Category Archives: Malaysia

What Malaysia Means

I woke up on Tuesday morning in London on edge, thinking about Malaysia. A general election was due to be held the next day, Wednesday May 9, and I had not slept well. The campaigning had been outright dirty, even by Malaysia’s already chequered standards. We all knew this would be a crucial election – our country could not go on as it had. With Malaysia’s soul being fought for, it felt wrong to be so far away.

The crazy idea entered my head that I ought to go back. I began searching the Internet for flights and tickets and found that if I took a flight on Tuesday evening, I would arrive in time for the election results. It would be a thirteen-hour flight on a trip I had not even planned, but so what? I had done mad things before.

At the last general election five years prior, I had sat glued to screens in London, flipping between sites on the blogosphere. I was cautiously optimistic at the outset (see blog-post Malaysia’s Election Eve) and bitter by the end. I felt profound disappointment, not because what I had hoped for did not materialise, but because I believed that a small win had been stolen from the opposition.

There were reports of a dodgy electoral roll, washable indelible ink, mysterious ballot boxes and non-Malaysian voters. As I sat and watched the numbers trickling in it was clear, even from London, that the results were being massaged. Incumbent wins were reported quickly while opposition wins were delayed. At some point I remember a convenient power breakdown at Radio Television Malaysia. Perhaps my memory is playing tricks, but that is what I recall. Would it be different this time?

I did not know; I knew only what I felt – that I could not stay away. No matter what the outcome, I had to be there for these critical hours.

I packed hurriedly. I was surprised by how full the flight was, crowded with returning Malaysians like me. We landed just after polls closed. Kuala Lumpur, though calm, had an element of tense excitement.

It felt right to be back. Up in the air at thirty seven thousand feet, I finally understood how much Malaysia means to me. The bond I have with this land is unbreakeable. I carry Malaysia inside – it doesn’t matter that I’ve lived longer elsewhere.

If I had stayed away at this seminal moment in Malaysia’s history, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.

The past forty eight hours have been exhilarating and sleepless, if a little worrying, but I would not have exchanged them for anything else. Yet, when I made the decision to come, we did not know how things would turn out. Some friends thought I was flying into trouble.

We know now that the opposition coalition of hope, Pakatan Harapan, led by Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad, secured an unequivocal win . The transition to a new government is not over and there is plenty of speculation about attempted chicanery by members of the previous government. But they are now dust; I don’t want to talk about them. What I’d rather focus on is that even if you aren’t Malaysian and haven’t visited Malaysia, my country can still be a beacon for you.

Because we Malaysians have achieved what once seemed utterly impossible.

We have managed to vote out a government that was tyrannical, rotten and so corrupt by the end that I’m told its cronies were seen openly bribing voters on the streets. Despite this and despite using every trick in the book – the gerrymandering of boundaries, an Election Commission unfit for office, an electoral roll on which as many as 15% of voters did not have addresses – they lost. Malaysians voted them out. The odds were stacked against us, but we did it.

We did this together, we Malaysians of all races and faiths. We came together as Malay, Chinese, Indian and everything in between; we came together as Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, atheist and whatever else; we came together for the common cause of saving our beloved country. We did this without bloodshed, riots or unrest.

This is something we can truly be proud of.

As I write this, the euphoria has not settled. We are still celebrating. The road forward will be hard – we know that. But it does not detract from what a great thing we Malaysians have done. And if we can do it, others can too. God bless Malaysia.

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Ruminations on Food 6: The Food Hawker & Her Overseas Son

At the start of this series when I wrote about the Malaysian obsession with food, I mentioned that some street food vendors have been able to send their children overseas to study. This happens in my debut novel, The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds. In reviews of the book, at least one American reader has expressed scepticism over such an outcome.

But in Malaysia it is perfectly possible for street vendors to become wealthy. To understand why, you have to appreciate the role of food for us. It serves as balm and salve, feeding not only our bodies but also our minds, and possibly even our souls.

