Malaysian food — to fuse or not to fuse?

Amid myriad additions to local food, a chef speaks up about presentation and industry

by AZALEA AZUAR/ World Chef Championship

MALAYSIANS have the tendency to fuse foods. Being a multicultural country, we are often inspired to combine delicacies of two or more cultures and create an entirely new dish.

Popular food chains do it all the time. They took the Italian pizza and topped it with beef rendang; New York’s cronut (which was a fusion itself, combining croissant and doughnut) is covered in local favourite, salted egg yolk cream; let’s not forget the cheese — keropok lekor cheese, pisang goreng (banana fritters) cheese and the one that angered us all, nasi lemak cheese.

Through social media, these fusions could quickly become trends and, just as quickly, backfire.

The most recent craze is Taiwanese bubble tea or boba tea. The bubbles, also known as pearls, are chewy tapioca balls. There are other types of pearl toppings such as fruit jelly, grass jelly and pudding, but the black tapioca balls are the most popular. So popular, that they are now added into other foods as well.

There is a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur called Crab Generation which serves bubble tea crab. In Japan, a man mixed bubble tea with rice and cooked them in a rice cooker out of curiosity. Bubble tea porridge, anyone? In Indonesia, a restaurant called Ropang OTW added said pearls into their fried noodles and the Internet was not having it!

Ropang OTW’s black pearl fried noodles are not the only things on their menu featuring the tapioca balls

While adding boba pearls into savoury dishes seems disgusting, perhaps boba pearls on cendol and traditional sweetmeats like kuih lapis would be a good idea.

Presently, Malaysian cuisine is not very popular, ranking 20th out of 34 cuisines based on a global survey by YouGov. Could these crazy food fusion trends be the key to globalising Malaysian food?

Celebrity chef Fikree Aznan (picture) does not think so. In fact, he believes that we should not be obsessed with trends that would only last a few months.

“I keep seeing our local dishes being added with cheese, as if Malaysians have never seen cheese before,” the 29-year-old Kedahan expressed his frustration.

Not only does he think it is unhealthy, but it does not reflect how our food should be and is a bad way to promote our food to foreigners.

“Tourists who visit Malaysia are actually not fond of fusion foods. For example, if they want to try nasi lemak, of course they would look for the authentic and original thing,” he said.

For fusion food to succeed, Fikree said the establishment must work on its presentation and price besides the taste itself.

“Some Western-Eastern fusions are doing well. It all depends on the establishment. Take food trucks, for instance, where foods are often fused and presented in a street food style. Street food does not require fancy arrangements.”

In popularising Malaysian food, chefs and eateries can only do so much, but government support could take it to a higher level, Fikree said.

“Take the French, for instance. Their cuisines are very popular because they have the backing of their government.

“France is a favourite tourist destination partly because of their prestigious food,” he said, adding that the case is different here in Malaysia.

He cited examples of rendang, teh tarik, nasi lemak and fish head curry as some of the delicacies that we had “lost”, mostly to our neighbour, Singapore.

Last year, CNN listed cendol in its list of 50 of the world’s best desserts, but said it originated from Singapore, which created an uproar among Malaysian netizens.

On a happier note, Fikree saw an improvement in the Malaysian culinary industry with the establishment of culinary associations for each state, which has been organising various activities and competitions.

Even local universities like KDU University College, Management & Science University, Taylor’s University and Universiti Teknologi Mara, where culinary courses are offered, have organised activities throughout Malaysia to increase awareness of the culinary industry.

“Many years ago, cooking was not considered a real career; it was more of a domestic task or chore, but (the) culinary (field) is more than cooking.

“You need a wide range of knowledge including physics, gardening and even architecture. You need to be creative, come up with fresh ideas,” he said.

The Crab Generation restaurant’s decision to include boba pearls in a crab dish was, for better or worse, made famous on Facebook

Fikree himself went from chef to television host because he wanted to educate his audience on Malaysian cuisines and how to properly cook them.

“I want everyone to know how to make sambal. People often add sugar, but it only consists of onions, dried chillies, anchovies and salt. I want Malaysians to go back to the traditional way, which is also much healthier,” he said.

Fikree’s experiences include hosting television shows like Aroma Tradisi and Dapur Panas VS 5 Rencah 5 Rasa on TV3, and Hello Bro, Tolong Masak on Astro.

His upcoming gig will see him in a panel of 69 jurors at the World Chef Championship in December, to be held in Kedah, where he hopes to see contestants resurrect forgotten traditional recipes.

“As it is open to all, this competition allows even village folk to showcase their skills and knowledge. There are many categories and I expect them to bring back old recipes. We also hope to attract overseas contestants. This is where we can introduce and teach foreigners about Malaysian food,” Fikree said.