May 1, 2013

Eat, drink, write

By Suman Bolar

Disclaimer: This is not Original Inkistani Material, rather copied from its original source @
All rights reserved for the original author.

When I tell people that I write about food, I unfailingly receive one of three responses (and sometimes, all three): a) “Oh! You’re a food critic”; b) “You’re so lucky!”; and c) “You’re a foodie! So am I!”

Wrong on all three counts.

First, I am a food writer, not a food critic. Food is meant to nourish and enrich our lives; it exists for our sustenance and pleasure. Food is perfect in and of itself and does not need to be criticised. Cooks, chefs, and restaurants – now those are a different matter entirely. So restaurant critic, yes; food critic, no.

Second, I am not 'lucky'. Like any other professional, I have worked hard and spent big to be able to do what I do – I have travelled the world and sampled various cuisines on my own dime, spent time and money tracking down interesting foodstuffs and experiences, attended writing and food-related classes and workshops, and often gone out on a limb with an unpopular opinion and paid the price for my candour.

And last, you may be a 'foodie', but I am not. In fact, I don’t even know what that means. Does it mean you’re addicted to food, like a druggie is addicted to drugs? Or does it mean you are a trained cook, in the same way that a techie is trained to work with technology? Or wait! Could it mean that you eat a lot of food? In which case, 'glutton' would probably be a better word to use. If, however, you enjoy trying different kinds of food and learning as much as you can about every aspect of whatever you are eating – if you are, shall we say, hungry to develop an intimate knowledge of everything you consume – then you, like me, are an epicure. Call yourself one.

And now that I have that off my chest: Yes, I love what I do.

The story of food
To be a good food writer requires, first and foremost, the ability to write well. Writing well, in turn, requires a deep and abiding curiosity about the world around you. You can’t be a successful food writer – or indeed a successful writer – unless you are interested in science, history, geography, culture and lifestyle. Many people believe that food writing requires a vast knowledge of food and proven culinary skills; while that is partly true, being a food writer is more about the writing and less about the food. Being a great cook doesn't make you a good writer; on the contrary, gastronomic knowledge and the ability to cook are merely the inputs that inform your writing.

I discovered a love of writing when I was five years old. I loved the feel of the pencil in my hand, the predictability of the ruled lines on paper, and the promise of a blank page. I still love writing – even if my laptop has taken the place of my beloved pencil and paper. I discovered books at about the same time as I discovered a passion for writing. Now, almost four decades later, I am still a voracious reader. To be a good writer – food or otherwise – you must also read widely and without prejudice as to genre. You must learn how to tell a story, and tell it well. You must know how to use words to draw your reader in, and then keep her there as you spin a mesmerizing web of adjectives, verbs and nouns that transport her to a place and a time that she has not experienced first-hand. You need to be able to paint pictures with language – to evoke images of food that are so real that the reader can almost reach out and touch them. And, of course, eat them. The goal of any good piece of writing is to inform, entertain and inspire – and food writing is no different.

Which is why I believe that good culinary writing – whether in the form of a cookbook, a food essay, a culinary memoir, a blog, a food diary or a culinary travelogue – involves more than simply sharing recipes or providing a detailed account of every meal consumed. The former is prescriptive, and the latter is merely a record of consumption. A competent food writer needs to focus on the basics: the science of cooking or the gustatory experience, or both. But the right subject matter alone isn’t enough to produce a memorable piece of culinary writing; you must also be able to inject your personality into your writing, dodge the temptation to resort to gushy adjectives, and achieve a friendly, almost conversational tone, and make it all seem effortless in the bargain.

The tools of the trade
Telling convincing stories about food does require some knowledge of food and food science. You have to know the difference between 'rare' and 'medium-rare', between 'braised' and 'stewed'. For that, you have to be interested in how food is chosen, stored and transformed from raw ingredients to finished dish. You need, at the very least, to be a bon vivant, if not a competent cook. You need to be passionate about it.