The above is not an understatement. Food is everywhere in Malaysia, permeating culture and consciousness in ways I’ve not seen in any of the other 60 countries I’ve been to. Part of this probably has to do with Malaysia being tropical. Colours and tastes seem somehow more vivid in the open-air than in a cold climate and you end up smelling food pretty much all the time. Walk down any street, something is sure to be frying. Avoiding food is impossible, and we all know what heavenly aromas do to our stomachs.

Oyster Omelette – Can’t You Smell It?

Another part of the phenomenon has to do with the melting pot that is Malaysia. There are three main races – Malay, Chinese and Indian – each with its own distinctive cuisine. Food hawkers have therefore long had lots of competition; they’ve had to compete not just with each other but also with vendors of the other types of cuisine. Only the very best survive. The bar was raised from the outset; even foreign chains have to work harder. When I was a child, Kentucky Fried Chicken tasted very different in Malaysia than in the UK, for the simple reason that to entice customers, the Colonel’s chefs had to mix in local spices. The result was jazzed-up chicken that arrived crisp in baskets (instead of boxes).

This led to great food overall and to a plethora of choice. The sheer scale of choice can be mind-boggling, as I mentioned in Ruminations on Food 2: A Malaysian Food Court.

But Malaysia is also dotted with the other extreme: whole coffee shops dedicated to a single dish. Many of the most successful food hawkers specialise in this way.

There’s a good example opposite my old school in Ipoh. The coffee shop is called Yee Fatt, it’s been going since 1955 and it’s famous for curry noodles. Yes, you read right.  The place is known for curry noodles – not exactly a fancy dish. But the dish is so popular in Malaysia that it even has its own Wikipedia entry (as curry mee, which is what it’s also called).

All That They Sell – and Going Since 1955

The boss at Yee Fatt is the middle-aged Chinese man in the picture below. What he’s doing behind the counter is blanching noodles and bean sprouts in hot water, lifting them on to plates, sprinkling barbecued pork over the top and then dousing it all in a thick curry sauce. He does this hour after hour, day in and day out, which may not sound like much of a life to some.

The Big Boss

But here’s the thing: the guy is his own boss. He opens early for breakfast, serves lunch and then closes his shop around three in the afternoon. That’s him done for the day! Afterwards he goes on a strenuous walk up Kledang Hill, one of many beautiful hills around Ipoh. We know because by the time we arrive at five, he’s well into his descent.

Note Yee Fatt’s longevity. How many small eating places do you know that have been going since 1955? Non-Malaysians may also find it amazing that Yee Fatt sells only two dishes: curry noodles and glutinous rice with pork (the mound on the bottom-right in the second photograph above). The curry noodles come in two versions: either dry – with noodles on a plate and spoonfuls of curry sauce heaped over – or wet, where the noodles are dunked in a bowl with curry soup. If you like, you can order extra bean sprouts and pieces of deep-fried bean curd as accompaniments.

My Favourite Dry Curry Mee

I love Yee Fatt’s noodles – soft but not over-cooked – which I guess would be called al dente in the West. Also, their bean sprouts are perfectly crunchy. Of course, it helps that they use Ipoh’s bean sprouts, which I think are the best in the world. I’ve told this to the Guardian newspaper, National Geographic Traveller UK and anyone who cares to listen! I can just imagine a celebrity chef like Anthony Bourdain declaiming the contrasts in this dish: the crunchiness of Ipoh‘s bean sprouts against the softness of just-right noodles. Smeared on top of it all is Yee Fatt’s irresistible curry sauce. I’m salivating as I write this and groaning a little too, since I won’t be having a bite anytime soon.

I’m not alone in being a fan, as this feature article in the Malay Mail (a Malaysian English language daily) a few years ago shows. And while polishing up this blog-post I found 7 other blogs praising Yee Fatt! (Here’s one link and another: I told you we were food-obsessed!)

Where, you may ask, does wealth come into the picture? Let’s just say that the boss, who looks as unassuming as his coffee shop, is said to be doing very well. I know you wouldn’t think this by looking at the photos. From a Malaysian perspective, however, the shop’s modest décor is actually comforting. It tells us that the food must be good – you certainly aren’t going for anything else. By keeping overheads low, the boss is making sure that he’ll be serving the town lots more curry noodles.

