Writer Tan Twan Eng talks about the gustatory delights of Penang.
BOOKS being food for the brain, I thought it apt to write about the first-ever George Town Literary Festival held here a couple of weekends ago.
Organised by Penang Global Tourism to promote Penang as a centre for learning and cultural attainments, the weekend programme featured a selection of our published local authors. Seeing as I had already read his book, I decided to attend “An Evening with Tan Twan Eng”.
Tan’s very successful first novel The Gift of Rain, published in 2007, was long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize that year. Without giving too much away – the 447-page tome is still available in good book shops and in fact is doing very well in Amazon’s British and US sales ranking – the story tells of the half-Chinese Philip Hutton and his war-time struggle between loyalty to friend or country.
Tan was kind enough to grant me an interview prior to his session, when I was able to ask him a few questions not just about his life, now transplanted to Cape Town in South Africa, but also about a subject close to my heart: food!
A qualified lawyer – “Because I can’t count, and out of the Big 5 (Doctor, Accountant, Architect and Engineer being the other four) this was the only profession that let me work with words!” – the modest, slightly acerbic Tan was born in Penang, but left at an early age when his father, a banker, was transferred to KL. He comes back for a visit every couple of years to see relatives and revisit old haunts.
“The best way to explore George Town is on foot,” he said. “I love the old architecture and buildings.”
The book, or much of it, is set in Penang. Why?
“I never knew what a special place Penang is until I came back at the age of 11 or 12,” he explained. “People here are much nicer, and the food is better. I wanted to capture that feeling of Penang before it disappears.”
In fact, a passage in the book, which he read out to us, portrays that nostalgia perfectly:
“A constant flow of vehicles went around the clock tower donated by a local millionaire to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, adding to the noise. I have never seen the light of Penang replicated anywhere else in the world – bright, bringing everything into razor-sharp focus, yet at the same time warm and forgiving, making you want to melt into the walls it shines on, into the leaves it gives life to. It is the kind of light that illuminates not only what the eyes see, but also what the heart feels. This is my home.”
Has Penang changed much since he was last here three years ago?
“Yes. There are a lot more apartment blocks up now!” was his immediate, half-joking response. “And more eateries with more choices, especially in terms of Western and Asian fine dining; but also the increase in traffic; (there are) construction sites everywhere…. The bookshops are much better stocked now too!”
Like any well-brought up child, Tan paid tribute to his mother whom he describes as a very good cook. “Although she is Teowchew, she learnt to cook Nonya food for my Baba father.” Her otak-otak, he added, is delicious, as is her beef rendang.
So does he himself cook any Malaysian food when abroad? “I don’t, much,” he admitted, “partly because of the lack of fresh ingredients, unless I use packet curry pastes, like for rendang.”
I was keen to find out where he had been during his time in Penang, and which eateries he had enjoyed the most.
“I’m not one of those who goes miles out of the way and climbs up hills or traverses back lanes just to eat something good! I just eat whatever is at hand when I stop.” Like it or not, though, courtesy of generous relatives, he has been dining out practically every night.
“I’ve been taken to many different places. I enjoyed the Choon P’neah (spring rolls) at Hainan Town,” he elaborated. However, what really impressed him was the food at the newly-opened China House in Beach Street, a restaurant set in three heritage buildings linked by an open courtyard.
He described their chicken and mushroom pie as “excellent; it was moist and meaty – more chicken than pie – and the crust light and flaky”. It is served with a sweet, slightly tart tomato relish made from a recipe handed down by Australian proprietor Narelle McMurtrie’s mother.
He also thought their beef and pumpkin lasagna was good, as were their homemade cakes, proudly displayed in what McMurtrie describes as the “Australian Women’s Weekly Corner”: “The carrot cake (smothered with a generous layer of cream cheese icing), mango upside down cake and some gingery one – can’t remember the name, sorry!”
Certainly sounds like he had a good meal there.
“I’m struck by how slim Penangites are, despite all the food they eat!” he laughed.
Sadly, our famous char kuey teow doesn’t really excite him much, although he did admit to a penchant for Penang curry mee. “I had quite a good one this morning in the kopitiam joined to the Tan Mark bookshop in Pulau Tikus.
The evening ended with a question and answer session. How had he felt about his time here?
“I’ve really enjoyed it very much,” Tan said. “It’s the first such I’ve done in Malaysia, and I’m honoured to be here – hopefully I’ll be invited again. It’s been a homecoming.”
Helen Ong loves to eat! Check out her blog at www.helenong.com.