IF there’s anything that hasn’t changed in the past 60 years, it’s Malaysians’ obsessive love for food.
In fact, we have become even more food-crazed, if we go by social media postings. Malaysians’ favourite status updates revolve around food – eating, cooking, hunting for the best stalls, restaurant recommendations, latest trend ... It’s a merry food hunt that takes us all over our towns, states, country and even across the globe.
Eating out has always been a way of life for Malaysians, whatever their background. No matter how tall our skyscapers are, we remain rooted in our undying love for our street food. Whether they arrive in a Porsche or a Proton, true Malaysians will sit on plastic chairs and devour hawker food that is fast, cheap and delicious.
Hawker fare is perennial favourites, even if the itinerant vendors of yesteryears are no more. And although there are still many roadside stalls and push carts, most hawkers are now operating from kopi tiams and food courts, some in posh shopping malls.
But the Lim sisters at the Air Itam market have stuck to their old way of selling curry mee since 1946. They still sell their noodles from two baskets on the ground, sitting on low benches and addressing their customers in the old Peranakan way, calling them “Ah Ba” and “Ah Nya”.
Even though they remain unchanged at the same spot since before the declaration of Independence, they too couldn’t stem the tides of changing times.
In the last decade or so, food bloggers have descended on the Lim sisters and their vintage style is a “novelty” they simply couldn’t resist spreading.
These days, the 80-year-olds are celebrities of sorts, and are often featured in cari makan shows that are all the rage these days. Now, they even have their own Facebook page (www.facebook.com/currymeesister)!
Our hawker food is no longer a local secret, as the best stalls regularly make it to international lists of must-have dishes such as Penang’s Siam Road char kuay teow, which ranked 14th in the top 50 list at the World Street Food Congress 2017.
It’s a recognition that Malaysians are extremely proud of, for we truly believe our food is the best in the world.
Hungry for more
But this pride has not gotten in the way of us exploring new cuisines. The Malaysian palate is, after all, built on variety, for the best part of being a multicultural society is enjoying different cuisines. We have also had a long history of adopting and adapting different culinary influences, as exemplified by our Peranakan food and Hainanese-style Western fare.
Like the rest of the world, we fell under the comforting spell of spaghetti and pizza. They became popular with the masses sometime in the 1990s, introduced first in fast food restaurants such as Shakey’s and Pizza Hut, and then in Italian restaurants such as Villa Danieli and Modesto’s.
These days, spaghetti bologanaise is very much a staple in urban homes.
Since then, we have also gone big on Japanese, Korean, Middle Eastern food. We do not only eat at these restaurants but also cook them at home, with supermarkets stocking up on ingredients such as mirin, kimchi and tahini.
Thai and Indonesian food has, of course, been long-time favourites.
Dining out is as much about the social experience as it is about filling our tummies.
Banquets at Chinese restaurants are as boisterous as ever, as are seafood restaurants all over the country.
In the post-Merdeka years, Malaysians dined at Le Coq Dor on Jalan Ampang (which closed down in 2001) and the iconic Coliseum on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman in Kuala Lumpur, and the posh restaurants were found mostly in five-star hotels.
The first fast food restaurant, A&W, was opened on then Batu Road (now Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman) in 1963, and its iconic drive-in at Petaling Jaya in 1965. We got our finger-licking goodness when Kentucky Fried Chicken opened its first outlet on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman in 1973. Mc Donald’s only came about in 1980, but it’s now in every state in Malaysia.
The economic boom of the late 1980s heralded a new era in the country’s dining scene. A growing middle class and increasing affluence meant there was much more demand and openness towards new dining experiences.
There were steakhouses like The Ship where we sipped Blue Nun, probably many Malaysians’ initiation into wine-drinking. In the 1990s, there were Tex Mex restaurants like TGIF and Chilli’s, which introduced us to fajitas and mojitos. We embraced various dining experiences, from conveyor belt sushi outlets to Brazilian churrascaria.
Malaysians also bought into designer coffees, gourmet sausages and premium ice cream.
And, of course, we also swarmed buffets, unable to resist their eat-all-you-can challenge.
By the new millennium, Malaysians’ palates had expanded. The most sophisticated (and wealthiest) gourmets had eaten in Michelin-star restaurants abroad and could sniff out the best wines and truffles.
Just a click away
More significantly, there came into being this parallel universe called the World Wide Web.
Seemingly overnight, a click was all it took to be clued in on global culinary trends. As in elsewhere and in other fields, bloggers became the new breed of influencers. By the mid-2000s, people were clicking on local food blogs. hungry for posts and photographs on where to find the most delectable feeds. Food porn was the key term.
But in recent years, social media has replaced blogs as the go-to tool for food hunting.
A vital criterion now is whether a dish or a setting is Instagram mable. Posting the latest trends will surely attract “likes” and there is a never-ending stream of novel food to track down, from salted egg croissants to cronuts to nasi lemak burgers. These trends are often fleeting, but the fun is in being adventurous and supportive of innovative culinary creations.
This is, of course, the era of the celebrity chef, starting with TV chefs such as Jamie Oliver and our own inimitable Chef Wan, and perpetuated by reality cooking shows such as MasterChef Australia and The Great British Bake-Off.
This has also inspired many young Malaysians to explore their culinary talents, and the bustling cafe and restaurant scene in the Klang Valley and other cities is testament to their skills and innovative spirit.
Elevating the dining scene these days is a host of innovative chef-driven restaurants featuring globally-influenced and distinctive style, spearheaded by chefs who have great respect for produce and appreciate seasonal eating. This movement is hallmarked by French and European techniques, combined with local and regional produce and traditions.
Darren Teoh champions local ingredients such as ulam at Dewakan, while Darren Chin combines Asian influences with French technique at DC Restaurant, and Isadora Chai puts her own spin on Malaysian classics at Antara.
Malaysians are certainly open to expanding their palates, and our dining scene promises to be exciting in its variety and innovations.
But whether we are tearing into our roti canai at the mamak’s, or digging into a poke bowl at a hispter cafe, Malaysians are united by their love for food and the belief that eating well is good for their soul.