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Cooked Up: Q&A with Elaine Chiew

In 'Run on the Molars', a short story from Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World, multi-award winning author Elaine Chiew writes about a slightly dysfunctional Singapore family based in London. This last story in the anthology highlights just one example of how different cultures and generations can clash over flavours and ingredients — adding an extra bit of heat to a family reunion.

What truly inspired you to write about a Singapore family in a London setting? Does the story of the mother visiting her daughters and the relationship between them reflect something you relate to?

For me, the intersection of one culture with another is a perennial source of fascination, probably because growing up in Malaysia I was steeped in a clash of cultures (propaganda likes to call it a ‘melting pot’ though). Then, having lived and traveled in different parts of the world —from Thailand to Bangkok to San Francisco to Hong Kong, I witnessed the myriad ways one culture can rub up against another; it provides a rich source of narrative tension, and often throws up a few humorous encounters as well.

I chose Singapore for two reasons: I feel close enough to be able to write about it with some confidence and two, I wanted to layer in the language of Hokkien, this particular Chinese dialect that the characters in the story speak. It’s a dialect that sounds almost flavourful to the ear (and since food is a thematic concern in this story, it seemed an organic choice).

I also wanted food to tease out the uncomfortable and alienated relationships within this dysfunctional family. I wanted the sounds of eating to become a stand-in for all that they can’t or won’t talk about. There was a lot of activity and noise, but these characters did not seem able to say anything of substance to each other or be able to reach an understanding with each other. There was a mountain of food on the table and all of it went into this cauldron of broth, which is symbolic of what they try individually to bury. To maul Tolstoy’s adage about families, perhaps each dysfunctional family (while unhappy in its own way) is dysfunctional in just this way — defined by its lack of communication.

Was it fun writing the story/being involved in Cooked Up? Is food fiction a difficult style of writing to craft? 

Yes. Definitely fun. I think I lucked out like crazy — I never thought Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni or Ben Okri would say yes to being asked to contribute to the anthology since they didn’t know me from ‘diddly' or ‘squat’ (being tongue in cheek with the expression here). More than anything though, it helped that I already had a quasi/implicit nod from New Internationalist to publish the anthology — this gave me a lot of credibility in approaching agents and emerging literary writers more successful than myself.

Perhaps the most rewarding challenge was receiving a story that was almost there, but not quite. It can be tricky as a fellow writer suggesting changes to another writer who is more established — especially when it comes to knowing where to draw the line. My main thing was to make sure I kept the spirit of the story intact, and that the changes, while constituting going back to the drawing board in a couple of cases, didn’t at all change the heart or backbone of the story.

I don’t know that food fiction is an official category. But there are progressively more and more stories and novels where food is front and central in the fiction, e.g. a character opens a cafe in Kabul or the history of coffee is woven into the seam of the narrative. Here, in this anthology, because none of the writers bills him/herself as a food writer, the food theme — in the very apt word of a blogger’s review — acts as ‘enabler’ of story.

I do think, given the burgeoning of gastronomic interests among home cooks, especially with the seeking of food knowledge, food fiction will become more widespread and popular — people would have gained a core body of knowledge so that reading about how something is prepared no longer fazes them. Using food in literary fiction has the benefit of symbolism as well as bringing illumination and insight to issues of personal and cultural and sociological and even historic significance.

What is the underlining message behind 'Run on the Molars' – what would you like your readers to take from it?

In one sense, in the spirit of Calvino, I want the reader to have total freedom, to interpret the story based on what strikes home or resonates. I hope it’s a rich enough story to be able to offer that. I hope all the stories in the anthology offer that.

In another sense, there is one thing I’d like to say — it isn’t particularly related to the message or thematic significance behind the story, but more to do with the fact that critics of ethnic fiction tend to use linguistic yardsticks for literature as set by the dominant culture. I’ve been guilty of this myself. I don’t mean to be preachy or to come across as such, but what I’ve come to realize is that writers can have many different styles for different stories, or even several ‘voices’. No one voice fits all his/her stories. Why should this be a surprise, since we live in such a pluralistic or even contradictory culture? What’s more plausible for me is that each of us is probably capable of writing in a multitude of voices.

This means though, that the language, the diction, the choice of words, indeed the way words are assembled in the entire story, will be connected to the character(s) in the story in ripple-throughs, like a matrix. The story — from character development to setting to plot to prose style — should form an intrinsic whole. In other words, the way words are spliced together may reflect an inner narrative voice that is attuned, connected to, if not closely aligned with the characters’ voices. In ethnic fiction, while grammar rules shouldn’t be broken in most situations or subverted too flamboyantly (depending on context), the way one stitches a sentence together, its cadence, its alliteration, may be considered ‘below’ the high standards of literature. What I am contending here is that we be mindful of the filter we use to ‘judge’ prose, and the origins of those filters.

