Big Smile, No Teeth: The glory of Malaysian food


For someone who grew up on ground beef and mushy peas, a Malaysian dish like rendang is a revelation. — Filepic/The Star

The thing about Malaysian food is that it’s really, really good.

Mee goreng, nasi lemak, rendang, all of it is delicious but sometimes I think Malaysians take it for granted. I never take good food for granted. Because once you’ve done without, you’re always appreciative when you have it. And this isn’t to say I came from poverty. Not at all. But perhaps I grew up in culinary poverty.

I grew up in Canada and although I am part Filipino, unless it was special occasions, I was doomed to an existence of eating mostly what would be considered Canadian food. What is Canadian food? That’s a good question. Sure, we have the oft cited tortiere, which is famous (or not, I’ll bet most haven’t heard of it) for being a French Canadian meat pie (that not too many Canadians actually eat). I only heard about the tortiere in French class in school when I found out I had presumably been eating kilos of the stuff but hadn’t tried it in my life. Then there is the more well-known poutine: French fries with gravy and melted cheese curds on top. Which is good. In a comfort food, eat-it-until-you-die-from-it sort of way.

But really, neither of those is specifically Canadian the way that, say, rendang can be called Malaysian or that lasagna can be called Italian. And certainly no one travels to Canada expressly to sample some poutine or a tortiere. Canadian food has the quality of being mostly meat and potatoes sort of stuff with the secret ingredient being salt. Or a lack of salt. Take your pick.

In my home, mum and dad were great parents but they weren’t real big on cooking. My mother was a working mum who taught yoga and pilates at night and didn’t have time to cook, and my father was just a typical Canadian dad whose idea of a fancy meal was one that offered ready access to ketchup.

Meals with my father were often just ground beef and a bag of frozen peas tossed in a pan and browned until the meat was dry as Styrofoam and the peas were just an amorphous green mash. That’s where that bottle of ketchup would come in. Need some of this, my dad would say, holding up the bottle like some kind of trophy, “this ties it all together”. Truth is, you did need the ketchup not just to make the dish palatable but also to help you lubricate the food so it didn’t get stuck in your throat and choke you to death. To this day, my dad tells me that he doesn’t use spices because he doesn’t want to be spoiled by all that “fancy” cooking. I’m fairly sure he is only half joking. I love my father but, man, he’s an uninspired chef.

Imagine my surprise when in my teens I started spending time at my Portuguese friend’s house, stayed for a Thanksgiving Day meal one year and was privy to a beautifully browned, succulent turkey with melt-in-your-mouth potatoes and chorizo baked around it. The turkey in our house was typically the dry, throat-choking affair the rest of our meat was. Ketchup probably saved my life.

But it was that Thanksgiving Day, when I ate so much turkey that my friend's family didn’t have leftovers, that I realised how good food could be. From then on part of travelling the world became also about sampling new and incredible foods. The olive oil and garlic in Spanish cooking, the salt and sugar existing together in a Thai dish so spicy I would sweat through my shirt, the beef melting into the flavours of coconut milk and cardamom and cinnamon in a glorious rendang, these were all new to me and I ate like I had grown up in a closet. Culinarily speaking, I suppose I had.

And nothing endears you to people like enjoying their local dishes. Everywhere I went, people were delighted to watch me stuff my face with homemade regional delights. Though, to be fair, I never ate just to be liked; I was just making up for 20+ years of ground beef and peas.

But one thing about growing up eating bland, unspiced food is that whenever a friend shrugs and is dismissive of an otherwise delicious-smelling rendang that isn't up to exacting local standards, I shrug right back and order a big heaping serving.


Big Smile, No Teeth columnist Jason Godfrey – who once was told to give the camera a ‘big smile, no teeth’ – has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at lifestyle@thestar.com.my and check out his stuff at jasongodfrey.co. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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