Isnin, 27 Januari 2014

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

A Fork In The Road

Posted: 27 Jan 2014 08:00 AM PST

THERE can be nothing in this world better than a food lover reading about how the world's most acclaimed chefs and food writers in the world share their life-changing food experiences. At least for me, reading this ensured me that I'm not alone on the hunger for crazy food adventures.

Being a foodie myself, I would travel in search of the most delicious pastries and desserts. Yes, I'd travel all the way to France just to eat their well-praised croissants and baguettes. Or to bustling Tokyo for a taste of its infamous ramen ordered from the vending machines and imbibed, sitting crammed into a tiny little restaurant.

All these experiences about food, culture and travel are jam packed into A Fork In The Road, compiled by the editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine, James Oseland. Also a judge on the popular reality TV cooking show, Top Chef Masters, Oseland's offering of three dozen original stories by a range of writers enlightened me in ways that I could never have imagined.

Most stories comprise seven pages or fewer, making for a quick read and allowing you to pick up where you left off without having to remember what came before. Curl up in your pyjamas on a rainy day and dive into these stories that will take you on a food adventure from one end of the world to the other.

Be warned, though, as some stories may be a little too much to stomach. But most are like a meal you cannot get enough off.

They Eat Maggots, Don't They? by Joe Dunthorne is a story that made me cringe with every other word I read. This six-page story written by the Welsh novelist, poet and journalist takes readers through his experience while on a holiday with 
his girlfriend in the mountains of Sardinia.

There, he met an Italian family of four, including two little boys, wriggling in
their seats in anticipation of the mysterious dish being prepared by farm owner Sebastiano. Brave eaters of fried brains and roasted tongue, Dunthorne and his girlfriend were expecting something along the lines of casu marzu, or maggot cheese, a delicacy in Sardinia made by allowing the cheese to move beyond fermentation and begin decomposition.

Instead, they are served a dark lumpy soup cooked in a cauldron, which turns out to be made from lamb's blood. Then, just as they are done stomaching the blood – which tasted like onions, by the way – out comes the maggot cheese! Which they actually enjoyed, marking their culinary fearlessness.

Face To Face With A Fugu by Marcus Samuelsson who, as a teen, wanted nothing more than to save up enough money and travel to Japan for fugu, a potentially deadly puffer fish known for killing the diner if it isn't prepared properly.

The five-time James Beard award-winning chef and author first heard about the existence of the fugu from his high school sweetheart who was half Japanese. He explains how eating at her house back then was a life-changing experience, with his teenaged tastebuds tantalised by items like raw fish with a drop of soy sauce and wasabi (green mustard paste). And when he heard about a fish that could kill someone, he knew he had to discover this creature for himself.

Did finally eating fugu make Samuelsson a better chef? Probably. It is Samuelsson's determination to eat fugu in its homeland, a challenge he never gave up on, that gives an inkling about how passionate he is about food. I'm no chef, but I can totally relate: someone who is passionate and driven about food would go the distance in search of that special something to satisfy his or her cravings. 

In fact, I was able to relate to most of the 34 stories in this book, and in the process learn about the origins of certain foods, countries and culture. 

The background information about the cuisine's origins and even the emotions felt by the authors successfully convey the idea that food is more than just something to eat. 

As Oseland says in his introduction, "Every traveler has two or three or even a hundred of them: moments on a journey when you taste something and you're forever changed." 

Michael Pollan writes about such a moment in Made By Hand, which describes his journey to Seoul in South Korea, his discovery of kimchi (pickled cabbage), and how he learnt that there is more to this humble accompaniment than meets the eye.

While visiting the many kimchi museums in Seoul, he saw droves of school children on field trips. Most of them as young as seven and below, looked bored as they were taken through the museum of fermented cabbage. Curiosity got the better of him and he approached the teacher-in-charge to ask why bother with this field trip at such a young age. She explained that children there are not born liking kimchi, and they have to learn about kimchi. But why?

"Because an acquired taste like the one for kimchi is how cultures knit themselves together," she replied.

So food is just not what is served on a plate, chewed and swallowed, for every dish has a story to tell, every dish is a memory in the making, and a life-changing experience waiting to happen.

Spilling the beans

Posted: 27 Jan 2014 08:00 AM PST

WHO doesn't love a good exposé? Restaurant Babylon offers to reveal the goings-on in the kitchens and dining rooms of top-rated restaurants.