What is your favourite dish, one that you think is powerful enough to silence even the most hard to please, opinionated mother / mother-in-law?

Oh, this is a great question! I think it would depend on the mother-in-law, but since in Chinese culture, there’s a pervasive myth that mothers-in-law are notoriously fiendish and difficult to satisfy, it goes without saying that one should attempt the most difficult dish possible (in reality: maximum possible error). In Chinese food, some of the most difficult dishes are also the simplest conceptually — the trick is in the execution of it. For example, steamed fish. The fish is usually steamed in ginger and soy sauce, but there is no exact recipe for how long to steam it for. Much depends on the weight of the fish, and what kind of fish it is. What one is striving for is that velvety, melt-in-the-mouth quality when the fish is just cooked and flakes right off. So timing is critical. Inadequate steaming results in the fish being raw in the middle; too much loses that silky texture. You can just hear the 'tsk tsk' from a dissatisfied mother in law!

Chinese steamed fish does happen to be one of my favourite dishes! (Luckily though, I had the best mother-in-law. She loved Chinese food, but couldn’t really cook it herself, so all was well.)

Where is your favourite place to eat (in London or elsewhere)? Your best food-related memory? 

I have several. In New York where I’d worked or lived for about seven years, it would be Balthazar, just up the street from where I used to live — the bakery there was so wonderful that I once saw two absurdly coiffed upper class ladies fight over the last croissant.

In London, I’d say the best meal I’ve ever had would be Marcus Wareing’s at The Berkeley. Actually correction…it comes close to being one of the best meals of my life, but I’ve never gone back, because this is exactly the problem — can the second time ever beat the first? Ben Okri in his book The Age of Magic wrote this, “the first seeing had something special about it” and one is especially “attentive to the revelations and misunderstandings of first encounters…”

I don’t know that I have a best food memory, but I do have a couple of earliest food memories, as recounted to me by my mother (so are they really my memory?). One of them involves the eating of sardines. Newly introduced to solids, I apparently watched my mother eat spicy canned sardines with round eyes, and I opened my mouth. So she gave me a taste, and I had the shivers, but then opened my mouth for more!

In this 'melting pot' of cultures (particularly in London/ the UK) where others are moving from and marrying into different cultures with different food-related-beliefs and prejudices, why do you think it is that food is not just so important, it causes so many 'heated' discussions?

Our food knowledge is imperfect. Increasingly, I find that the more I read or learn, the less I seem to know, because of many reasons: there are so many food fads, food myths (one minute smoothies are great for you, the next they contribute to acid in your mouth and ruin your gums), and ‘holes’ in our knowledge of exactly what ingredients went into the processing of a certain food, or how it got from farm to market, or indeed how exactly it was farmed or raised or grown. The word ‘organic’ for example — considered universally preferable to non-organic, do we really understand what it means, what went into getting the organic designation for the particular product we are buying? Nowadays even pencil eyeliner can be organic!

There are fishery issues — overfishing for one, distrust of farmed fish for another. There are brewing debates over ‘free-range’, over grass-fed, over Fairtrade, over food prices; just a couple of days ago in the Evening Standard, a Wahaca manager was quoted as saying that wanting healthy, fresh food choices isn’t just for the rich or middle-class. These are all issues that interest me greatly. I know more and more people share a similar need to know — because food is subsistence, it is fundamental. But on another level, it’s also something that we interact with daily, several times a day, more than with anything else in our lives, and it can give such pleasure and satisfaction.

You just had a successful Cooked Up event at Waterstones Piccadilly June 20th, what other events for the book are you excited about, one that will give a real taste of what the book delivers? 

On July 6th, Arts Club, Mayfair, Wordtheatre will run an exciting program of stories centered around food, and will feature Vanessa Gebbie’s story in the Cooked Up anthology. It’s a glamorous and entertaining production where actors and actresses will read stories written by short story writers, performed in an intimate but chic setting.

We will also be featuring another panel discussion at The Birmingham Literary Festival Oct. 13, Ikon Gallery, with Nikesh Shukla, Susannah Rickards, Pippa Goldschmidt, Sue Guiney and myself, all contributors to the anthology.

A couple of London book clubs have contacted me re: coming to speak about the anthology. It’s a chance for me to promote the book, and also to cook and bring something! It’s a pleasure to feed people, I don’t know if you agree, and when food doesn’t cause ‘heated discussions’ it becomes a shared interest/hobby. Tasting usually brings a smile too to the lips.

When asked to choose her favourite 'Cooked Up' story, Elaine decided to politely skip such a difficult decision.

You can follow more developments with the 'Cooked Up' anthology by visiting the Cook Up Fiction website , following @CookedUpFiction on Twitter and on Facebook. Elaine also blogs about food and fiction on: redemptioninthekitchen.blogspot.com 

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