Food Writing from Starters to Egg-sperts

Most of my short stories that I’ve written for competitions or anthologies delve around food. Or at least food that I love. I’m unashamedly a food writer. It could be about a dish of pengat durian, chicken curry or murtabak, I weave a little story about it, edit it a million times and then scout for some snacks at the mamak in my neighbourhood.

Like all Malaysians, everything revolves around food. This is where my inspiration comes from. Stories begin and end with food. It’s not merely the nasi lemak or roti canai that I romanticise. But the blend of lemon grass, chili and spices that marry and transform into rendang. It is the vegetables from the garden that I throw into a pot of gurgling laksa. Food writing allows me to be creative.

Malaysians have stories to tell. Lots of stories. So, if we can churn them into something fictional or non-fictional, then why can’t we share them? Based on my experience as a food story-writer, I’ve invented a list for foodies to take a cue from and create something on paper!

Dig for Inspiration

Okay so if your only knowledge of food comes from styrofoam boxes, cling wraps and tied-up greens lined up in the supermarkets, then your stories won’t make headlines. It’s time to shop for real knowledge from farms and edible gardens.

I was inspired to write about To the roots and Back which was long-listed for a writing competition, after years of visiting a community organic vegetable farm in Taman Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI). It wasn’t the introduction of exotic vegetables that got me. Rather, it was how these vegetables grew from seeds into healthy plants. What was the composting process like? What vegetables live harmoniously together and how to cook them after harvest? Honestly, there’s so much you can experience from a farm and then when you list them on paper, this can make great writing prompts. Whenever you are in Kuala Lumpur, come and visit Urban Hijau or the The TTDI Edible Community Garden.

Urban Hijau community farm

Pens and Pans

Kitchens; whether yours or somebody else’s are great places to begin your writing craft. Try pounding chilies, candle nuts and garlic with a pestle and mortar. Take a whiff of coriander seeds and ask yourself what they remind you of? Try and knead dough or ice a pandan gula melaka cupcake. Try anything that keeps you entertained and focused. Then you will be inspired. Eventually. To write something.

I find family kitchens the best places to begin. The more people you have in kitchens, the more you’ll hear stories of how families prepared special curries during holidays, or how many cooks were brought in to prepare wedding feasts or what dishes were served when a potential groom came to view his bride. Sit in, listen, join in the conversation but don’t forget to pen them on paper because just as easily you get enticed by these stories, the easily it slips from memory.

Visual Ideas

If getting your hands wet and dirty isn’t make much of an impact on your writing, then you might want to sought out other avenues. Try browsing through old family albums or black and white photographs for some inspiration. When I attended Sharon Bakar’s creative writing course, she made us use photographs as writing prompts. My classmate Geetha had us entertained about a family reunion and how her grandmother rationed her prawn dish and gave the most to her sons. All this was based on an old picture of her family gathered together at the dinner table.

You can use pictures, postcards or sought more food pictures from Pinterest for ideas.

Family dinners

Chefs’ Word Works

You could also get your hand  on a paperback and drool over recipes or narratives about how chestnut jam or chocolate mousse are made from scratch. I’m currently reading La Dolce Vita: Sweet Dreams and Chocolate Memories. I’m savouring every bit of the book because Isabel Coe writes in detail. About everything. From observing how her mother broke pieces of Lindt into a bowl or how her aunt grated pieces of butter into pastry dough. Isabel makes me want to write about desserts too.

Do your research. Find out what your favourite chefs have written and read what they have to say about what makes food sexy and why all the best ingredients for a story comes from your pantry!      

Share your Piece

So, if you have your story hot from the printer, do yourself justice by sharing it with hungry readers. In Malaysia, thankfully, there have been ongoing events for new writers and these are great places to meet up and share your work. Check out Seksan’s Gallery in Bangsar that hosts monthly reading gatherings for writers, poets, storytellers

Or if you’re a bit shy or you’re just not ready to reveal your story to a grand crowd, then you might want to join the write-ins held every Saturday mornings at Nu Sentral (KL). Join the Malaysian Community of Writers for updates or events. I recommend these events because here’s where we learn new skills, meet like-minded people and set the discipline to write regularly. I love datelines. And when there’s a group of people who can give genuine, thoughtful advice on writing, then you’re on the right track.

Writing together

For the Judge’s Plate

I only began to write seriously when there were call for submissions to writing contests. There are tons of them (mostly in the UK and in the USA) and a handful in Malaysia too (some datelines have passed). Writing for a contest gives you an edge because you’re writing for a platform of professional writers or published authors. And it’s a nice feel to write for something on a grand scale and if your name gets on the list, the better. Here’s a list of upcoming food writing contests:

Hope this list helps and do give food writing a try. It’s a good excuse to write in cafés, check out new restaurants in the neighbourhood or write food reviews for your friends. If you’re still stuck and wondering how to even pen an opening line, find out 5 things every writer should do before working on a story.

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