COMMENTARY, Sept 15 — Crispy roti canai with a saucer of mildly spiced dhal. Packets of nasi lemak bungkus, with just the basic ingredients of sambal and a sliver of hard boiled egg. A well-pulled mug of teh tarik, frothy and sweet.
These are the foods I love. These are the foods I suspect that you, too, love.
We have all been there: fellow customers at a local coffee shop sharing food and conversations; most of our fellow diners long-time regulars just like us.
We all know what to order: the quintessential kopitiam breakfast of roti bakar and half-boiled eggs. A must have. It is, one might argue, in our DNA as Malaysians.
It is also at our neighbourhood coffee shop that we find food for all budgets: from an array of mixed rice dishes to quickly packed chicken rice to go. There is smoky char kway teow, infused with wok hei, and mouthwatering mee rebus, with its not-too-spicy, not-too-sweet curry gravy and requisite garnish of half a lime to squeeze over the noodles.
Sometimes enjoying the best our country has to offer means going on a road trip, stopping at every state and discovering the specialties of each. For those of us living and working in the Klang Valley, this means an opportunity to go beyond the borders of Selangor and KL to taste what else is out there.
Up north in Perlis and Kedah, we have the grilled and coconut-perfumed kuih dangai and sweet, ripe mangoes to complete the rich pulut mempelam. Penang has her tangy-spicy asam laksa and prawn mee. Perak means sar hor fun and the famous Ipoh white coffee.
Crossing over to the East Coast, to Kelantan and Terengganu, we can savour the cone-shaped, banana-leaf-wrapped nasi tumpang and the herbal and sweet bubu lambut, a delectable porridge freshened with young paku shoots.
In Pahang, we can indulge in the gulai patin tempoyak, where the silver catfish is simmered in a fermented durian gravy. Negeri Sembilan, as a humongous factory off the highway will remind you, is renowned for her Seremban siew bao.
My hometown of Melaka has all manner of Peranakan treats, from ayam pongteh to Nyonya laksa. Johor, coincidentally, also has its own revered (if rarely found, due its typically home-cooked status) laksa, served with nests of spaghetti. I tasted this once, thanks to a former colleague’s Johorean mother cooking up a storm for a company picnic.
Sarawak has her kolo mee that is vacuum-packed and flown back to KL by avid fans. And when I was last in Kota Kinabalu, a Sabahan friend drove us all the way to Tuaran to enjoy his hometown’s eponymous chewy, eggy noodles served with fire-engine red char siu, fresh choy sum and tendrils of sliced egg rolls.
There is no exhaustive list that I know of our Malaysian culinary delights, which means all the more reason to keep hunting for more.
If this sounds like gluttony, well, what other nation has produced a people who would discuss where to eat next even before the dishes we had ordered had not even arrived at the table?
But we are not a country distinguished by gluttony, however fanatical our legions of foodies might be.
Yes, we hear stories of how difficult it can be to find Malaysian favourites when we are travelling, studying or working overseas — and how expensive!
From a friend handing over £7 (RM37) in London for a tiny plate of nasi lemak (and this was decades ago; one shudders to consider how much it might cost today) to long lines for freshly tossed roti canai at a franchise kopitiam that had taken root in Melbourne (as one Malaysian friend living there told me), we are willing to go the extra mile for the taste we miss the most.
Malaysian flavours aren’t a trend or a fad. These are the classics. As we enjoy these delicacies, let us not take them for granted. We are grateful to have food on our table. These stalls and kopitiams might not have Michelin stars but they are spaces for us to gather and have a meal together.
The food we love and share is what binds us together as one family, one true keluarga Malaysia.
Times like these, it’s worth remembering how many Malaysians were stranded abroad during first throes of pandemic, over two and half years ago. What was heart-warming was how everyone chipped in to help their fellow Malaysians.
One story always stood out for me: how when a stranded young Malaysian was welcomed to his host’s home in Auckland, she made him the first truly home-cooked meal he’d had for weeks: fried tanghoon and Nyonya chicken curry.
He was hungry, of course, but that meal tasted all the more delicious because it tasted of home.
This, perhaps, is what being Malaysian is about. It’s not fighting over which stall or which state has the best laksa. Nor is it about queuing up for hours for the latest viral food trend.
No, I like to think being Malaysian is about generosity, sharing the food we love with those we care about, whether they are family or friends or complete strangers who are in need. Malaysians are some of the kindest people I know — the kindest, really — and we show that every time we invite someone to join us for a meal.
Even if it’s just a simple packet of nasi lemak bungkus, without any of the frills. Every grain of rice is suffused with love and care and gentle warmth.
And that, my friends and my fellow countrymen, is something worth celebrating and cherishing.
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