More important than passion, though, is the need to possess a large vocabulary around food. A vocabulary that extends beyond 'yummy', 'divine', 'delicious' and 'awesome' on one end of the spectrum, and 'disgusting', 'yuck' and 'awful' on the other end. Was the dish you tried undercooked? Overcooked? Bitter? Fiery? Insipid? Moist? Dry? And then there’s the matter of degree - how dry was it? And what kind of dry? As dry as the Sahara, or merely as dry as a boring bank report? Was it an astringent, mouth-puckering kind of dry, or a more textural, chewy kind of dry? Find the answers by making it your mission to not only taste but also smell, hear, touch and observe food and its ingredients.

The ability to make these and other distinctions is key, and in order to make them, you must first experience them. To be able to tell someone that a something doesn’t taste right, you have to first know what the 'right' taste of that particular dish is. And since taste is such a subjective thing, you have to experience the 'right' taste enough number of times to be able to characterize it as the norm. This is known as 'training the palate'. Training your palate involves sampling a lot of food, both good and bad. More of the latter, because while there are usually only a few ways to make sure a dish is perfect, there are hundreds of ways to get it wrong (so again, to the people who think I am 'lucky': for every one great meal I enjoy, I have consumed at least five mediocre, and four flat-out appalling, meals.)

Two other things that I believe are essential for a successful food-writing career: the courage to voice a strong opinion (even if it isn’t a popular one) and an iron-clad code of ethics.

If you are the kind of person who 'likes to be liked', don’t even attempt writing about food. I can’t count the number of nasty emails I have received just because someone didn’t agree with my opinion – of a restaurant, a food, an ingredient, a cooking technique. Airing your opinion publicly definitely does not win you any popularity contests.

Second, if you are writing reviews, you must make it a priority to maintain your credibility. Abiding by a set of self-imposed rules reassures readers that your opinion has in no way been influenced or skewed by freebies, commercial interests or personal relationships. In my case, I have three simple rules: I pay for my meals and do not endorse or 'push' specific products or restaurants; I always dine anonymously, even making reservations in other names; and I try a dish, product or restaurant at least twice before I review it.

I also make disclosure a priority; if I realize that restaurant staff recognises me, either I do not review, or I disclose that they knew my identity. If I have received a free product sample, I let my readers know. Honesty is important; people appreciate being given all the facts because it makes them feel better-equipped to make their own judgement.

A day in the life
And now that the mechanics are out of the way, what’s it really like to be a food writer?

It’s fun. I once got to attend an olive oil tasting session in Tuscany, Italy. A roomful of well-dressed men and women sipped elegantly at their expensive, fresh-pressed olive oil, and they then proceeded to make the most inelegant noises as they slooshed, sloshed, sucked and gargled it in order to detect its flavours and aromatic notes.

It’s exhilarating. Climbing up through several stories of a multi-level concrete parking lot in Kuching, Borneo in the dead of night, I was pretty sure that this was a wild goose chase based on nothing more than rumours. Reaching the uppermost level to be greeted by the jaw-dropping sight of a bustling, 'secret' rooftop food market gave me as much of a high as any narcotic!

Sometimes tedious. Having to photograph every dish on the table before I dig into the famed Cambodian amok, even as its rich coconut fragrance wafts by in a deliberate attempt to distract me. Focusing my senses wholly on the plate before me instead of being able to ignore the food and take in the glory of the Himalayas like everyone else at the table. Dragging my family through the narrow, winding streets of Old Delhi in the blazing 40 degree heat just to find a particular hole-in-the-wall place that served the perfect galouti kebab.

Not always enjoyable, but never boring. Have you ever eaten a foul-smelling durian fruit? How about casu marzu, the Italian cheese that contains live insect larvae? Sometimes, the pursuit of new culinary experiences ends up leading you to some decidedly unpleasant foods. On the bright side, they are also unusual.

It’s expensive and time-consuming. For the most part, writing about food doesn’t pay anywhere near the amount you spend on learning new things, training your palate, ferreting out obscure eateries, or exploring and researching unfamiliar cuisines. It’s also time-consuming, as is any form of writing.

But more than anything else, writing about food is very fulfilling.

