Sunday, June 8, 2014

Eat, Pray, Gov

A plate of plain, simple nasi lemak is sitting before me. The other customers around me are wolfing the coconut rice down, bits of egg, sambal and fried ikan bilis disappearing into chomping mouths. Chomp chomp gulp, goes the rhythm, alternated by giant swigs of iced Milo. Within minutes, the plate is emptied.

Nasi lemak. Image from wikipedia.

I turn back to my own plate of nasi lemak. I appraise it, observing the ratio of sambal to rice, how crispy the fried anchovies look, how the sunny side up egg glistens in the amber light, how fluffy each grain of rice seems, how there are wafts of steam rising from the plate. I smell it, a deep breath, a lover inhaling perfume within another's embrace. I smell the fragrance of fresh coconut milk, a hint of onion from the rice, and then I'm assaulted by the spice of the sambal, the subtle fishiness coming from the anchovies. 

And then I have a sip of water. Cleanse the mouth of any residual tastes before diving in. I first try the rice, slowly letting each granule dissolve in my mouth while soaking in the coconut flavors. A sip of water. Then the sambal. Another sip of water. The process continues until finally, I eat nasi lemak the way it was supposed to be eaten: a wonderful mix of nuts, sambal, rice, cucumber, the yolk of the just fried egg oozing onto everything and bringing everything together. 

I'm guessing this scenario seems pretty ridiculous to you. Indeed, ever since primary school, my friends have often been rather amused or annoyed with my food antics. But as anyone who knows me will tell you, I love food, and I take food very seriously. 

Food is more than food to me. It is not just sustenance, it's not just entertainment or socializing, it's not just something you put in your mouth and wonderful things happen, it is a way of life. I'm a very firm believer in the importance of food, and its influence on the way we live, the way we look at things, the way we approach people. 

Look at some of the most explosive political shenanigans that have happened in Malaysia for example. There is the most recent scandal, where Cadbury chocolates apparently contained pig-DNA and the religious authorities went berserk on the report. Then of course, there was the infamous cow head protest, when protestors against a Hindu temple gravely offended everybody by marching down the road with a bloody cow head, an animal that Hindus do not consume as it is considered sacred. And then there are minor tussles here and there over halal status, about the segregation that happens in certain facilities, the complaints over organ donors being pork-eaters so on and so forth. Just think about it, among the worst insults one can suffer in the Malay language is being called babi, pig. 

Apparently comes in roast pork flavor too. (Yes I know it's been cleared up now just a joke). Image from VenusBuzz.

Malaysians complain about a lack of unity and national identity. I think there is nowhere you see this clearer than in the food industry. The kopitiam, which used to be the de facto community centre, always with Malay, Indian and Chinese food stalls has become the domain of the Chinese community. People like to shout a lot about appreciating Malaysian food, but rarely does this go beyond the mamak staples of nasi lemak, roti canai and such standard fare. Increasingly, Chinese stick to Chinese/ Western/ mamak food at best. 

Malaysia is blessed with such incredible diversity. Yet we rarely if ever take advantage of it. I frequently find myself being the only Malaysian Chinese at many Malay or Indianrun joints, whether it be eating mee udang, or nasi padang, lontong, tandoori, banana leaf or some bubur cha cha. And I know far too many people for whom lontong and ayam varuval are as foreign as foie gras and paella, despite these things being right on their doorstep. Maybe I haven't seen enough, or maybe I just happen to run around in rather unadventurous circles, but I fear that this is a greater trend in Malaysian society. 

Curry laksa. Image from wikimedia.
I liken it to curry laksa. Curry laksa is a great dish not only because it tastes great, but because it's a wonderful coming together of cultures that make something truly Malaysian: noodles from the Chinese, curry from the Indians, the spices and sambal from the Malays, and with every state having their own unique spin on it. Yet, what seems to be happening in Malaysian society is that we're not coming together. The ingredients are all there, but they aren't mixed together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Maybe I'm taking it all too far, this the world through food lens of mine. But I've often heard it said that a family that eats together stays together. And what about the Malaysian family? 

Heh. All this talk of food and politics is making me depressed and hungry. Oh well. Nothing a bowl of curry laksa won't cure. 

Malaysian terms
nasi lemak- coconut rice served with condiments. Considered perhaps the most iconic Malaysian dish.
sambal- a light chilli paste of sorts. Often served with anchovies.
ikan bilis- anchovies.
Milo- a chocolate-flavored drink.
babi- pig
kopitiam- a Malaysian cafe. Thus the kopi/ coffee.
mamak - restaurant serving standard Malaysian fare that are often open 24 hours and are halal.
mee udang- prawn noodles.
curry laksa- curry noodles.
lontong- rice with a light broth. ugh. it's hard to explain. search them up!