“In Penang, the portions are tiny so you can try a million dishes all at once. That’s how I know that I will never be hungry and my heart will always be full….” Renie Leng’s Penang Kitchens cinched the first prize in last year’s inaugural edition of the Fay Khoo Award for Food and Drink Writing.
The award, set up in tribute to the memory of writer, food critic, publisher and TV/radio personality Fay Khoo received some 40 entries. They were mostly from Malaysia, but also from writers living in Bangladesh, Britain, Japan and the United States.
“They wrote about coffee, supermarkets and farmers, mystery dinner tours, wine semantics, onion and cereal. Spices and gut-busting chillies featured everywhere, but sadly there was only one mention of eating mangoes in a bathtub, naked,” says award organiser Bettina Chua Abdullah in an e-mail interview.
“One writer had an uncle who taught her to make toddy when she was 11, and let her taste it too. There were marvellous titles, like ‘What To Cook When Someone Stabs You In The Back’. The entries were a cornucopia of delights to read – a perfectly acceptable start to an award that came together in both sorrow and haste.”
A tribute to the life and achievements of writer, food critic, publisher and radio/TV personality Fay Khoo, who died in April 2017 after a battle with lung cancer, the Fay Khoo Award for Food and Drink Writing (thefaykhooaward.com) serves not just as a reminder of Khoo’s dedication and passion to her craft, but also hopes to recognise new and talented voices in food and drink writing.
Khoo wrote and edited books, founded a publishing house, contributed to several magazines and newspapers, including The Star, and was a presenter on BFM radio station
The second edition of the Fay Khoo Award is open for submissions now; get your entries in by Sept 30 online at thefaykhooaward.com.
Submissions must be in English and should not exceed 2,000 words. The award is open to those who are 16 and above, and a citizen or resident of any Asean country.
Winners will be announced at the George Town Literary Festival in November.
Chua and food/travel writer John Brunton will both return as judges, with a third judge coming in from the chef/restaurateur community.
The Fay Khoo Award this year offers two categories: one for personal narrative, the other for reportage.
“The entries we received last year were sharply skewed towards the personal narrative. It seemed to suggest that our perception of food writing is solely about restaurant reviews and memoirs. Stories that tackled topics like the fate of the street food experience, the rise of supermarkets, and the role food plays in the identity of a nation – these were fascinating reads. I would really like to see more of these journalistic explorations,” says Chua.
Besides the separation of the award into two categories, two food photography workshops – one in Kuala Lumpur and the other in Penang – were held this year. The idea, Chua says, is to evolve into an award for story telling, in different genres, with food at the heart.
As for the writing aspect, she says that they are looking for “more creativity, cleverness and freshness of approach” this year, especially in the personal narrative.
“It is perfectly fine to write about your favourite restaurant, but you need to be exceptionally skilled at turning a phrase if you are just going to talk about what you ate. You need to take the reader beyond the meal, to infuse meaning and emotion, make the reader care.
“Food writing is about the people who grow it, harvest it, cook it, serve it, eat it, reject it, manipulate it, are made happy by it, or die for lack of it,” she says.
Last year’s entries were diverse in content and style, and selecting a winner was no walk in the park. But there were a few things that made Leng’s story, which was tagged as a zuihitsu, stand out to the judges.
“The zuihitsu is a genre of Japanese literature, and the sensation that the reader feels is that he or she is drifting through the author’s thinking and surroundings.
“Renie’s piece, which moves us through a series of Penang kitchens, was transportive. I really did feel as if a butterfly was alighting in different kitchens and dwelt there just long enough. Testament to her skill is that a year on, I still have that sensation when I read it. And there is a sense of rhythm and cadence which is very enjoyable,” says Chua.
Not long after the first anniversary of Khoo’s passing, Chua was asked to keep books from Khoo’s library of food literature, which she describes as reflecting an astounding range, from books on culinary artistry, to good food writing.
“Fay was a food writer determined to know her craft and her subject, inside out. And that is what I hope for this award, to read work that reflects what Fay herself was: professional, diligent, thorough – and that is beautifully, delightfully, and entertainingly written,” she concludes.