Malaysia And Me, A Gastronomic Journey
August 31, 2011

The following essay was my entry to the Sun/1MDB "Malaysia and Me" writing contest. Totally shouldn've written about struggles with my inner demons instead of food. Selamat Hari Kebangsaan!



Thank you Malaysia. You have shaped me into the person I am today, an overweight 28-year-old with permanent love handles.

Malaysians love their food. We all know that. Food defines our culture like no other. Without food, we are left with the image of a mat rempit doing a wheelie or a cab driver arguing with a Middle Eastern tourist to portray the country. Imagine that on the cover of a Visit Malaysia brochure.

That's how important our food has become to us. It has become our identity. It goes beyond providing nutrition. It provides nutrition and contributes a large chunk of income to local cardiologists.

"You are what you eat," or so they say. If there's any truth in the saying, then by noon on a normal day, the average Malaysian is a plate of nasi lemak, two servings of roti canai, a glass of teh tarik and a bag of kuaci he's munching at work. The very image of a hardworking Malaysian.

I am no different. Malaysian food to me is what the Batmobile is to Batman. I can't go anywhere without it. And I mean anywhere.

When I was 17, for example, I was offered a place to pursue my studies in the United States. It was a dream come true. Yet, the prospect of being half the world away from the likes of mee goreng mamak and ayam tandoori brought shivers down my spine. Even the famed nasi goreng USA can never be found anywhere in the US.

It was this fear of malnutrition that made me fly to Los Angeles with two large suitcases. One containing my clothing and the other, containing packets of instant sambal ikan bilis, rendang ayam and serunding daging. Half of the ration was chunked away by airport security.

But I survived. Five years of living abroad taught me to appreciate our food better. Nothing comes close to the variety of food that we have here in Malaysia. Sure, America is a melting pot. But as staples of their diet, pizza is Italian and Chinese take-away is well, Chinese. The only purely American food I could think of is the Big Mac.

We have got history to thank for what we have on our plates today. This country was partly built by travelers who came to our port to trade spice. Some settled here for good after marrying the locals and brought in their recipes together with them. Recipes that have evolved into different forms and fusions through our diverse cooking styles.

This beautiful convergence of traditions is the root to the variety of flavors that have been spoiling our taste buds through the years. It forms the stories behind the mamak stalls, Chinese kopitiam shops and dimly-lighted Thai seafood restaurants that we see everywhere today. The same goes to the meals on our dining table at home.

Growing up, I was often told by my mother that I should always be thankful and finish my food because back in the day, only Malay kings and queens get to eat the dishes that we eat on a regular basis today. Back then, asam pedas and sambal tempoyak were the food of the royals.

Even then I knew it was just her way of stopping me from eating junk food and spoiling my dinner. But coming back to her words today, it does make sense because fixing these dishes requires meticulous preparation. One extra pinch of ingredient into the pot and you've practically ruined the entire mix. I can imagine how mind-boggling the chemical equations behind every dish are. And there's no turning back!

Which is why I never believe my aunts when they say all you need to make the perfect Malay dish is to estimate and add the ingredients "secukup rasa". While I struggled to understand Einstein's Theory of Relativity back in college, I did finally grasp its basics. The concept of "secukup rasa", on the other hand, remains a mystery that continues to leave me in a bewildered heap. It's a secret code. A language only Malay women understand and Malay men refuse to understand.

My Chinese, Indian, Sikh, Kadazan and Bajau brothers know what I'm talking about. It's the eating part that we're good at. And herein lies the beauty of Malaysia as a food nation.

Our food builds character. It's the DNA that forms our personality as Malaysians. The palette that provides the many colors gracing the sights and sounds of this beautiful nation. People sitting by the roadside chatting over a plate of rojak and washing it down with a bowl of cendol. The mamak waiter who could remember all 600 orders he's taking and calculate the total by hand (though different amount every time). The Chinese uncle who could fix a plate of char kuey teow on his flaming wok at the blink of an eye. The list goes on and on, from every corner of the country.

Coming from a family of a Kelantan-Negeri Sembilan mix, I was brought up to experience both ends of the Malaysian food spectrum. From the cili padi-laden masak lemak and sambal belacan from Kuala Pilah to the double dose of sugar in renowned Kelantanese dessert delicacies such as jala emas and the oddly-named tahi itik, I have grown to withstand any form of challenge to my tongue and tummy. Perhaps that is also why I am often referred to as being both hot and sweet. At least by my wife.

I'm sure we have read enough about Malaysian food integrating its people. There's no denying that the plethora of food joints that we have across the country are bringing people together. It's a festival of our best culinary offerings which everyone is celebrating, all year long. And the world is taking notice. Malaysians stood tall when we witnessed Penang assam laksa making it to the top 10 of CNN's Most Delicious Food in the World ranking recently.

Food makes us forget about our differences. It opens a new avenue of limitless possibilities for us to explore together as a nation. Food is what people of different races in this country understand.

We don't say "Hello!" in this country. We ask, "Dah makan?"

A short, two-word question that embodies the unity of our people in its truest sense. A question both young and old can understand. A question we can ask each other even as strangers.

Only on this land, where everyone is always hungry.



Photography by Azalia Suhaimi

About
  • Asrif, b. 1983
  • Subang Jaya, Malaysia
  • asrifomar[@]gmail[.]com
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