Book Bites: A Common Motif – with Joyce Chng

Book Bites is Cooking the Books‘ more easygoing cousin. Authors talk about their book and share a recipe, all in one tasty bite. 

Joyce Chng came to the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (which is an excellent blend of the academic and the fantastic) a few years ago and speaking with her in the early morning hours was a delight. I’m so glad she’s returned to talk about food as a theme in her work. Thanks so much, Joyce, for coming back to visit!


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Food is a common motif in all my stories, from my YA fiction to my general/adult stories. For me, growing up Chinese, food is the glue that knits the family together and many festivals are food-based. The family gathers around the table on Lunar New Year’s Eve, a symbol of family reunion, and the food on the table symbolize a smooth and prosperous year as well as happy relationships at home. My mom would show her love by cooking me food. She isn’t the most demonstrative of moms when it comes to showing her affection, but her love comes through in the soups and dishes she makes. Food is not just physically nourishing, but it’s also emotionally and psychologically sustaining. It feeds the body, the family, and to a larger extent, the community. Enjoying food, even a simple offer of hot jasmine tea, affirms the bonds between friends, lovers and family.

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In Xiao Xiao & The Dragon’s Pearl, I wove in recipes that are linked to family and festival. These are foods that sustain Xiao Xiao and her family daily, like the pickled radish slices to perk up weak appetites or just a simple chilled snack on a hot summer’s day. And because, some of the recipes are also festival food, it’s part of what makes Xiao Xiao happy. Food are to be enjoyed and savored. Likewise, in Oysters, Pearls & Magic, the oyster stew warms Mirra’s soul and heart just as it fills her stomach. Josh, her partner from her poly triad, cooks it for her, affirming their relationship. As part of their healing and recovery process as individuals and a triad, eating becomes restorative and therapeutic. “Food heals and the company I am with speeds the healing, makes it work wonders to the body and the soul.” (Oysters, Pearls & Magic, Wave Ten) 

In my soon-to-be released space opera novella Water Into Wine, food comes into play once more with the story set right smack in a gorgeous vineyard on a planet. Grapes are harvested and are turned into wine. Family bonds are affirmed through the cooking of comfort food and grandma’s recipes. Even in times of galactic war, the protagonist’s family eats together, and enjoys the nourishment and comfort food provides when the world literally falls apart around them.

Water Into Wine

From simple Chinese soups, Greek dolmades to elaborate mooncake making sessions for Mid-Autumn Festival, food is a gentle motif in the story’s weave. The use of wine is not just a metaphor for change, but a reflection of how people grow internally and how they cope with external changes. I always love the way wine is described in wine-tasting menus. So lyrical, so beautiful. Confronted with the stark reality of war, the protagonist wonders “how the wine will taste. Will people taste the fear—the terror and anxiety—when they drink? A tart wine with hints of berry and blood? A spicy wine, laced with cinnamon and gunpowder, great for a summer evening?” Like the wine they makes, the protagonist is changed by war and its aftermath.

For this special food omnibus, I have two recipes: Greek dolmades and the oyster stew.

Dolmades

  • 25 grape leaves
  • Ground lamb (or minced chicken, if you don’t like lamb)
  • 1 table-spoon of fresh parsley
  • 1 cup of raw rice
  • 1 onion finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove finely chopped
  • 1 can of chicken broth
  • 4 lemons squeezed
  • 4 eggs
  • Salt and ground black pepper for taste
  1. Rinse and pat dry the grape leaves. Put them aside. You will use them shortly.
  2. Mix the ground lamb (or chicken), fresh parsley, salt, black pepper, raw rice, chopped onion and garlic clove together in a large bowl.
  3. Place 1 grape leaf stem up. Place 1 tablespoon of the meat mixture near the stem. Roll it like you are making a burrito. Use toothpicks to pick the stuffed leaves together. Continue until all the leaves are used.
  4. Place the stuffed leaves in a large pot and fill it up with the chicken broth. Bring the broth to a boil and lower heat to simmer. Cook until tender for 30 minutes. Use a fork to check.
  5. Remove 1 quart of broth from the pot and let the rest of it to cool down. You will need it hot.
  6. Beat the 4 eggs until frothy and add the lemon juice slowly. Take the warmed broth, add to egg mixture slowly, using 1/2 ladle at a time while beating the egg mixture. When all broth is mixed, slowly add to the stove. Turn off the heat and let it sit for 10 minutes before serving.

(I used this wonderful recipe I found here: http://www.food.com/recipe/dolmades-107507 and modified it slightly)

Feel free to modify it further. For raw rice, you can use quinoa or mixed grains.

Oyster Stew

  • 1/2 cup of butter (Use alternatives if you are lactose intolerant)
  • 1 cup of chopped celery (carrots and potatoes are also good).
  • 3 table-spoons of chopped shallots (small onions make a fine substitute as well).
  • 1 quart of fresh cream. (Use alternatives if you are lactose intolerant)
  • 2 bowls of fresh oysters, washed clean of grit.
  • Salt and ground black pepper for taste.
  1. Melt the butter in a large pot, throw in the shallots or small onions. Stir until the shallots are soft and golden-brown. Add in the celery (or the carrots and potatoes).
  2. Add in the fresh cream and mix with medium heat, remembering to stir frequently. When the mixture is about to boil, add in the oysters and the brine they have been soaked in. Salt and pepper for the seasoning. Taste first before adding more salt.
  3. Stir until the “lips” of the oysters curl and when this happens, turn off the heat. Serve with hot bread or river rice. Or enjoy it unadorned.

I hope you will enjoy these recipes and have fun cooking for your friends and families. May they be physically nourishing and comforting just as they are for the characters in my stories.

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PS: Starfang: Rise of The Clan was released earlier this year. It’s space opera with werewolves and – you guess it – has food in it.

PPS: Go grab Water Into Wine. It will be ready for pre-orders on August 30th.


Joyce Chng is Singaporean. She writes science fiction, YA and things in between. She can be found at @jolantru and A Wolf’s Tale (http://awolfstale.wordpress.com)

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