Does that satay look ethnically pure?

Malaysia Serves Up Some Hot Xenophobia

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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The crumbling, colonial lanes of the Malaysian island state of Penang are renowned for two things: historic sites and the food cooked in the famed hawker centers. In 2008, Unesco preserved the former from exploding real estate development by declaring the historic core of Georgetown, Penang's capital city, a World Heritage site. Food, however, is a more difficult matter. Its hard to imagine that any law or edict could prevent chefs from changing their recipes, or being influenced by other cuisines -- especially at a time when Penang is experiencing an influx of immigrants, tourists (and foodies).

Nonetheless, last week the state's Executive Committee banned foreigners from cooking in hawker centers, starting Jan. 1, 2016. Lim Guan Eng, Penang's chief executive, explained the reasoning behind the rule in an op-ed article for the Malaysian Insider: "The unique taste and flavour of Penang food should not be put at risk by indifferent foreign workers doing a job instructed by their employer."

In other words: Penang's Bangladeshis are welcome to make cheeseburgers and wash dishes -- just stay away from the char kway teow, assam laksa and other local specialties.

Xenophobia aside, Penang's fears deserve some sympathy. Its food is widely acknowledged to be the purest possible expression of the multicultural mishmash that is northern Malaysia. Drawing from the Malay, Chinese, Indian and European populations that have settled Penang over the years, the food is a bit of everything: curries and noodles, rice and chilis, sweet, sour and spicy; pork, chicken, fish and vegetables.

And it seems lots of people want to maintain the flavors and histories these dishes represent -- based on the increased interest that Penang's food has drawn from internationally renowned chefs and the food and travel press. The coverage is bottomless. In 2012, Anthony Bourdain shot an indulgent episode of "No Reservations" in Penang; this year's Lonely Planet "Food Book" lists Penang as its top food destination in the world. Tourists -- especially Chinese tourists -- are following up, and on weekends the hawker centers overflow.

My wife and I are often part of the crowd. Our routine is pretty typical: We might start our Friday evening with sour-spicy noodle soup flaked with mackerel and a bit of shrimp paste, then move onto a neighboring stall serving Indian roti canai and dal, then continue onto char kway teow -- Penang's signature dish of fried noodle, rice cake and seafood. Then repeat it all over again a few hours later.

Some of the stalls are run by families who have cooked their secret recipes for generations. Yet as economic prospects have improved in Malaysia over the decades, not every young resident of Penang is keen to spend a career frying noodles, no matter how lucrative the profession (and it can be highly lucrative). So immigrants are taking the place of the locals in the hawker stalls, meeting the increasing demand, and -- on occasion -- changing flavors.

And that's where things become complicated. "Doesn't taste as good," is a common complaint in Penang these days, and perhaps there's something to that (thought the flood of tourists suggests maybe not).

But Penang has never been a static place; immigrants and cultures have always clashed and fused there, and -- whether the local government likes it or not -- the influx of tourists, and immigrants from around the region, is driving creativity and evolution in the hawker stalls. Even chefs with Malaysian passports (and assam laksa in their blood) are bound to be inspired by the vibrant culture around them, and tinker with their food. Not all of it is tasty -- I'm not a fan of the "roti special" we recently found at one stall, a "Western-inspired" mess of roti plus egg, hot dog, M&Ms and maraschino cherries among other ingredients -- but the beauty of hawker culture is that the food is cheap, and thus flavor sells. If new fusions aren't as good as the old ones, they will disappear and the old ones will stand.

That's the essence of the globalized age that's brought so many foodies to Malaysia and -- if the government keeps its hands out of the kitchens -- it'll keep them coming for authentic, up-to-date Penang experiences for generations to come.

For Malaysians, though, this issue goes well beyond food. In January, the chief executive's office issued a statement claiming that Malaysia is home to 2.1 million registered foreign workers, and perhaps twice as many illegal immigrants. In Malaysia -- population 29.7 million in 2013 -- those numbers are transformative, and they'll have just as large an impact on the culture as the previous waves of immigration that produced hawker food. Government edicts might stave off the inevitable for a while, but long-term Malaysia is much better off demonstrating its penchant for assimilation, and welcoming the new outsiders into the cultural (and culinary) mainstream.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net