An Ode to Malaysian Food

There is this lovely feature on the Guardian about Malaysian food, which I lapped up greedily. I have to admit, I find it a funny sort of perverse pleasure reading up what other people (read: Westerners) think of Malaysian cuisine. I suppose it’s like reading reviews of my favourite shows – you want people to love it as much as you do.

It’s funny when I read food blogs and the write about being obsessed with food. I don’t think most foodies in the West ever come close to how obsessed Malaysians come to food. We may not have the fancy restaurants that serve tasting menus but the obsession when it comes to food is certainly insurmountable here in Malaysia. It’s like when I complained at work that I’ve been eating too much, an Indian expat who was listening in jumped in and put in his two cents: “You’ve put on weight?! I’ve been here six months and I’ve put on 10 kilos. You Malaysians can’t stop eating.”

We eat. A lot. It’s no joke that it’s some sort of marathon or a second religion here –Book Clubs frequently have to bribe people with tea and snacks for people to attend. In my previous job, we had a snack committee to make sure that the kuehs served were not repeated over various meetings. A meeting outside will usually have 5 meals served – breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner. And a friend of mine who was in London ate at a Malaysian restaurant to satisfy her cravings for Malaysian food – and when it did not taste the same, she sat down and literally cried over her nasi dagang.

But as the article wondered aloud, why was it that Malaysian food has not done very well outside South-east Asia?

I do personally feel that one of the reasons why Malaysian food don’t do as well overseas is that – well, unless it’s done right, it’s not going to taste very good. I can’t eat at Malaysian restaurants overseas, I think they taste awful compared to the real deal.

But almost all Asian cuisine overseas have been bastardized to some extent to fit local tastes. My brother adores sesame chicken and kung pao chicken in the US, but when I ask him if kung pao chicken tastes anything like the chicken cashew nut we get here – he gave me a dirty look and said, honestly, in the States, they all taste the same to him. Chinese food here is better. Of course, it’s better. We’re Malaysians. We think very highly of all our food here.

It’s the same with Thai food, I read in the Guardian that most British have taken a great affection to Thai Green Curry – a mild and sweet curry. Mild and sweet, I thought. Are we eating the same curry? The last time I had a Thai Green Curry at a restaurant in KL, I wanted to die from how spicy it was, and I drank copious amount of water that I was too bloated to walk out of the restaurant.

Don’t get me started with satay, especially the peanut sauce which in the West, is made with peanut butter. I still weep at the thought.

It is not to say that localizing food may be a bad thing. Whilst I do feel that it is wrong to localize Asian food (heck, I’m Asian) but, I do recognize all over the world, we localize. There’s no bacon in most Western restaurants in Malaysia – we have beef bacon; some Malaysian Muslims don’t even know that real bacon originates from pork! The lasagna I had at TGIF Delhi had garam masala. Certainly not very pleasant for me – but very popular amongst the patrons there.

In a long-winded way, I think the most probable reason why Malaysian cuisine has not been able to do as well overseas is that our cuisine is not easy to localize. How can it be? One of the things that make me so proud of being Malaysian is how we’ve taken to each other’s food culture despite claiming to hate each other rather openly. We take Indian spices, the Malay’s fresh herbs and Chinese ingredients, cooking techniques, combine them in a pot and serve.

This makes our ingredients very expensive. A friend of mine asked me for a recipe for Malaysian Chicken Curry. As I listed down for her what would make it authentic – I realize it would bankrupt a restaurant overseas with the ingredients we use. We don’t use 1 teaspoon of curry, or 1 tablespoon. It’s five heaped tablespoons of curry per half a kilo of chicken. On top of that, star anise, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamoms, fenugreek seeds, cumin, coriander seeds, mustard seeds and curry leaves. And then lots of onions, ginger and garlic.

All of these things are readily available here – our spice section usually takes up an entire aisle – and they tend to be very cheap in Malaysia. If I had to recreate an authentic Malaysian recipe in England, I’d have to be either very rich and willing to let all these exotic spices go to waste in the pantry – or enjoy Malaysian food so much that you’d cook up a curry, assam pedas, once a week. Fantastic if you’re Malaysian, but not so if you’re not Malaysian. I fancy myself a steak and kidney pie every so often, but imagine having to eat it weekly. Um, no.

Since I’ve gotten married, I’ve been at it in the kitchen, trying to recreate a Malaysian curry recipe that I would be happy to eat weekly. There are thousands of recipes out there – and having tried some of them, unfortunately, the ones by Malaysian bloggers overseas just aren’t as good as the ones here. I do believe it’s because you can’t be as generous with the ingredients as we are here, to toss in as many spices as possible with a lovely dose of fresh herbs.

Which is a shame. Unlike the Thais who seem to know how their cuisines is balanced between sweet, savoury and spicy, Malaysians seem to go a lot more with their gut instinct when it comes to cooking – it just has to taste right. There’s no balance to look for – rendang (stewed beef in coconut) is not going to taste like asam pedas (tamarind fish stew) which is not going to taste like masak lemak cili padi (Chicken in Chili coconut cream) or a roti canai (flaky, sinful pancake). Our food, I don’t believe is as spicy as people make it out to be – certainly there are cuisines out there that are spicier (then again, when I dragged my poor friend for an assam laksa, and I said it’s not that spicy, he choked as he slurped the red broth), it’s just Malaysian. Just like it’s countrymen, Malaysian food is filled with excesses that somehow just come together on a plate, balanced in its own unique way that can hardly be expressed in single word.

I think when you’ve gotten a chance for real Malaysian cuisine – and when I mean real, I mean, in someone’s home where someone had been pounding and roasting the spices for hours, spending hours roasting and simmering three types of fish and painstakingly picking out the bones to make a lovely, thick laksa Johor broth – you would fall in love just as the way we have with our food. But since it’s not that easy to haul a random Malaysian and then force them to cook for you, the next best thing is to be able to localize Malaysian recipes in Malaysian restaurants overseas to make it more palatable to Western tastebuds before introducing them to the real thing.

But until we can find a way to localize rendang, Malaysian chicken curry, to suit overseas Western tastes, sadly, I feel that Malaysian food would always remain, the food world’s best kept secret.

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