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.
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: 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.
…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.
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!
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?
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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