The pros:
You get to eat out. A lot.
You develop a broader knowledge of food and cuisines.
You’re constantly learning new things – about ingredients, flora, fauna, history, climate, cultures, countries, and more.
In some cases, you get to see 'behind the scenes' – of restaurants, bakeries, hotels and even home kitchens.
You get to meet other folks who share a passion for food.

The cons:
You have to eat out. A lot.
You have to spend. A lot.
You open yourself up to often vitriolic criticism from people who disagree with you.
In some cases, you get to see 'behind the scenes' – of restaurants, bakeries, hotels and even home kitchens. Sometimes, it’s not pretty.

Writing about food is much like preparing it: you must start with the right ingredients and tools, then add creativity, patience, and practice – lots of practice. And at the end of it all, cooking it up is its own reward.

~ Suman Bolar is a food writer based in Bangalore

Apr 9, 2013

Why Roger Ebert was a good writer

By Roy Peter Clark

Disclaimer: This is NOT original Inkistani Material, it is rather taking from All credits go to the original author.

Before I tackle what made Roger Ebert a good writer, I’d like to tell  a story about why he was a good colleague and good person. It was 1978 and I was spending the year as a substitute film writer for the St. Petersburg Times.  Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were flying high with their tag-team television show, and I had the chance to interview them over the telephone.
Ebert at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
A few months later, Ebert visited St. Pete to check in on the making of a disastrous Robert Altman movie called HEALTH, a political parody so lame that it was never released, in spite of a cast that included James Garner, Glenda Jackson, and Lauren Bacall.
I wrote more than two dozen stories and profiles about the making of the movie, and Ebert must have been paying attention because he recommended me to the Detroit Free Press for a job there.
Quite content in paradise, I never made it to Motown but I retained a warm spot in my heart for Ebert for identifying me back then as a writer with promise. That affection remained even after he savaged me on Twitter, but more on that later.
To honor his contribution to journalism, I am going to try to answer this question:  What made Ebert a good writer?  Notice I am not using the word “great” because good is good enough, especially if you’ve been good for more than forty years.
In looking for examples, I made a strategic decision.  Rather than look for his “best” or “prize-winning” work, I decided to examine the first three examples of his work I could find online.
Specifically, they are the first three reviews from the book Roger Ebert’s Four Star Reviews 1967 – 2007.  The movies appear in alphabetical order beginning with the 1986 film About Last Night. Here’s the lead:
If one of the pleasures of moviegoing is seeing strange new things on the screen, another pleasure, and probably a deeper one, is experiencing moments of recognition – times when we can say, yes, that’s exactly right, that’s exactly the way it would have happened. About Last Night is a movie filled with moments like that.  It has an eye and an ear for the way we live now, and it has a heart, too, and a sense of humor.
According to traditional standards of newspaper writing, this lead should be a disaster.  It is 79 words long, most of them in that first rambling sentence.  It begins not with the news but with a subordinate clause.  There are no concrete nouns.  No strong active verbs.  Why, then, do I think it works so well?
In a word, it has voice.
On the page, voice is an illusion.  I cannot hear Ebert’s speaking voice, but in a way I can.  There is the illusion here that a smart person is speaking directly to me off the page.
Read that first sentence aloud.  Doesn’t it sound like someone thinking out loud at an intimate table in a crowded restaurant?
Any experienced writer can master the short snappy sentence.  It takes a good writer to master the long sentence, the one that takes the reader on a journey of discovery, the one that leads you to a special place you could not have imagined when you stepped on board the bus.
Here is Ebert’s lead on the 1988 movie The Accidental Tourist:
“Yes, that is my son,” the man says, identifying the body in the intensive care unit.  Grief threatens to break his face into pieces, and then something closes shut inside of him.  He has always had a very controlled nature, fearful of emotion and revelation, but now a true ice age begins, and after a year, his wife tells him she wants a divorce. It is because he cannot seem to feel anything.
I see more rule-breaking here.  Who begins a newspaper story with a bit of dialogue? And who begins a review of a film by immersing the reader in the narrative, that crucial scene Robert McKee describes as the “inciting incident” of a story?
If I had read this in the Chicago Sun Times instead of an anthology of four-star reviews, I would know immediately what Ebert thinks about the movie. It manages to be both discursive and immediate. He doesn’t tell us yet that it excels, but he shows us in his careful decanting of that powerful screen moment back onto the page.
Almost 20 years later he offered this lead for a review of Across the Universe (2007):
Here is a bold, beautiful, visually enchanting musical where we walkinto the theater humming the songs. Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe is an audacious marriage of cutting-edge visual techniques, heartwarming performances, 1960s history, and the Beatles songbook. Sounds like a concept that might be behind its time, but I believe in yesterday.
This may be Ebert at his best, reversing the cliché about walking out of the theater humming the music then giving that lead its own exquisite kicker, an homage to one of Paul McCartney’s most memorable and cherished lyrics.
As a dabbler in the craft of film criticism, I found it much harder to write a positive review of a really good movie than to hammer a lemon into greasy pulp.  The flaws of a truly bad movie are transparent.  A catalog of those flaws turns out to be pretty easy – and lots of fun for the writer and the reader.
What, on the other hand, makes a good movie work?  Ebert could take a stand on behalf of the reader — and deliver.
If you’ve read this far, you deserve to be rewarded with an example of how Ebert could slice up a bad movie. He preferred the scalpel to the scimitar. Here is his lead from the 2002 remake of Swept Away, starring Madonna, which appears in Ebert’s book Your Movie Sucks:
Swept Away is a deserted island movie during which I desperately wished the characters had chosen a movie to take along if they were stranded on a deserted island, and were showing it to us instead of this one.
That one delivers like an atomic bomb test on Bikini Atoll. (Sorry, Roger, I’ll do better next time.)
Which brings me to my own personal Thumbs Down from Mr. Ebert.  It arrived, via Twitter, after I wrote of my discomfort with guys of a certain age trying to look all hip and modern by using emoticons and acronyms in tweets and text messages.  To which he responded:

