When the desire to fulfil your aspirations is so strong, you’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen. Dayana Wong, a Penang, Malaysia-based first-time cookbook author, did just that. After being unable to find a publisher ready to publish her first cookbook on her terms, Dayana founded Bulan Press, her own publishing house, Bulan Press. “For my personal journey, I wanted to be part of every step. Down to nitpicking the recipe layout design, cover image, paper type to marketing and selling the book.” As it turned out, the outcome was for the better in the end.
Dayana Wong was born and raised in Penang, Malaysia, a vibrant heritage town noted for its culinary delights. It’s apparent that Penang Makan: Heritage Street Food Recipes is a labour of passion. She loves collecting cookbooks, “It took me a while to realize my passion, which was all along books.” Here, she tells us more about how she discovered her affinity for Malaysian food, preserving family recipes passed down through the generations, her two-year journey from ideation to recipe testing, and what it takes to launch a cookbook.
One of the main lessons I got from writing this book was if you aren’t ready to commit to something big then don’t waste 5 minutes on it.
Penang Makan: Heritage Street Food Recipes is priced at RM120 and available on www.bulanpress.com, Kinokuniya KLCC, MPH, independent bookstores across Penang, Lit Books in the Klang Valley. All recipes are Halal.
How did you end up doing what you do now?
I know I’ve always wanted to do something creative in my life. I grew up only knowing 3 kinds of career you could have; being a doctor, lawyer or banker. Those were really the options I was given, anything else is just a hobby, not so much a career to pursue. However, my parents never limit me to go with what society depicts and always encourage me to go beyond when taking on endeavours, and always be my own trailblazer.
I had to put myself through calculus when studying for my undergraduate degree to work in the gruelling environment of investment banking to come to realize that what I wanted to do was make books! And leaning toward cookbook writing was also an organic growth stemming from my love of eating.
Tell us more about what inspired you to launch your first cookbook?
It all began when I was in London doing my Masters degree. As usual, I miss home terribly, and that means missing the food specifically Penang street food and my mom’s cooking. At the time there weren’t really many Youtube videos or blogs that had Penang street food recipes available. And I can only reminisce about the times I had those when I’m home and I also got my mother to bring me frozen homemade roti canai and beef rendang. I don’t know how she managed to smuggle a tub of beef rendang up the plane but she did it. And she also sometimes sent me care packages with long shelf life food such as beef or chicken serunding, kaya spread, murukku and other snacks. It would be a huge box and cost a bomb to ship over that’s why it really was ‘precious cargo’ for me.
I’m an avid cookbook reader. One of the many things that my parents have instilled in me is a love for reading. I’ve always loved books despite having difficulty reading in the beginning but I just looked through pages and pages of books. It took me a while to realize my passion, which was all along, books.
The cookbooks I had at the time were mostly western cookery books, Southeast Asian culinary books weren’t as abundant as they are now. So I had to call my mom if I wanted to make something. So really the pure motivation behind my learning to cook is to eat. And that’s when I thought why not write a cookbook on the dishes I grew up eating. For inspiration, I looked to my culinary heroes the likes of Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Anthony Bourdain and our beloved local star Chef Wan.
Growing up, what type of food does your family cook at home?
Growing up, the type of food we cooked the most at home are Malay and Chinese style home cooking. Growing up in Penang, we have our fair share of eating street food, we just called them outside food growing up. When I’m at my maternal grandmother’s house the food we had were traditional masakan melayu such as masak lemak pucuk ubi, pajeri nenas, ketam masak lemak, ikan keli goreng, always a kari daging or ayam or ikan at every meal because my wan (grandfather) loved curries!
Two of my fondest memories of food and family are having cucur udang made by my maternal grandmother and sharing it with my grandfather for afternoon tea after he was done with doing some exercise in his garden. He would pick out the udang in his cucur udang and gave them to me and ate his now no udang – cucur udang.
The second one is of my maternal grandfather’s sister, my great aunt, tok njang, who made the best karipap sardine in the whole world! We would go over to her place whenever she had bulk orders for these tasty treats. And I would ‘help’ her to scoop the sardine stuffing into the pastry my tok njang has made from scratch (always 2 types if you want the perfect karipap pusing, one of ghee and the other of spry? Vegetable fat). We would all congregate on the floor of her outdoor kitchen and made an assembly line, and I would always want to do the scooping station because I will be able to sneak a couple mouthful of the sardine while I’m at it. These are the memories I reminisce and they would put a smile on my face. When I’m at my paternal grandparents house the dishes we ate was of course Chinese home cooking.
I like to think of myself as a home cook that wants to preserve her heritage and legacy. I always felt at home when I’m able to taste Malaysian food
I get really excited when I see cooking shows or cookbooks that feature our unique and delicious culinary cultures. I’ve always been drawn to it unknowingly from a very young age. I remember when I was about 4-6 years old I very much looked forward to Ramadhan because there would be cooking shows by Chef Wan and Florence Tan. That excited me more than my 5pm cartoon segments.
I’d like for Malaysians to appreciate our rich culture and one of them is our food. And also for us Malaysians to not always take shortcuts and westernized food. Rather, take the time to prepare family meals of our forebearers.
Setting up your publishing imprint is a bold move. Why would you choose to self-publish your cookbook?
The response I got from local publishers were not what I thought I wanted to hear. In order for me to have 100% hands-on control on the outcome of my book as well as be part of the entire journey of the bookmaking from drafting to designs to printing and marketing as well as gaining more out of the sales, it would be better to take things into my own hands.
