Food fight! Malaysia wants its 'unique' dishes back

Food fight! Malaysia wants its 'unique' dishes back

Tourism minister wants to reclaim 'made-in-Malaysia' recipes -- she'll have to pry them from our cold, dead crab crackers
Chili crab dish in Singapore
Chili crabs are a major bone of contention -- The Singapore Tourism Board actively promotes ths dish as 'uniquely Singapore'.

If there's one thing you absolutely, positively do not mess with in Singapore, it's the food. Take away our chewing gum, we'll just go abroad for it. Call us 'a fine city' and Bugis Village stalls will just churn out new tourist tees. But question the origins of our favorite foods and the whole country will strap on Kevlar aprons and sharpen its forks and knives to defend their honor.

But that's exactly the kind of response Malaysia Tourism Minister Ng Yen Yen has invited after laying claim to signature dishes such as nasi lemak (fragrant coconut milk rice), laksa (spicy soup noodles) and bak kut teh (pork ribs herbal soup). Ng declared, "We cannot continue to let other countries hijack our food. Chili crab is Malaysian. Hainanese chicken rice is Malaysian," in The Star newspaper.

Ng's tourism ministry wants to brand these dishes uniquely Malaysian as part of a new campaign to promote local cuisine. Within minutes of the news' appearance on AFP, bloggers and online communities were outraged by the accusations, which imply that Singapore has been passing off Malaysian recipes as its own. "It's outrageous that Malaysia has not only staked ownership of popular local dishes like Hainanese chicken rice and bak kut teh, but has also accused other countries -- implying Singapore -- of hijacking them," said Brad Tan, a member of community portal STOMP.

Alternateview says, "Yen Yen must have felt wound up after McCurry beat McDonald(s), but she forgot it was fought [on] home soil. She also forgot about how we (Singapore) won Petra Blanca" via The Strait Times comments, which also has Misnomer thinking it's all "so hilarious! She might as well claim that steamed white rice is also Malaysian. Is she aware that there is Thai and Burmese laksa as well ... ?"

Chilli Crabs -- The Bone of Contention

When Madam Cher Yam Tian heard yesterday morning that Malaysia was trying to lay claim to chilli crab, she got angry, stating that she created the dish in her kitchen in 1950, adding bottled chilli sauce to her crabs stir-fried with bottled tomato sauce. "Everyone in Singapore knows that I was the one who created the dish, and I've been using this recipe for the past 50 to 60 years. I am angry, but I am going to ignore what the Malaysian tourism minister said," she told the Strait Times.

But the issue isn't so simple -- the Singapore Tourism Board has been actively promoting chili crabs as "Uniquely Singapore." There are even Singapore Chili Crab Festivals organized across Europe in cities such as London and Glasgow. Claims over Hainanese chicken rice have also been met with derision -- local blogger unspun asks, "If Malaysia 'owns' Hainanese chicken rice then (w)hat do the Hainanese themselves own? Can the Hainanese claim royalties ... ?"

Fellow countrymen are not behind the Tourism Minister either. Hannweitoh commented that "There is a saying in Tamil and it goes like this: "Velai illathe ambatan punai pidichu sarichan". Translated it means this: "A barber who has no work caught a cat and shaved it". Thats the state of our Tourism Minister." Blogger rpremkumar2u on Malaysia Today was "amazed at the fluidity of this so called Tourism Minister and a qualified medical doctor at that ... She has made herself the laughing stock (pun intended) of the entire culinary folks."

Smoke screen for the real issues?

This figurative poke-in-the-ribs comes hot on the heels of Malaysia's kulturkampf with Indonesia. According to an Associated Press article, Indonesians held protests earlier this month accusing Malaysia of stealing a Balinese dance for a promotional TV campaign about Malaysia. It later turned out that Malaysia had nothing to do with the video, which had mistakenly described the dance as Malaysian. The video was broadcast on the Discovery Channel, which apologized for the mistake.

The strange thing about the whole affair is that "tourism ministry officials familiar with the campaign could not immediately be contacted" according to the same report.

Is Minister Ng off her crab? Was it a slip of the tongue, or just a poorly conceived publicity campaign?

We want to hear from you -- can one country really lay claim to national dishes and recipes, or is it all a load of tripe? Shoot your comments to us.