OK, he wasn’t just good, he was damn good.

Mar 23, 2013

They're Made Out of Meat (Nebula Award winning short. Worth the couple minute read.)

By Terry Bisson

DISCLAIMER: This is not Original Inkistani Material, it is merely copied from All credits are due to the original writer for this fine piece of work.

Mar 16, 2013

The Search

By Fatema Shabbir

“The place is a maze,” James huffed, “we’ll never find the key. And even if we do how will we get back to the gate?”

It was one hour and ten minutes to midnight. James and Cora were trapped in a maze rigged to blow up at midnight and if they didn’t escape by then they would be part of the fireworks.

“This is a sick game,” Cora cried out disgusted.

When they woke up and recovered from the effects of the drug Cora found the note pinned to the grey iron gate.

Find the key before midnight and get out or be roasted, it read.

They got up from the pile of broken bones and rotting flesh that line that floors of the maze and resisted the urge to vomit.

The place had no lights. In the distance an owl hooted. The moon had hidden behind grey and heavy clouds that threatened to rain down, denying them any ease in their task.

Suddenly they heart leaves rustling and twigs cracking. They jumped and turned to face the noise. Nothing. There was nothing there.

At forty minutes to midnight they saw something silver glistening in the distance. Despite their condition they broke into a smile. They ran for the key. When they reached the bush, they looked around and to their horror the entire row of bushed was lined with glistening silver keys; some broken, some rusted, some small, some big. They stood there for a moment dumbstruck.

“Which one?” James asked.

Silence engulfed them as precious seconds trickled by.

“418! 418!” Cora exclaimed “That was the number on the door!”

They nodded and split up. If the key was there they had to find it soon; they only had thirty minutes to go. They had covered nearly half the path when a shrill voice from behind laughed. Instinctively they ran to each other.

“I don’t think it’s here.”

“Me neither,” James sighed.

They left the path and moved to the next one, then the next one. They were running out of time. Just when they were about to give in they reached the heart of the maze. There lay a pristine white almost glowing slab of marble, on it was the key.

