Not long ago, Tapai arrived in my post box, from my favourite publisher, Lori Lee of ZI Publications. I decided to have Hishamuddin Rais’ Tapai for MERDEKA.
I was excited when I received the book. Tapai is special to me because its author Isham is one of the coolest guys on earth – (h)ippy, (h)ilarious, (h)ighly intelligent. A guy who loves cats, who manages to look hip although vanity may be the last of his qualities.
One never gets bored sitting with Isham, sipping teh tarik (or any other drink) coz you’ll get great conversation going and interesting insights into any topic without even having to worry about how time flies or where you are.
Reading Tapai is like being with Isham. He writes as he speaks. That wit, humour, cheekiness, and mysteriousness covers the 40 chapters in the book, word to word.
You’ll leave a page knowing something – a place, a dish, or an idea – differently, something you never expected or never thought could be the way he said it was. In short, you’ll get a very different perspective, you’ll go away feeling ‘educated’.
The same it is when reading Tapai. I never knew that so many different types of Malay food ever existed. It makes me want to try all of them if only to make myself love the Malaysia I have sometimes come to loathe.
Loathe because of all the crappy things Malaysian politicians say, and thinking about them makes me lose my appetite.
But one look at the cover design of Tapai, I started to feel hungry. When I started reading, my thoughts begin to travel. There were so many places to go, so many smells and visual delights of different food, spices and herbs, that soon I was no longer just hungry, but ravenous.
Is Tapai a travel book, a food book or a book on sex? After reading all 266 pages, I decided that Tapai is one and all of the above.
Sex being a state of mind, as Isham puts it: Sex is like food; one must stumble upon it (page 27).
It’s not so much that Isham is a friend but the book is really worth your money. For a mere collection of 40 stories, you get (if your imagine is wild like Isham) to go on adventures in places one could NOT find so easily in any Malaysian map.
These are the non-touristy places typical tourists are always looking for but no one may show them where or how to get there like Kuala Nerang (Alor Star), Cafe on the Embankment (along a Tsunami disaster area in Kuala Muda), or Kuala Brang (Terengganu).
You also get to feel what’s it like to taste exotic, delectable food with really exotic exciting names like ‘itek panggang a la Rue du Sultan’.
I like the fact that Isham covers, explores and reveals very hidden and obscure places which serve good food and drinks in his Tapai, to honour chefs and cooks marginalised by the mainstream media.
It is clear that Isham is a seasoned traveler and a very good cook, he breathes in and savours, the people, culture and history of the places he visits, like he does the food and possibly the women(?).
Hahaha, I would not put that pass Isham, my friend!
When turning the pages, I did feel a sense of nostalgia in Isham, too, and how he must feel to see so much of our history and culture and togetherness slipping away.
I felt it most in the chapter :The journey home (page 114), when Isham returns home for the Hari Raya by bus, crowded with Bangladeshis, Burmese and Nepalis.
Isham likes visiting fish markets and that explains why, if only in a humourous sense that he does have a nose for ‘something fishy’ if you were to get a chat going with him.
I like his tagline or rather he could make this his tagline when he says in his Dedication: P.S. Some people eat only when they see the notice: Ditanggung Halal. But as foodies, our motto should be: “Ditanggung Sendiri”.
This underlines, if nothing else, Isham’s courageous and independent spirit.
Nevertheless, Tapai could have been a completely complete book if at the end of the chapter we are told where and how to look (or an address) for the places and food he’s written about.
But this would not be Isham. He wants you to be imaginative, creative, adventurous and passionate enough about something to go and look for it yourself.
Because, for someone like Isham, the destination isn’t the only thing that matters, the journey would be more important. A little like Cavafy’s Ithaca.
It’s not how the restaurant looks like, or what brand of crockery it uses, or what color and texture are its curtains, not even the condition of the road that leads to it.
The people you meet, the things you see, and the experiences you encounter when you travel are the extra ingredients and are what makes your food most palatable.
Try it, get the book and read it (a national treasure!) and all Isham will say is: I told you so