Tuesday, November 13, 2007
The Cari Makan Ethic
As a symbol of the cosmic order the old Yin-Yang is a tough act to follow. You know the Yin-Yang, I hope? Two graphic tadpoles clinging together to form a circle: one black, the other white. And to make the overall design more thought-provoking, the black tadpole has a white dot where its eye should be, and the white one a black dot. But what does it mean? Without getting into a heavy discussion on relativity theory, how about: Every blessing comes with a tiny built-in curse? (And vice versa, naturally.)
Take the astounding variety of hawker food available in Malaysia. Most of it excellent, most of it inexpensive; and the gastro-ethnic spectrum represented is simply belly-boggling. Try shouting out this partial inventory:
Nasi Kandar, Nasi Lemak, Mee Goreng, Mee Rebus, Mee Bandung, Mee Jawa, Roti Canai, Roti Jala, Rojak, Curry Laksa, Asam Laksa, Char Kway Teow, Wan Tan Mee, Prawn Mee, Oyster Omelette, Tomyam, Sup Ekor, Sup Kambing, Sup Ayam, Chicken Chop, Pork Chop, Fish 'N' Chips, Barbequed Steak, Grilled Fish, Fish Balls, Beef Balls, Pork Balls, Bak-Kut-Teh, Dim Sum, Chicken Wings, Yong Tow Foo, Thosai, Chappati, Murtabak, Banana Leaf Rice, Pizza, Satay, Loh Bak, Chee Cheong Fun, Chap Faan, Charsiew/Roast Duck Rice, Chicken/Fish/Pork Congee, Hainanese Chicken Rice, Fish-head Curry, Turtle Soup, Iguana Soup, Claypot Rice/Noodles, Kangkong Sotong, Clams, Crabs, Cockles, Snails... and this menu sample was taken from just two hawker centres in town!
The only thing you can't get is a good salad. Malaysians have a pronounced carnivorous tendency. Plus the tendency to place EATING at the top of our priorities in life. Cari makan - we all have to eat - is the stock reply to any and every accusation.
In this respect the Chinese are the most shameless perpetrators of the Cari Makan Ethic. I don't have the exact figure but I wouldn't be surprised if the Chinese have devised over 2,000 ways of preparing tofu (soya beancurd). They say that when the Chinese migrants arrived all they owned was their grandmothers' recipes. Only much later did they send for their ink brushes and papier-mâché lions. Perhaps a few people can fairly claim that they eat to live. You don't see too many of them in Malaysia - they must get so skinny they just vanish into thin air.
It's true, Malaysians mostly live to eat. Look at the Malays: during Ramadhan, the fasting month, they spend more time cooking than at any other period. Thousands of temporary food-stalls proliferate, and everyone spends the whole day looking forward to the reward awaiting the faithful when the sun goes down - and the ritual gobbling of mountains of choice delicacies begins.
So, blessed as we are with such a splendid spread of goodies, where does the curse come in? Well, consider this: our collective obsession with EATING has smothered our spirit with excess fat. Our national soul, as it were, has gone somewhat Garfieldsian - a state of being that doesn't seem to bother businessmen, bureaucrats and general office workers in the least, though it tends to foul up all our noblest and highest aspirations.
When the going was good we ate too much too fast. And now we find ourselves starved of pride - in our own essential competence, in our standard of craftsmanship. The Cari Makan Ethic made us favour profit margins over product quality and now mediocrity rules! How else could we keep on manufacturing cassettes that squeak after 6 months?* Churning out movies fit only for morons? Putting up with such a poor showing in public accountability?
But thank God for lean times! Maybe we'll now be motivated to 'cari makna' (look for meaning) and not just 'cari makan' (look for food). Maybe our children will finally be encouraged to work at what they do best - not just at what might make the most money.
I rest my case. Burp.
*To bring this up-to-date: DVDs that jam in the player? Flyovers that crack within six months? Houses that sink into the earth after two years? Ceilings that leak in government buildings and water tanks that crash into bedrooms almost killing folks in their sleep?
nasi kandar - mamak (Indian Muslim) specialty, literally, portable rice - food sold and eaten outside the home - usually consisting of rice with a wide choice of curries, vegetables and deep-fried chicken, prawns or fish. A variation of this, served by the Malays, is called nasi campur (mixed rice) or nasi padang (Sumatran style); sambal belacan (chillied shrimp paste) is optional but highly recommended.
nasi lemak - rice cooked in coconut milk and served with hot, spicy anchovies or savoury beef cubes or chicken curry or squid sambal; garnished with roasted peanuts, egg and cucumber.
nasi goreng - fried rice in a variety of styles: Chinese, Malay or Indian Muslim.
mee goreng - Indian Muslim fried noodles with egg, vegetables and squid or chicken; fiery but tasty.
mee rebus - steamed noodles in thick, spicy gravy, topped off with hardboiled egg slices - mamak-style or Johore Malay.
mee bandung - noodles in hot soup with floating egg and vegetables.
roti canai - wheatflour pancakes, crisp and tasty, served with dhall (spiced lentil gravy), fish or chicken curry, or (believe it or not) a sprinkling of sugar. Other gourmet variations include roti banana, roti sardine, and roti bom (fried with extra ghee and a dash of sweet egg jam).
roti jala - looks like miniature yellow nets (jala), tastes like mutated pasta - served with your choice of curries.
rojak - closest thing to a salad, available in three versions: Malay (similar to Indonesian gado-gado), mamak, and baba (with chillied prawn paste).
