Why don’t we eat together anymore?

MAY 6 ― I spent last weekend in Penang ― a short break from the tiresome bustle of Kuala Lumpur.

The food was great, as usual, but it was disconcerting to see how segregated Malaysians were in their dining habits.

Malaysia takes pride in its cuisine ― wonderfully diverse due to the melting pot of various ethnicities ― but what’s the point of being proud of our food if we don’t eat together?

Why boast to foreigners about how great Malaysian food is if we look at each other’s dishes with suspicion?

While munching on a kaya pau, my partner, who is Malay, related an anecdote from childhood. As a kid, he was told to peel the outer layer of kaya buns purchased from the Chinese for fear that the outer skin contained lard.

But he would eat the whole thing anyway as he reasoned that there wouldn’t be much left of the bun if he had to peel the skin off. He said eventually, Malays stopped buying buns from the Chinese.

At night, a street lined with hawker stalls in George Town was bustling with people eating local food like braised duck, chicken feet and char koay teow ― but they were all Chinese. There were no stalls run by Malays; nor were there any Malay patrons because the food was obviously not halal.

Why can't we have Malay and Chinese stalls together? Must we only eat with friends who are of the same ethnicity as us?

As we went around town by Uber, my partner asked one of the drivers ― a middle-aged Malay man ― for suggestions of good food. The driver told him that the nearby street was full of Chinese restaurants, but he could eat at mamak places at the end of the road.

Why can’t Malays eat at non-pork Chinese restaurants? Not all Chinese dishes contain pork. I don’t understand why there is a persistent myth that associates the Chinese to pork, or why there are irrational fears of so-called pork “particles” contaminating the air. Not only do such concerns sound ridiculous; there’s also an undertone of racism.

When we ate at a popular mamak restaurant on our Penang trip, the patrons were mostly Malay, with the exception of one Indian couple. I was the only Chinese there, happily slurping away a delicious “sup torpedo.”

As great as Penang cuisine is, it gives a rather flat taste at the end of the day when we only eat with members of the same ethnic group.

Food segregation doesn’t only happen in Penang. I’ve noticed that in my neighbourhood, patrons to a Malay nasi lemak/ bee hoon seller are mostly Malay, while those who buy breakfast from a Chinese bee hoon seller just a few feet away are mostly Chinese. (I go to the Malay man’s stall because the food there is tastier and cheaper than the Chinese woman’s).

It’s unfortunate that food, the one thing that can unite us, doesn’t escape the racial lens in a country where everything else from political parties to government forms are racialised.

We no longer have Malays and Chinese selling food together in the same restaurant. Even our food courts are segregated. We only buy food from people of the same ethnic group as us.

Why can't we have Malays eating nasi lemak, the Chinese dining on “bak kut teh” and the Indians consuming roti canai at the same table? Do dietary restrictions really mean that one cannot dine with someone else who doesn't have those restrictions?

Malaysia’s obsession with “halal” food, to the extent of selling chickens that undergo “Quranic therapy“ after they’re slaughtered, or so-called “halal” ice cream made with Zamzam water from Mecca, fosters disunity. I even saw so-called “halal” jeruk (pickled fruits) sold in Penang.

This unhealthy obsession foments suspicion on Chinese food sellers, even if they’re not selling pork, and discourages Malay-Muslims from dining with other Malaysians at the same table, at the same restaurant, or even at the same section in a food court.

How can we promote unity if we can’t even makan together?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist. 

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