Unassuming and Brilliant

The man at the Yee Fatt coffee shop is not the only food hawker who has done well; there are others like him. Their success, though, may be peculiar to Malaysia, where people care more about taste than décor and will drive miles through pouring rain for a hawker’s food.

Readers love asking me how much of my stories are fact and how much fiction. One answer is that the historical events are real, but the characters are made up. Chye Hoon in The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds was inspired by my own great-grandmother, who I never met. I know, though, that she earned a successful living as a food hawker, enough to send one of her sons to Britain for further education. So I can assure doubting readers that it’s possible for a food vendor in Malaysia to do this: it happened in my own family.

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Ruminations on Food 5: When Fish Looks Like Fish

Ahead of Donald Trump’s much trumpeted trip to Asia last year, his aides told CNN that he was going to avoid “whole fish with heads still on”.

He did not know what he was missing. The best fish is served whole.

What Trump Missed

Years ago when I was an investment banker, my American bank sent me to New York for a month of training. Those were party days and one evening I ventured into New York’s Chinatown with two Italian co-trainees. They had little idea what dishes to order and thought they were in for a treat.

They were – though it was perhaps not the treat they had in mind. The restaurant into which we stumbled would best be described as ‘authentic’. My nose had led us there, you see, and my nose told me to enter. It wasn’t a hole-in-the-wall, but this was long before New York’s Chinatown became gentrified. Although my colleagues looked doubtful, they bravely followed. It had been their idea after all: they’d given me carte blanche to make decisions. Once inside they seemed comforted by the sight of so many Asians eating together. When I decreed that we sit, they told me to order.

The highlight came in the form of a fish that had been steamed whole, complete with head, fins and tail. It looked pretty much like the specimen below. Our waiter must have had a sixth sense – he positioned the dish so that the fish’s mouth peered directly up at my Italian friends. They went pale; neither said a word. Needless to say, I ended up eating rather a lot of fish that night.

Ahoy!

When you grow up with something, you don’t really think about it. In Southeast Asia, we like our fish to look like fish. Because I’d been staring into the gaping mouths of fish since I was a child, it had not occurred to me that anyone could object.

Our penchant for authenticity is not limited to fish. We like our prawns whole, too, still in their shells with tails and juicy heads perfect for sucking.

Prawns As Real As They Come

Quite often, you actually pull your seafood out of the water. Many Chinese restaurants have tanks showcasing the fish, prawns and crabs you can have for your meal. Here’s our waiter pulling large crustaceans out. See the white cards on the side of the tank? The cards reveal the names of customers and what they’ve ordered. At first glance the impression is surreal: the sign with ‘Mr. Chin’ – my uncle’s surname – on the vitrine made it look as if Mr. Chin himself were swimming in the water!

Waiter Fishing

Below is a dish of roast duck. Notice the pains the chef has taken to remind diners that this is duck. So real you can almost hear quacking on the plate. The photo was taken at the  swanky Chinese restaurant known as Yuk Sou Hin inside the WEIL Hotel, which many say serves the best roast duck in Ipoh. In Malaysia and Singapore, even Chinese haute cuisine isn’t for the squeamish. As an aside, I will vouch for this roast duck!

Authentic Duck

The above dishes should qualify as ‘real food’. According to a blog I found, ‘real food’ – a growing movement in the West – is food that is

  • Old and traditional
  • Whole, complete and intact
  • Diverse (as opposed to processed)

You couldn’t get more ‘whole, complete and intact’ unless you strung your poultry up whole. Which of course, many Chinese restaurants worldwide do, too. They hang the already roasted or steamed poultry up and hack them into pieces as customers’ orders come through. It turns out that we’ve been eating real food in Malaysia for a long time – we just didn’t know it.

As if whole fowl dangling pendulously from metal hooks were insufficient, Malaysian coffee shops sometimes have gigantic images on their walls. This must be their attempts at creating the ‘before’ and ‘after’: at the front whole chickens, already cooked, unceremoniously strung up; on one wall, covering pretty much the entire surface area, what those lovely chickens once looked like when they still had feathers.

