When I first meet the awesome Gerald Tan, he has just come off a flight from somewhere or other. I say this because it’s genuinely hard to remember where he flew in from, given that Tan is currently travelling around the world.
In many ways, this isn’t out of the norm for Tan, who grew up in Penang, but moved to the United States when he turned 17. Since then, he has worked as a journalist at NBC, Al Jazeera and CNN, stationed in places like Doha, Washington and even Kuala Lumpur at one point.
Tan’s career too has evolved – he started out as a political journalist, but when his enchantment with food (cultivated from his early days in Penang) started to take on a life of its own, he became a food journalist, with a strong interest in the historical, cultural and sociological aspects of food – he even presented Al Jazeera’s AJ Eats, a series charting global food and culture. Tan also has a passion for baking and documents his endeavours on his website boulangerry.com.
But through Tan’s years of vertiginous travel and work commitments, one thing has remained unchanged: his fondness for Penang.
About two years ago, that fondness turned into something more tangible, when one of Tan’s regular bi-annual trips to Penang sparked a conversation with his childhood friend Alan Lau. That conversation bloomed into an idea. That idea became Tok Tok Mee, a beautifully-written, gorgeously-photographed culinary memoir on Penang’s diverse street foods and the vendors who make them.
“We were having a simple conversation about how much we love food. And we were talking about nostalgia, because when I come back to Penang, what I crave are all these noodle dishes and all the aunties and uncles who served me when I was a boy. They even served my parents when they were kids!
“And the conversation veered towards how these vendors and their food are disappearing. They are retiring, their kids are not taking it up, or if they are, it’s different, a lot of the laborious techniques are disappearing, because they are not making it by hand. And I said, ‘Isn’t it sad?’ And Alan said, ‘Bro, you should write a book about it!’”
And in the end, that was that. The nugget of an idea germinated in Tan’s mind and when he was sure he wanted to do it, Lau sprang another surprise: he wanted to start his own boutique publishing firm called Trishaw Press focusing on Penang. And the book would be its first output.
The making of the book
So, the project really became a joint labour of love for the two. Lau was instrumental in drawing up the longlist of foods and vendors to be featured in the book and the pair went back and forth on this for some time until Tan was able to come back to Penang to visit the places that Lau had mapped out. This time, he arrived with award-winning cinematographer and photographer Benjamin Emery in tow. Tan and Emery had worked on AJ Eats and already knew they synced. The dream team was complete but the hard work was only beginning.
The three men spent about 14 days spread out over a year (yes, you read that right!) visiting various Penang street food vendors to gather information, interview subjects, find out more about the food, take pictures and eat. Each day began at 7am and ended at 10pm. By the end of those visits, the team had accumulated 20,000 images!
The bulk of the project involved speaking to street food vendors and photographing and eating their food. Tan says this was actually relatively easy as most of the vendors were eager participants, readily having their pictures taken or sharing their stories.
But he also says there was an unwritten caveat that he followed throughout this process.
“Most of them are really happy to share their story, but there’s a secret: never ask them for their recipe. Because you’ll be turned away, because it’s tightly guarded. So that’s something I stayed away from,” he says.
In putting together the book, Tan says there was a conscious effort to compile a list of vendors who still adhere to time-honoured ways of doing things and who essentially sum up the memories of his childhood.
But there were multiple challenges to this, most notably the fact that many of them have retired or passed on, and the remaining custodians of these street foods are dwindling in numbers.
“Now in Penang, there is only one pork satay seller who makes it the traditional way, with a sweet potato sauce. Then there is chee cheong chok, which is pig intestine congee – the most famous one in Penang closed five or six years ago. Now there are only one or two more left. When you are actively looking for these vendors, you really notice how hard it is to track them down,” says Tan.
When you read the physical book, you’ll be struck by many things, the most notable of which is how unusually un-commercial it is. There are no recipes or addresses listed in the book and none of the pictures are captioned. This posits the idea that readers are meant to discover Penang’s culinary identity through Tan’s eloquent words and Emery’s gorgeous images only, which is a decidedly refreshing take on things.
“I didn’t want this to end up looking like an elongated blog post that tells you all the food you’re going to have, the price, the opening times. Then it becomes a guide book and there’s nothing wrong with guide books, but it’s a very different genre and it takes you to a very different place,” says Tan.
