In my previous article (A gastronomical journey, April 27), I wrote about how more and more Malaysians are becoming adventurous in trying local cuisines when they travel. By applying the “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” adage to what they eat, these tourists get the opportunity to have a more in-depth experience of the locality, of which I am a strong advocate.
While I see this as an exciting development, the fact remains that the majority of Malaysian Chinese tourists must have Chinese food when they travel to exotic places. But it does not mean they cannot get good Chinese meals.
I know of a couple – both lawyers – who would go off by themselves at dinner time during my tours, in search of rice. This couple is the example of a typical Malaysian (or even Asian) who needs rice to overcome homesickness when they are abroad.
That’s why tour agencies usually include a few meals in Chinese restaurants during trips, especially when there are senior travellers in the group. After a hectic day of sightseeing, being served six dishes (and soup!) with unlimited helpings of steaming hot rice is just the thing to replenish their energy.
Watching them eat with a hearty appetite is what delights me most. To them, regardless of whether it is just fried eggs or sweet and sour pork, pairing it with a bowl of rice is a most satisfying combination!
It is obvious that cultural preferences and habits run deep among our people.
Culinary-curious tourists might regard Chinese food as a safe and boring option, but I think getting a taste of a foreign version of Chinese cuisine can also be an adventure. After all, Chinese food is very well known and probably available all over the world and has been adapted to suit local taste buds.
This includes our Malaysian Chinese cuisine.
I actually find it quite amusing that some people criticise foreign versions of Chinese cuisine and describe them as unpalatable. While I do respect people’s preferences and opinions, I also urge everyone to keep an open mind, or rather, an unbiased tongue, and give Chinese food in a foreign country a try.
Indeed, I have come across some very good Chinese food dished out by foreigners. For example, there is a Chinese restaurant in Krakow, the second largest city in Poland, which is owned and staffed by local Polish people.
When I ask the owner how he manages to make such good Chinese dishes, he replies, “I personally love Chinese cuisine so I did some research on it.”
In Chisinau, the capital city of Moldova in Eastern Europe with only 40 Chinese residents, we surprisingly found a “Beijing Restaurant”, operated by a talented chef from Inner Mongolia.
When I ask him why he decided to settle 15 years ago in one of the poorest states in Europe that draws very few Chinese visitors, he says, “Business opportunities are everywhere!”
He put in so much enthusiasm in making a great meal for us that we had lunch and dinner there. He certainly filled our bellies and warmed our hearts.
Whenever I’m in Kyoto, Japan, I always drop by the Chinese restaurant Kinjo Hanten. It hasn’t changed for the past 30 years and their signature Kyoto Mapo Tofu is my all-time favourite dish. The owner is a Japanese citizen from Taiwan who has lived in Japan for 60 years.
He is a second-generation migrant, who decided long ago not to follow his father’s footsteps in business.
Instead, he devoted himself to making delicious and memorable Chinese dishes as a career.
I have been to places like Estonia, Bulgaria, Chile, Argentina, Iceland, Italy and Kenya where there are only a handful of Chinese people around, and have found Chinese restaurants that are worth trying out there. Even though they specifically cater to local tastes, their food is seriously delicious.
Whenever Chinese tour groups come for a meal, they serve them with delight and show wonderful hospitality.
I am touched by their sincerity.
But there have also been some spectacular misses, despite all the good intentions.
The one what comes to my mind is a Chinese restaurant in New Delhi, India, that promotes itself as a fine-dining establishment. It was crowded when we went there but the food didn’t taste anything like Chinese cuisine at all. We soon discovered why: The chef was a Tibetan man who had little experience with Chinese food!
My feedback to the tour guide was that Chinese cuisine is just like Chinese medicine – it cannot be simply passed off as one. And that is really the crux of it all.
We can understand that a “foreign” cuisine cannot be exactly like what you would get in its place of origin, due the availability of ingredients, condiments and differences in cooking methods. But what must be retained somehow is the taste of the dishes. It cannot stray so far that it bears no resemblance to the original dish.
As a Chinese man, I am immensely proud of my culinary heritage, and my palate has been tempered by my upbringing as a Malaysian. The common thread that runs through all Malaysian cuisines is our love for rice. That’s how I came to appreciate the lawyers’ desire for rice wherever they visit in the world.
Generally speaking, a bowl of white rice does not only satisfy our hunger but can also trigger many touching memories associated with it. It could be a fish dish that grandma made for special occasions or mum’s nourishing soup or a spicy curry that went perfectly with rice.
For the Chinese, eating that plain rice with different dishes in a strange country makes us realise how far the cuisine has spread – practically to every nook and corner of the world, really. It also reminds us of home where every journey should end on a happy note.
Leesan, the founder of Apple Vacations, has travelled to 122 countries, six continents and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored two books.