Archive for 9 August 2017

Eating history

9 August 2017

(Reprinted from The Edge – Options pullout, 7 August 2017 issue)

Dear Kam,
What is going on?! Singapore has just invented the nasi lemak burger. How dare they?! Nasi lemak is Malaysian! Why isn’t our government doing anything about this insult to our nation?
— Nasi lemak nationalist

In 1969, the neighbouring Central American countries of El Salvador and Honduras went to war because of a football match. Well, that’s a bit simplistic because there were much deeper causes for the 100 hours’ war than just the result of a World Cup qualifying match, but it is still called the Soccer War. Honduras won the first qualifying game and El Salvador managed to even the score by winning the second. Violence had followed each match and tensions were high when the two teams met for a final deciding play-off match. El Salvador won 3-2 after extra time and the two nations severed diplomatic ties that very day. A few weeks later, they went to war. As I say, there were deeper political and economic causes but something as trivial as a football match was the catalyst for a war.

A few weeks ago, there was a demonstration outside the Malaysian Embassy in Jakarta. I read about it and then I forgot about it. I can’t remember what the exact issue was and my Google search has failed to find it, but some Indonesians were demonstrating to reclaim from Malaysia a particular dish. I want to say it was curry puffs but I can’t remember. It was something very Malaysian, and quite Nyonya at that, so it seemed ridiculous and needlessly inflammatory. It turned out that the “demonstration” was a clever publicity stunt for an Indonesian brand of (let’s just say) curry puffs. So no need for anybody to sever diplomatic ties over that. And, besides, our beloved deputy prime minister has excellent connections with Java, so no problems there.

But recently McDonald’s in Singapore introduced the nasi lemak burger. There are few things as fundamentally Malaysian as nasi lemak, and I for one don’t associate Singapore with nasi lemak. Although there could be legitimate discussions between Malaysia and Singapore about the true provenance of laksa (I think talks are being held at the United Nations Security Council right now) nasi lemak is definitely 100% Malaysian, and there can be no argument. And so it is an insult to Malaysian pride that Singapore has a nasi lemak burger and we do not. Fortunately, some patriotic Kuala Lumpur burger joints have introduced their own nasi lemak burgers in an attempt to restore our great nation’s wounded pride, but it may be too little too late. One Singaporean taunted us on Facebook by saying, “Why only unveil Msia’s Nasi Lemak Burger AFTER MacD in SG introduced? So what if yours taste better? It’s still a copy.” Quite simply, those are fighting words.

I have a peculiar personal phobia about seeing animals riding bicycles. For one brief second it might seem cute but then I am suddenly terrified that the basic laws of the universe have been turned upside down. I feel the same about this present situation. I love nasi lemak and I love burgers but the two should never go together. I think all the nasi lemak burgers look absolutely disgusting and I will never ever eat one. But my personal phobias are beside the point. Nasi lemak is the final line in the sand! Our nation’s pride has been wounded! Something must be done! Or not. I don’t really care either way.

Because if we start fighting over the true provenance of food then things will quickly get very confusing. What could be more English than fish and chips, more Japanese than tempura or more Malaysian/Indonesian than pisang goreng? You may have noticed that all three of these dishes are deep-fried in batter but that’s just a coincidence, right? They are all Portuguese. Well, they were created using the Portuguese techniqueof deep-frying in batter but then adapted to local ingredients. Early Portuguese merchants in Japan were only allowed to be in Okinawa, which is where they introduced their technique to the Japanese. The English have a long and ignored connection with Portugal (both being seafaring nations) and of course the Portuguese were in this part of the world. Are the Portuguese therefore entitled to “reclaim” pisang goreng? Or should we look upon it as a delicious legacy of our nature as an entrepot?

And while we’re at it, what about nasi lemak? I was in Sri Lanka recently, where I ate a Dutch burgher dish called Lump Rice (or lumprais, lumpreys). Lump Rice is basically exactly the same as nasi lemak, although not nearly as good. It is rice with several dishes, including a boiled egg, all wrapped in a banana leaf. Ideas and inspiration have always flowed in multiple directions. There are Malays in Sri Lanka and many Ceylonese in Malaysia. Until the early 20th century, Ceylon was much more developed than Malaya. It had been a British colony for a very long time after the Portuguese and Dutch periods. In the late 19th century, Malaya’s plantations, railways and civil service were all started by Ceylonese. Malaysia’s Ceylonese inheritance has never been properly recognised and one small part of that might be nasi lemak. Did the idea of nasi lemak go from here to Ceylon via the Dutch in Melaka? Or did it come the other way? Or maybe the concept was invented independently of each other. After all, wrapping rice and dishes in a banana leaf seems like a natural idea. But maybe Sri Lankans can take their case for inventing nasi lemak to the United Nations? And while they are there they can ask the UN to look into the true provenance of sambal, which they call sambol.

Looking into the history of our foods is always fascinating and each example is a delicious illustration of our global and regional inter-connections. In Malaysia, we may not know our history very well, but we eat it every day.

Reprinted with the kind permission of