This is a challenging piece to write.
I do not mean this in a “poor me having to face up to the burden of historically entrenched privilege” kind-a-way but, simply put, I think it is bloody important.
This is a complicated topic that deserves nuance, depth and detail. Despite my innate capacity for length (in terms of debate), I want to at least attempt to keep this succinct and clear. I will also attempt to avoid my usual facetious tone (save the last parentheses) as I am not writing this to seem clever (admittedly unusual for the blog format).
Up until this point, the reason I have not addressed this publicly (rightly or wrongly) has been that the scale of my operation is so small, as to be insignificant.
Somewhere along the line I started trading and was able to discuss this topic with my customers face-to-face. The reaction was entirely a positive one, and therefore the need to develop an official stance seemed to become less immediate.
It has unfortunately become an all too regular occurrence to see white voices (and some non-white) aggressively debating, even outright rejecting, non-white concerns in this space.
I have probably been too slow to react to this, however I want to be explicit that those voices do not speak for me.
“What business does a white guy have peddling Malaysian food?”
I love and respect this cuisine and culture, I believe I can do this ethically, however I also understand that there are many considerations with regards to how I act.
I would fully understand if you did not believe me, after all I am not owed any benefit of the doubt in these matters, but this is something that has been at the forefront of my mind since the inception of this project.
I have had this discussion at length, both in Malaysia and here in the UK. With Malaysians and non-Malaysians. With close friends & fleeting acquaintances. With cooking teachers, chefs, cooks, waiters, taxi-drivers, and quite frankly anyone who cares about food.
When discussing this, in conjunction with my appreciation of the cuisine, I have yet to meet anyone suggesting I should not be starting this business.
If I had, we likely would not be having this conversation. Santan Boi would never have been founded.
That said, this is a topic that has only just recently reached the mainstream. You could argue people may just be being polite or that my sample has been biased towards people who know me.
Either way the argument that “the Malaysians I asked were ok with it” seems somewhat similar to the “I have black friends” defence.
What is the problem?
I am not here to explain the issue of cultural appropriation in food.
For a start, I am not qualified to do so.
Secondly, I am not interested in debating the issue.
I’m here to discuss solutions.
However generally, the line between acceptable and unacceptable can be drawn at a few key points:
Inaccurate representation of dishes from another culture, conveying a lack of respect
Amending elements of a dish to make more palatable to another culture (consciously or unconsciously)
Claiming profound expertise or mastery of a different culture’s cuisine - by extension cheapening the achievements of that culture’s cooks
Falsely inserting yourself at part of the narrative around another culture i.e. portraying yourself as a discoverer, saviour or improver of another’s cuisine
The line seems to be crossed most grossly when the above behaviours are exhibited in the pursuit of profit above all else - AKA profiteering through someone else’s culture.
Personal gain in this sense tends to be monetary, but is increasingly in terms of social influence (though this tends to be done with a view to accessing monetary gain down the line).
It should go without saying, that this is completely unacceptable.
What represents good behaviours?
I hope it is not especially controversial to state now that I intend for my business to turn a profit (eventually), but there is a distinct difference between this and profiteering.
My intention is to avoid this by ensuring that my contribution to Malaysian cuisine is positive enough to justify my involvement.
Strive to Accurately Portray Malaysian Cuisine
I have no interest in pedalling anything other than good Malaysian food.
The chilli, the spices, the oil, salted anchovies, dried shrimp, belacan shrimp paste, prawns with the shell on, chicken on the bone, salt and MSG, are all an integral part of this. NOTHING gets removed to make it more appealing to a non-Malaysian audience. Take it or leave it.
In this respect, my only concern is that Malaysians identify my cooking as proper Malaysian food. If not, then I have no business cooking it.
In return for this invaluable engagement I have committed to a permanent 10% discount for all Malaysians on my street-food... as long as they tell me if they think it’s rubbish.
This is not intended to be a bribe (if it were, it isn’t nearly big enough) but hopefully some encouragement to engage people over the food and develop a meaningful relationship with the Malaysian community here in the UK. The feedback so far has been excellent.
As an aside, I don’t think that this means that creativity and fusion food is out of the question. In Malaysia I ran supper-clubs fusing Malaysian flavours with a British Sunday lunch. This wasn’t to make a British version of Malaysian food, rather to try to create something that was both really Malaysian and really British. I’m not going to sit here and claim complete success in that matter, however it was on the whole received really well. Too often, particularly in UK restaurants, I feel this has just been done for personal gain. Usually someone is crowbarring in a this-country-taco or that-culture-bao bun, without any consideration for the original cultures. I think as chefs we need to ask ourselves - are we making this with the original cultures in mind, or just to broaden appeal to a UK audience - if it's the latter, then you should probably stop.
It’s also worth noting that in the confines of your own kitchen, do what the fuck you like! No one cares. The issue here is when people are trying to profit from it - either monetarily (as part of a food business) or socially (for Instagram likes).
Note - I will never claim authenticity, even if it was technically possible (which I do not think it is) this is not something that a white chef can proclaim.
Provide Cultural Context to my Cooking
One of the great things about eating food from another culture is it gives you a clearer view of that life, and hopefully a certain level of understanding.
Food does not exist in a vacuum. Beyond tasty sustenance food reflects the people, environment and history that makes it.
It is of utmost importance to provide this context wherever possible.
On a personal level I am determined to continually improve my understanding of Malaysian cuisine and culture. Though I do not claim to be an expert, I have a certain level of knowledge and always seek to disseminate as much as possible through my cooking, writing and social activity.
Furthermore, my menu will always lead with the Malaysian names for dishes, in the language of the culture they came from. As you can imagine, in a market it would be likely significantly easier to sell Coconut Rice and Malaysian Fried Chicken… but I fell in love with Nasi Lemak and Ayam Goreng Berempah in their entirety, so that’s what I’ll promote.
Promote Malaysian Knowledge and Expertise
Though my Malaysian customers have so far been very complimentary about my food, I do not pertain to be an expert on anything.
Too often white-published recipes skim over these details, either inaccurate in their lack of proper research or dishonest in their origins.
I did not discover it. It does not need my promotion. I could not elevate it.
I am not a prophet. Just a disciple.
Those prophets do exist though.
If you want a recipe, I’m happy to point you in their direction.
Similarly, I want to do all I can to promote other Malaysian businesses here in the UK and in Malaysia. I do not have much of a platform now however, if I am lucky enough to develop one, I intend to support the Malaysian voices and businesses as much as possible.
Listen & Learn
Ironically, considering I am 3 4 pages into this piece, I think the best thing I can do is STFU and listen.
It is not for me, or any other white person, to proselytise the importance of a culturally sensitive food industry. Properly understanding the non-white experience, by definition, is beyond us.
No matter how many words I write, and how sound my logic, it will be always be a Malaysian’s prerogative with regards to how they feel about my business.
One of my primary focuses is to remain mindful of this discussion and my behaviours in this space. I will always massively appreciate feedback from the Malaysian community, however at the same time I cannot expect your validation. After all as a chef cooking your food, I already owe you enough without expecting you to police my behaviour.
That said, I hope this article goes some way to demonstrating my efforts to understand and adapt. I’m listening, and I promise to continue to do so.