On a food odyssey

Ethel Da Costa’s latest book ‘The Stiletto Foodie - A Blog Binge in Malaysia’, based on her blog, captures the heart and soul of the country through its diverse food offerings


Q. Your blog ‘The Stiletto Foodie’ not just documents your food experiences in Malaysia but also gives an insight into chefs and restaurateurs, with even interviews with them. What gave you the idea of going in-depth?

Malaysia happened to me as a complete revelation. It is a beautiful, bountiful country with loving people. As I got closer to the city and the people I met, I realised that it is a treasure trove of discoveries, and a food paradise like I haven’t tasted before. So the blogs flowed as chefs opened up their soul to me through their amazing food. Their story had to be told beyond just what they cooked. I was intrigued to know the whys of their own self discovery in Malaysia, since for many it is their second home. In that lies our stories of how we inspire foodies, travellers and global nomads like me to become one with the cultures we find ourselves in.

Q. How did you zero in on the food places that you chose to focus on?

Let me say that Malaysia chose me to tell these stories. The chefs and restaurants happened by divine design through friends who recommended, and then some just happened because it all flowed together in synchronicity.

I chose 12 ambassadors as the blogs and book came together, to represent a global perspective on Malaysia as a world class cuisine destination. Trust me, I’ve barely scratched the surface on the variety, diversity, and sheer magnitude and ingenuity of the combined food history in Malaysia. It’s unbelievable.

Q. Given that you were blogging about your experiences, why come out with a book?

When the publisher Ukiyoto connected with me over a phone call – having read the blogs on my website – I thought it was a prank at first. They believed it deserved a global audience. I believed it too, and so the book happened. A writer’s mission is to connect with as many people as he/she can, where we can and must, to present a viewpoint, an opinion and a sharing of mutual learnings. There’s much more coming from The Stiletto Foodie for sure.

Q. What was your impression of Malaysia before this journey to remember?

Malaysia, before I came here in November 2019 on invitation by the government of Malaysia Tourism, was just the Petronas Twin Towers. Coming here blew my mind, because it is hardly spoken for in the travel industry in India, albeit worldwide, if I can say so. In fact, globally Malaysia is not a popular travel destination, as popular as Thailand and Indonesia.

For sure, East Malaysia rivals Europe and most of the USA and South East Asia in its gorgeousness. Sabah, Sarawak, Langkawi and Toiman Islands are jewels that are still unexplored, and that truly baffles me as to how Malaysia has escaped being on the tourist radar of every traveller worth his/her salt. It is fast changing now, thankfully with more information and hopefully through books like mine going global.

Q. While you chose to focus on the positive side and enjoy your extended time in Malaysia, surely the tensions of the pandemic did play at the back of your mind.

When I got locked down in barely a week of landing in Malaysia, my first reaction was anxiety. I had come prepared to experience the country first-hand, and had set up meetings to facilitate my work visions. The lockdown happened suddenly and abruptly brought my plans to a halt. Being new in the country and with no mechanism to fall back on except my own survival skills and ‘sink or swim’ reflexes, I found myself stuck in a hotel room in Chinatown! I think my mother in Goa panicked. I sat down and told myself, ‘That’s it! This is a swim situation to handle.’ So I created a day-to-day ritual to follow, which I strictly adhered with to keep health, mind and soul together as my primary focus.

Fortunately for me, my holistic life coach and friend in Mumbai guided me through this situation and continues till date. I believe my relationship with myself and God has grown only stronger, deeper and complete.

Q. You have stated that this trip has led to personal growth and spiritual wellness. Could you elaborate?

2020 has been a miracle year for me. In 2019, I decided that despite the successes of my professional world, on a personal level I had to step inside and integrate parts of me that had been deeply broken and hurt for a long time. Healing is an integral part of self growth, especially when you choose to live a life on your own terms.

All of us feel the call of the soul at some point in our life. Some choose to heed, some ignore. I reached out to a holistic life coach in Mumbai for help, and my journey to healing began. It takes 200 per cent commitment to personal growth. Trust me, it is the hardest work to do. Then Malaysia happened in November 2019, and everything just collided together. Malaysia is a very spiritual country with three ethnicities living a life of unified harmony and deep spiritual beliefs. The land called me to her, leading me to a deeper path of embracing spirituality and myself, and with it an overhauling of old beliefs, behaviours, redundant patterns, blame and shame we unknowingly take refuge and find false comfort in.

Q. In one of your blog entries you mentioned that you’ve never been a fan of desserts before Malaysia. Tell us more about this.

It’s true. I’ve had a major sour tooth all my life. Eating lime, lemons, tamarind, kokum, pickles, raw. However, the variety of desserts in Malaysia knocked my socks off, only because of the exquisite balance of sweet, sour, tangy, coco-nutty in this universe of desserts. Even the number of coffee variants available in the country is awe-inspiring. Malaysia draws its best culinary influences from all within and all outside – meaning multi-races, multi-citizens, multi-cultures and multi-nationals.

Dodol, pandan cakes, pisang goreng (fried banana fritters), ais kacang (shaved ice with coloured syrup and toppings of beans, nuts), cendol (pandan and coconut jelly noodles with coconut milk, palm sugar), putu mayam (vermicelli made from flour, coconut milk), are just some of the popular desserts. Local Malaysian desserts bring together coconut, palm jaggery, saffron, Chinese moon cakes, and Portuguese, Dutch, French savouries are thrown into this heady mix. There’s just no escaping this ritual post a grand lunch or dinner.

Q. Interestingly you also discovered influences of Goa in your food escapades there. How did this make you feel?

I loved it. To think that so much of Goan flavours are inherently present in flavourful Spanish cooking, with cured pork sausages and fish head coconut curries. The celebration of seafood is glorious. Food is so cheap in Malaysia with bountiful spreads at local ‘mamaks’ that cater to locals and tourists alike. Then there’s the ‘Open House’ concept during popular festivals where everyone, including strangers, are allowed into homes and you feast at the banquet table as much as you want, or can eat. Strangely, I did not find many, if any Goan people in Malaysia, though a restaurant or two did serve some Goan dishes of crab xec xec and vindaloo! I think I discovered that Malaysia combined the best of Goa, Portugal, Kuwait and the Middle East that is home to me in a package.

Q. There has definitely been a surge in food writing and blogging in recent years. Given your vast experience in the media field, what advice would you give to young bloggers?

I would say to them very clear and straight – Be authentic. Your pen and voice must stand for integrity, experience, knowledge and what value you bring to the table. Cultivate your passions with a long term vision. Writing on food is really a personal, emotional experience for me. I feel everything with my senses and hence I write from a space that does true and right. Please do justice to your skills and gifts, and honour your storytelling.

Q. This new book comes after a long break since your first one. Do we see more books in the pipeline?

There are two more books coming out in March 2021. We have prepped March 8 as their launch dates. Mainly with a second edition of ‘Eve’s Revenge’, and a sequel to it –‘Eve’s Light: Stories of Passion’. Both the books will be released together for a global audience. I also definitely see ‘The Stiletto Foodie’ turning into a series of books and a show. I can’t wait to explore French, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Turkish and other indigenous global cuisines to pay homage to talent, land, nature and the spirit of its creators and people. So much to do, I hope to do justice to this calling.