Thursday, December 11, 2008

FOOD Malaysians Abroad

YANG-MAY OOI on baked beans, soggy toasts, the enduring nature of the Malaysian palate and how food signifies love and is pivotal in cultural exchange

I STARED DOWN AT MY PLATE. There was one soggy piece of toast on it, drowned in a pool of orangey-brown baked beans. I looked around me at the crowded dining hall. The girls were all taller and bigger and heavier and stronger than me, all tucking in to their lunch of baked beans on toast, all laughing and chatting. There were a few dark faces, but otherwise, they were all Caucasian, pale-skinned and robust. I was the only Southeast Asian, skinny and small and caramel-toned. It was my first day at boarding school in the U.K. It was 1975 and I was twelve.

The morning had been a tumble of classes and new friends as I trailed behind my new classmates to change rooms for each new lesson. In Malaysia, we had the same teacher for most subjects and any specialist teacher who taught us came to our classroom while we stayed put. This new pattern of packing up my books and pencils after each class and fighting my way through the chaotic corridors to find the next lesson confused me. Several times, I got lost, like a new recruit left behind by her platoon, and stood bewildered as girls hurried past me.

By lunchtime, I was exhausted and disorientated. My legs felt cold in the navy school kilt and my arms felt tightly constrained in a long-sleeved sweater. My knee-high socks prickled my shins. Lunch would help me feel better, I thought. I always liked break-time at school in Kuala Lumpur. My friends and I bought curry laksa at the canteen, the spicy soup ladled out of huge steaming vats into a bowl of noodles, beansprouts, soya and chicken. Sometimes, I brought fried rice from home and would eat it lukewarm from the tupperware. Friends would bring in soysauce noodles and vegetables. But here in this rowdy English place, lunch had not turned out as I had expected. I stared down at the baked beans and toast on my plate.

I looked up at the clock on the wall. It was just after 1pm. I looked at the strange, noisy, pale girls around me. It struck me that I had five years here. Five long years of baked beans on toast. Five years without curry laksa. Or stir-fried vegetables. Or soysauce chicken or grilled satay or beef rendang or nasi lemak. Or anything that I knew as food. Real food. I burst into tears. The girls sitting at my table fell silent, staring at me uncomfortably. A sixth-former said, “She’s just homesick. She’ll be all right.” And they left me alone to sob despairingly over my baked beans.

Later, when I was older, I realised that this was probably not an uncommon experience for Malaysians going to study abroad―especially back in the 1970s and ’80s. These days, in the 21st century, even the remotest part of the U.K. will probably have a Malaysian restaurant or at least an eatery that can do a decent curry. Back then, England was still emerging uncomfortably from its postwar troubles and coming to grips with the loss of its empire. It had been used to exporting its culture and habits and food across the world and it would be some decades yet before a new generation would return from the hippy trail with bottles of fish sauce and chilli belacan and recipes for Thai green curry and satay. Back then, curry was a strange concoction involving a plain curry sauce, pineapple and raisins. To my horror, they also mixed curry powder with sweet salad cream to make a weird cold dish called Coronation Chicken.

For five years, I learnt to eat potatoes with everything. Roast potatoes, boiled potatoes, buttered potatoes, jacket potatoes, sauteed potatoes, chips, mash, potato salad. There were lots of interesting things you could do with potatoes. But none of them turned the spud into rice. Every now and then, though, we would have rice. Aaah, rice. Those were my favourite meals. Except that the rice would come with that pineapply-raisiny curry and I’d have to spend ages picking out the bits of fruit. Or with chicken fricassee, a mix of shredded chicken in what tasted like Campbell’s cream of chicken condensed soup―which was marginally better than pineapply curry in that I could pretend it was chicken a la king.

When I went to university, it was like a liberation after prison. I lived in a shared house in my second and third years, thriving in the joy of being free from the institutionalised halls of residence. My housemates and I threw parties and gave dinners, dressing up to fit the themes we devised. It was the early ’80s and we were playing at being the cool, sleek grown-ups of the ’40s and ’50s―Bogie and Bacall were our models, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra in High Society. At candle-lit dinners in our shared living room, our men wore black tie and cummerbunds and we girls shimmered in cocktail dresses and high heels. We ate parma ham with melon, smoked salmon mousse, roast duck in blackcurrant sauce, drank champagne. With coffee, we puffed on cigarillos and nibbled at blue-streaked gorgonzolla, sipping port.

But nothing could compare to my Malaysian dinner parties. I had brought a wok back in my suitcase after one holiday back home. In the cupboards were an endless stock of sambal belacan, stinky dried fish, dry-fried shrimp, thick, gooey soysauce, crispy ikan bilis, fragrant pandan leaves, curry powder, chilli powder, turmeric, five-spice cloves, blocks of coconut concentrate―you name it, I had it. They came with me back to Oxford either stowed away in my suitcase triple-wrapped in plastic bags and towels or hunted down from London’s Chinatown. My English friends had never seen―or smelt―anything like it. Most of them had never travelled beyond the boundaries of Europe and some had never left their little island at all. I fried up prawn chilli and flavoured rice with coconut and pandan for nasi lemak; sizzled up bright yellow turmeric pork with caramelised onions; cooked sesame chicken with nasi goreng. My friends watched me as if hypnotised, amazed that I did everything in the wok―even bacon and eggs on some Sunday mornings. “Why not?” I would say, “It’s just a cooking implement.”

