Recipe: Fake posh seafood spaghetti

I usually have a pretty good idea of how tasty something I’m making will turn out to be, but this took me aback with how well it turned out. It was totally beyond expectations and also pretends to be fancy, even though it’s essentially a store cupboard recipe. It’d be a good one to serve friends at a dinner party, with a bottle of Mediterranean wine.

To give you an idea of how easy this was, I based it on a John West tinned sardines recipe.

Perhaps not beautiful, but it WAS good

Extra virgin olive oil
Chilli flakes
3-4 cloves of garlic
1 onion (optional — we just have a lot of onions at the moment)
1 aubergine
Tinned sardines in olive oil, 120g (I guess you could use the tomatoey kind but it might confuse the flavours)
Tinned squid, ~100g (I used this which I picked up in Waitrose on a whim — they sell it in fake squid ink and olive oil)
Mozzarella pearls, ~100-200g


  1. Slice aubergine cross-wise into 1/2-inch thick rounds. Brush each side with olive oil and grill for about 8 minutes, turning once. (I fried the aubergine but next time I’d try grilling — frying meant I went overboard with the oil and there’s oil in the other ingredients, so it turned out a bit aglio olio-y.)
  2. Cook spaghetti according to instructions on packet.
  3. Chop onions and garlic finely. Saute until the onions are soft and clear and the garlic doesn’t smell sharp anymore.
  4. Add sardines and squid, along with as much of the oil/sauce as you think best. I held all the oil from the sardine tin (see above re oil), but chucked in all the salsa negra from the squid tin. Heat through.
  5. Add aubergine whenever it’s ready.
  6. Stir in spaghetti, mozzarella pearls and a generous pinch of chilli flakes. Toss until mozzarella begins to melt and becomes stringy. (I don’t have the upper body strength to toss our wok so I just stir things around.)
  7. Season with salt and pepper if you like. Upon tasting I found that it didn’t need any more flavour but it’s up to you.
  8. Eat! It’s super tasty!

I suspect what makes the difference in this recipe is the quality of the tinned sardines and squid. Not that I’m any expert, but if there is a range available, I’d get the stuff that seems better. Obviously you can make the recipe just with tinned sardines if you can’t get squid or don’t like it, though I do think the squid makes it more special.

Apparitions, Food, Malaysia, My Stories, SFF, Sorcerer to the Crown, Writing

Roundup: fanfic, shrimps, hipste Kelate and more


On Thursday I went to Broadcasting House (!) to take part in the first episode of Late Night Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, which was on women in fandom. It was super fun — like a convention panel, only you had to keep remembering you were talking to a mainstream audience and stopping to define terms like “fanfic”. If you’re interested in listening to a lively discussion of women in SFF, the geek culture wars and fanfic tropes, you can download the podcast here:

Reclaiming the Nerdiverse

(And yes, we did discuss A/B/O on national radio with all our relatives listening. /o\ I confess I’m one of those old fandom grumps for whom A/B/O does nothing. In my day we had “we are spies who have to pretend to be married for implausible reasons and we fall in love as a result” and we were happy with that!!)

I also did a podcast with the fabulous Fran Wilde (Updraft out super soon!) and Aliette de Bodard (House of Shattered Wings out even sooner!), talking about food in our books:

An Intimidation of Shrimp: A Cooking The Books Roundtable

At the link I also reveal ~all my writing secrets~ and share my Big List o’ Regency Foods. I said this on the podcast, but I felt a bit like Sherlock Holmes explaining my methods and Watson going, “Oh, you’re nothing to call home about really, that’s easy!” Sigh. Anyway, if you’d like to know what “ruffs and reeves” are, go check it out!

Ghost words

I’ve been posting quietly to Where Ghost Words Dwell, the discarded writing collage project I do with a bunch of cool writers. Here are two of my most recent contributions:

The Green family goes to the mountains

Magical relatives berbalas pantun. This is from a story I was bouncing around with a friend a few years ago, inspired by our trip to Ladakh. The photo is of the glorious mountains, taken at Leh airport. It’s not at all a habitat that suits me — I spent the next seven days or so in the most wretched altitude sickness — but I’ve never seen anything like it.

On the outskirts of Kota Bharu, in a rental Perodua

Again, a snippet inspired by a holiday — this time a rather more prosaic one, a road trip in Kelantan with my BFF. We went to lots of wats and failed to eat any roti hamlet, laksam or nasi kerabu. (I know, I know … what were we even doing.) Eventually this inspired a short story called Everything Under One Roof, which Rose Lemberg accepted for her anthology Alphabet of Embers. The word count for Alphabet of Embers was 1,400 words so I had to cut everything non-essential, including the snippet at the link!

