We’re living vicariously through our authors and their stories set around the world! So far, we’ve visited France with Sanaë Lemoine, Morocco with Laila Lalami, South Korea with Michelle Zauner, Indonesia with Jesse Q. Sutanto, Jamaica with Nicola Yoon, and Antarctica with Maggie Shipstead and Julian Sancton.
Join us in Malaysia with Zen Cho! She is a Hugo, Crawford and British Fantasy Award winner, and a finalist for the Locus and Astounding Awards. Born and raised in Malaysia, she now lives in the United Kingdom. She is the author of several stories including the Sorcerer to the Crown novels and most recently Black Water Sister. Set in Panang, Black Water Sister follows a reluctant medium who discovers the ties that bind can unleash a dangerous power in this compelling contemporary fantasy. She’s answered a few questions about her favorite places and foods in Malaysia.
What is your favorite place in Malaysia to visit?
I’m obsessed with Penang, a city and state in the north of Peninsular Malaysia, not far from Thailand. In 1786 the British established a trading port there, which became the meeting place of many cultures. It’s leafy, rich in history and charm, and has some of the best food in the world. It’s a good place to visit if you like walking along the street and looking at interesting buildings, or relaxing on the beach, or trying street food, or exploring tropical gardens. It has a vibrant arts and heritage scene, and a lot of Instagrammable street art if that’s your sort of thing.
What are the places you love returning to?
This isn’t very worthy and it probably won’t seem authentic (though it is), but one of the places I have missed in this long pandemic is One Utama, a shopping mall I spent a lot of time in as a teenager. As there are relatively few public community spaces, malls are a real centre of community and public life in urban Malaysia. You visit malls to shop and eat, of course, but they also host events, concerts, exhibitions, literary festivals, and more. One of the first things I’m going to do the next time I’m home is visit One Utama and make a pilgrimage to Inside Scoop, a Malaysian ice cream chain that offers flavours like teh tarik (sweet milky tea) and durian (an infamous fruit that makes an amazing ice cream flavour).
Malaysia is a particularly clear example of a country where diversity and hybridity have been baked into the culture.
What is one meal you recommend for visitors?
Malaysian cuisine is very diverse, thanks to our mixed cultural influences, but nasi lemak is probably the closest thing we have to a national dish. It’s rice cooked in coconut milk, with sambal (a spicy condiment), roast peanuts, crispy fried anchovies, cucumbers, and hardboiled egg. It’s often served wrapped in banana leaves. Visitors should also try kuih, a category of local sweets made with glutinous rice, coconut, palm sugar and more – perfect as a snack or dessert with a cup of coffee.
From left to right: kuih dadar: pandan-flavoured crepe rolled around a filling of grated coconut cooked in palm sugar, coffee, pulut tai tai: glutinous rice dyed blue with butterfly pea flower with kaya (a sort of custard made from coconut milk and eggs). As served at the restaurant Makan Time in Petaling Jaya, Selangor!
After living in multiple places, are there any cultural aspects that seem uniquely Malaysian that you’re proud of?
Cultural exchange and hybridity are a feature of many places and communities, but Malaysia is a particularly clear example of a country where diversity and hybridity have been baked into the culture. We have the problems common to many other countries of enforced national narratives that are built around exclusion rather than inclusion. But for me the best vision Malaysia can offer is of a multicultural society where difference is celebrated and assimilation is not the ultimate goal.
What books do you recommend for someone planning a trip?
The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf: An accessible, moving YA novel about a teenager with OCD who is trying to find her mother amid the chaos of the May 1969 race riots, a significant formative incident in Malaysian history.
Evening is a Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan: An engrossing family saga set in the 1980s about an upwardly mobile Malaysian Indian family and its secrets.
Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong: A surrealist short story collection by a major mahua (Malaysian Chinese) writer, grappling with race, gender and religion.
Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho: A light-hearted, sparky rom-com about a single lawyer in search of love and meaning; while it’s set in Singapore, the protagonist is Malaysian, like the author.
Amazing Malaysian by Norman Musa: A great introduction to authentic Malay food by a UK-based Malaysian chef.
Thank you Zen! Discover her novels as well as more of our book recommendations set in Malaysia, from novels to cookbooks.