Dining with Dragons

Carol Selva Rajah took me on a fascinating culinary time travel in her latest book, “Dining with Dragons” published in October 2015. The book is a perfect example of how storytelling enhances the learning of history. The smell and taste of the 28 heirloom recipes featured are so evocative of the past they bring back Carol’s memories not just of eating itself but also of setting.

The tale begins in 1924 when readers are introduced to one of the admirable women in Carol’s life, her Amah (nanny). Widowed at the age of 22 in Canton, heavily pregnant Amah lived in the time of great gender crisis and absolute poverty with her difficult mother-in-law. Within three hours of giving birth alone, she was out in the fields harvesting. Her resilience is an inspiration to me each time I feel under pressure from issues which pale in significance when compared to Amah’s.

The chapters then fall into place like puzzle pieces in British Malaya, Ceylon, Singapore, Australia and Canada, presenting a melting pot of cultures. For instance, we read how the patchwork of ethnicities come together befitting a model for global harmony, especially during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya and Carol’s pursuit of identity in modern-day Australia.

Equally memorable is the gardener Uncle OG, the valuable think tank of Carol’s family who shared their lives in every difficult family dispute. Mr Aziz, the kind newsstand owner and Abel Arumugam, Carol’s cheeky younger brother nicknamed “D for Danger”. Abel, now a renowned surgeon is the co-author of this book.

I laughed, cried and smiled while reading this book. It is true that life has a certain flavour for those who have fought and risked all, something that the sheltered and protected can never experience. But thanks to this book, I caught glimpses of it.

I especially like how every chapter of the book ends with one of her personal recipes, as if rewarding me for lessons learned well!

Malayan-born Carol is an international authority on food history and culinary art with 14 cookbooks to her name. Being the first Asian woman invited to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in New York, she is honoured with the Jaguar-Gourmet Traveller award and recognised by the Australian government for transforming Cabramatta in Sydney from its drug-ridden past into a vibrant food mecca. The seasoned chef is believed to be the first person to teach a class of students to cook Malaysian food in North America.

Carol will be present in the upcoming Sharpened Word to be held on Saturday, May 21 at the Old Andersonians’ Club at 2pm. The book, priced at RM86, is available during the above-mentioned literary matinee. You can also order online at

Mei Kuan

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