Secret ingredient that unites us


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  • Wednesday, 10 Aug 2016

I HAVE some meat and vegetables roasting in the oven at the moment, and my flat smells quite good.

As I wait for the dish to be ready, I know that it will taste as good as it smells (I can’t speak for my friends who have tasted my cooking though!).

Since moving to Nottingham last year – and just like when I lived in London for my Master’s in 2011 – I’ve been cooking lots, mainly because it’s cheaper than eating out.

The other reason of course is that it’s not easy to find food that I’m accustomed to, although I don’t mind the occasional fish and chips and cold sandwiches.

Whenever I head home to Malaysia, my family and friends often ask what I crave. I often find this question hard to answer; the fact is, I crave Malaysian food in general.

Now, I understand that it is hard to actually define what exactly is Malaysian food considering the various cultural offerings we have. It would also be extremely greedy of me to respond with, “Everything!”.

In my head, it’s really quite simple. I want good food, and for me, in Malaysia that is food you can get quickly and anywhere (although, sometimes you may have to patiently pressure people to eat faster by hovering behind them so you get a table).

But the food we find in Malaysia more than just fills our stomachs. As the adage goes, food also feeds your soul. I’d take it one step further to suggest that it’s not just our individual souls it refers to, but our collective souls as well.

This is because food in Malaysia is part of our cultural heritage as much as anything else.

For Malaysians, eating is a cultural experience, whether in a coffeeshop, makeshift stall or roadside burger joint. Our mamak restaurants are institutions and serve as a community space while Ramly Burger is as well-known as McDonald’s.

It is also part of our lingo – words like bungkus and tapau have become colloquial terms referring not just to ordering take out but to packing leftovers as well.

And then there is the diversity of options available.

While the history of many dishes is linked to heritage, our taste for them transcends one’s biological roots. Depending on the background and cultural influences of the cooks, a nasi lemak or char kuay teow could be prepared differently.

But even if we look beyond the racial make-up of the cooks, the diversity is apparent. Take the laksa for example, which comes in so many permutations – from assam laksa to laksa Sarawak to the Nyonya laksa.

If nothing else, this shows that even within racial and cultural contexts, the categories – Malay, Chinese, Indian and more – we so often associate with are more diverse than we think.

You can understand then why it is so easy for me to satisfy my craving (any of the above types of food will do!) but also so difficult to list out what I want.

And while living in Britain doesn’t mean I don’t have access to these types of food – if I’m willing to travel and pay good money, it is possible – it is not the same as having the variety at the tip of your fingers.

But also because of the other cultural elements associated with eating, it rarely tastes as nice in a restaurant here as it does back in Malaysia. There’s just something about sitting on the stools in a crowded coffeeshop or mamak restaurant.

Then there is one more thing, which I realised on my recent trip back to Kuala Lumpur.

A friend of mine who had taken up Singapore citizenship and I were having breakfast, when he got a bit frustrated at how long the char kuay teow lady was taking to cook his meal.

I reminded him that cooking dishes to order takes time, to which he answered that it never usually takes this long in Singapore.

This got me thinking about what it was that is so special about food in Malaysia when we generally share the same cuisine as our southern neighbours.

Then it clicked in my head.

For me, it explains why Malaysians have an obsession with food and have made eateries our shared spaces. It explains why it doesn’t matter what our upbringing or heritage is, we will still enjoy the myriad dishes indigenous to races and cultures different to ours.

It reminds me why at times when we are so polarised and not united as people, food, like sports, brings us together.

It’s the secret ingredient that I also put in my own dishes, which explains why I generally enjoy all my cooking despite not being a good cook.

I told my friend, as his plate of noodles was placed in front of him, that in Malaysia, our food is often cooked with love. And that makes all the difference.

Niki is a PhD researcher in Critical Theory and Cultural Studies at The University of Nottingham, UK. Connect with him online at www.nikicheong.com/fb.

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