The two winning entries for the 2018 Fay Khoo Award for Food and Drink Writing could not be more different from each other.
Cheah Soon Seng’s The Banker’s Dinner sits us down for a meal at that beloved local icon, the mamak stall, while Dipika Mukherjee’s Paet Puja: How Malaysian-Bengalis Worship The Stomach transports us into a whirlwind of tradition, heritage and food.
The winners were announced at the George Town Literary Festival in Penang in November 2018, with Cheah winning the Personal Narrative category and Dipika, the Reportage category.
This is the second edition of the Fay Khoo Award, which was set up in tribute to the memory of writer, food critic, publisher and TV/radio personality Fay Khoo. It aims to encourage and develop excellence in food and drink writing, as well as recognise new voices from Asean. (The third edition has issued a call for entries; see details below.)
“Writing has always been a hobby, but this was the first time I decided to throw my hat into the ring and take part in a formal contest,” says Cheah, 33, who works in business finance in Kuala Lumpur.
“I was definitely surprised to even be shortlisted, let alone win. It’s the first time that I’ve received recognition for my writing, which is indeed an exciting experience.”
We caught up with both winners shortly after the announcement to find out what they think about food and drink writing.
For Cheah, it is important the writing conveys the emotions one experiences when having a meal.
It goes without saying that his winning submission on having a meal at a mamak stall after a long day’s work is inspired by his observations during his frequent trips there. In fact, most of the writing was done while he was right in the thick of things, amid the late-night chatter and clatter of dishes.
“It made it easier to gain inspiration and references, not to mention a ready supply of food if hunger pangs struck while I was writing.
“I had a terribly enjoyable time crafting this piece! I hope readers will be able to enjoy and identify with the story, as well as grow to appreciate the beauty in the mundane,” he says.
While Cheah writes for pleasure, Mukherjee is a published author with several titles to her name.
The initial idea for her entry was a piece on ikan bilis (anchovies) and how she learnt to savour them only very late in life, as she had grown up in a Brahmin household where “smelly foods”, including garlic and onions, were thought disgusting.
But that idea was discarded in favour of Pujobari food and the connection with deeper Bengali religious traditions.
“The theme forced itself onto the page! Pujobari in Port Dickson looms large over the Malaysian-Bengali consciousness and this essay took over that on ikan bilis and wrote itself.
“I loved writing this piece as it brought alive memories of bonding and laughter over a cherished cuisine,” she says.
Mukherjee has written about Pujobari traditions and the sense of community among Bengalis in her fiction before, notably in her debut novel, Ode To Broken Things.
“I hope that Malaysians will learn more about Bengali cuisine and our religious traditions by reading Paet Puja: How Bengalis Worship The Stomach.
“We are a small community and frequently confused with the more visible Sikh community, and our cuisine is still largely unknown. Bengali cuisine is both subtle and addictive … you have to try it to know what I mean!” she says.
Mukherjee is a firm believer in food and drink uniting communities and people around the world, and that good food and drink writing breathes life into the experience for both writer and reader.
“Whether it is writing about drinking homemade wine in remote Sikkim, or tasting candy with children in Bhutan, or sharing a hotpot in Chengdu, the act of feeding and feasting makes language barriers inconsequential by levelling the field to one of shared humanity, partaking in one of the deepest and most essential joys of being alive.
“Good meals foster the human connection and build traditions. In the Asian context, meals express love when words fail,” she notes.
Judging the award was difficult, according to award director Bettina Chua Abdullah.
“It was not easy selecting the winners. We discussed each entry, refined our thought process, and ultimately judged each piece against itself.
“While we did not receive as many entries as in the previous year, the quality of writing overall was better, and the range of subject matter wider too.
“The award welcomes everyone, but I have to say I personally am thrilled to receive entries from amateur writers who simply enjoy exploring an idea, and then crafting an essay, from a food experience that they have enjoyed or one that has moved them,” she says.
This year’s Fay Khoo Award for Food and Drink Writing is now open for submissions. Three winners will each receive RM1,500 cash and book vouchers worth RM500.
Chua and chief judge John Brunton, a contributor to British newspaper The Guardian’s food and travel sections, return as judges this year. Melissa De Silva, author of ‘Others’ Is Not A Race, rounds up the panel of three.
“For 2019, we have decided to widen the parameters to include more types of writing and will present awards to the three best entries, regardless of category,” Chua says.
Entries must be submitted in English, and must be the sole, original work of the entrant. Submission closes Sept 15. More details are available at facebook.com/fkaward or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 2019 winners will be announced at this year’s George Town Literary Festival, which takes place from Nov 21 to 24 in Penang.
The first anthology of works submitted for the award will be released at the festival. It will feature selected entries from this year’s longlist, as well as those from the 2017 and 2018 lists.