Published: Sunday November 9, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday November 9, 2014 MYT 2:57:19 PM

The proof of a Penang dish is in the eating, not in who cooked it

Battle of Penang Hawker Masters 2012 champions: (L-R) Cheong Hun Meng (Hokkien mee), Syed Mohamed Shahul Hameed (pasembur), Hashim Hj Ismail (nasi lemak), Tan Swee Hoe (rojak), Pooh Bee Har (char koay teow), Lai Khoon Seong (curry mee).

Battle of Penang Hawker Masters 2012 champions: (L-R) Cheong Hun Meng (Hokkien mee), Syed Mohamed Shahul Hameed (pasembur), Hashim Hj Ismail (nasi lemak), Tan Swee Hoe (rojak), Pooh Bee Har (char koay teow), Lai Khoon Seong (curry mee).

Last Sunday I attended the second I Eat Nasi Lemak event in Kuala Lumpur. Twenty vendors from all over Malaysia converged on an exhibition hall in Bangsar, KL, to give the public a taste of allegedly the best nasi lemak in the country.

I say “allegedly” because although much of the fare available was good, one vendor was offering “organic” nasi lemak which – horror of horrors – contained no santan at all.

Honestly, I didn't like it. Yes, they added vegetable extracts and juices (and I think a bit of coconut oil) but it wasn't the same thing. It wasn't authentic.

But at least it was probably cooked by a Malaysian. Imagine the ignominy if the dish came from a vendor from outside Malaysia. A Malaysian dish, experimented on by foreigners and then served back to us?

At least I think that’s what is running through the minds of those in Penang when they made the decision to ban foreign cooks at hawker stalls. From January 2016, hawker licenses will state that only locals can cook local dishes.

“Tourists come to Penang for food, and the state government is not going to risk our tourism industry by allowing indifferent foreign workers to jeopardise the branding of delicious Penang street food,” said Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng.

To me, this is a disturbing inference: if you’re the wrong nationality, you can’t cook. Or at least you can’t cook Penang food. But I suppose if we can give you Permanent Residence status (PR), then you will magically acquire the ability to produce delicious char kuay teow.

Of course this is nonsense. I am sure there are many chefs in Singapore who have learned Malaysian dishes and are capable of making them taste authentic. And I myself am living proof that just because a Malaysian cooks local food doesn’t mean it’ll turn out great.

Despite the Chief Minister’s insistence that the policy is not discriminatory, I don’t know how else you would describe judging how well somebody cooks without sampling the food they produce.

Having said that, in the week since the announcement, many of the people I've talked to seem to agree with the sentiment that when foreign workers take over the cooking, the quality of food goes down.

However, a friend of mine who runs a cafe in KL has a different point of view.

“A lazy owner means poor quality,” he said. “I work with foreigners who do a much better job than many locals ... If the owner doesn’t pass on the knowledge, the food will never taste good.”

Of course, I understand the Penang government wants to make sure that every tourist who eats in Penang has food that is properly prepared and tastes delicious. But instead of stigmatising non-Malaysians, perhaps it would be better to direct tourists to places where the food is authentic.

(In fact, practically speaking, they’ve already done it. The Penang State Tourism Development and Culture Office, together with Penang Global Tourism Sdn Bhd has published the Penang Food Trail that lists a 108 food stalls and restaurants - all presumably serving food that’s delicious and authentic.)

It should be obvious that any policy that discriminates arbitrarily grates against my sensibilities. This idea of Malaysians only for the good of Malaysian food smacks of a kind of cultural imperialism that we so often condemn when coming from other nations. We sometimes want to grip on to our heritage so tightly that we fail to notice the opportunities around us that could help our culture develop and blossom even further.

What do we even mean by “authentic”? Truth is, Malaysian food hasn't been “Malaysian” only until recently. Char kuey teow is thought to have originated from what is now called Shantou in China when migrants brought it over in the 19th century, while the curries that accompany a nasi kandar came from Indian Muslims from southern India.

What is “authentic local” now would have most likely been considered “exotic foreign” only two generations ago.

In many cases, the dishes were localised and developed their unique identity, but it didn’t appear from a vacuum. In fact, the best way new ideas spring forth is when cultures mingle and collide.

The irony may be that that you might be more successful marketing Malaysian food to the rest of the world if you were willing to sacrifice some of its authenticity. When Ipoh-born Ping Coombes participated in Masterchef UK earlier, she did so by preparing nasi lemak as the main dish – but what a dish it was! At first glance, it was unrecognisable.

The base was a nasi lemak with sambal, but it was served with poached quails eggs, fried chicken in Spanish potato crisp and what looked like an edible morning glory flower (a clever replacement of the traditional kangkung). On the balance of things, I’m going to say, “not authentic”. Yet, good enough to be the centrepiece of the meal that won Masterchef for Ping.

Since winning the competition, Ping has carried on with innovation. Her website carries a recipe for what she says is a Malaysian version of that traditional dessert called Eton Mess, and I look forward to the time she perfects her deep-fried rendang, which will be crispy on the outside while soft on the inside.

These innovations should not be seen as bastardised children of some noble heritage, but an exploration of how our past can lead us to the future. For that to happen, we should at least, in spirit, welcome some culinary cultural upheaval. I look forward to some edible flowers at next year’s I Love Nasi Lemak event.

> Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s contradictions.

Tags / Keywords: Heritage, Food, Penang

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