Cooking The Books

Bites & books with Cher Tan



Cook: Garlic butter anchovy spaghettini
Book: Portable Curiosities (Julie Koh)

Satire, as the late great Russian writer Nabokov once said, is a lesson. "And parody is a game." Throughout history, the form has been used to identify societal flaws and to inspire deeper thinking, a tool used by the structurally powerless to make statements that are inherently political yet accessible. Satire is universal, and in our hyper-connected world manifests in many more mediums that tell us more about a person, an issue or an art form than a straight-up retelling ever can. Within satire, there are no truths—it's how an untruth becomes interpreted that shows the onlooker what gets marketed as truth.

What's in a truth? Many truths are reconstructed by memory, which is often unreliable. And what most see as all-encompassing truths in science and technology can be skewed, debunked or prejudiced by a dominant paradigm. Can I make fun of them then? When I'm satirising my lived experience I'm telling my story in a way that feels true to me, much like laughing wildly at a depression meme feels tragically false yet reassuring. Accordingly, artists on the margins sometimes find ways to use satire in order to reflect something back, whether to themselves or to an audience. And often, as Omar Sakr mentions shrewdly in this Liminal interview, "we're fucking with you."

I've written in a previous post about the sham that surrounds the authenticity narrative when it comes to food. It's the same in a person—how do we live "authentically" when there is no one truth? The line between genuine and fake becomes convoluted when we consider context collapse, performativity, changing senses of self. Being "true" to myself only feels authentic if I'm projecting that narrative outwards.

As such, Julie Koh's short story collection Portable Curiosities explores these themes in darkly funny ways. She writes about a one-dimensional Yellow Man who tries his darndest to be a 3D man in a world who refuses to see him for who he is, and the Yellow Woman who responds "Bonjour" and "Guten tag" when people see her and say "Ni hao". There's a kid with a third eye for a belly button who sees lizard boys that give her mother bruises in secret, a hat-tip to the mystical jinns who exist in many Southeast Asian folklores. There's also the artisanal ice-cream flavour which has a 50/50 chance of killing you, and the character who takes a DNA test to find out if her physique ("The problem everyone has with my body is not really that I am heavy-boned for a woman in general, but that I am heavy-boned for an Asian woman.") is the result of having Russian ancestry. It turns out it's true. She starts to drink vodka: "I am connecting with my roots." 

Koh employs surrealism not as a form of escape, but to engage the reader's critical faculties and point out what is at hand. There's a sense of earnestness as well, which when matched with the satirical elements gives the stories a gigglingly hilarious bent. Reading these stories, I imagine Koh as a snide but lovely friend; the friend who gently points out the problems in the world without getting overly-sooky or dead-eyed serious about it. 

Recently, I read an article by a white writer about the merits of monosodium glutamate (MSG), which it seemed she had just discovered. Unsurprisngly, this sign off has since prompted many other white people to interrogate their own biases about the chemical compound, which remains absurdly amusing because MSG occurs naturally in tomatoes, gravy and Parmesan cheese (to name a few examples), things white people love. I love MSG, and put it on everything I cook, but it wasn't until my (white) partner introduced me to using the compound that I started doing the same. Growing up, my mum was obsessive about barring her kids from having edibles she thought were bad, so I didn't develop a taste for soft drinks, crisps and MSG until I had financial freedom in my adolescence. Now, I can have fried gluten balls laced with MSG after a gym session if I so wish.

Did I make any of this up? Maybe. What is my authentic narrative? Sometimes it involves sprinkling MSG into garlic butter to up the umami ante, then frying anchovies (more umami) in the sauce until they come apart. The pasta that goes into that later is heavenly.