In Case You Forgot What You Came to Eat

On a serious note, if you belong to the ‘real food movement’ I’d love to know whether the movement embraces an ethos of no wastage, the way we do. What I mean is that we eat every part of the animal. It wouldn’t do to discard the eyes of a fish when you could eat them, would it? This is why there are folks who are fans of fishes’ eyes – I promise it’s true, there are a few in my family – while many others adore fish head curry. The latter is such a popular Malaysian speciality that it even has its own Wikipedia entry.

As for panel signs, we like ours to look as real as our food. The one below was taken inside a Malaysian food court.  It’s not enough to tell customers not to spit. The warning must come in at least two languages with an explicit picture.

Watch That Tongue!

Now spit if you dare. And you probably would dare. Because the sign says nothing about a penalty, does it? In neighbouring Singapore, it would be made clear that you’d be fined for spitting. And you would – because you’d be caught.

But this is Malaysia, a land with laws aplenty and equally plentiful discretionary enforcement. Apa-apa pun boleh, you see. Anything goes.

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Ruminations on Food 4: …And Now for Durians

I’d planned to write this blog-post in time for the first day of the Chinese New Year, which fell on February 16th this year. Alas, I succumbed to flu a few days before the Year of the Earth Dog commenced. This year’s viruses seem especially virulent. I was told that ‘Australian flu’ was doing the rounds in London. I love this. No doubt when my friends down under get really sick, they blame it on ‘Pommy flu’.

At last, the effects of the virus are receding and I can start thinking again about food! I ended 2017 on a petai note, so it seems only right to begin 2018 with that other potent Malaysian product: the durian. Without doubt, this is the king of Malaysia’s fruits.

Here’s a picture of durians below. Each fruit is covered by a hard, spiky, olive green husk that gives it an almost prehistoric appearance. Durians are not innocuous-looking. Even T Rex wouldn’t want to mess with them.

Unopened Durians

Each fruit contains six to twelve or more seeds, and each seed is covered by soft flesh. It’s this gooey flesh that is coveted by durian connoisseurs. The flesh is yellow to off-white in colour and turns to pulp in your fingers. ‘Durian’ could refer either to the whole fruit or to each of the individual flesh-covered seeds inside. If you know your durians, you can tell by looking at the colour and texture of the flesh whether it’s your favourite type or not. I like durians with dry, bright yellow flesh (see picture below) because they tend to be the sweetest. Others prefer the slightly wet, somewhat bitter variety of durians.

An Opened Durian

Once the green durian husk has been split open, there is no getting away from its pervasive aroma. In this respect, durians are a lot more potent than petai.

If you haven’t eaten durians, you’re probably wondering what they smell like. The thing to remember is that I’m Malaysian; I grew up with durians and I like their aroma. Many foreigners, on the other hand, describe durians as smelling of feet, gym socks or worse. The chef Anthony Bourdain has apparently said that after eating durians, your breath smells as if you’d indulged in ‘French-kissing your dead grandmother.’

Comparing durians to kissing a corpse? I think that’s rather unfair. It’s akin to saying that France’s famous Reblochon cheese has the stench of milk gone very bad – which it has – or to early Japanese perceptions that Westerners all smelt of cow. A few years ago I discovered that I was lactose-intolerant, since when I’ve avoided dairy products, and having stopped eating dairy, I can assure you that animal milk smells terrible, even when it’s supposedly fresh! In fact, there is an untranslatable Chinese word to describe the smell of milk. This Chinese word, which is cow-related, conjures up a food that is both bad-smelling and unsavoury.

In bygone days, you were forced to buy durians still in their husks from roadside vendors. These had to transported home in the boot of your car. Everyone would be salivating during the journey because there was no way of escaping their delicious aroma. And then, when you finally reached home, you still had the work of breaking the durians open. Now durians are sold peeled and ready-to-eat, in white plastic containers. See how easy life has become?

