By Ooi Kee Beng, Penang Monthly Editorial, December 2019.
Not many peoples in the world discuss what they want for dinner while eating lunch. Malaysians do, and we like to laugh about that fact – taking it to mean that we are down-to-earth, we are immediate and caring, and we distrust abstract matters.
We also greet each other by smilingly asking if we have eaten: “Dah makan tak?” or “Jiak pah aboi?” or “Seik pao mei?” or “Saaptingalaa?”, sometimes rubbing our belly to accentuate the seriousness of the question.
And as has been volunteered by many anthropologists, including Distinguished Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA), one of the most important neutral corners that all of Malaysia’s communities flock to is the Indian-Muslim restaurant. Late into the night or early in the morning when people feel least constrained by their collective identities and superego – and most controlled by their empty stomachs – they go where nobody cares about your religion or race: the Indian- Muslim restaurant on the main street where you can eat with your fingers and the hygiene is just passable by law.
Having a hot teh tarik to go with the spiced meats is more a national ritual than a quenching of thirst, almost like American cowboys coming in from the desert heat downing a whisky instead of a cold glass of water. To be sure, the teh tarik is effectively a practice that highlights the conjoint fate of members of the crowd. Though taken by all genders, its imbibement often marks Malaysian masculinity, socially prescribed to be sweetly swallowed.
Cuisines enjoyed across ethnic lines strengthens the notion that multiculturalism is the default condition in a cosmopolis, and that we should not let politicians, priests and ulamas tell us otherwise.
Food guarantees immediate physical well-being, and so, asking if someone has eaten is to ask if all is well with his socioeconomic situation for the moment. If he hasn’t eaten, then his schedule is off, and all is not well. If he has eaten, then the rest is none of our business. What he has eaten – be it his own cuisine or somebody else’s – is of no relevance.
When I was living in Beijing in the early days of the reform movement, the greatest culinary lure for me was not Chinese food, but the barbequed marinated lamb sticks sold on the street corners by the Uighurs. They were reminiscent of Malaysia’s satay, I suppose, but the numbing spice that was used made it something quite different. When studying in Sweden, I was drawn to the meatballs. Again, this was perhaps because these were reminiscent of meatballs back home in Malaysia. Over time, though, I embraced more and more of the foreign cuisine.
Food offers the easiest route into the mysteries of other cultures. It is the non-verbal interface between peoples, and since we are prone to eat at least three times a day, the chances of crossing ethnic lines are great, thanks to our eternal hunger.
Speaking of physical well-being, even apart from food, cultures tend to meet where physical needs are strongest, and where cultural know-how and language proficiency are low. Thus, we see migrants most popularly employed in the food and beverage industry, owning laundromats, sweeping floors – and yes, in prostitution as well. Once some local cultural and logistical skills have been attained, they move into the taxi business… and slowly, they penetrate the core industries of the host country. Somewhere, they begin to marry people from their new home. Thus, first-generation migrants work their fingers to the bones so that the second generation can use their fingers to play the piano or to work with the computer.
Home for a mobile people – and most Malaysians have a migratory past – is where their cuisines meet, where they wash off common dirt and pass on common sicknesses, and share joyful meals and lasting love. Disallowing them to meet at that immediate physical level is a most cunning way of keeping them divided, for whatever ignoble purposes one might secretly have.
Common identities in the globalised world, it seems to me, are built over time, teh tarik by teh tarik, meal by meal, wash by wash, marriage by marriage.
And by us sincerely asking “Dah makan tak?” or “Jiak pah aboi?” or “Seik pao mei?” or “Saaptingalaa?”