When I told Kévin, my then-boyfriend and now fiancé about setting up my own imprint publishing company, Bulan Press, he was very keen on the idea and thought it would be a great move for me since I’ve always loved books and what better than to be making books myself.
What would you share with aspiring cookbook authors of your journey?
From conception to research to writing and recipe testing took me more than two years! I think I went back many many times between recipe testing and rewriting the entire recipe for some dishes.
The hardest part for me is to track my measurement when cooking. I’m so used to the way my mom cooks which is the ‘agak-agak’ way. And I’m glad I have Kévin to really drill me to get the measurements precise. I just wanted to keep on writing and kept changing the recipes I wanted featured.
In the end, I had to stop the ‘writing’ phase and allow my editor to read my manuscript. Another time-consuming part of the book is editing and proofreading. The fun part comes later when you are doing the photo shoot. Even though for me our photoshoots dragged on for a couple of months due to MCO restrictions.
I think the excitement you get on creating something that is inherently your very own is incomparable to any joy I know, like having a baby!
What are your learnings in your journey with Penang Makan: Heritage Street Food Recipes?
It’s an expensive endeavour if you are taking the self-publishing route. It’s a lot of work from you to push the book to the market. One of the main lessons I got from writing this book was if you aren’t ready to commit to something big then don’t waste 5 minutes on it. Because it’s going to take time, heart and of course, money to see the outcome. I think along the way I sometimes felt unsure if I will ever see the book come to life.
Professional proofreading is essential. If you want your book to be well made, I think professional help is a must.
A particular recipe that is very dear to your heart?
My most used recipe and very dear to me is the cucur udang recipe! It’s my grandmother’s recipe. We make it almost every weekend. Or whenever I’m home from a trip, I can smell cucur udang when I enter home that my mom has purposely fried just before I arrive.
This cucur udang also brings me back to fond memories with my late grandfather. I called him Wan, a term of endearment for grandfathers when I was growing up. In the late afternoons, my Wan would do his gardening activities like water the plants, trim his weeds, it’s his daily exercise. And I would be doing my thing such as rolling around in the garden grass, climbing trees and pushing my cats in a wheelbarrow playing taxi.
After a sweaty workout, we would get in and be served by my grandma a generous plate of cucur udang and black coffee for my grandfather. He would pick out the ‘udang’ prawns out of his cucur and give them to me and ate his now emptied prawn fritters. My mom actually does the same now to me. I hope one day I will pass on this gift of giving to my children.
What are some of the Asian cooking myths you wish to dispel?
- The perception that we use a lot of MSG, which seems bizarre because the home cooking from both my Malay and the Chinese side of the family never had MSG in their kitchen. I grew up not knowing what MSG is until I went abroad and people commented about oh Asian food has lots of MSG. The only form of msg I can think of we use is belacan.
- That Asian Street food isn’t refined? I’d like to think I have shown that street food can be refined. Just because something isn’t served on a plate three times the size of the meal on it and on a white tablecloth doesn’t mean it’s lesser. Pisang goreng (recipe in my cookbook), in my opinion, it’s worthy of a fine dining experience.
- Asian cooking, specifically Penang Street Food, is difficult and takes time to make at home. Some of the easiest dinners for me when cooking at home are char kuay teow, mee goreng mamak, nasi lemak and pasembur. If you have a few standby ingredients in your pantry, you can cook many Asian wonders. Even Penang curry mee.
- Asian cooking doesn’t honour the natural taste of the ingredients. I get this a lot from my boyfriend as he would tell me European cuisine unlike Malaysian cooking doesn’t have meat and vegetable drowning in spices.
- Asian food is always spicy. Asian food is definitely not always spicy.
Tell us your 3-5 pantry essentials, and how do you use them?
- Sweet Dark Soy Sauce – A must-have in my pantry is dark sweet soy sauce. I use it a lot in stir fries, stews and of course for comfort food nasi goreng for that no-brainer quick easy dinners.
- Ground Turmeric Powder – I also use a lot of ground turmeric not only for curries but also to season meat for frying and deep-frying. My mom also taught me to use turmeric when making cucur udang and pisang goreng.
- Fish sauce – I started using fish sauce when I wanted to cook Thai food at home. Now I use it as umami taste enhancer when stir-frying and for making Vietnamese dipping sauce.
- Ikan Bilis – I got this Pantry SOS habit from my mom. She is never without her variety of ikan bilis stock. Great for making nasi lemak at the last minute or nasi goreng kampung. My mom also makes this potato and ikan bilis cooked with soy sauce and tamarind to have with steamed white rice. I can eat bowls of that!
- Udang kering – A good pantry standby when you don’t have belacan or just want that je ne sais quoi in your sambal. And again thanks to my mom, my pantry is well stocked with udang kering on standby to make her sambal udang kering, sambal heh be. We would make a big batch of the sambal udang and eat it with steamed white rice while it’s hot. Keep some in airtight jars to be eaten with rice porridge and white bread slathered with Japanese mayonnaise, my childhood snack!
- Chilli paste or dried chilli for pantry SOS
What’s next for you and Penang Makan?
We are now getting Penang Makan to the UK, US and Europe. We are also working to get the book translated into French. We are also looking forward to collaborations and initiatives to promote Malaysian culinary culture abroad.
I truly believe Malaysian cuisine has so much potential and much to offer the world not only to tingle people’s taste buds but also to showcase our unique diverse culture through food.
Image credits: Penang Makan