Will Singapore and Malaysia go to war in the name of chili crab? – A study in gastronomical intrigues

September 18, 2009

5345(This essay is dedicated to Missy Dotty, the kind owner of this site – Happy Birthday, my butterfly – yours always Darkness of the brotherhood ) The mood is taunt and hyper tense…no I am talking about my daily travails on the MRT like how long can one stare at a pretty girl in a short skirt without coming across as a crazed suicide bomber….I am talking about something far more serious…yes, food wars. To be precise the principle of food sovereignty – it would be hilarious, if only it wasn’t taken so seriously – tell me is chilli crab Malaysian or Singaporean? What about laksa, is it ours or theirs? Are we going to the Hague?

So what’s really going on here? Well, let’s see it’s certainly not didacticism, not directly per se at least, neither does it seem to be entirely xenophobic polemics either though I dont doubt, it’s often dressed up as such. If anything it’s a riff on the equivalent scale of bottled air i.e nothing. But having said the food war is a big nothing doesn’t mean that it’s not worth jumping up and down for.

In fact food has always been a contentious subject. And one reason for that is because it’s always been more than just food and carries with it a whole spectrum of motifs, symbolisms and identity. That could well be the reason why at every WTO summit, it’s almost de riguer for anti-globalization militants to smash the windows of McDonalds and Starbucks – they’re often seen (real or imagined) as the icons of American capitalist hegemony.

It would seem what’s happening these days is a new phenomenon, but its really an ongoing melee that’s as old as the hills – even today the ubiquitous croissant is still frowned upon in the muslim world as many consider it a culinary barbed repartee;  since its unique crescent shape symbolizes the defeat of the Ottomans at Vienna in 1683 – as the French would literally say when they munch on their fav staple, we had them (the muslim invaders)  for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The Jews are no different; they dip their bread in salt to symbolize the beginning and end of the sab-bath; as salt has always been the symbol of the great perserver Hark-mathi-ter (that’s why your pay is called salary and not chili padi); it speaks of permanence and eternity – with the Jews, it speaks of Gods unchanging covenant with his chosen people – I will always love you like no other!

My point is when we speak about food; we aren’t just talking about food…….as it’s often steeped in tradition, history and heritage.

My personal experience of food wars goes all the way back to the period just before America invaded Iraq during a business trip; when a culinary fatwah was issued against “French fries” which was surreptitiously renamed “American” fries and even came with a mini sized star and stripes flag, presumably to warn diners if they ever dared to order French fries, then they’re likely to be served a tablespoon of rat poison to go with it – it was ridiculous but understandable considering how so many ordinary Americans considered the French denouncation of the Iraqi invasion a downright love America spoiler.

But this isn’t just a celluloid version of pulp fiction with lashings of French dressing and a side dish of chutney, it’s very real and it carries with it serious undertones about nationhood, identity, heritage etc – which is increasingly politicized and even seen as something worth protecting at every cost and opportunity – the whole idea may have something to do with how so many people through out the world succumb to the charms of a bygone age when food was really a mirror of their cultural heritage. Sounds valedictory, but nonetheless it doesn’t discount the fact many may even identify themselves with food to such an extent, it may even be the only way of linking us to our ancestors, binding us together and thereby giving us all a sense of belonging – that’s why it’s so important.

Only to me I can’t but help feel, it’s like two ticks arguing who owns the dog. As these days the whole idea of food is increasingly so open minded that it’s brains are even spilling out – don’t believe me; when was the last time you held a tomato the size of a football in a hypermarket? How did it get so big? I rest my case.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for the whole idea of getting more for less with the aid of bio-science – only it would make me immeasurably happier if the genetically modified food movement didn’t read like some Sci-Fi Mangellian horror story – where different genes ranging from hardy cannabis weed to the DNA of tadpoles are all good to go in the name of mass producing food of mass destruction – cross broccoli with strawberries and you get crunchy purple broccoli that taste a lot like high end Brussel sprouts. Cross a chicken with a tadpole and you get poultry with only the cuts you like to eat: legs that run forever, big breast and no brains (not a bad commercial idea for selling an extreme make over to the fairer sex in Singapore) – cross a gorilla with a mango and what do you get? Well, whatever it is, I’ve probably wouldn’t stand around and argue with it – you get my drift nothing these days is kosher any longer. Prognosis: the age of real food has gone the way of silicone tits, fake eyelashes and veneer porcelian implants – it died a long time ago, all we really have is one big rojak minus the geylang serai dead rat.

To add fuel to the already impassionate food wars; we also need to square off the food accounts with that other Slobodan Milosevic cum Adolf Hitler of the culinary world. Yes, fusion food which just happens to be equivalent of the assasin creed to everything that was once original, pure and unalloyed– here the mantra is everything is good to go, no such thing East or West here. Everything just goes into one big United Nations wok where the whole world is mixed in a heady mix of condiments and given a good stir and voila you have something that is completely inedible – that probably also causes you cancer of the wallet.

Food I am reminded is hardly food – Recently LKY even took a swipe at the golden arches, where we warned Obama & Co about how the world is increasingly associating the American persona with the evils of artery clogging inducing hamburgers and whole idea of chain stores that paradoxically strip national identity like paint stripper.

Yes, it’s all terribly confusing – how something that is so innocuous, benign and everyday can even find itself suddenly embroiled in power & politics. And that’s really the cue for me to take a break as all this talk about food is really making me very hungry. But before I adjourn for chow: who will prevail? Will our Laksa be invaded by the Malaysian version? What about our Lontong’s can they hold out against the peanut brigade of the Javanese…..who knows, nonetheless one thing is for certain; things are likely to get hotter and spicier with the stirring and if there’s going to be any resolution to the makansutra impasse, expect it not to settled in either Singapore or Malaysia, but rather a distant faraway land called Absurdistan.

Bon Appetite

Darkness 2009

The Brotherhood Press 2009 – this tribute has been posted in SLF 1 to 7 (our new gaming portal based in Malaysia) / Phi Beta Kappa / Ikiran / The Strangelands / Just Stuff.

This  is something that I’ve been toying with for a new book…….maybe……..perhaps…only a few problems here; don’t really like the set pieces; the characters seem card boardish; plot seems a tad petulant and self-indulgent.  To cap it off, everyone is either dying or trying to end their life – apart from that, I think it’s a great template for a block buster – Darkness 2009

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