To come to my Malaysian dinner parties, my friends had to dress up. In the winter, I would turn up the heating in the living room, pull back the dining table and chairs against the wall and lay out a large woven mat I had brought back from Kuala Lumpur. Sometimes, I even managed crepe paper palm trees sellotaped to the walls with green fronds hanging from the ceiling. In the summer we would sit out in the overgrown garden, the tall weeds and unkempt grass adding to the fiction of the tropics in suburbia. The theme was tropical Malaysia so everyone had to come in tropical clothing―Hawaiian shirts and shorts, flip-flops, sarongs. We would all sit cross-legged on the mat and eat nasi lemak or curry with our hands. Once, Siva, a Malaysian PhD student, brought a coconut and a parang and chopped it open Malaysian style, spinning the fruit in one hand as the other expertly hacked the husk away while my English friends watched in awe.

It was in the summer vacations of those years at university that my English friends would take long trips to India and Southeast Asia. They would be the generation that would seek out exotic restaurants with tasty, spicy food once they were back in the U.K. and settled down to their jobs. They would be the ones finding new and cheaper ways to travel around the globe and to look outside of their home island for work and business opportunities. It seems to me that from the ’80s onwards, the British began to evolve from seeing the world as an empire they owned and on which they imposed their will, to a place of interest and wonder to explore and exchange with. Looking back, I wonder how many other Malaysian students in the last few decades played their part in introducing their British friends to the wonders of another culture, through our delicious, unique food and our warmth and hospitality.

Whenever my British friends come across another Malaysian, they would always tell me. And I would always hear how friendly and generous this Malaysian is, how interesting and funny and talented. And how this Malaysian is really into their food. How they cooked for my friend and what an amazingly tasty meal they had together. And how much there was to eat. “Yup, that’s definitely a Malaysian,” I would laugh. Even if their passport might say some other nationality because they have migrated for career reasons, a Malaysian’s heart―and stomach―will always be Malaysian.

When I’ve brought my English friends back to Malaysia for a holiday, they are always taken by the hospitality and friendliness of my extended family and my Malaysian friends. Uncles and aunts and cousins always make a point of inviting us all out for a huge slap-up meal, making sure that the U.K. visitors try the tastiest and most exotic dishes. My local friends take us out to the pasar malam for hawker food that my guests have never experienced before. The challenge seems to be to offer the wildest and most unusual foods to the mat salleh. My great-aunt had the dubious honour of being the Malaysian that gave my first boyfriend fried pig’s fallopian tubes. Some cousins brought a huge pile of the stinkiest durians for a group of my friends from law college. Other family members came up with a plate of chicken feet fried in soysauce. My U.K. friends have all gamely tried everything, winning the hearts of the Malaysians―and their respect. One French girl I brought to K.L. was sniffy and picky about what she ate and point blank refused to even taste some dishes. No one liked her. And eventually, I found, neither did I and she was dropped from my address book.

The food highlight experience for my visiting Western friends used to be a trip to the wet market in Pudu. My mum used to do all her grocery shopping there until traffic and parking made it impossible. When she first got married to my father, my father’s mother took her to the market and introduced her to all the stallholders there, saying, “This is my daughter-in-law, treat her well. If you cheat her, you have me to answer to.” Once every few weeks, my mum would put on her oldest clothes, take off all her jewelry and put on her marketing shoes and head to Pudu market early in the morning. So we would wake our visitors before dawn and all pile in to the back of her car, groggy and half asleep still. At the market, we would follow her to the chicken man and watch as she chose the chickens for him to garotte and throw into a drum of boiling water to loosen the feathers. My friends began to pale. Next, we passed the cute puppy dogs in cages―and no, they are not pets, I would say to our visitors―making our way to the beef butcher, careful not to slip on the blood from the decapitated cow on the slab. Now, my friends were turning green. My mother would then buy vegetables and fruit and spices and head back to pick up the chickens and some chunky roasted pig’s trotters for breakfast, the smell of spices and fruit and raw meat mingling in air conditioning. An hour later, back at home, we would be showered and sitting down to a breakfast of pig’s trotter congee while my English friends looked ill, asking weakly for some dry toast. “If you eat meat, you should know where it comes from,” my mother would say. “At the market, you know it’s fresh and just killed for you.” And even as they nodded, I would see my friends pining for the shrink-wrapped sanctuary of a Tesco.

Of course, Malaysia is more than its food and Malaysians abroad and at home have achieved impressive and astonishing things in the 50 years since independence. But for me, food and meals have brought people together for millennia. To sit together around a spread of food, whether at a table or on the floor or on a mat on the bare ground, people and cultures have met each other at the deepest level since civilisation began. At a meal, in past centuries, they left their weapons and differences outside. These days, we don’t carry weapons but most of us try to leave our differences outside at meals with friends and family. We eat each other’s foods and share our personal stories and cultures. Even a lunch of baked beans on toast told me in more than words about the U.K. I had come to back in 1975 the same way an abundance of durians told my U.K. friends something about Malaysians and their sense of humour and pride. In the simple, natural act of sharing our food with others in the countries we travel to, I feel that Malaysians abroad have shared―and continue to share―what is truly valuable about who we are: people with warmth, generosity of spirit, joy in the good life, graciousness and common humanity.

YANG-MAY OOI is a Malaysian-born writer and social media consultant based in the U.K. She has had two novels published by Hodder & Stoughton: The Flame Tree and Mindgame.

Reproduced from the July-September 2008 issue of Quill magazine


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