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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.