Ready-to-Eat Durians in Bowl

While I was on a visit to Malaysia last year, my uncle bought several containers of durians and we stashed them away in the boot, taking care to wrap the containers inside not one but two plastic bags. In spite of these precautions, we could still smell the durians from inside the car! This is why hotels across Southeast Asia have signs reminding people that durians are prohibited inside.

Despite this, there is more hope of durians finding their way into world cuisine than petai. Durians have long been used in cakes (a type of Malaysian delicacy aptly called durian cake), as well as in ice cream and ice lollies. Recently durians even made an appearance in coffee! Here they are, on packets advertising the white coffee for which my hometown, Ipoh, is famous. Just in case you doubted our language abilities, the coffee is marketed in French, okay? Durian café blanc.

Durian Cafe Blanc

I have to mention the type of durian used to flavour this coffee: it’s the famous Malaysian variety known as ‘Musang King’. (In Malay, musang is a civet cat.) In 2014, when the Loon Fung supermarket on Gerrard Street in London’s Chinatown started selling Musang King durians, this was such an event that even the Guardian newspaper reported it. And last year, the first Musang King Durian Festival was organised in Malaysia. The festival may yet become an annual event. So beware folks, the Musang King might soon be coming to a place near you!

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Ruminations On Food 3: An Ode to Petai…

I hope you’re all enjoying the festive season. To celebrate, I bought a copy of the National Geographic Food magazine and was browsing through it when the words ‘butterfly pea’ caught my eye. This distinctively blue flower is used in Southeast Asian cuisine, but it isn’t exactly a household staple. What was butterfly pea doing in the National Geographic?

Colouring tea, it seems. Butterfly pea tea? You bet, and in bags too!

Butterfly Pea Tea in National Geographic Food

#bluetea is apparently gaining in popularity. To date, the hashtag has garnered 9,211 posts on Instagram. National Geographic Food helpfully tells us that adding lemon to the blue-coloured tea turns it pink. If only they had shown a cup of pink tea!

The butterfly pea flower is mentioned in my novel, The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, where the protagonist, who is a chef, uses it to colour one of her cakes. Here’s an interesting fact: the butterfly pea has a scientific name, which alas is clitoria ternatea. You can see why I don’t say this in my book! National Geographic doesn’t mention it, either. Instead, the magazine highlights the butterfly pea’s antioxidant properties.

Which begs an intriguing question: if a plant as innocuous as the butterfly (or blue) pea can have useful health properties, what future might there be in world cuisine for Malaysia’s more potent plants and vegetables?

And there is an incredible variety of these, starting with my favourite legume, called petai in Malay, stinking bean in Chinese. This vegetable looks harmless, though its effects are anything but. Here’s a link to an image of petai uncooked, but do not be deceived. This is not just another broad bean; it’s a natural chemical weapon, transforming those who consume it into human stink bombs.

Unlike strong-smelling cheeses (reblochon being an example), petai doesn’t smell in its raw state (when inside the pod). It’s only after it’s cooked that the bean starts to become interesting. And then, when petai has been eaten and properly digested, its full force is unleashed. What goes in must come out, and petai re-emerges as a unique aroma oozing out of your every pore and orifice. For the next few days, people around you will smell petai on your skin and on your breath and elsewhere too. I describe this in The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds:

Normally stir-fried in a sambal paste, petai is best known for the pungent aroma it leaves in the room – and in latrines afterwards.”

Below is what a dish of petai in a sambal looks like. If you’re not familiar with sambal, this is a delicious spicy sauce, and it’s beloved in Southeast Asia (here’s the Wikipedia entry).

Petai in Sambal

A plant as powerful as petai must surely have significant nutritional value. Searching on Google led me to the plant’s scientific name – parkia speciosa – and a flood of speculation. Petai is apparently high in antioxidants, potassium, carbohydrates and fibre and is said to be helpful for depression, pre-menstrual syndrome, anaemia, blood pressure, brain power, hangovers and loads more besides. Really? Could any single food possibly cure so many ills? Universal panaceas make me nervous, even though my intuition tells me that petai probably does have much unharnessed nutritional value.

