by Blake Phillips
One of the clichés of traveling around the world is that food is an important part of pretty much every society. However, there are certain societies in which food takes on an outsize role due to a combination of cultural, historical, religious, and economic factors. Malaysia happens to be one of those societies in which food plays an extraordinary part in everyday interactions between friends, family, and strangers alike.
For example, the first question friends, family, and strangers ask each other is “Sudah makan?” (“Have you eaten yet?”). Moreover, when talking to a foreigner such as myself, this question tends to be quickly followed up by “How do you like Malaysian food?” and “Can you take spicy food?” While I have not had the audacity to be honest and explain the nuances of my likes and dislikes of traditional Malaysian cooking, I have the feeling that the conversation would come to a fairly abrupt end if I didn’t respond with the obligatory smile and nod ‘yes’ that I like to eat spicy Malaysian food. Rather, after this quick exchange and affirmation of the traditional Malay cuisine, Malaysians almost universally walk away with a big smile on their faces and a sense of national pride in their hearts. Moreover, as anyone who has lived in Malaysia for an extended period of time can attest to, the hallmark of a Malaysian gathering is the over-the-top pageantry for the “VIPs” in attendance and the copious amounts of Malaysian food.
Given the outsize role that food plays in Malaysian society, it’s not terribly surprising that when I asked my mentor if I could do an after-school activity with the Form 5 students at my school (because the Form 5 students are too busy studying for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), a nation-wide exam that almost exclusively determines if and where the students will go to university, during school hours), she promptly responded affirmatively and suggested we organize a series of Malaysian cooking classes with the high-stream Form 5 students.
Having agreed upon a general plan, my mentor split up the approximately forty Form 5 students into eight groups of five students each. My mentor then had each group decide on a particular traditional Malaysian dish they wanted to teach me how to cook. After having the students pick a 2-hour window for their group’s activity, my mentor had each group decorate a card and write a short letter in English formally inviting me to their Malaysian cooking lesson.
Each cooking session had a similar routine: we would get to the school’s Home Economics classroom, the students would practice their English by introducing themselves and the traditional Malaysian dish they were going to teach me how to cook, and then we would spend about an hour actually preparing the dish. Once the food was ready to eat, we would sit down as a group to eat and enjoy the delicious traditional Malaysian fare.
Given that these were the high-stream Form 5 students, I was surprised at first by how much difficulty they had speaking English and how embarrassed they were to speak to me. However, I could see their pride in sharing with me a unique part of their culture and identity as Malaysians. Little by little, the students became more and more confident when explaining the next set of cooking directions. Moreover, the students began to open up to my questions and began to explain the cultural significance behind certain ingredients, recall memories of cooking the same traditional Malaysian dish with their families, and tell me funny stories about their daily lives. As I had hoped, inviting the students to share an important piece of their cultural identity with me gave them the confidence to share other cultural experiences, and to ask about my own cultural experiences in the U.S.
By the end of the two weeks of Malaysian cooking classes, I had successfully learned how to cook eight traditional Malaysian dishes, including Bihun Sup, Laksa, Kuey Teow Goreng, Currypuff, Lemak Cili Padi, Nasi Goreng Kampung, Kek Batik, and Meehoon Tom Yam. More importantly, by engaging my Form 5 students in an activity with cultural significance to them, I was able to lay the foundation for a meaningful cross-cultural dialogue that has continued throughout my ten months living in Malaysia.