curry laksa - Baba (Straits-born Chinese) specialty; noodles in a delicious, creamy, prawn-flavoured gravy served with cockles, chicken or charsiew (sweet Chinese ham), fried beancurd, and fiery belacan and chilli paste.
asam laksa - Penang baba specialty: spaghetti-like noodles al dente, in a sinus-clearingly spicy fish soup, flavoured with dark prawn paste and garnished with raw onions and mint leaves.
char kway teow - fried noodles, Teochew-style, with eggs, cockles, chilli paste and loads of grease (which makes it temptingly tasty but a cardinal sin for heart patients).
wan tan mee - stringy egg noodles served 'dry' or in a tasty soup with Chinese ham, black mushrooms, green vegetables, and wan tan (Chinese ravioli).
prawn mee - just try it!
oyster omelette - Hokkien/Teochew specialty: a mouthwatering concoction of tiny oysters embedded in greasy egg and starch, fried with fish sauce and arcane skill. The locals call it ho chien or oh luak - and the further South you travel, the better it gets.
tomyam - from the famous Thai recipe; extremely piquant soup with bits of seafood or chicken - but watch out for the devilish little chilli padi. First-timers should sit near a fire extinguisher.
sup ekor/kambing/ayam - otherwise known as oxtail/mutton/chicken soup- and no one serves it better than the mamak with his huge tin pots on a pushcart. For novices it's best to order your soup 'kurang pedas' (less chilli).
bak-kut-teh - invigorating herbal (reputedly tonic) soup with assorted parts of pig (ears, cheeks, trotters, intestines, stomach, ribs, rump, tail - it's all edible, you can take your pick) often served with side dishes of fried tofu, yu-charkway (rice-flour sticks) and black mushrooms.
dim sum - steamed goodies, Hongkong-style, kept warm in stacks of cylindrical trays. Wide range of delights from pau (stuffed dumplings) to har-kau (shrimp patties), pai-kuat (spicy pork ribs), ee-taan (giant fish balls), and lor-mai kai (stewed chicken with glutinous rice) - all served on dainty dishes.
chicken wings - crisp, barbecued, sensational. Colonel Sanders, go fly a kite!
yong tow foo - tasty assortment of beancurd variants and vegetables stuffed with chewy fish patties. Local gourmets will travel miles through lunchtime traffic just to eat the famous yong tow foo in Ampang.
thosai - a South Indian staple often eaten in lieu of rice; subtly spiced, slightly sour rice-and-lentil pancake, delicious with coconut chutney. Masala thosai comes stuffed with curried potatoes and paper thosai resembles a wizard's hat.
chappati - heavy, hearty Sikh wheatbread, good eating every day at any hour. Usually dipped in dhall or curry.
murtabak - spicy minced meat with onions and egg, folded in flaky, roti-like crust. Another mamak favourite.
banana leaf rice - actually just a huge mound of rice served on a section of banana leaf, South Indian style. Usually vegetarian but most restaurants serve carnivores too. Subtle and exquisite servings of spicy vegetables, piquant chutney, pappadam (crunch lentil flakes), rasam (a very intense soup) - and perhaps a spoonful of fresh yoghurt will make the rice vanish quickly.
satay - everyone knows this one, right? Malaysian shish kebab served with steamed
rice cubes, cucumber, onions, and a titillating peanut-flavoured sauce.
loh bak - a difficult-to-describe side dish consisting of deep-fried spring rolls, crab rolls, fish fingers, beancurd squares, prawn fritters, etc. Set off with century-egg slices and pickled ginger.
chee cheong fun - literally, pig's intestine noodles - a reference to form, not content. Made of very fine rice powder, these tubular noodles are smooth and tender and taste great with a sprinkling of sesame seeds. Often eaten at breakfast with yong tow foo and a sweetish savoury sauce.
chap faan - Chinese version of nasi campur: rice with assorted home-style dishes. Pick what you want and it will be heaped on your plate with the rice. Workingman's lunch - fast and cheap.
charsiew/roast duck rice - Charsiew is a sweet-savoury barbecued and smoked strip of pork (akin to ham), ecstatically delicious or slightly boring - depending on the chef. Combined with roast chicken or roast pork or roast duck, it makes a quick and simple but utterly satisfying rice-&-meat dish, garnished with fresh cucumber slices.
chicken/fish/pork congee - congee is just a fancy nmae for fine rice gruel - perfect for weak digestive tracts and easy on jaded tastebuds.
Hainanese chicken rice - chicken-fat flavoured rice and expertly steamed chicken, garnished with cucumber and parsley.
fish-head curry - you won't believe how fleshy the heads of some fish species can be - and how lipsmackingly tasty too. The use of fingers is recommended. Not a cheap item, however - best ordered when dining with at least a couple of friends.
turtle soup - not for the squeamish, but definitely not as weird as snake or squirrel!
iguana soup - mind if I skip this one? I've only ever seen it on menus but people tell me iguana tastes a bit like chicken.
claypot rice/noodles - the claypot brings out a very special flavour. Rice is usually cooked with chicken, lup-cheong (Chinese sausage) and some saltfish. The noodles, with pork, prawns and vegetables.
kangkong sotong - pond-greens and steamed squid in a rich, savoury-sweet sauce, sprinkled with ground peanuts.
clams, crabs, cockles, snails - usually fried in a stimulating, spicy sauce; sometimes lightly steamed. Most stalls keep their stock alive and crawling till it enters the cooking pot.