The actual smell of petai is difficult to describe. I don’t think of it as pleasant or unpleasant, but it is peculiar. If you come across a distinctive smell that you can’t place and it’s like nothing you’ve ever smelled before, it may be petai!

Last week someone at a book talk I gave asked whether I had any food cravings, and I’d forgotten about petai. This is truly the only Malaysian food I suffer cravings for. Every few weeks I need a fix. For obvious reasons I must time my intake carefully, and this has led me to make a few rules.

  1. Don’t eat petai unless you’re going home afterwards (or to a Malaysian house).
  2. Never eat petai before flying.
  3. Abstain fully during a PR campaign!

The one person who has to put up with my petai obsession is my long-suffering partner. Once, I stir-fried petai in a garlic and sambal sauce without warning her beforehand. I thought it would be enough if I took extra care by closing the kitchen doors while I cooked and giving the kitchen a good airing afterwards. Alas, where Malaysia’s most potent foods is concerned, such efforts are for nought. As soon as my partner stepped inside the house she gave me an odd look, muttered ‘Oh my God, it’s petai’ and flew around opening every window!

Despite such perils, I know of 3 Malaysian restaurants in London that serve petai. For hard core aficionados, the C&R Café in Soho would be the place. There, they serve the petai beans whole (instead of halving them) in a cuttlefish sambal. If you eat petai here, everyone will know what you’ve been up to – this is the Real McCoy. Don’t expect much service, though; you come here for food. I also like Satay House in Paddington – the oldest Malaysian restaurant in London and still going strong. However, the portions here are smaller: there’s a lot less petai for your pound, and the beans are smaller too. But it’s worth a visit just for the smiles. When I’m really desperate, I end up at Rasa Sayang in Soho. Here you don’t get much petai, and the beans are halved and as small as those in Satay House. If you want to try petai this may be a good choice: for some reason the petai here is less smelly. Perhaps they soak them in water beforehand.

If you asked why I like petai so much, I couldn’t really tell you. My craving has something to do with the bean’s texture, its pungency and its utterly inimitable taste. There must be an emotional aspect, too, in the way the taste reminds me of my Malaysian childhood.

Gotta Have ‘Em Juicy Petai!

What’s clear is that when I haven’t eaten petai for a while – as is the case at this very moment – I start to miss it. At the risk of sounding like a crazed addict, I will confess that I can already feel myself approaching a tipping point, after which I’m bound to go a little cranky. As I write this I’m in Florida, where there’s no petai to be found. So I know exactly what I’ll be eating when I land in London! With that delightful prospect in mind, here’s wishing everyone a Happy New Year! And please do share your food cravings with me!

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Ruminations on Food 2: A Malaysian Food Court

Below is a photo of a dedicated food court in Ipoh, my hometown. By ‘dedicated’ I mean that it’s not attached to a shopping mall – the GP Food Court is a destination in itself. The building sports ultra-high ceilings that permit an extra floor above. This space houses a gym, though I can’t imagine how anyone would exercise in the midst of such tempting smells. Which may explain why I’ve yet to see the machines upstairs being used.

The GP Food Court, Ipoh

You can smell the food court before you actually enter, thanks to massive doorways in every direction. As if the aroma of so much food cooking wasn’t bound to waft upwards and outwards anyway, at the GP Food Court there are giant fans to aid this drift. The fans here really are enormous. You can glimpse an example above, on the top edge of the photograph. They swing at speed, too, though you can’t see this: you’ll have to take my word for it!

Food courts everywhere excel in choice, but there’s choice and then there’s choice. Take a peek at the photograph below.

Enough to Give You a Headache

This is the selection at just one stall. Notwithstanding the neon sign advertising ‘Rice’, this stall also serves noodles, in case you don’t fancy rice. It’s a well-known fact that you can’t serve rice and noodles on their own – you need things to eat them with  – and this stallholder is thoughtfully offering a panoply of dishes: braised, fried, boiled, double-boiled (all right, I made that up, though I imagine that they would if they could). There are raw dishes too, in the form of salads.