“It’s too easy,” James whispered but Cora had already made a run for it.

She almost tripped on a skull with its mouth hanging open. She hesitated as she heard feet shuffling nearby, when she stopped to look there was nothing.

She felt the key calling out to her, mesmerized she ran to it again. When she reached it she picked it up without hesitating.

From about her she heard a faint crackle. That was the last thing she heard. The chopping block came fast and there was no time to react. Her blood sprayed onto the horrified James as her head rolled over to the other rotting remains on the pathway. The key fell from her hand and slinked again the white marble.

“59… 58… 57,” a robotic voice from the distant speaker began the countdown.

James grabbed the key and dashed for the gate. Fear for his life has helped him remember the exact way. He wasted no time.

When he reached the door and turned the key it got stuck. Jammed, the door only creaked. James shook it with everything in him, but to no avail.

“3… 2… 1,” the voice dies out as James pushed harder and harder.

A loud band, that was the last thing he heard as a cloud of fire erupted from the heart of the maze, quickly making its way to all corners.

James closed his eyes ready for the blow.

Mar 15, 2013

The Africa Passage

By Hiba Fatima

The given passage seems to be an excerpt from a travelogue. The writer attempts to break the stereotypes that Europeans have created about Africa. They see Africans as "disease-stricken people", as "hordes of walking skeletons", but the writer presents Africa in a new light. He admires the resilience of the Africans, and convinces the readers to do so too.

The writer talks about the harshness of the African weather, compared with the gentle "politesse" of the European weather. The writer deliberately does this so that later, he can impress the readers with the resilience of the Africans who survive the "pounding" heat.

The Sun is personified as an evil, intimidating predator who "leaps" and "ambushes the night". The Sun is also alluded to Cyclops, a mythical giant who would eat men. The writer believes that the Sun is no less than a violent, contemptuous monster, as evident by the alliteration in line 6. The Sun, the "ready made ball of solid", "catapults directly", like a weapon. This creates a mood of fear.

The writer then wistfully compares the African sunrise to the European sunrise. Here, longer sentences create a dreamy tone. The repetition of "no" and "none" in the second paragraph show that the writer's tone is harsh as he establishes a contrast between the African and European dawn. The latter is personified as the perfect English lady of calm demeanour, while the former has "no appreciation of the subtleties of temperature". This poses a question to the Europeans- will you be able to survive the fierce African climate?
The cruelty of the Sun is further developed upon in the third and fourth paragraphs.The emphatic use of "No." in line 17 establishes a sense of finality and conveys that the writer has accepted the fierceness of the African Sun. The simile in line 18 shows just how frightening it is. It is also merciless and relentless, "it will suck the ground dry of water, dew or damp to deny the tree". This alliteration emphasizes the power and dominance of the Sun. The readers sympathize with the Africans,who are deprived even of shade as the Sun "eliminates" it.

A transition takes place in the fifth paragraph. The writer talks about, how, in spite of the fierceness of the Sun, the Africans, rather than succumbing to the heat, have been moulded by it. The repetition of the word "still" emphasizes the African's strength. Their survival seems all the more impressive to the reader after the writer has deliberately created an inflated exaggeration of the Sun. The brevity of sentences, such as in line 25, convey the writer's awe towards them.

The writer breaks the stereotype that Africans are like "hordes of walking skeletons" in the sixth paragraph. He contrasts the European and African lifestyles by comparing each of their gaits. He praises the "poise" of the Africans and criticizes the clumsiness of the Europeans by piling up adjectives in line 33. The gait of the African women is then specified upon. They walk in a seductive and hypnotic manner, with their "hips propelling them forward". They are alluded to beautiful black Statues of Liberty, to show their charm and independence. The writer uses the similes "ballerinas" and "models" to convey the delicacy of the African women. The list in lines 36 to 37 shows the writer's awe as the women carry these "improbable weights" with ease.

The lone man who stands tall and proud symbolises all the Africans who survive the "impotent" Sun with grace and beauty. The writer lists the diverse topography of Africa, then refers to it as the "most beautiful place in our world".

