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If you have to pick one, which of these would you consider Malaysia’s national food?

  1. Nasi lemak
  2. Char kueh teow
  3. Roti canai
  4. Manok pansoh

Where did my food go?

As a Dayak born and raised in Sarawak, my food culture is heavily shaped by the seas and rainforest of Borneo. Our cuisine is rooted in the foraged plants of our environment, endemic wildlife, and the bending of the natural world for sustenance. I remember fondly the aroma of my Tayung’s Pi’an stew with chunks of tiperandu’, as I watched my mother filter her brewed tuak, while my cousins portioned bamboo for the pangkang.

Then I grew up, left home and worked around the country. What I took for granted was no more within the realm of my five senses, but memories I carried to a part of Malaysia that were not bound by the same stories. I learnt to appreciate the diversity of food, and the way it shapes the human experience.

But as I matured in the knowledge of food and cooking, I began to notice a strange and loud disparity. When Malaysians mention Sarawak and food together, only two dishes seem to be mentioned: laksa Sarawak and kolo mee.

So where was the rest of the food I grew up eating and cooking?

One side of the story

The gulf between East (Sabah, Sarawak) and West Malaysia (Peninsular) has always been heavily debated on many levels. In the ’70s, the National Culture Policy (NCP) was implemented to create a ‘Malaysian’ culture, which leaned heavily on the Malay-Muslim culture and history.

It was replaced by the Bangsa Malaysia approach in the ’90s, yet still carried vestiges of the NCP. Bit by bit, it began to chip away at the practices and cultures of East Malaysians in the interest of ‘nation-building’. The legacy of this insidious and persistent cultural erasure, willfully or incidentally, created an environment where the only morally acceptable version of Malaysia is the one that is sterile, hollow and proudly Peninsular-centric. Other cultures became no more than exotic ornaments, corralled into the masters’ quaint pockets.

Food is a powerful anchor, a way to relate to our environment and history. It is a base human need. Without it, I’d argue we lose a big part of our cultural identity.

Yet, I never saw my food on RTM growing up. Only less than a decade ago, East Malaysian cuisine and culture began appearing slightly more on TV. Albeit a mostly sanitised, stripped-down version of the real thing. The focus was heavily on commercial urban cuisine, not the salt-of-the-earth, homemade dishes we ate in the majority of East Malaysian households.

For example, we eat rice wrapped in leaves, we fry fermented durian, we barbecue pork on open flames, cook stews made of smoked meats and fermented vegetables, we eat wet, sticky starches.

“What about the aforementioned Sarawak laksa and kolo mee?”, you might ask. Well, these are dishes created by urban Chinese communities. Only by virtue of their urban status, they were mistakenly assumed to be the only two Sarawak dishes worth mentioning in national conversations. Meanwhile, the largely (then) rural yet widely consumed Dayak foods in the hinterlands of Borneo were and still are airbrushed out.

‘Your food is so exotic’

We are ‘dan lain-lain’ to so many Malaysians, lumped into a generic, mysterious group of people that seem to eat and drink the same things. The dangers of othering groups of people that don’t conform to your idea of Malaysian-ness (whatever that is) means losing empathy for their struggles and aspirations. A distant people with unknowable problems.

In a recent conversation with a West Malaysian about Sarawakian food, I spent half the time explaining the background of Sarawak rather than actually talking about the food. Plus, it’s almost impossible to convey meaningful culinary information without context. East Malaysia is big, made up of diverse communities, terminologies and region-specific food cultures.

After almost six decades, this ignorance is frustrating. Yet still, there are certain organisations or events that exploit our culture to up their diversity card, then stow it away for future use. Yes, this includes federal and state governmental policies and agencies. It feels a lot like being an animal in the zoo, being oohed and aahed by a gawking crowd whose only intent is surveying the shiny new thing.

Most of the time, it feels like East Malaysians live in a different Malaysia. The South China Sea has become a literal and metaphorical divide of our way of life. On September 16 each year, the trumpeters of diversity shout from the rooftops, and dutifully, East Malaysians trot out with wide smiling faces in a show of hollowness, then fade into the background before the next Malaysia Day rolls around.

It’s not just me, it’s also you

The adage ‘educate, don’t hate’ is important. But the fact remains that I am—time and time again—expected to educate people of majority cultures about the basic tenets of my land and cuisine.

It gets tired real fast when an enthusiastically ignorant person asks me for the umpteenth time if I’m going back to Kuching, Sabah or is mindlessly dismissive when I explain the differences in coastal Sarawak cuisine versus inland. The onus to educate shouldn’t totally fall on East Malaysians. Everyone has a role to play to make the Malaysian food scene more equitable. Don’t be comfortable in your bubble—reach out, make an effort, and educate yourself appropriately. If you took the time to learn how to pronounce croissant the French way, why couldn’t you learn to say tiperandu’?

There seems to be some hope. The internet has made it easier to disseminate information to the public. A new breed of personalities have begun utilising social media platforms to showcase East Malaysian food culture, unfettered by mainstream media censorship. It allows people to have a real voice, to tell their raw, personal experiences rather than being dictated by institutions seeking tokenism. People are making recipe videos, writing about indigenous Bornean ingredients, and sharing their food cultures via lively anecdotes.

So Sabahans and Sarawakians, let’s write, take pictures, and chart our stories and recipes. Let’s make videos, document the histories of our foods, and shout about it in the streets.

West Malaysians, if you’re thinking about how to help, please educate yourselves with existing resources. Understand our challenges and learn to celebrate the differences. And if you’re able to, put your money where your mouth is—fund the archival of East Malaysian cuisine and the stories around it. Give East Malaysians a platform to amplify their voices. You simply cannot cherry-pick the cultures that make up our national narrative based on your pre-conceived biases.

If the system has so resonantly failed us, it’s up to us to collectively invigorate the cultures and cuisines of the underrepresented. Malaysia Day as a symbol of harmony and togetherness will not work if the majority of Malaysia isn’t able to first understand the full spectrum of cultures that make up Malaysia. So the next time you tell someone you love Malaysian food, think about what you really mean.


Maynard Keyne Langet is a Bidayuh with a penchant for Dayak food culture and tuak. 

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© Copyright Periuk 2024

© Copyright Periuk 2024