THE Tourism Minister sparked off a cyber food fight a couple of years ago when she declared that Malaysia would lay claim to certain dishes, which she believed had been hijacked by other countries (no names mentioned but chilli crabs were cited and Singaporean food bloggers immediately took point in the debate). The spat was over quickly and the online ranting died down when everyone realised the absurdity of the whole affair.
No doubt, we each have many interesting dishes, and as nations that have much to be proud of in our cuisine, we like to argue about who has the better tasting dish. But the origin of a dish can only be an issue if we are able to determine how, when and where it was created – and in a region like South-East Asia, especially, where we borrow so much from each other, how many dishes can a country truly claim as its own?
For the time being, let’s concentrate on our own cuisine. The Heritage Department has made a start with its list of about 100 Malaysian heritage food items. Unfortunately, it does not provide a reason for including each of the items. Some foods are unusual and have specific geographical origins (for example, nasi tumpang, pulut kukus periuk kera, bubur pedas Sarawak, manok pansoh), but there are also many that are common throughout the country (nasi lemak, teh tarik, satay, pisang goreng).
The Federation of Hainan Association Malaysia reportedly intends to trademark Wenchang Hainanese chicken rice. According to Hainanese websites, this dish is made with free-range chicken that are fed with coconut and peanut bran, and kept in above-ground coops in the last two months before going to the market.
On the island of Hainan in China, where the dish originated, the chicken is boiled and typically eaten with a spicy ginger sauce. It is served with a fragrant Hainan rice.
Can the association guarantee similar chicken breeding conditions in Malaysia? Would it suffice to simply have the right ingredients and cooking process? Do we have a network, organisation or authority to determine and ensure authenticity?
In this regard, the association has more to look into before putting its plans into action.
It may not be viable to have a process or law as elaborate as the European Union legislation on protected food names, but finding out the origins of our food, as called for by the Tourism Minister, is.
Peranakan food may be a good place to start, since this community has its origins in Malaya, and the cuisine is a fusion of two cultures.
So are chilli crabs Malaysian or Singaporean? Both countries produce a fine chilli crab with some differences, but there are similarities as well. To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, oh North is North and South is South, and never the twain shall meet.
But is that a bad thing? This serves to present more choices and ultimately, it is the food lover who wins. – By Jane F. Ragavan