A FRIEND who is a senior editor of an influential Chinese newspaper wanted to know the best book I read in 2020.
My preference was edited out when his piece was published. Perhaps his boss thought I was joking when I named a cookbook as my favourite book for 2020.
I have been avoiding books on politics, economy and business. I read many travel literature and cookbooks. I am no cook nor a connoisseur of food. The suicide of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain shocked me. I was following his series Parts Unknown on TV. He brought to his viewers not just cuisines from all over but also providing a cultural and political insights to the culinary heritage.
I was also following Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck. And few local ones too. I marvel at them – cooks as celebrities. I thought my mother was a great cook – dishing out real, genuine, exquisite Muar cuisines – but there was no TV back then to promote her cooking.
When I got hold of Malaysian Culinary Heritage: The Best of Authentic Traditional Recipes by Datin Kalsom Taib and Hamidah Abdul Hamid, I was, to put it mildly, fascinated. Much to the amusement of my wife, I went through all 230 recipes bundled in 320 pages.
Kalsom (Kak Chom as she is called by friends) is the daughter of the legendary Tan Sri Taib Andak, the first chairman of Felda. She is an author and publisher herself.
The book reflects the multi-cultural fusion of our culinary tradition. It reminds us of the glorious and unique flavours, textures and look of local food. I am attracted by the history, legacy and heritage of Malaysian food.
Why a cookbook? Look at it as a protest on my part. 2020 was a year of living dangerously, literally. The Covid-19 pandemic has humbled mankind. More than 80 million people have been infected and almost two million deaths in the world, and counting. It has impacted upon almost every conceivable human endeavours. Businesses are decimated. The global economy is in tatters. And we have yet to see light at the end of the tunnel.
On the home front, conspiracies, crossovers and back-stabbings have turned politics into a procrustean abyss. The anything-goes brand of politics have created such a convulsion among the people. Even at the peak of the Covid-19 infections, politicians are still playing (what do you expect?) politics.
Call it a personal vendetta against politics. I’d rather not talk nor read anything about it. Perhaps traversing a cookbook is a better option than those million of postings that are doing us more harm than good and creating a schism unheard of in the history of this beloved nation.
I am doing a lot of re-reading, like TV stations doing re-runs, of books that I have read and movies that have impacted upon my consciousness. I was spending a bit of time going through Hikayat Hang Tuah, an epic unparalleled in scope and dimension. I have always admired the late Kassim Ahmad’s search on either Hang Tuah, the ever-loyal warrior or Hang Jebat the rebel with a cause is the hero. His 1959’s study “Characterizations of Hikayat Hang Tuah” was the biggest intellectual bombshell in the history of the Malays.
I was re-reading Marriage and Mutton Curry, the anthology of short stories by M. Shanmughalingam. It is the best collection of short stories in English this decade. And I found S.M. Zakir’s novel Ikarus refreshing and clever. It has been quite a while a local Malay novel that really excited me. Ikarus with its rich political trappings and subterranean meanings is meant to challenge the mind.
The movement control order (MCO) in its various forms since last March has redefined us as humans and citizens. We are in for more restrictions at the rate things are. But we will remember how it all started in 2019 culminating into a global showdown in 2020. We ended the year with the highest ever day infections – 2,525 on Dec 31.
The same editor wanted to know if there is any one word that I would champion for 2021. I told him “Hope.”
The year 2010 was supposed to be the tipping point in the history of the country. We are supposed to herald in a new era, bringing the country to the next level. We should be in the league of “first World” nations. Sadly 2020 will be remembered for something else. It turned out to be a year of shock, uncertainties and despair.
I reckon “Hope” is the only meaningful word for 2021.
Surprisingly my word survived in the published piece.
Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.