Finally, the writer clears the misconceptions people have about Africa, creating a mood of admiration. He blames the readers for looking at Africa from "the dark side" of their mind and neglecting all the positive aspects of the continent listed in lines 52 to 54. In the final line of the passage, Africa is called the "luminous continent", which harkens back to the Sun that is now a complement to the Africans.

Directed Writing: 
The currents of the Indonesian Sea do not nibble gently at the coast. No, not today. Today, the Sea is volatile. The waves, dark and heavy, leap forward and crash against the shore. They devour and destroy anything and everything in their path. The Sea is a vacuum, a black hole, or, simply put, the Bermuda Triangle of Jakarta.
Yet still, a serenity cloaks the city. An olive-skinned fisherman articulately throws a bait into the waters that kiss his feet. Multitudes of people meander rhythmically through the streets of Jakarta. Swaying. Beaming. Smiling.

No, Jakarta is not the city that crumbles under the weight of the Indonesian Sea every year. It is the city of colour. It is the city of beauty. It is the city of kindness. 

Feb 28, 2013

Is inner beauty more important than physical beauty?

By Neha Makhdoom

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Or isn’t it?

Quotes are something that have recently become a little bit of a cliché. But this, for all intents and purposes, is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me, about me. A friend and I were having an argument about why people in this day and age do not usually believe in helping people out. After I let out a whiny, “But WHY?” he replied to be, and spoke words that I will never ever forget.

“Because not all hearts are bathed in molten gold like yours.”

I have a purpose for telling you this. People say a lot of things in the passing. They’ll compliment you on your hair or tell you how beautiful your eyes are or how ‘adorable’ you are. But a compliment about your personality, even if it’s said in the midst of a heated conversation, or in the middle of the night with drooping eyelids, will always be worth more than even winning Prom Queen.

It is very easy to judge a book by it’s cover. Inner beauty is something that is infinite. Symmetrical faces and big, green eyes are never going to change that. And who are we to say who is pretty, and who is not? I know for a fact that people from around where I live think that having eyes which are anything but medium brown is a sign of some kind of angelic beauty.

But myself, and maybe a handful of others would beg to differ. I’m not saying that having blue, or green or bronze eyes makes you unattractive, but personally, I think there’s nothing better than a pair of brown, owl-esque eyes. Everyone has different preferences, but when it comes to inner beauty, nearly everyone’s looking for the same thing. Nobody wants cruelty. If a person is beautiful on the inside, I think that that beauty will shine out of them regardless of whether they have a full set of pearly white teeth and a flat stomach, or not.

Physical beauty is also something that disappears with age. Even the skinny , blond super models eventually have saggy thighs and lines on their faces. Some people age gracefully, some do not. Who a person is, their little quirks, the way they speak, the way they are is something that does not go away. It may evolve over time, but it never really goes away.

People are judged because of the way they look nearly every day. Stereotyping happens all the time. Fat, skinny, dark, fair, goth - all of it. And even a person like myself, who believes so deeply in the importance of inner beauty manages to pass some comments about peoples appearances. But if you look at the flaws in a person’s face, you see who they are. I am, and have always been of the opinion that a smile is a key to the soul. One smile and you can conjure up the person’s whole life in your head.

I know how generic it is for me to think that inner beauty is more important than outer beauty, but that really is the truth. Looks will change, fade. But a person with a pure personality will be eternally beautiful. Even one day when they are old and grey, the same person will shine out of them as they did 20 years ago.

A person makes friends, falls in love with someone. Even if they are ‘gorgeous’ or are not. If they have an ugly personality it will never work, but someone who does not have angelic beauty, but a godly personality, will always find their way around, and manage to make friends. They may not be able to bat their eyelids and charm people with their perfect hands, but they will always be able to do it with a bit of they that is reflected in the way they smile, the words they use, and the people they help.

The reason that the ‘bathed in molten gold’, casually sitting in school over lunch quote will always mean more than an excited ‘Your eyes are so pretty!’ conversation is that at the end of the day, you can always help the way you look, but you will never be able to shake off who you truly are.