The drawing of a hipste Kelate is by my phenomenally talented cousin Alina Choong and is posted with her permission. It’s based on the boss of Kopitiam Kita, which you should definitely visit if you’re ever in KB. Siti Nurhaliza went also k.

Sorcerer to the Crown

Ala, you knew it was coming.

If you’re in the UK, first edition bookshop Goldsboro Books is running a competition for people who pre-order Sorcerer to the Crown! Order Goldsboro’s special limited edition (SPRAYED EDGES!) before 10 September, i.e. the UK release date, and you’ll have a chance to win an invitation to the book launch. Come and talk to meee! You can pre-order the limited edition here.

The Book Smugglers also ran a giveaway for the book. Closed liao, sorry, but you can still read my post on the Inspirations and Influences Behind Sorcerer to the Crown.

I also did a guest post for Pornokitsch on Five Fictional Girls and Women I Will Love Forever. Features Anne of Green Gables, Rukia, Lucy Snowe, Elizabeth Bennet and Eowyn. No surprises, but lots of *___*-ing … you will point out that this doesn’t have anything to do with Sorcerer to the Crown, because it’s part of The Apex Book of World SF 4 promo push, but little do you know! One of those five characters inspired Prunella Gentleman. You should tell me which you think it is!

And JUST TODAY Publishers Weekly gave Sorcerer a starred review:

Cho’s tale knits together a dizzying array of taut story lines populated by complex characters with interesting backstories. Zacharias brings to mind another orphaned young wizard whose combination of grit and melancholy captured readers’ hearts, and ingenious, gutsy Prunella simply shines.

How totally amazing. You couldn’t ask for better.

Social mediaz

As always, if you’re interested in receiving updates on my stuff in real-time, Twitter or Facebook is probably your best bet. My Facebook page is public and I don’t add back automatically, but will if you drop me a message saying hi. I’ve also started using Instagram! Not a lot there at the moment, but what I’m going to do is post pictures there instead of Twitter. I crosspost Instagram posts to Twitter and Facebook, though, so better not follow me on all three — after lemas only.

Books, Food

Favourite comfort reads and a new favourite recipe

Anonymous asked about favorite comfort reads, or favorite recipes.

Favourite comfort reads (a non-comprehensive list)

I’m going to specify titles ‘cos it’s interesting to think about which specific books by these authors I like best for comfort reading, but in most cases the authors’ entire oeuvres fall under the heading of “comfort reading” for me.

  • L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables. LMM is probably my #1 comfort read of all time actually. OF ALL TIME!
  • Patrick O’Brian, HMS Surprise
  • Georgette Heyer, Cotillion
  • Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
  • Noel Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes
  • Jean Webster, Dear Enemy
  • Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  • P. G. Wodehouse, Psmith books (cheating and naming all of them because I can’t remember which instalment is my favourite)

Oddly enough I don’t feel Terry Pratchett really belongs on the list, though I rate him higher than several of these authors in certain respects. I feel like Discworld really shaped my worldview, and showed me that it was possible for books to be genre and silly and fun but also serious and clever – but for whatever reason I don’t seem to have that deep emotional attachment to the books anymore. I still like and value them, but it’s like I’ve taken from them what I need, and don’t need them anymore.

Well, I say that, but if I were to embark upon a reread doubtless the feelings would return!

Incidentally nearly all the books/authors I name above I came to at around age 10-12, which is probably why they have stuck with me. The only two exceptions are O’Brian and Heyer, whom I discovered at around 16-18.

A favourite recipe

DIY chilli “pan mee”

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Foods that make me think of home

finkelsteingirl asked about foods that make you feel tremendously comfortable or at home just by tasting them.

A list!

Nescafe with hot milk + condensed milk, the way my dad used to make it before my parents got super health-conscious and did away with milk and sugar.

Yau char kway: This is a fried breadstick you dip into your coffee and it is super good! It makes your coffee oily which would be weird in a latte but is OK in kopitiam coffee.

(Continuing the breakfast associations) soft-boiled eggs with white pepper and soy sauce. You dip buttered toast in it and eat the toast and it is so great.

Steamed jasmine rice.

Cabbage soup with fried garlic.