Journalist/writer Imogen Edward-Jones finds out little known secrets of the restaurant world: little morsels of information diners should know before they step into a top rated restaurant. She uncovers some gems – from how restaurateurs excessively mark-up cheap wine (which more people tend to order) to how head chefs use the same spoon to sample each plate before it goes out of the kitchen (Yes! The horror! The same spoon, without so much as wiping it!). 

Oh, wait ... there is more. Most chefs use the "lick and stick" technique when dressing their dishes. You know the piece of parsley that sits pretty on the goats cheese? Chances are it's in place because the chef licked it and stuck it there. 

To get these secrets, Edward-Jones says she interviewed some of America's top restaurant owners, chefs, sommeliers and kitchen staff, many of whom were willing to spill the beans on the unsavoury practices in restaurants. 

This isn't Edward-Jones' first industry expose. Her previous books include Hotel Babylon (24 hours at a top London hotel, which kicked off a BBC TV series of the same name that aired from 2006 to 2009), Wedding Babylon (the excesses of the wedding industry), Beach Babylon (about the beach resort industry), Air Babylon (travel industry), Pop Babylon (a year in the life of a boy band) and Fashion Babylon (the life and times of a small fashion house in London). 

In Restaurant Babylon, Edward-Jones reveals all in the form of a story about made-up characters who are all based on real-life people. Names and situations may have been changed, she explains in the prologue, but the stories are all true.

The main character is a restaurateur who owns three eateries: Le Restaurant (a one Michelin-star restaurant), La Table (an upmarket brasserie) and Le Bar, a cocktail venue. The book is divided into chapters that mark the passing hours in a single day of the said restaurateur, beginning with Chapter One at the crack of dawn. This is the format Imogen-Edwards has taken in most of her other books in the Babylon series.

Because everything happens in a single day, the accounts in Restaurant Babylon feel particularly horrifying – apart from the nagger he wakes up with, our protagonist has to deal with a nasty online review (which is expertly buried by the restaurateur's public relations maven whose office comes up with a few hundred – false – "positive" reviews that overshadow the one bad review), an elderly customer who dies during lunch (at the table, amidst a full service!), another who gets a blow job under the dining table, the unexpected arrival of a food critic while the kitchen staff are immersed in a bloody (yes, there's a knife involved, and blood) brawl in the back, a threat from a competitor, a sabotage attempt by a neighbouring restaurant, drugs (a commis, aka junior chef, freaks out while cutting cauliflower – he's had some drugs which he found in the pocket of his chef's jacket or something like that), sex in the linen closet, a raid by the British Border Agency (illegal immigrant workers in the house!), a disaster with the restaurant's drainage system (you will want to read about this in full) ... seriously, it's a world of sex, drugs and soup. 

Of course, Restaurant Babylon isn't the first expose of the multi-billion dollar food industry. Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, which came out more than a decade ago, famously shocked the world with the inside story of the wild and shocking exploits of the culinary trade. 

Does Restaurant Babylon deliver further?

Well, if anything, Restaurant Babylon perpetuates Bourdain's story. Years have passed but things haven't really changed that much, it seems. Well, maybe a little. Kitchen staff no longer tolerate inhumanely long working hours: as Immogen-Jones' protagonist relates, "The old double shift, seven in the morning till midnight, six days a week ... is unsurprisingly not that popular with the new sort of softer, gentler, metro-chefs who are coming through."

But, generally, in the high-pressure culinary world, tempers flare, disaster always looms, and customers always pay.

Apart from luridly shocking tales, Restaurant Babylon leaves us a little better prepared as patrons with tips such as these (to mention just a few): Always, always check your bill as even top restaurants are known to add extra items; be wary of "restaurant specials" as they sometimes comprise dishes or ingredients the restaurants are desperate to get rid of; and make an effort to look nice when you go to a fancy restaurant or you may run the risk of being seated in the worst table amidst the loud, unsightly customers an establishment wishes to hide away from the public eye.

Vulkan Lives

Posted: 27 Jan 2014 08:00 AM PST

THIS one is for completists, but to stick that phrase on one of Black Library's Horus Heresy novels seems somewhat redundant. For one thing, fans who are into this series would mostly have gone all out to get hold of every piece of HH fiction out there – from novels to anthologies to short fiction to audio dramas.

