Cooking The Books

Bites & books with Cher Tan



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.