Chicken rice: This is rice cooked in chicken stock so it’s super yummy, served with poached chicken with the skins on and chilli sauce. (Not the sticky sweet Thai chilli sauce that comes in bottles. A different kind!) I actually like it with “black” chicken better (roasted so the skin is brown and crackly) than “white” chicken, but white chicken is the classic variety. One of the few dishes Malaysians are willing to acknowledge are done better in Singapore.

Ipoh hor fun: Hor fun (white flat noodles) served in a broth with shredded chicken and whole prawns.

Mamak-style Maggi mee goreng: Basically just fried noodles, but it’s so nice. So nice! I also don’t know why.

Steamed fish in soy sauce. The fried version is good as well, but it’s more exciting than comforting.

Tomato eggs: My mom always made it with baked beans instead of tomato, so that should technically be the version I recall with fondness, but I don’t like baked beans so I prefer tomato.

Tau yu bak: This is pork belly braised in this black black sauce with hardboiled eggs. The hardboiled eggs are almost the best part because you break them open and pour the sauce on the yolk and it is so nice. (I initially said “the best”, but changed it to “almost the best” because the best is really the meat.) My mom often made it with chicken instead of pork.

I am becoming unsure as to whether this is really a list of my comfort/”think of home” foods, or whether I am just listing delicious things to eat! Might be time to stop.

It’s probably unsurprising that this is all Chinese food (except the Maggi mee? I dunno if the Maggi mee counts) as opposed to Malay or Indian or any other cuisine. I like Malay/Indian/etc. food, but I guess you revert to what you ate at home as a kid when you are seeking comfort.


My food philosophy, or, reaching for the Optimal Taste Experience

kaberett: I seem to be super-interested in how other people approach food, at the moment, in terms of how they conceptualise it and how they cook and what emotions if any they have to do with it.

I always like talking about food! Pictures of things I have made/eaten recently under the cut at the end of the post.

My philosophy of eating is based around the idea of the Optimal Taste Experience (OTE). The idea is that with every single bite of food, you are aiming to achieve the OTE. For me, the OTE is the perfect balance of taste and texture.

Let us talk about Chinese food, because it is a good example. You are in Hong Kong. Because you are in Hong Kong, of course you order a rice bowl with roast meat and veg. (For those who are interested, my imaginary rice bowl has char siu, siew yoke and roast duck in it. Because why not go the whole hog/duck, it is an imaginary rice bowl! The vegetable is choi sum.) There is some sauce on the rice, but there is some rice that does not have sauce on it, because that is the nature of rice bowls.

In order for me to achieve my OTE with this rice bowl, I need to get on my spoon the perfect proportions of rice, sauce, meat and veg every time. Every mouthful must have the perfect balance of every element. If there is too much rice in a mouthful, that is not ideal because there is not enough flavour. But if there is too much meat, then it is too meaty and there is no balance. You don’t want too much sauce because then it will be too salty. But you want some sauce because otherwise it is boring.

Achieving OTE requires careful attention. Of course, when you are given a rice bowl you are not given equal parts of meat, veg and rice. So you have carefully to apportion out all the elements to make sure you don’t, say, run out of meat before you’ve finished the rice.

There are also more subtle ways to miss the OTE. You might think from the above that maybe you want to mix the sauce into the rice so it is evenly spread all over the rice. No! That would be a terrible mistake, because it would make all the rice sauce-y, and then when you want some plain white rice to offset all the other tastes in your mouth, you won’t have any! You have to keep some rice in reserve. This is because your mood and what you want to taste will change during the meal. Your OTE is not static!

I had been unconsciously practising this approach all my life, and only formulated it one day over a rice bowl at a HK-style diner in Midvalley Megamall. Reaching for the OTE was so instinctive to me that I was surprised and intrigued to find out that not everyone approaches food that way. One of my cousins wants to have a different taste experience with each mouthful, so even if she has achieved the tastiest proportions with one spoonful, instead of sticking with that combo as I would, she will adjust the elements with the next spoonful to see what that tastes like.

So that is my food philosophy! There’s more subtleties to it, but you can pretty much work out the ramifications from the original principle. Like, you don’t want to overeat because when you are full it’s not as fun to eat anymore, so that’s no longer OTE. OTE also extends to the post-food experience, so you have to take care with things like Doritos or McDonald’s, because you might be having OTE at the time, but if you go overboard you can end up feeling decidedly suboptimal. The keys to OTE are moderation and balance.

Anyway, here are some pictures of food!

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Zen fails at food photography

I made black sesame “brownies”! I used a recipe from Pig Pig’s Corner, Black Sesame Brownies, though mine aren’t as gloriously tar-like as hers — mine look more like ones Green Cilantro made. I don’t know if it’s cos of the lighting or what — I’d quite like my brownies to be blacker.




