circle and build homes within ourselves.