My first encounter with Carol Selva Rajah was nothing short of amazing. The author of the food memoir “Dining with Dragons” was dressed in a white statement shirt that aptly proclaimed “Mother of Dragons”. Her formidable presence melted all too soon to reveal a heart-warming demeanour during our exclusive one-on-one on Saturday, May 21 in conjunction with the Sharpened Word session.
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. Carol became a household name in Malaysia in the 1980s with her 7-year-running cooking show, “Citarasa” which showcased authentic Malaysian cuisine.
“Dining with Dragons” is her first novel and the review of the latest non-fiction was featured in our previous issue.
What did she enjoy the most during the whole writing process? “The absolute joy of writing. Of finding the right word. You have to think in terms of whether the words fit into the theme, year and time. I would never use a modern word in that book unless I am talking about my own feelings,” 75-year-old Carol shared.
Were there challenges? “When you are writing about your emotions. When my husband died, it took me three and a half months to write just two or three pages. I would write and cry,” Carol said. “Those times were traumatic and very sad, this is why it took me five years to write. When my mother and Amah (nanny) died, it was very hard. The war years were frightening only because I was a little child,” she added.
Not many people know about the history of the Amahs who have served in so many households all over Southeast Asia back in 1920s up to 1950s and her book is a perfect example of how storytelling enhances the learning of history.
In life, there is one principle that Carol lives by: “To be truthful to yourself. To look in the mirror and be proud of who you are. That’s the biggest thing Amah taught me.”
I could not resist asking the seasoned chef, believed to be the first person to teach a class of students to cook Malaysian food in North America, on the ingredient that is inspiring her right now. “At the minute, it is ras el hanout from Morocco,” she disclosed.
Her book, priced at RM86, is available at www.akasaa.com and Kinokuniya. She plans on an anniversary edition with more stories and pictures as well as an audiobook, so look forward to it!
Another spotlighted writer was Ista Kyra who has written for New Straits Times, Malaysian Insider, Malay Mail and Ipoh Echo. The 30-year-old freelance writer cum poet has a baby girl whom she fondly nicknamed “little dragon”.
During the literary matinee, Ista unveiled her private collection of yet-to-be-published poems. New to the spoken word scene, her work of different themes is definitely not for the faint-hearted. “Our bodies, men and women’s, have been sexualised to a point that it is an abuse. We need to come back to a zone when we see things without being so judgmental. Hence I write the way I do,” Ista explained on her favourite theme: women or the feminine principle.
Her one precious advice for all aspiring writers out there: “Continue to write and share your work. Do not be afraid. There will be people who like it and people who don’t. It doesn’t matter, take on all comments to improve yourself.”
Swing by her blog at thisbrainisblonde.blogspot or find her via Facebook by the name “Ista Kyra”.