It’s actually really a cake, and not a brownie at all. It doesn’t have the dense fudginess of a brownie, and also it contains no chocolate. But it is GOOD. I love black sesame and am especially excited about this recipe because it’s the kind of thing you probably couldn’t buy in a shop, but it is really easy to make if you can get hold of black sesame or black sesame paste.

Cephas finds it very unusual and says his inner British person is like, “The chocolate muffin I had at tea was better :(“. But his outer British person is quite broad-minded and had a whole piece. Both my inner and outer Asian persons responded well: I had two pieces in quick succession, and will have many more before the week is out ….

Food, Malaysian writing, Personal, Writing

Regency cosplayers, green tea cake with Dog, and a mustachioed King of All Cosmos

I’ve been meaning to make a blog post for a while and just not had the time to get around to it, so this’ll be a fairly variegated one, drawing on the stuff of the past few weeks.


A couple of weekends ago I was finishing up my line-edit of my Regency fantasy of manners, and I walked to Hampstead Heath with Cephas. It was a really pretty day — it’s a really pretty area, and it’s nice to be close enough to escape there when you spend the bulk of your days in the centre of town.


We visited Keats House, which we’d been meaning to do for a while. (It’s basically just a house, and they’ve filled the rooms with pictures of Keats while also trying to keep it authentic to the period, which makes everything a bit weird because you can’t imagine that he had loads of pictures of himself in his house when he still lived there. Maybe if it was Byron House!

Anyway, if you want to visit a famous person’s house in North London I’d recommend Freud House instead. Once in a while they have a Kaffee und Kuchen tour where they give you Austrian coffee and cake and a tour, and it is delicious. But also Improving!)

After our tour of the interior of Keats House I went to sit on the lawn to work on my book, and while wrangling a particularly knotty sentence I looked up and realised I was surrounded by Regency cosplayers, present for the Keats Festival.


Here they are demonstrating Georgian music to an interested audience. Being a Philistine in all matters musical, I quietly beredar-ed and spent the rest of the afternoon on the sunny lawn. The house is kind of boh tat, because you have to pay £5 to enter, but the gardens appear to be free and they are very pretty.

Baking triumphs

Today I applied myself to the challenge of making a green tea Swiss roll, and I am inordinately proud of the result. Behold!




I am a great big ball of vanity. The cake itself is not too difficult — it does involve working with peaky egg whites, but I always figure with this sort of thing that either it will go well and it will rise, or it won’t go that well but the cake will still taste good. (And you can see from the pockets of air in the cake that I mixed my egg whites in with no very skilful hand.) The whipped cream is also easy to do — the recipe tells you to put but 3/4 of a tablespoon of sugar in it, so you worry that it is not sweet enough, but actually the cake is pretty sweet so together they are perfect.

What is hard, and what I worried about when contemplating doing the cake, was the purely mechanical aspect of the roll — getting the cake into that shape without breaking it or turning into a cream monster. But Cooking With Dog helped me!

I don’t know if you know Cooking With Dog? I introduced Cephas to it today and he started LOLing, to my sister’s puzzlement.

“It’s just a normal cooking show,” she said. “I watch it to see the cooking. I wouldn’t link it to my friends, it’s not funny. The dog isn’t even doing anything.”

“How can you say he’s not doing anything?” I said severely. “The dog is hosting.”

Dog was very helpful with my Swiss roll mechanics today! Thank you, Francis.


I started following Singaporean writer Alfian Sa’at’s Facebook feed a couple of weeks ago and feel pretty good about that as a life decision. You can follow his updates even if you’re not friended (it does, alas, require you to have a Facebook account), and it is worth the price of entry if you are at all interested in local literature. His most recent status on pantun and peribahasa (Malay poetry and sayings) referencing apes, monkeys and slow lorises is a good example — my favourite of the ones he lists is:

Seutas rotan ditarik, bergegar hutan belukar, riuh bunyi kera dan lotong

‘A rattan stem is pulled, the forest underbrush shakes, the outburst from the macaques and langurs is deafening’. If someone is guilty of wrongdoing, he or she will receive an earful from friends and relatives.

If they taught Malay literature like this at school I think people would be a lot more interested lor. (Not that I didn’t enjoy Konserto Terakhir, mind you. Surprise almost-incest always jazzes up one’s school reading!)

And a final picture


Which requires no explanation.