WRITERS write for different reasons across various genres.
In one particular genre of creative non-fiction, food is the main fuel for writers.
Yet food writing is not as simple as just writing about food. More than just sustenance for survival, food also represents many things, including an intricate interdependence with the people and the environment around us.
Recently-released anthology – Telltale Food: Writings from the Fay Khoo Award 2017–2019 – dishes out tales from 29 writers who creatively narrate their journeys of self-discovery, revelations and cultures through the common theme of food.
Launched at George Town Literary Festival last November, it is a collection of submissions to The Fay Khoo Award for Food+Drink Writing, founded in memory of the late gourmand and food critic Fay Khoo, well-regarded for her witty, insightful writing.
The Award founder and director Bettina Chua Abdullah is absolutely thrilled to see Telltale Food in print, published by Hikayat Asia.
“Every writer puts in time and effort to craft the best narrative possible. While not everyone could win the Award, it was important to me to publish them, and for readers to access these stories,” she told thesundaypost.
She noted that it was challenging to build up the reputation and awareness of the Award, and there’s still a lot to do.
“The anthology certainly addresses some of those challenges. Now that we have a book, we have a presence that doesn’t just disappear when submissions for the Award close. Budding food writers now have an idea of what the Award looks for.”
Bettina pointed out that The Fay Khoo Award for Food+Drink Writing is not only about writing but also encouraging other narrative forms to tell food stories.
“In 2019, we had a graphic illustration entry which I really want to see more of. In 2018, we had a short play. My aim is to have an anthology – or other publication every two years.”
She is pleased there have been contributions from Borneo in Telltale Food, hoping to see more submissions in the future.
“Food of this region is under-appreciated. I really would like to see a lot more writing about the produce, food and culinary practices and traditions of this part of the world, especially in the indigenous communities,” she noted.
“Telltale Food” includes works by both published authors and first-time writers.
One of the latter is Golinia Michelle Gody, a 17-year-old student from SMK Kidurong, Bintulu.
Her entry was her first published work. It was a special inclusion in the anthology as it was not a submission to the Award. Rather, it was a winning essay, chosen by Bettina in a national essay competition, organised by Fulbright English Teaching Assistants last year.
In A Greeting of Cassava, Golinia crafted a simple but heart-warming tale surrounding the preparation of manok pansoh with her aki (grandfather) on Gawai Eve.
The concise narrative captured the essence of their close relationship and the reader is given a quick glimpse of what cassava leaves signified in her aki’s past.
“It started when my mother showed me a picture of her father. He was one of the Malaysia Rangers. My mother loves and misses him so much because he was a good father and a great role model,” she said.
Golinia said after hearing her mother’s account of her grandfather’s life, she decided to bring him to life again in story form.
“It was the perfect time for a tribute to him – by creating a glimpse into the time when he was in the war.
“Furthermore, I wanted to emphasise the importance of preserving customs and traditions among the young generation.
“Based on my observation, some youths nowadays have no clue about the traditions of their ancestors that have been practised for a long time,” she shared on what inspired her story.
She found the other stories to be inspiring and beautiful, and proving that food do bring people together even if it were just a simple dish or a favorite childhood dessert.
“It taught me how great the impact food has on communities all over the world. Those stories, filled with lots of memories and emotions, will make you want to read them again.”
Golinia never thought about writing a story until she got out of her comfort zone, revealing it was a struggle at first but with everyone’s support, she is able to enjoy writing without worries.
She urged other aspiring writers to do the same.
“Don’t worry about making mistakes because it’s a way to learn and improve ourselves. If people comment on your writing, take it as advice. All you need for writing is passion and effort.”
Meanwhile, Kuching-born flight attendant Chrisse Kueh has two humour-tinged pieces published in Telltale Food – one about Tokyo cremè puffs and the other about Sunny Hill ice-cream.
According to Chrisse, they were both written in skeletal form before The Fay Khoo Award for Food+Drink Writing came about.
“The cremè puffs story happened when I was in Tokyo with my colleagues. One of them was ga-ga over Japanese desserts and wanted to take a pack of made-on-the-spot cremè puffs back to KL.
“She ordered a dozen but the shop frowned on packing them for consumption the next day, so much so that they refused to sell to her!
“This kind of salute to product quality was unheard of by us Malaysians! My colleague was a little gobsmacked,” she shared.
The Sunny Hill ice-cream story was her homage to the treat she grew up with. In fact, Kuchingites reading this piece would instantly identify with it.
Chrisse said when she was little, the food landscape was basic – with three homemade meals a day and the occasional stops at Sunny Hill for soft-serve ice-cream.
To her, the pandan ice-cream is one of the best-tasting treats because of its simplicity.
The former SMK St Teresa student revealed she really likes hearing the voices of others and their relationships to food and food memories.
“Having worked as a cabin crew for a while now, I can honestly say Malaysians who have been on a long trip or abroad will always say I miss the food!
“Sometimes when they come on board in an overseas destination, they ask eagerly, do you have nasi lemak? So yes, Malaysians really love their food.
“I think it’s great the anthology exists because we get to read about other people’s food fetishes.”
On whether writing is something she sees herself doing in the long run, Chrisse believes she will always love prose as a form of therapeutic self-expression.
“Everyone is working on a story whether they know it or not. After all, we’re the authors of all of our days.
“An editor at a publication I once worked at said ‘your article will most likely be nasi lemak wrapping paper tomorrow.’
“Is this the ultimate tragedy or the ultimate comedy? I think it’s the ultimate tragicomedy,” she said before offering a quote from American artist Georgia O’Keefe: “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing – and keeping the unknown always beyond you.”