Ours is a society that thrives on eating. We discuss the next meal over the current one, and where and what to eat are powerful engines driving the day – but a deeper discourse on the psychological, sociological and political aspects of consumption has hitherto been somewhat absent from the Malaysian foodscape.

That is set to change with the 2016 Food and Society Conference, the first of its kind in the country. Open to both academics and the public, it is set to be an interactive hub of learning and exchange.

To be held from Nov 18 to 20 at Hotel Bangi-Putrajaya, it is being organised by the Institute of Ethnic Studies (Kita). A national research institute within the National University of Malaysia (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia/ UKM), Kita studies the evolution of ethnic relations in the country, and seeks to preserve its heritage, culture and identity.

“We found that there was no network for food studies – social sciences applied to the study of food – in the Asia Pacific, therefore everyone is isolated in their research,” says Dr Eric Olmedo, the conference chairman. The strong networking component of the conference seeks to address this issue.

“We initially planned this conference to create a small network for Malaysia, but then we started getting requests from Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and even the United States.”

Principal research fellow and director of the Antropotek Laboratory at Kita, Olmedo will be presenting an intriguing look at whether Malaysia can develop a gastronomy to rival the haute cuisines of the world.

Much knowledge about the indigenous plants of Malaysia lies solely with the orang asli. In this file photo, Tanariyol of the Jehai in Gerik, Perak, holds up a staple of his group - the ubi garam, a tuber.

Much knowledge about the indigenous plants of Malaysia lies solely with the orang asli. In this file photo, Tanariyol of the Jehai in Gerik, Perak, holds up a staple of his group – the ubi garam, a tuber.

The conference will feature both academic presentations like this – from scholars in Malaysia, Britain and Japan, among others – and panel discussions by industry stalwarts.

The panel discussions on the first day will focus on taste and education, as well as the latest trends; the audience will be able to interact with the speakers.

Discussing these will be well-known personalities such as Dewakan’s Darren Teoh, Herve Drouin, the manager of high end foodware distributor Trezor Asia, hospitality consultant Huza Radzi – a veteran of the hotel scene, in particular – and chef, hospitality consultant and restaurateur Jean Michel Fraisse of The French Culinary School in Asia.

Fraisse sees the conference as a great opportunity for people in the F&B industry. “The problem with this industry is that we are all usually too busy to look around, to listen to other people’s stories, and therefore sometimes we do not evolve. It is very important to open your mind, to see what is happening in other restaurants and countries, to look at things intellectually sometimes,” he says.

Keynote speakers on the second day of the conference are Prof Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharud-din from UKM and Assoc Prof Dr Gaik Cheng Khoo, from the Malaysian campus of the University of Nottingham.

Prof Shamsul will be talking about social cohesion and social distinction, and how vocational education plays a role in taste construction, while Assoc Prof Gaik will explore power relations in Malaysia through the lens of food, as she proposes a unique way of leveling the playing field via consumption.

On the third day, a highlight will be French ethnobotanist Dr Francois Couplan, who has studied the traditional uses of wild, edible plants on five continents. He will be presenting a keynote on Edible Plants and the Concept of Soft Survival in the Modern Urban Lifestyle.

The plethora of academic papers to be presented will explore all facets of food, cuisine and gastronomy.

Many of the papers from Malaysian-based speakers explore the concepts of food, national unity and national identity – it’s easy to see what is foremost on everyone’s minds nowadays!

Renowned French ethnobotanist Couplan's keynote will be on edible plants in the modern urban jungle.

Renowned French ethnobotanist Couplan’s keynote address will be on edible plants in the modern urban jungle.

These include one from Anisha Chai, of host Kita, whose paper is entitled Nation and National Cuisine: A Case Study of Malaysia. Cuisine is a significant building block of national identity, itself an essential element of nation-building.

Chai conceptualises a framework for a Malaysian national cuisine that would try to create a shared identity for its multi-ethnic society on the one hand, while still maintaining a distinctive, easily-recognisable character on the other.

In what promises to be a fascinating look at the treasures hidden in our own Malaysian backyards, Rachel Thomas Tharmabalan’s paper on The Hidden Value In Indigenous Vegetables: Incorporating Nutritious Plants Into The Malaysian Diet.

From the Centre for Tourism, Hospitality and Culinary Management at Sunway University, she will look at the indigenous plants that can potentially contribute to a diverse, nutrient-rich diet – the knowledge of such plants is currently mastered only by the older Orang Asli generation, and it is imperative to collect and document such knowledge before it disappears forever.

Tan Kean Buan from UKM’s Kita has noticed that health food trends tend to lean in the Western direction and wonders about exploring the nutritious elements of Malaysian cuisine, suggesting that The Local Way: Rediscovering Nutritious Malaysian Cuisine may be both more economically viable and practical.

To explore Rice and the Politics of National Cuisine in Malaysia and Indonesia, 1990-2015, Kathleen Burke of King’s College London/ Humboldt Universitätzu Berlin will look at the significant role rice has played in Malay and Javanese identity construction, culture and eating practices and how rice-based dishes were promoted as ‘national cuisine’ in both countries, against a backdrop of economic and social transformations.

What are Millenials eating? It’s a particularly pertinent question, since the generation born between the early 80s to the early 2000s is a huge market force. Dr Tan Ai Ling from Sunway University’s Centre for Tourism, Hospitality and Culinary Management teams up with Yow Taw Onn from the Faculty of Accountancy and Management at University Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Department of Economics to find out. In their presentation on Motives For Millennials’ Choice On Traditional Food And Their Level Of Consumption: A Cross-Cultural Comparison, they investigate the relationship between the consumption of traditional food and what motivates food choices among Malaysian Millennials, with race as a moderator.

Thousands of shark fins are left out to dry on top of a roof top in Hong Kong's Kennedy Town district. Shark fin traders have taken to drying freshly sliced fins from sharks on roof tops in the city, since a public outcry in 2010 over them drying the fins on public sidewalks forced them to move the trade out of sight. Photo: EPA

Shark fins being left to dry on a roof top in Hong Kong’s Kennedy Town district. The conference will also tackle the issue of shark consumption. Photo: EPA

Two speakers will be tackling the sharp-edged issue of shark consumption. Dr Liz P.Y. Chee from the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore will be exploring the relationship between shark fin and the politics of late Republican China, and look at how there was a cultural identity shift for the dish in this period.

Dr Akamine Jun from the Institute for the Study of Global Issues at Hitotsubashi University in Japan will be exploring the history of shark food ways in both Japan and Asia; Japan is one of the major shark fishing countries in the world, and Japanese consume shark meat in many ways – not just the fin. Jun’s paper looks at promoting sustainable shark consumption and the use of marine resources.

The first day of the conference will be capped with a gala dinner at the French Ambassador’s private residence in Kuala Lumpur.

Both His Excellency Christophe Penot, the French Ambassador to Malaysia and renowned French chef Bruno Menard – most recently a judge on MasterChef Asia – will deliver keynote addresses at the dinner.

The dinner itself will showcase both Asian and French gastronomy, with guests mingling in a garden party setting.

As this is the first time the conference is being held, only limited places for the public are available.

For the three-day conference, the fee is RM760 per person, which includes access to the presentations, plus lunch breaks and edutainment activities (but does not include the gala dinner).

A one-day ticket is available for RM400.

For the gala dinner, the price is RM188 per person for guests, RM128 per person for conference delegates and Alliance Francaise members.

Places at both the conference and the gala dinner are only available by pre-registration.

For more information, go to www.food-and-society.com, or send an email to Jimena Barrera at jimena@food-and-society.com to register for the conference and gala dinner.