The sheer amount of choice can induce a headache. This is what happens to my partner; on each and every trip to Malaysia there’s always a first time in a food court and it’s as if she has never seen anything like it before. She’s overwhelmed, her eyes don’t know where to focus and her brain stops making decisions. She opts instead for the one or two dishes she knows – and never tries anything else.

Chicken Chop Rice with Guinness Sauce, Anyone?

Malaysians, on the other hand, are so blasé about food choice that stallholders have to be inventive. Ever tried Chicken Chop Rice with Guinness Sauce? Me neither. There’s also Portuguese Style Chicken Chop Rice on the top left hand side – a nod to our colonial history.

Most people know Malaysia as a British colony, but the Portuguese were actually here before them, followed by the Dutch. The latter two powers only conquered Malacca, a beautiful and very historical port town south of Kuala Lumpur. Our colonial past would explain why Cheese Baked Chicken Chop Rice is on this menu – cheese is definitely not Malaysian.

You may also notice that the signboards have Chinese ideograms and English words. This is because the GP Food Court is not halal, you see, which means that its patrons are largely Chinese and Indian. The Malay populace – who by law have to be Muslim in Malaysia – would be frowned on if they entered a non-halal food court – not frowned on by us, but by Malaysia’s religious officials and the religious police among its citizenry. Who said food couldn’t be a political tool?

Nonetheless, there are (for the moment) still Malay vendors selling food inside Malaysia’s non-halal eating places, including at the GP Food Court. They usually specialise in satay – a traditional Malay dish of meat that’s diced and marinated, set on skewers and then grilled over a charcoal flame fanned by palm leaves. Satay is eaten with a rich and deliciously spicy peanut sauce. The woman satay seller in the GP Food Court owns satay stalls in two other food courts – and we eat at all three (I love her satay).

To cleanse the palate, there’s also fruit at the GP Food Court. Not just any fruit, but imported fruit. In England or France, a trader would proudly proclaim his fruit as being British or French, but we in Malaysia still have the whiff of a complex. The subtext from this stallholder’s sign is that the fruit must be good, since it’s imported.

There are thousands of food courts like this all over Malaysia. There are also halal food courts, of course. For instance, the food courts inside Malaysia’s shopping malls are all halal – because only hawkers offering halal food can gain operating licences there. Whether halal or non-halal, whether located in Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, Penang or Malacca, on each of my visits in the previous ten years, every food court I went to was packed. But what people eat and how much they eat has changed – because times are now tough in Malaysia.

So tough, in fact, that even leading entertainers are speaking up. This is unprecedented. Only last week jazz singer, Sheila Majid, tweeted about Malaysia’s cost of living while a popular actress, Nur Fathia Latiff, criticised the government. Not surprisingly, both have been told to shut up.

None of this should affect visitors, however: the country remains stunning, the people welcoming, the food fabulous. Even on my most recent trip the meals I had ranged from good to superb: it’s hard to have a terrible meal in Malaysia. If you ever make it there, I would definitely recommend a visit to a dedicated food court. Be dazzled; be spoilt for choice. Do what Malaysians do: let your nose and eyes guide you. If the food smells good and there’s a queue, chances are, you won’t regret it.

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Ruminations on Food 1: Malaysians & Food

Hello again, it’s great to be back! I know I’ve been away for a while. I promise I’ve been busy! At one point I was writing so many publicity articles that everything blurred, and I didn’t know my right hand from my left. In between radio interviews – the highlight of which was my appearance on the BBC World Service – and speaking engagements, I was mad enough to carry on writing my third novel.

Thankfully there was a spurt of rest, when I took a short trip to Malaysia for a family celebration. That’s where the idea for this series of blog-posts came from – because as usual, I ate copious amounts. And with the trip lasting only 10 days, the eating was intense.

In fact, after 6 nights of dining out like crazy my partner announced: ‘You haven’t seen drama until you’ve watched a group of Malaysian-Chinese discussing menu choices.’

