Eating Authors: Zen Cho (Campbell Award nominee)

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Zen Cho

It’s July (but you knew that) here at EATING AUTHORS, and that means something special. It’s the month where we focus on those authors who have been nominated for the coveted John W. Campbell (not a Hugo) Award for Best New Writer that will be handed out at the World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio, TX this year. Authors only have a narrow, two-year eligibility window for this prize, and for many that period comes and goes without them even noticing they had a shot. For this reason, and because I had the great fortune to have been nominated myself for this thing back in the day, I’m happy to do my part to increase the signal about the award.

Of the five nominees this year, four are in their second year of eligibility and two were actually nominated last year (Mur Lafferty and Stina Leicht). These two fine authors have already done a stint here at EATING AUTHORS, so they won’t get a repeat — I choose to take them at their respective words from last year as to their most memorable meal — but do take a moment to click on their names, (re)read their gustatory recollections, and familiarize yourself with their work. The point of this month’s posts is to introduce you to some new talent that you might not know about, and motivate you to vote (if you’re in a position to do so) for this award.

That said, over the next three Mondays we’ll hear from the remaining nominees. We begin this week with Zen Cho, who describes herself as a Malaysian author living in London. Her short story “First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia” was a finalist in the Selangor Young Talent Awards in 2011, and has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Like many Campbell nominees, she’s made it to the ballot on the strength of her short fiction, but she recently completed a novel and I’m sure we’ll see more in the future. In the meantime, check out “The Terracotta Bride” in the Torquere Press anthology, Steam Powered 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories, edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft, as well as “The Four Generations of Chang E” in Aliens: Recent Encounters, edited by Alex Dally MacFarlane and released last month from Prime Books.

LMS: Welcome, Zen. I have to say, I’ve been looking forward to your answer to this question because I know you’ll put a Malaysian spin on it. So, what’s your most memorable meal?

ZC: This is a hard question! Like being asked to name a single favourite book. The right answer to a question about your favourite book is that one needs different books in different moods and for different reasons, and at different times in one’s life. It’s the same with food! There cannot be any one definitive best meal because the best meals are the ones that are just right at the time.

But I do think quite a lot about creating the conditions for a good meal, and when I have the opportunity to have a meal I am always focused on achieving the optimum eating experience. This requires that you are hungry before you begin to eat (because food is always better when you’re hungry), and the goal is to reach the highest pitch of enjoyment possible with each mouthful of food, which is to be done by achieving in every case the perfect balance of flavours. With Chinese food what this usually means is that I aim to have the perfect proportions of rice, vegetables and meat in every spoonful.

When I explain this to other people they often look at me funny and start to edge away. It’s the people who get it (and respond with their own food philosophies!) whom I embrace to my bosom as my people.

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo
Steam-Powered 2
Aliens: Recent Encounters

It’s not that I identify as a foodie so much as that I come from a culture that is very very interested in food. The last time I went home to Malaysia it was for the wedding of a friend, and I was chatting to one of my fellow bridesmaids — also a Malaysian expat — about the wedding. She kept interjecting with things she wanted to remember to eat during her all-too-short week at home, resulting in exchanges like this:

Me: “Wah, it all worked out just as the bride wanted lor. Everything matched the theme! She’s been so stressed, though. Hopefully she’ll have time to relax during the honeymoon.”

Friend: “OMG, steamboat! I must eat steamboat!”

So obviously my best meals have been Malaysian, because Malaysian cuisine is the best in the world. (I like all kinds of cuisines, and will eat almost anything — but let’s be real here, Malaysian food is the best.) It has a meal suitable for every mood: fluffy roti canai to be eaten with your hands off a banana leaf in the dappled shade of a tree on a Saturday morning; half-boiled egg with soy sauce and white pepper to be swallowed down when you need a quick protein-rich breakfast; chilli pan mee when you want something to sink your teeth into that will stay burningly in your stomach for the next several hours; nasi lemak when a mix of textures and flavours is desired. Even the humble economy rice or nasi campur addresses the human need for variety, with its noble array of dishes.

But the meals I remember most fondly are the most ordinary. It’s the custom of my family in Malaysia to eat out on Saturdays, and it’s those family dinners at open-air family-run restaurants that are the best meals I remember having — surrounded by my loved ones, trying to keep up as my dad tirelessly refills our cups of Chinese tea, and eating some damned good food.

Thanks, Zen. I have a niece who is from Malaysia, and she and my nephew have gone on and on about the food there. Nice to have confirmation that they weren’t just making it all up.

Next Monday: Another Campbell nominee and another meal!


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