Written by Sharifah Nurul Aina Sayed Burhanudin
Earlier this month, Malaysians riled up over the elimination of Malaysian-born contestant, Zaleha Kadir Olpin, 48, because of her controversial non-crispy chicken ‘rendang’ in MasterChef UK. Zaleha, who served Malaysia’s traditional dish, coconut milk rice with chicken ‘rendang’, was eliminated during the quarterfinal round by the judges due to her chicken was cooked with soft skin.
This article highlights how cultural differences have an impact on food appreciation. Food is said to be an indication of one’s cultural identity and it is one of the ways to know the people, cultures and traditions of other countries. Malaysian cuisine has a strong and aromatic taste as well as rich in herbs and spices that are commonly found in Southeast Asia. The distinct difference in taste, spices and meat add on to the colorful of one’s culture. In the case of Zaleha, the chicken ‘rendang’ was cooked in a traditional way of how we usually eat it. However, the dish was criticized by the judges for not being crispy enough, when in fact, the authentic ‘rendang’ has never been served crispy. It shows that the judges are not open to differences between their culture and other’s.
“The skin isn’t crispy. It can’t be eaten. The sauce is on the skin, I can’t eat this,” MasterChef UK judge Gregg Wallace commented and agreed upon by his co-judge, John Torode. The news of her elimination due to her non-crispy chicken ‘rendang’ caused anger between two countries, Malaysia and Indonesia. Later, Torode, who is also famous for his reality TV show on adventurous of local food in foreign countries chose to further fan the flames by tweeting on his twitter account: “Maybe Rendang is Indonesian!! Love this!! Brilliant how excited you are all getting… Namaste.”, giving his view about the chicken ‘rendang’ which to him is originated from Indonesia. Surprisingly, in 2015, John Torode was in Malaysia and hosted ‘John Torode’s Malaysian Adventure’ for the Good Food channel. However, it is understood that his exposure to rendang was with a duck unlike Zaleha’s chicken.
The fiasco has not only caught the attention of the locals but also the Prime Minister of Malaysia, his rival in politics, Tun Mahathir Mohamad, local chefs and the foodies. Even the fast food chain KFC posted on their Instagram account saying, “The only thing that should be crispy is our fried chicken”.
The issue has not only brought up the flames among four neighboring nations; Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Brunei, but what made people angry is that seeing the judges being egoistic while commenting on other countries’ traditional food which is totally beyond their expertise. The judges’ judgment and attitude on cultural differences was poorly executed.
To add salt to the wound, he claimed that the comment on how serving chicken ‘rendang’ with coconut milk rice was a mistake. There was no a single apology from the judges to admit that other countries’ traditional cuisine is not within their expertise. They should respect other people’s traditions and cultures. The Britons were then criticized by Malaysians for being ignorant and arrogant. They should have the desire to learn about different types of meal and its preparation and not behaving as if they own the culture.
Chef Khairul Muhamad, a culinary stream coordinator for the Faculty of Hospitality, Food, and Leisure Management at Taylor’s University said he was surprised by the judges’ lack of knowledge considering their experience in cuisine. “He should have been more neutral about dishes he wasn’t familiar with and shouldn’t have downgraded the dish because you have to think about another person’s culture. Telling us to change the way we serve coconut milk rice and ‘rendang’ is like telling them steak shouldn’t go with fries,” Khairul said. Showing some respect to other people’s culture is not a hard thing to do. You can just simply admit that it is not just your expertise and humbly learn it from the local.
As a conclusion, making blunt judgment about food has indeed affected the cultural sensitivity. It is because food is the way how culture is implicitly expressed. One has to study the culture before making an attempt to judge the culture of others. In the case of Zaleha, it was observed that the judges have directly criticized the traditional dish she presented to them with the intention to promote Malaysia. Whatever the food looks and tastes like, it has their own story that one should respect.