When I thought about it, I realised she had a point. There’s always a kerfuffle at the start, when we’re still trying to decide what to order. In a Malaysian-Chinese restaurant you don’t place your order with an ordinary mortal, such as a waiter or waitress, no! You summon the head waitress herself. This head waitress is usually a middle-aged woman who has worked her way up the ranks. She knows everything about the menu and how things should be cooked, and makes recommendations accordingly.

Of course, diners around the table – who are invariably food connoisseurs – will have their own ideas. The result is operatic drama, lasting a good 10 minutes on average, during which we talk about which soup to have, which type of poultry, what fish, should we order another seafood dish or another meat dish, what about vegetables and which ones – all before we’ve even come to the finicky point of how each dish should be cooked.

The discussion takes place in one or other Chinese dialect, in our case Cantonese. This means that the conversation is loud: we Chinese are noisy when we’re excited, and we’re always excited where food is concerned. Everyone around the table chips in, sometimes all at once. Ideas are tossed about and there’s much to-ing and fro-ing, especially when it comes to cooking methods, since the conversation often gets down to precisely how the fish will be steamed. In the heat of those moments, the difference between silver pomfrets and black pomfrets seems a matter of life and death.

It Took Us a Long Time to Choose You!

The conversation is always full of passion, it’s never a competition of egos. Everyone truly wants the best possible version of any dish we’ve ordered – that’s what we’ve gone for, after all. And because there is so much outstanding food in Malaysia, people have lots to say.

Apparently, the two groups who spend most time talking about food are the Malaysians and the French. (A verbal anecdote I heard somewhere.) The French, I’m sure, regard themselves as foodies, but having spent a good chunk of time in France I have news for them: we Malaysians are even bigger foodies. And we love all food – not just Malaysian food.

We’re totally obsessed, you see. I believe that this obsession, for Malaysian-Chinese at least, must stem from some primeval fear of famine. Not so long ago – as recently as my childhood – we would greet one another with ‘Have you eaten yet?’ instead of ‘How are you?’ If you had a full stomach, it was assumed that you were well; how could it be otherwise?

A Queue for Moon Cakes

For us, fear of hunger is ingrained. Even though we now live in Malaysia, a country so fertile that a seed only has to drop to grow, and despite having lived here for several generations, we still behave as if we might starve tomorrow. Because who knows, there might just be a war, right, as happened in When the Future Comes Too Soon?

Therefore, we go to great lengths to discuss what to have for lunch while munching our breakfast, what to eat for dinner before we’ve finished lunch, and so on. Our meals are mapped out days in advance. We will battle traffic and thunderstorm; we will drive miles for the sake of the juiciest mangoes, the freshest fish and the best moon cakes. In case you’re wondering what these look like, the photos below were what the people above queued for.

Moon Cakes: Were They Worth the Wait?

Some street food vendors have become so wealthy, they’ve sent their children to study overseas. This is what my protagonist does in The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds. One American reader who reviewed the book was sceptical that this could ever happen – she obviously doesn’t know Malaysia.

Potential famine aside, food is wonderful because it’s safe. There’s nothing controversial about satay or fried chicken or soupy noodles. No one will criticise you for posting photos of your lunch on Facebook; in return, you can comment on your friends’ dinner meals and everyone is happy.

Delicious Noodles: Soupy and Safe!

There’s little doubt that Malaysians love food, but there’s also little doubt that we prefer avoiding conflict. Who doesn’t? It’s a question of the lengths to which we will go.

If our talented cartoonist, Zunar, stuck to drawing happy scenes of Malaysians chomping through plates of nasi lemak, he wouldn’t be suffering from a travel ban today. At present he can’t even come to London for an upcoming exhibition at the Westminster Reference Library, one that has been organised by the UK’s organisation of professional cartoonists and suitably called Gagged – all because he dares lampoon our esteemed Prime Minister.

Zunar’s Tweet: He’ll be on Skype

Of course, strong democratic societies were not built by avoiding inconvenient discussion. Sometimes, conflict will result – this can’t be helped. There’s no other way. Democracy is about speaking up and trying to reach accommodation, especially if we disagree with one another. If we don’t find our voices, food itself could become a political tool.

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Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia