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Sunday, August 09, 2009

a problem of definition

It delights me to guest blog on Lekker, Lekker, Lekkerste while Lisa is away and, frankly, I’m still a little puzzled to have been bestowed this honor. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a cook nor do I have an especially discerning palate. I simply find pleasure in eating well and am generally curious about food, cooking and, well, most everything. Realizing I face an audience that likely knows a whole lot more about food than I do, I won’t pretend to have any profound gastronomical insights. Rather, I thought I’d devote my stint on this blog to sharing how living abroad has made me more aware of food, what I eat and how I think about it.

Living abroad, I am often asked what Malaysian food is like and it’s a question I find difficult to answer simply. Let me explain by charting a day’s itinerary of meals I could have on a visit home to Malaysia, realizing that there are easily hundreds of other variations I could come up with:

Breakfast: the bestest roti bom ever at Warung Mak Jah with a serving of nyonya kueh on the side (she also makes a mean meehoon goreng).

Lunch: Yong Tau Foo or banana leaf rice at Mathai’s.

Dinner: at Suzy’s Corner, where I could have anything from chicken tandoori with naan bread to Hainan style Western sizzling steak to a halal version of the Hokkien pork dish, Chi Kut Teh.

How does one begin to succinctly define all of the above under the category of “Malaysian food”? And to think I haven’t even ventured outside of Ampang…

Over the years, I’ve come up with the simplified if imperfect answer that Malaysian food consists of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisines, as well as an intermixing of their flavors. Of course, this problem of definition, I think, arises when one has to acquaint someone wholly unfamiliar with anything Malaysian. It is not just a problem of making something known using a means other than itself i.e. using words to capture the sensation of taste and smell. It is the age-old problem of trying to capture something that continually changes. Malaysian cuisine, as I have tried to illustrate, is an inexhaustible subject, not because there’s so much of it, but because it is a living mutating practice. It is a problem, I am sure, that food lovers are happy to pursue even if it will always remain unresolved.

If only the vexed question of national identity can be solved through our appetites.

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