JUNE 22 — When the city clubs close and debate ensues on where to supper before heading home, Mungo Jerry Restaurant always gets a vote from one of the lads. Not my vote, though.
It’s THE bak kut teh (BKT) shop in Kuala Lumpur at 4am. BKT is as pork as they come.
The 45-year-old resto being named after a one-hit 1970s band only adds to the allure.
I’ve always wondered when BKT would make it to Parliament, and it did belatedly from a sincere effort to be helpful to the country’s socio-economic cause.
First-time MP Jimmy Puah wanted to save BKT from being culturally appropriated by Singaporeans following a news report. Having served two-terms in the Johor state assembly, he did not like our cousins grabbing our other white meat.
He did not get a pat on the back for his boy scout qualities. Instead, he got a slap of indignation, from politicians incensed by pigs — in all stages of being or dead.
The most visceral wedge issue in this young nation.
Expect it to hog election ceramah sessions. The issue is not the actual BKT.
Pork filled BKT as our national dish, has this unity government no shame? Is this — here we go — a Muslim nation?
The memes almost design themselves.
Which is why almost all Pakatan Harapan and Barisan Nasional leaders have pursed their lips. They avoid it like the plague.
Regardless of how the parties navigate it through the elections, there are compelling questions attached to it. This column waddles willingly into the swill.
Chinese in our kitchen
Almost one in every four Malaysian is ethnic Chinese. If the count is increased to mixed parentage, then there are a lot of Chinese in this country.
Is their food not our food? Is it injustice to deny their food recognition if it befits?
A whole family of dishes have emerged from the Chinese experience in Malaysia, many with pork in them. They are distinct from mainland China dishes even if they share similarities. They’ve evolved.
They are ours.
Offerings like curry mee or chicken rice. Or the stand-alone innovation — yee sang for the Chinese New Year.
BKT by word of mouth is from Klang. Singaporeans claim otherwise. Still, what is here in the archipelago is different from the Chinese mainland. This thing is it's from here. Denying it does not change that. It does not make pigs fly.
More than a few bucks from culture
Tourists converge on Malaysia for its diversity. Our tourism board milks it.
Almost as if this country is the gold standard. And they are right.
Take a peek at the world.
Europe’s Spain may point to Catalans, Galicians, Basques and Castilians to underline its diversity, like Africa’s Kenya points to its various tribes, Muslim, Christian or animists.
Malaysia goes one better, it always has.
Nusantara’s melted pot stews with a sizable number of peoples from the two most populous nations on the planet — India and China.
Ethno-fascists feel it’s a curse, though in reality it’s a gift. To be diversity super-achievers.
And this is why Malaysia always fascinates tourists, as the weather is great but none of our Asean neighbours have the ethnic spice. Maybe Singapore — a ways back — but it lacks the space.
Visiting masses — not the least Singaporeans — throng to Chinese restaurants and street-food zones like Jalan Alor or most parts of Penang Island.
If Malaysia benefits from BKT and other porky delights economically, why deny its place in our official food lexicon? It is fine to profit from BKT’s value proposition to tourists but not so cool to accept it?
The universal consumption requirement
BKT detractors allege it cannot be a heritage or traditional food if not all Malaysians can consume it.
If a key contention is that everyone should be able to eat it, then many Malaysian dishes fail the test.
There are various reasons why any number of Malaysian dishes cannot be enjoyed by all. From dietary restrictions to personal objections.
It only needs to be loved by many, that people drive tens of kilometres to enjoy it. Or they talk about it for hours and write food blogs about it. That heated argument can emerge over which is the best BKT resto or stall. That shop owners hide their BKT recipes in underground bomb shelters and use blockchain technology to protect the password. That Saturday is ruined if a favourite BKT spot is closed unexpectedly.
That’s how a food’s worth and social relevance is calculated. Not that everyone eats it. I don’t.
Beef rendang is not going to make its way to most Deepavali receptions but then again, beef rendang does not have to. Millions swear by it and in time, millions more will.
It’s a red herring, this argument.
Our neighbour — no, not them — Indonesia has a higher official Muslim population in absolute and percentage numbers but it does not shy away from Bali’s Babi Guling, Kalimantan’s Babi Masak Tomat or North Sulawesi’s Tinaransay, all pork delicacies.
From them, there’s a lesson not to be so small-minded about how much void can be filled in the culture universe.
Singapore is happy to take it out of our pot
Listen, there’s the most obvious point, the one the parliamentarian alluded to.
The Singaporeans will gladly treat BKT as solely theirs.
And here’s the irony, Alanis.
Many here want others to crowbar the dish out of the country. To disown it. The shame.
The Malaysia they want is free of pork because Muslims customarily abstain from consuming pork. The association with pork reduces Malaysia’s purity, in their minds.
They do not get to unilaterally decide what is Malaysia. What is Malaysia has a lot to do with what was Malaysia, and pigs, pork, lard and luncheon meat are just as much of the country as other things are.
This obsession to sanitise the past and present, has to end.
Countries are political constructs shaped by language, culture and history in the main.
They are, not often said, secured by moral leadership. Not to moralise but to defend what is right regardless of the optics of it.
Malaysia includes pork eaters, and that’s awesome for the country. As weighed-in at the top, the diversity makes Malaysia stronger not weaker.
Malaysia is to be defined by every Malaysian, tall, short, with a heavy regional accent, jobless, homeless and also the dude sat at home upset that people slaughter, clean, cut up, cook and eat meats he loathes.
But if the same dude thought about it, he’d realise there are a lot of people who object to his lifestyle and choices.
That’s just the world. It is about how we live together, and not how one group can foist upon others their values.
So, the knee-jerk reactions towards the suggestion to include BKT into the country’s cultural tapestry exposes the unwillingness of many who claim to be leaders of men to understand. That to reject other people’s passions because they are different is to reject other people out of indifference.
Reminds me of a friend who once observed, if Orwell’s Animal Farm excluded pigs as the central players of the moral play more Malaysians would be socialists.
To me, it’s sad. That today, once something is pork, the history, lessons, tastes and connections are besides the point. The other meat overrides everything, even reason.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.