I LOVE travelling. One of the things on my to-do list is to sample the local cuisine. From the Wiener Schnitzel in Vienna and creamy pasta in Italy, to the hearty tom yam in Bangkok and scrumptious Bulgogi in South Korea, I have had a fair share of my very own gastronomic adventures. It is an opportunity to experience a different culture. The distinct difference in taste, spices and meat add on to the colourful story of one’s culture.
In fact, travelling in Malaysia is also an interesting cultural adventure for a foodie like me. Each state has its own special cuisine. Kelantan, for instance, is famous for its nasi dagang, nasi kerabu and the ubiquitous budu. You cannot not try mee kolok or umai, if you visit Sarawak, while scores of people travel all the way to Johor for its nasi briyani, Pahang for its scrumptious ikan patin masak lemak tempoyak, and Malacca for its spicy asam pedas. The fascinating food trail is literally one of Malaysia’s main tourist attractions.
I count myself lucky that migration, modernisation and new technologies have enabled me to sample all these yummy food, in the heart of Bangi, Selangor. The ease of transportation has seen the scrumptious rice dishes in Kelantan being flown to Kuala Lumpur. Not only that, authentic recipes can be googled. One of my proudest culinary achievements is to have successfully cooked ayam percik based on a recipe I found online.
What about international cuisines like Japanese or Italian? Needless to say, I don’t need to take the next flight to Japan to taste “authentic” sushi and udon as I can have them in the Klang Valley. Thanks to globalisation, food which is originally foreign to a particular land, is readily available elsewhere. Yes, even nasi lemak in Paris and chicken rice in Turkey! This phenomenon can be seen as a form of internationalisation of food and food-consumption habits.
When discussing about food and globalisation, the term “McDonaldisation”, popularised by American sociologist George Ritzer comes to mind. One of the components he highlighted on the concept is the uniform practices by companies. For example, the standardised process in making a Big Mac and Fillet-O- Fish has enabled them to be duplicated in terms of taste and quality, anywhere and everywhere. This has become a source of comfort for travellers, especially those who are not as adventurous in trying out new food. Just order a Cheese Burger or a Fillet-O- Fish, because their taste would be something that one is familiar with.
I experienced one such moment, when I was in Hanoi recently. Before travelling there, I google-searched and listed down a few halal restaurants that I could visit, to try the local food. I was looking forward to sampling steaming hot pho, fresh spring rolls and local iced coffee.
However, the hotel that I was booked into, was not near the restaurants I had painstakingly researched on. So, what was I to do? I did not understand the menus at neighbouring restaurants as they were written in the local language. Nor was I able to communicate with the waiters. Not only that, it was just my sheer luck that the eateries I stumbled into, served exotic cuisines that included frogs and tortoises.
So, I decided on the most logical, familiar and comforting choice. I went to a fast-food restaurant because its service and menu were predictable. The menu had an English translation, albeit with some typo mistakes. What was important was I was confident because I knew what to order and had a vague idea of what it would taste like. But, if you are observant, you would notice that although most of the food at fast-food chains are familiar, there are usually a few dishes crafted to suit the local taste buds.
In McDonald’s, for instance, the outlets in India do not serve beef. Instead, they offer several vegetarian options. The ones in South Africa serve Boerie Beef Burger, which was inspired by a popular local delicacy called boerewors. Japan has Teriyaki McBurger and Australia, which is known for its penchant for BBQs, has the Aussie BBQ Breakie Roll.
The move to localise some items on the menu is a strategy to attract locals to the restaurants. For example, the nasi goreng kampung I had in London was not spicy. It was probably to tempt the British to try the dish. While the ayam percik in Kelantan may be a tad too sweet for some people, it suits the locals just fine.
The various interpretations of how to cook a certain dish and its adaptation of ingredients and taste to suit one’s preferences, are elements of culture which I find interesting and fascinating. Food, after all, is said to be an indication of one’s cultural identity.
So, the next time you travel, take the opportunity to pop into a local restaurant and try its cuisines because aside from watching traditional dances and enjoying the architecture, a gastronomic adventure is also a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the local culture.
The writer is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. She frequently travels for work and takes the opportunity to discover local culture, especially through sampling local delicacies, throughout her journey