ABOUT a month ago, McDonald’s Singapore launched what it called a Nasi Lemak Burger, in conjunction with the country’s independence day on Aug 9.
They said it was inspired by the “local favourite” and comes in the form of two burger buns sandwiching a “coconut-flavoured” chicken thigh, fried egg and sambal, a spicy chilli condiment.
Soon as the burger flew off the shelves (it was sold out in less than two weeks) came the barrage of comments from angry Malaysians accusing their Singaporean neighbours of misappropriating their national dish.
This isn’t the first time bilateral relations between the neighbouring countries have been strained over food, though.
In 2009, when Malaysia laid claim over chilli crabs, Singaporeans went up in arms claiming it a woman named Madame Cher Yam Tian was the first to come up with the recipe back in 1950s. An Indonesian group even demonstrated in front of the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta in 2014 for Malaysia’s cheek to even have spring rolls (known as Lumpia Semarang in Indonesia, Popiah in Malaysia) on its soil. Similar tussles have happened over other dishes like Hainanese chicken rice and rendang.
But can one nation claim full rights over a type of dish? It would appear to be a nonsensical move.
The problem lies with the concept of nationhood itself. Borders stay put but culture, including food, continue to evolve and do not stay within national territorial lines, according to Dr Khoo Gaik Cheng, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia and author of Eating Together: Food, Space and Identity in Malaysia and Singapore.
Khoo traces the rice dish back to as late as 1909 as something commonly eaten by Malays on the Peninsula and around the region, as noted by colonial administrator Sir Richard O. Winstedt. It’s also possible that throughout history, the people in the land surrounding the Straits of Malacca – what is now Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia – and as far up as the Southern Philippines, have cooked rice in coconut milk and added similar condiments to it.
Beyond this, there is no conclusive evidence to show who cooked it first. There isn’t a strong culture for historical documentation in this part of the world then, according to Najib Ariffin of the Nusantara Academy of Development, Geocultures and Ethnolinguistics.
To Dr Nicole Tarulevicz, a food historian and lecturer at the University of Tasmania, claims of ownership over food often mask the more interesting question at hand – that is, why do countries and its citizens want to prove they ‘own’ a certain dish in the first place.
National tourism boards may stand to gain commercially, as do corporations like McDonalds in commodifying patriotism to sell its menu.
But to the regular person, food, above all else, is about identity.
“Certain foods are also used to build a sense of belonging, of national identity and as a way of distinguishing one community from another and people certainly may feel a dish is an essential part of their culture,” Tarulevicz wrote in an email to Asian Correspondent.
We saw this in the ‘Hummus Wars’ which rocked the Middle East in 2009. When Israel marketed it as their ‘national snack’, Lebanon retaliated by trying to register hummus for a protective designation of origin in the European Union. Although the bloc later ruled that it is a food shared by an entire region, some Palestinians saw it as another encroachment on them. This time, on their dinner plates, instead of land.
— myBurgerLab (@myBurgerLab) July 28, 2017
In both Malaysia and Singapore, the issue of food is a heated one defended with passion because its citizens are proud food lovers. Khoo says this is thanks in large part to the countries’ wide variety of food, temperate climates that allow food to be grown all year long as well as stable socio-economic conditions that promote an abundance of affordable food for most of us.
The states play a role too. Leaders need something to act as a unifying ground for these two young nations, whose citizens come from different ancestries.
Thus, food became the perfect medium to do so – harmless, un-subversive and powerful enough to unite citizens against outsiders.
“Expressing ourselves through the discourse of food is considered safer than expressing our democratic right to gather in the streets, even though those who gather on the street are equally patriotic and nationalist,” Khoo says.
And in Malaysia and Singapore, where activists have been treated as terrorists for organising peaceful street demonstrations, it’s hard to not see some truth in her words.
Nationalism aside, the outcome of this food feud fares much better compared to previous spats between Malaysia and Indonesia, which have at times ended with flags being burned and stones thrown to Malaysia’s embassy.
Tastier, even. Several Malaysian burger joints have since come up with their versions of the Nasi Lemak burger and to popular reception.
MyBurgerLab – the first Malaysian restaurant to launch their own version of the Nasi Lemak burger in response to Singapore’s McDonald’s – said this “friendly competition” from the food brouhaha ultimately means both countries are learning and pushing themselves to make tastier food.
Like Ariffin said, “The Straits of Malacca is not a barrier. It’s a corridor”.