And probably stopping just short of shelling out 75 quid for the limited-edition, leatherbound graphic novel Macragge's Honour, thank you very much.

For another thing, it's unlikely at this stage in the series – 27 books and counting – that anyone but a completist would be following the saga.

So here we have Book 26, recently out in trade paperback format after its "collector's edition" hardcover publication late last year. It is also "for completists" in yet another sense – we just gotta have it, regardless of the quality. It's as all-consuming as Pokemon!

Sadly, Vulkan Lives isn't a very rewarding entry, and may leave ardent fans with a distinct feeling of dissatisfaction at the end.

For a quick recap, the Horus Heresy is a galaxy-wide civil war raging in the 31st 
millennium (that's about 29,000 years from now). The Imperium of Man, led by its powerful immortal Emperor, is in flames after half of his "sons", almost-as-powerful genetically-engineered demigods known as primarchs, rebelled. The traitors' leader is the primarch named Horus, hence the series' title. 

It's a prequel to the hugely popular Warhammer 40,000 – which started out as a 
tabletop wargame in the late 1980s and expanded into books, comics, videogames and even a direct-to-video animated feature. 

Vulkan Lives is the story of two of those primarchs, one a loyal son and the other a traitor. Vulkan, the faithful one, is leader and gene-sire of the Salamanders chapter of Space Marines, genetically-enhanced warriors created by the Emperor to help him achieve his dreams of empire.

The Salamanders, together with fellow loyalist chapters the Iron Hands and 
Raven Guard, were almost annihilated by Horus' treachery at the outset of the Heresy, and this book deals with Vulkan's fate immediately after that massacre on the planet Isstvan V (described briefly in HH Book 5, Fulgrim; in the novella Scorched Earth, also by Kyme; and in this book).

Vulkan is captured by Konrad Curze, a traitor primarch and leader of the Night Lords chapter. He is shackled, humiliated and tortured by his nuttier-than-a-pecan-pie brother who intends to break his mind and body, or kill Vulkan in the process, just because the primarch's nobility ... offends him.

It turns out that he does kill Vulkan – only to make an astonishing discovery about the true nature of the Salamanders' master.

As their little sibling drama plays out, Kyme intercuts it with the story of an archaeological dig on a faraway planet. Say what? Yep, a dig for some sort of artefact – but it's no ordinary piece of history. 

Several parties are after it: traitor Space Marines, a rag-tag group of loyalist survivors from Isstvan V, and an immortal named John Grammaticus who readers would have met earlier in the series.

What exactly this has to do with Vulkan and his own troubles of the moment is actually so basic that any mention of it could be construed as a major spoiler; so I'll refrain from saying more.

But this scramble for the artefact is somewhat slapdash, lacking the customary urgency of a typical page-turning Black Library confrontation between loyalist and traitor Marines. The surviving loyalists are so devoid of character that it becomes a chore trying to tell them apart – not that it matters much anyway. The traitors are clearly the more interesting group here.

This is surprising because Kyme, the only Black Library writer writing on the Salamanders, has done much better with them, namely, in the Tome Of Fire trilogy.

Over in wherever-it-is that Curze has Vulkan imprisoned, however, it's the other way around. As "godlike" as Vulkan is revealed to be, he actually becomes the more interesting and more clearly defined character. The crap that happens to him here and in the next book is intriguing, given that Tome Of Fire indicates he was with his legion till some time after the Heresy. 

On the other hand, Curze (whose Night Lords were the central figures of some pretty kick-butt books from Aaron Dembski-Bowden) soon becomes a wearisome, petulant spoiled brat whose incessant whining is quite grating.

If you can recall that scene in Star Trek VI with the Klingon villain yammering on and spouting Shakespeare over the comms and Dr McCoy saying "I'd give good money if he'd shut up", well, that's how I felt reading the passages where Curze keeps taunting Vulkan. Come on – this is the Night Haunter, whose acts of butchery performed in silence and darkness frightened an entire planet of murderous scum into submission. 

The one compelling reason to finish this was because I read somewhere that the next HH book, Dan Abnett's The Unremembered Empire, is a direct sequel to this one (while also drawing together threads from various other HH tales). 

By the end, I really felt that this was something of a non-starter, possibly the weakest of all the series' primach-centric stories. A good thing Abnett's follow-up makes up for this one, but that's another review for another day.


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