Makan Apa: Winning the Malaysia-Singapore food war

MARCH 27 — It’s become a little ridiculous how often Malaysians make noise about Singaporeans “claiming” Malaysian food. 

We moaned at Crazy Rich Asians making Singaporean food courts look like food paradise and we bristle over chicken rice, laksa and bak kut teh.

Yes, our food is better. There’s really no disputing it. But I think it’s perhaps time we stop being so territorial about our dishes. 

If we can accept fried rice is not the domain of one particular country, maybe we can quit obsessing over who owns what dish.

Let’s face it, Singaporeans are so much better at the marketing game. When it comes to food product placement, we have a lot to learn.

Instead we should try and create a distinction between our food and theirs by simply adding the one magic word: Malaysian.

Branding, that’s where it is. For instance, we can write up nasi lemak thus:

Malaysian nasi lemak is distinguished by how it can stick to the basics — fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk, peanuts and anchovies accompanied by a spicy sambal sauce — while yet allowing for variety via the simple addition of side dishes. 

Choose from plain nasi lemak that covers the basics, often accompanied with a slice of hard-boiled egg or have it with fried chicken, clams, cuttlefish or various curried meats. 

Singaporean nasi lemak is a simpler variation with sambal as an afterthought with a lot less bite and less variation in its accompanying side dishes.

Just describe our food as Malaysian laksa, Malaysian bak kut teh, Malaysian (insert local dish here) and cheekily describe the Singaporean version: “If you like watery soup with pepper, Singaporean bak kut teh is it while Malaysian bak kut teh tends to have a stronger herbal flavour.”

It’s really not that hard, Malaysians.

We could also learn from Singapore in the service stakes. There is a particular Japanese coffee chain I favour and I find the experience differs greatly in Singapore compared to Malaysia.

In Singapore, I am served immediately and asked if I would like some cold or warm water. The serving staff rattles off the menu with ease and can be relied on for recommendations. 

In Malaysia, you want water? There is only bottled mineral water at inflated prices and the staff is much less practised at promoting seasonal specials. 

It’s pointless to have good food while offering a mediocre experience. “You don’t like it, leave.” That’s the Malaysian general approach to claims of poor service or poor governance.

So let’s stop trying to claim ownership of food and instead accept that regional dishes come in many variations by country. We just need to convince the world ours is better. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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