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Food fights and history lessons

nasi lemak tak halal
Does this nasi lemak with sambal gesek ikan bilis still make the heritage food list, with the sambal babi on the side?
(food pics © Lainie Yeoh)

AT the end of the year, the Tourism Minister is supposed to have identified certain foods to declare as Malaysian. According to the minister, Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen, the months of October, November and December, when the Malaysian International Gourmet Festival is being held, will be the time when the selection is made. Ng went ahead and classified laksa, nasi lemak, bak kut teh, chilli crab and Hainanese chicken rice as worthy of being declared originally Malaysian.

Chicken rice
Hainanese chicken rice

But then followed a “food fight” in cyberspace between Malaysians and Singaporeans. Singaporeans typically thought they had the better version, while Malaysians argued that the food down south was a shadow of the real deal. Some Malaysians were indignant too, when they checked the government’s heritage food list and found that Penang assam laksa, Penang curry mee, nasi kandar and pasembor were not included. Meanwhile, Malaccans wanted even more definitive recognition — Hainanese chicken rice is ours, they said.

Onde Onde
Onde-onde: on the heritage food list…

I wonder how Ng will go ahead with her plan. Thankfully, it does not include filing patents on the dishes. That would be silly. Who would be the patent holder? What about the fact that foreign workers from Myanmar were responsible for some of the tastiest hawker food I’ve ever had?

Ng claims she was surprised at the war of words over food that she had triggered, saying she only wanted people to know the origins of the food they enjoyed. And although she has been laughed at for her suggestion, we should actually thank her for this history lesson. Tracing culinary roots will take us back to the people who created these dishes. And that’s where we’ll find some parallels to and pointers about issues of race and identity in Malaysia.

Pendatang food

roti jala
…so is roti jala…

Take nasi kandar, for example. The ancestors of the Indian-Muslim Malaysian makers of this famed meal from Penang worked the harbours and docks selling rice, curries and stews they cobbled up with meat and spices. Hence, the nostalgic image of a scrawny man dressed in a rolled-up dothi walking bent under the weight of a wooden pole from which hung a bucket of rice on one end, and another of curries on the other. That man was a pendatang. And his descendants today make the nasi kandar that suspended Penang Umno politician Datuk Ahmad Ismail probably loves so much.

laksa with lots of cucumber shredded on top
…and laksa

Or how about assam laksa, said to be Peranakan-inspired; a mix of sweet, sour, salty, pungent and hot. There’s also the Nyonya version of laksa which people will stand in line for in Malacca. These were creations of the Peranakan — Straits Chinese who intermarried with Malays to become the Baba and Nyonya.

Yes, real foodies will know that our Malaysian spread of beloved eats is actually a hodgepodge of flavours, spices and cooking methods drawn from all across Asia.

Even now, food continues to travel across ethnic boundaries. It’s not just the fact that there are variations on a theme, like how the different adaptations of rojak, laksa, congee or fried noodles, are creative versions of the same basic dish. It’s also that people take a well-known food from another culture and do their own take of it. Have you noticed, over the last 10 years perhaps, that Malay Malaysians are selling and eating yong tau foo (stuffed with fish), halal dim sum, and yau char kway? I certainly don’t remember seeing Malay Malaysian-run stalls selling yau char kway in the pasar malam in my childhood, but now I do. So, what does the growth of halal Chinese food outlets tell us?

I recently found a Chinese Malaysian restaurant in Broga, Semenyih, which did a fantastic version of mee mamak. It was a little wetter and sweeter than the usual mee mamak. I’d heard of Indian Chinese food before, and the Chinese Malaysians do have their own version of curry, but never Chinese mamak food!

Malaysian restaurant
The chef’s special in Little Malaysia restaurant of Melbourne is chilli crabs, a dish Ng claims has been hijacked by Singaporeans

In wanting Malaysia to lay claim on certain foods, we will find that the origins of these delights come from beyond our shores. If I were to fantasise about having the power to determine the National Heritage Department’s food heritage list, I would certainly include nasi kandar, Penang assam laksa and Chinese mee mamak.

These are dishes that were brought along by immigrant cultures and would be hard for any single country to lay claim to because the early migrants spread out and settled throughout the region. Arguably, bak kut teh might fall into this category because Hokkiens did not only settle in Klang, but in Singapore as well as other parts.

But there are clearly some dishes that were developed locally as a result of cultures borrowing from one another, even as each community retained its own particular foods.

This is Malaysia today. And if we can accept this about our food, when can we do the same about our citizens? favicon

Deborah Loh has counted 25 items on Malaysia’s food heritage list that she has not eaten. She is now on a quest to do so.

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8 Responses to “Food fights and history lessons”

  1. yusuf martin says:

    Malaysian food is a very good indicator of just how mixed Malaysian peoples are. If only this could be admitted by that small number of bigots who play the race politic card.

  2. Z00L says:

    This whole thing is idiotic. The Russians and Ukrainians and Poles and Belarussians don’t have problems with their borscht soup. No one claims that borscht soup is rightfully theirs.

    If indonesia starts to claim rights on rendang or batik or whatever, should we even follow suit? And [is] Singapore also joining the fray? …

  3. Shanon Shah says:

    Maybe we need to identify foods that Malaysians eat that everyone else finds gross. Do you see any non-Scot trying to lay claim over haggis? Or any non-Slavic person trying to patent czernina (a soup made from duck’s blood)? I was going to say “durian”, but that’s not a dish, and besides, if we try to patent the durian we might start an intra-Asean war. Oh well, the search continues.

  4. Pao Sium says:

    While it is a matter of just knowing the origins of certain foods, to fight for and lay claim on them seems insignificant to me. Can we deny intercultural communication taking place worldwide even before the advent of internet? And we’re talking about culture, something so dynamic and contentious. I admit that I have a poor sense of belonging, but I do believe there are better things to dwell on, such as whose tummy is often hungry for food and why.

  5. PCK says:

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Origin and name of food are secondary. We have Laksa Penang, Laksa Johor, Laksa Singapore or Laksam. All these are variations of Laksa. Some claim the best laksa is in Ayer Itam (in Penang). This is more important than where it comes from and what is the name of the dish.

  6. Hwa Shi-Hsia says:

    Copyrighting food in Southeast Asia: all of the stupidity of the European Union with none of the civilisation.

  7. alan tan says:

    May I know what’s the name and address of the Chinese Malaysian restaurant in Broga, Semenyih?

    I am staying nearby.

    Hi Alan,

    Deborah is currently away. I’ll get her to respond when she returns.

    The Nut Graph

  8. tophet says:

    The overt and superlative fixation Malaysians have over their overrated food diversity is the best indication there is of how tenuous interethnic relations are in this land.

    How else would you explain that the closest X comes to a connection with Y is when X makan Y, where (X,Y) ranges over (Cina, Melayu), (Melayu, India), (India, sendiri).

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