Crispy rendang: Malaysia’s new unifying factor?

Reuters pic.

By Johan Samad

I have always wondered what can unify our country where divisive politics and political survival put us in a situation where the end justifies the means.

I thought of the Rukun Negara, our national flag, our national anthem, badminton and so on – but none seems to bring out the same emotional reactions elicited by food.

Malaysians love food. Food is our passion. We talk about what to have for lunch or dinner before even finishing breakfast.

A case in point was the criticism of rendang on MasterChef UK. When a Malaysian-born woman was eliminated from the reality TV show last week because her chicken rendang was not crispy, it created an international crisis of some sort.

Judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace said the chicken rendang prepared by Bristol-based Zaleha Kadir Olpin needed “crispy” skin.

“I like the rendang flavour; there’s a coconut sweetness. However, the chicken skin isn’t crispy. It can’t be eaten and all the sauce is on the skin so I can’t eat it,” Wallace said.

Since that awful judgment day, Malaysians have been venting their anger on social media and cursing the judges for their unforgivable mistake.

Their reactions are understandable. It would be like Chef Wan judging fish and chips on MasterChef UK and saying, “Your batter is too crispy, I had trouble biting into it and getting to the fish. It should be soggy and wimpy.” Such comments would cause an uproar from the British public.

The trouble with chefs like Wallace is, they borrow other nation’s recipes and make variants of the original dishes, call them by a different name and presto, become experts on how mum used to cook rendang from the knowledge passed down through generations. These chefs will get their coveted Michelin stars and become famous for adopting continental or Asian repertoires in their dishes. British food is so bland that curry has cooked its way into the hearts of the prim and proper Englishmen.

In a reply to a Twitter critic, Torode wrote, “Thank you so much for your input… we could of course argue as to its origin and whether chicken is classic or an adaptation.”

What a lame reply! The British should not take the criticism of our beloved rendang lightly. Countries have gone to war over smaller things.

Due to the seriousness of the matter, British High Commissioner Vicki Treadell weighed in on the dish after Malaysians on social media criticised the judges. Questioning the qualifications of the judges, she wrote on Twitter, “It can be chicken, lamb or beef. It is never crispy and should also not be confused with fried chicken, sometimes served with nasi lemak.”

Many Malaysians were grateful for her intervention. Otherwise, the diplomatic protocol for such faux pas is to recall your own country’s ambassador for consultations. That could hurt the relationship between the two commonwealth countries.

It’s election time, and our leaders are also getting into their act. Prime Minister Najib Razak tweeted a picture of the dish along with the words: “Does anyone eat chicken rendang ‘crispy’? Dr Mahathir Mohamad also tweeted, “Maybe you are confusing rendang chicken with KFC.”

Talking about food like kangkung and nasi goreng can also bring you ridicule and contempt. Politicians need to watch out when campaigning. Najib got into trouble for his “kangkung” example when trying to explain the economics of the common water spinach. People poked fun for weeks and comedians had a field day.

Former deputy finance minister Ahmad Maslan’s attempt to tell people how to deal with GST using ingredients that were not subject to the new consumption tax was also ridiculed, and people even questioned his IQ. MP Bung Moktar linking Malaysian obesity to economic prosperity was also whacked by politicians.

Food is used as examples and political talk to make a point. Everybody is having a crispy time. Maybe we should just forget about elections and unite the nation around food. Why don’t we have a MasterChef cook-off between Barisan Nasional and the opposition? Whoever wins can govern the nation for the next five years. This is exactly how boring GE14 is going to be. Same players, different cloth, and nothing much to differentiate between them. The only excitement is that electrifying feeling that change is coming.

Johan Samad is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FMT.