Malaysians bicker over many things, but we all profess to love food. And at the dining table at least, love is all around.
EARLIER this month, I was tasked to describe Malaysia to my newfound Danish friends who wanted to know how the nation "works". Seated in an Indian restaurant in Petaling Jaya, the two anthropology students eyed the people at the premise during the busy lunch hour and were curious as to how people of different races and religious beliefs, and having no physical resemblance, live together.
"I am an Indian, the family over there is of Chinese descent and the man seated opposite their table is Malay," I said, before launching into my well-rehearsed, and hopefully accurate, speech on the history of the nation, its people, the various cultures and how we live harmoniously despite our racial and religious differences.
"Okay, now take off your rose-tinted glasses and tell them the whole truth about this country," my Malaysian friend prompted.
Out came the stories about our numerous struggles to uphold the ideal Malaysia, the racial inequality, the religious extremism, the corruption, and the political struggles.
"But all of you are here at this restaurant, eating in one place. So everything is all right?" queried one of the Danish girls with a confused expression.
"Oh yes, we Malaysians love good food ... nothing can separate us from that," replied all the Malaysians at the table, almost in unison.
Masala? No problem!
Choong Jien Yue loves Indian food so much that he professed his love for banana leaf rice three times. "I love Indian food. There is nothing like Indian food, you know? I really like Indian food," said the 19-year-old Finance student animatedly while he scooped up a spoonful of rice drenched in spices and put it in his mouth.
"I know how to eat rice with my fingers but I'm just too lazy to wash them today," he said.
Enjoying a banana leaf lunch with his friends at Kanna Curry House in Section 17, Petaling Jaya, Choong and his friends spoke excitedly about how much they like Indian cuisine, which they claim to have loved since young.
"There is another Kanna Curry House branch opposite my school at Jalan Gasing, and that is where my friends and I used to hang out before and after school. We love everything about it - from roti canai to maggi goreng. It's so affordable," said Choong.
Eat what you like, just make mine halal
"I think people are really missing out if they don't go out and try food from other races. For goodness sake, that is one of the best things about living in Malaysia. There is an opportunity to eat all kinds of delicious food and it would be a total waste to let this opportunity go," said Sharifah Nor Syed Mohamed, 40.
The event director was enjoying lunch with her colleague Mohamad Rashman Mohamad Rostam, who is also a loyal Kanna Curry House patron.
Penang-born Sharifah said that she is grateful to have grown up in a community that didn't have qualms about trying each other's food.
"I was exposed to all kinds of food and it was not weird to see people of different races eating at the same table. I am not saying that we are not harmonious now, but I feel that we have become too sensitive about the smallest matter.
"The other day, my Chinese friend was eating and she said, 'Don't look at me, I'm eating pork.' I'm sad that she had to tell me that, thinking that I am too sensitive about the fact that she's consuming pork in front of me.
"I am a Muslim and I eat only halal food, but that doesn't mean that others should stop being themselves around me. I feel that if one race is going to be sensitive about what other races are eating in front of them, then they too should be sensitive about what they consume in front of people of other faiths," said Sharifah.
She was referring to the fact that most of us quite freely consume beef in the presence of Hindus and Buddhists for whom the cow is a sacred animal; not to mention the consumption of meat in front of vegetarians.
Nevertheless, Sharifah believes that, on a personal level, only a minority of Malaysians play the racial card when it comes to food - unfortunately, some of these minority voices are very loud and the halal issue, as we know, has been much politicised and exploited for monetary gains.
Sweet and sour love affair
A Chinese Muslim convert who opened a restaurant serving halal Chinese food was to find that many Malays share his love of Chinese food.
Yusoff Lau Abdullah started his chain of Chinese Muslim restaurant, Homst, in 2002. Step into any of his restaurants and the sight of Malays seated around a table spread full of Chinese dishes such as sweet and sour fish and stir-fried kailan, is something to behold.
"We enjoy Chinese cuisine. It is healthier and also delicious," said Homst patron Juarez Rizal Radzmi, 35, who added that he has been exposed to food from different cultures since young.
"We eat out at least twice a week, and we don't just enjoy Chinese food, we like Indian, Malay, Western and other cuisines as well."
Different folks, different foods, same table
Colleagues and friends Najmi Jumaadi, Safiah Shaik Mohd, Shanmugapriya Selvam and Amy Looi claim that their lunch breaks give them the opportunity to eat different food every day and they don't have a problem finding places where they can lunch together.
"We just have to pick halal establishments so that everyone in the group gets to eat," said Looi, 38. The ladies frequent the Cafe Old Market Square on Medan Pasar in the Central Market vicinity in Kuala Lumpur, which is near their work place. The café serves Hainanese kopitiam fare like chicken chop, chicken rice, roti kaya, and kopi, as well as Indian rojak, mee rebus, and yong tau foo.
Another multi-racial group of ladies lunching at Cafe Old Market Square said that worklife has exposed them to the food of other ethnic groups as they eat out together.
Nor Yazmin Mansor, 36, said that Peking Duck is her favourite Chinese dish. "I love Chinese food and whenever I crave for them, my Chinese colleagues will make sure that I get to eat halal Chinese food of my choice."
Her buddy, Pauline Chow, on the other hand, likes Indian food and claims that Lebuh Ampang has the best banana leaf rice restaurants.
"People keep saying that we are not so united these days ... that's not true lah, when you come to a makan place like this," said Pauline.
Malaysians love food, and at the table at least, we love each other.
As a young lawyer, Datuk Ghani Abdullah used to frequent the Sin Seng Nam kopitiam which was a stone's throw away from the court houses and Bar Council around Dataran Square.
Sin Seng Nam was started in 1928 by Hainanese immigrant Choong Yoo Ting and his two brothers. Back in its heydays, it was the meeting place of a lot of civil servants, judges and lawyers, but also miners and gamblers.
After 85 years, Sin Seng Nam finally served its last customers on Feb 28 last year. Earlier this year, in April, the colonial-style, three-story shoplot reopened as Café Old Market Square.
Ghani, the new owner, had restored it beautifully and brought it back to life.
"I decided to keep it as a kopitiam as I want to be reminded of the past. I first went there 30 years ago and enjoyed eating the kaya toast and coffee. I fell in love with the place and now that it is mine, my dream has come true," said Ghani.
"We have a mee rebus and rojak stall that has been in business for over 30 years, halal chicken rice, yong tau foo and Hainanese colonial fare. We still grill our bread over charcoal fire for the kaya toast!" he said with just pride.
"Food doesn't have a racial barrier - a cafe just has to be halal so that even Muslims can enjoy the food. Apart from the halal issue, it is safe to say that all Malaysians are united in th