Instead, Tok Tok Mee offers a wonderfully evocative sense of Penang food from the perspective of someone who grew up on the island and has memories that stretch back to days when the availability of street food was never in question. The book distils the essence of that nostalgic value, with heart-warming stories about tok tok mee (won ton mee, for the uninitiated) and the vendor who would wander the streets with his bamboo pole; and the pork satay that was an unquestionably omnipresent feature at Tan’s childhood birthday parties.
“For me, that was what was most appealing to write about, it was my connection to the food and my connection to Penang. So we’re calling it a culinary memoir, because it’s stories of my growing up with these foods, with these people,” says Tan.
In reading the book, you’ll also quickly realise that it is extremely well-researched – you’re likely to discover things you never knew before, like the fact that loh mee was conceived at sea by Hainanese cooks working for the British, who repurposed leftover shark’s fin soup to create this delicious noodle dish.
Tan says to research the book, he combed through history books and cookbooks and even had lengthy conversations with food lovers to collect anecdotal evidence.
“I feel like Penang is a very anecdotal city, so it was about talking to anyone who’s a food lover and asking them ‘What did you grow up eating? How was it made then?’”
Another thing that’s immediately obvious in the book from the get-go is that though Tan’s memories form the landscape upon which the book is built, the spotlight is very much on the major players: the food of Penang and the people who have made it for years and continue to make it, come hell or high water. The insight on the state’s culinary tapestry and the fluid synergy between vendor and food is what makes the book such an interesting read.
“I wanted readers to get to know the vendors and their craft. Because really, it’s a lifetime of doing exactly the same thing. It’s hard to contemplate that dedication and with it, the expertise and craftsmanship of what they do,” says Tan.
Each chapter represents a different dish, and you’ll find entries on char kuey teow, laksa lemak (now an endangered species), ubiquitous dishes like nasi lemak, asam laksa, nasi kandar, putu mayam as well as lesser known meals like chee cheong chok. Tan says he started out with a list of 80 or 85 dishes but eventually narrowed it down to 42, after much discussion and debate about origins and what makes a dish a quintessentially Penang offering.
I feel like Penang is a very anecdotal city, so it was about talking to anyone who’s a food lover and asking them ‘What did you grow up eating? How was it made then?
Then there is the photography – beautiful images that tell their own stories of people, food and Penang itself. Seemingly arbitrary photographs of gas tanks meld fluidly with profile pictures of vendors like poh piah skin maestro Lim Kim Hoe or the famous curry mee doyennes, known simply as the Lim sisters. Even the images of the food are strung together as chronicles, with stoves, utensils and worn hands providing context and value to each story.
“Ben and I have always worked where I tell him editorially where we’re going and all the things we’re going to be doing, so he takes note of all these things we are going to focus on and then he shoots them.
“But when we’re in the place, he might just see old newspaper crumpled up in the corner that he decides to take. And it’s interesting when you have the lens of someone who’s not from the culture,” says Tan.
But ultimately what really draws you to this book is how wonderfully well-written it is. Tan weaves fascinating, delectable narratives into each story, spinning fairytales out of humble meals and people. Part of his entry on char kuey teow for example, reads: “The kuey teow, first anointed by a seraphic blend of sesame oil and pork lard, drinks up the fat rendered from the lap cheong. The oils shock the fringes of those accompanying ingredients into charred crisp, while chilli paste cavorts with thick soya sauce for extra jolts of flavour. Each element settles into a symbiosis, taking on the collective aromas as intoxicating as it is unforgettable.”
Has anything more interesting ever been written about char kuey teow? I think not. Which also explains why the book has already done well since its release on Amazon in the middle of 2017 (it is only now being released in local bookstores). Naturally, this has led to Lau pressing Tan to work on a second book.
“I do have a sweet tooth, so if there is a next book, it might be on the sweets of Malaysia. Like in Kelantan and Pahang, they have sweets that haven’t been written about. But it would involve visiting these places and doing more research,” he says.
Which leads to another important question: If Tan is going to be working on more books on food in the region, does that mean he will eventually move back to Penang, as it makes more sense for him to be based in Malaysia?
“That’s the million-dollar question. Because for me, the more I travel, the more I realise you could be a digital nomads nowadays.
“And I have no roots, in that sense. I was writing the first pages of Tok Tok Mee in Nairobi. I subsequently wrote chapters in London, Washington and Penang. So I think you can write anywhere – it’s where the inspiration strikes, really,” he says.