One thing that has been on my mind since starting this blog is… am I being a bad Malaysian? Am I bastardizing the culinary landscape that this part of the world is renowned for?
Purists would say yes. There are imitations and re-interpretations of dishes, but the authentic versions feature must-have ingredients… the ikan bilis (anchovies) in sambal nasi lemak, the ghee in briyani, the chicken in chicken rice. All of these can be veganized, and they already have. But to some, that should not be called nasi lemak, briyani nor chicken rice at all.
It really hit me while I was conceptualizing my Vegan Nyonya Cooking Workshop for The Hive last month, and again in a few weeks from now. During my research, I came across an article that discussed the idea of Peranakan cuisine slowly dying out because of the new ways of becoming efficient in the kitchen through technology. Peranakan cuisine is famed for the time and energy spent on making the food, and noses are being turned up at fancy appliances that can get a 15-minute task done in seconds. So you can only imagine… this quivering little plant eater reading this article, terrified by the thought of how these Peranakan aunties and uncles would react when they find that not only have I resorted to such appliances, but I have also even had the core ingredients changed!!!
I do understand how some people would be offended by cooking like mine, and I don’t blame them. Some people have fought hard to pass family recipes down the generations. But traditions are a double-edged sword. They are a way of keeping a unique part of history existing alongside modern times. But traditions don’t hold up so well against the evolution – or in some cases de-volution – of humankind.
There is a very sensitive argument of a tradition being upheld for sentimental reasons, or because it makes sense. Because when you’re sentimental about something, of course it makes sense.
We as a species have an unusually strong connection to food. It is not just a noun but a social concept. People used to kill the animals they reared themselves, and thoughtfully prepared them as meals that brought the community together. There was certainly something sentimental about that, and justly so. This is the part I don’t have an issue about. Without a doubt, food makes up part of our collective identity.
The bigger issue I have is what it now takes to support this identity of meat in our food.
These days, a lot of people aren’t aware or even want to know of how our meat becomes meat: who (or these days, what) raised it, what it looked like, how it lived, how it died, who did the dirty deed, how far it travelled to reach us.
At the same time, I am only just starting to appreciate my roots. Out of all the micro-cultures of Malaysia, the Peranakans are one of the most lavish; when affluence met with a collision of Southeast Asian customs. My youth was heavily exposed to Nyonya dishes that people would fly across the world to have a mere bite of. Had I not undertaken this journey with food, the chances of these Nyonya dishes surviving another generation would have been that much slimmer. To be merely a fraction Peranakan is something I have realized I should be proud of, and try to represent in any way I can.
This is my compromise with tradition. It is inevitable that, over time, the way we live changes. It is getting increasingly harder for heritage to find its place within these changes. But doing what I can to keep my heritage alive, within my means of values and beliefs that reflect my reaction to a changing time, is the contribution I can offer. Perhaps someday, my adjustment will be the new tradition that future generations will have to make compomises with too.
My Nyonya Vegan Cooking Workshop happens on 27th November at The Hive in Bangsar. For details, check out this Facebook event page.