Malaysian food scene takes on Mid-East flavour

Malaysian food scene takes on Mid-East flavour

MALAYSIA - After 14 years spent running a restaurant selling Malay dishes, Madam Normah Jamal added slow-cooked spiced meat to the menu three months ago.

And so, she joined a hot new food phenomenon in Malaysia called "nasi Arab" (Arab rice), fuelled by both locals and the thousands of Middle Eastern students that the country now hosts.

"My husband had been experimenting to make the dishes authentic, and there is demand for it," she said at her Wadi Ar Raudhah (Valley of Gardens in Arabic) restaurant in Seremban town, an hour south of Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysians have been flocking there to taste her mandy lamb and chicken - meat slow-cooked with cardamom, nutmeg, cloves and bay leaves and served with basmati rice.

The typical "nasi Arab" meal is complemented with a mixed salad and downed with a non-alcoholic malt drink or hot mint tea. Other offerings include kebabs, skewered barbecued meats, flat breads and, in some places, shisha smoking.

A Middle Eastern meal at such restaurants usually costs RM15 (S$5.80) or more, a few ringgit more than a typical Malay lunch or dinner.

In the university town of Bangi in Selangor - about half an hour south of Kuala Lumpur - are more than 10 Middle Eastern restaurants serving the several thousand post-graduate students from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. But it's not only students who are drawn to them.

"We used to crowd Indian restaurants, now we have the choice of Middle Eastern food," said legal clerk Halil Samad, a regular at Nasi Arab Damsyik (Damascus Arab Rice) in Senawang town in Negeri Sembilan.

And in the capital of Kuala Lumpur, deciding to have "nasi Arab" for lunch or dinner opens up a lot of choices, unlike a decade ago. The diners are a mix of Malaysians, Middle Eastern tourists and others who work, study or reside in Malaysia.

For Malaysians, travelling to or working in West Asia by the middle class have broadened their palates. Thousands of Malaysians study in Islamic universities in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Yemen, while thousands more work in Dubai, Oman and Bahrain.

But the most significant event driving the opening of Middle Eastern restaurants in Malaysia and other South-east Asian countries happened on Sept 11, 2001.

After Middle Eastern terrorists piloted two planes into the World Trade Center towers in New York, the West tightened immigration, and many from West Asia began feeling that they were racially profiled there.

"It became difficult to go to America or western Europe, so they began turning to Malaysia. They found us to be outwardly looking Muslims and found affinity there," said Professor Mohd Safar Hasim at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies at the National University of Malaysia. "More began coming, and the food follows the people."

Figures from Malaysia's tourism ministry showed that, in 2000, visitors from the Middle East totalled some 53,000.

Last year, 221,800 Middle Easterners visited Malaysia, or less than 1 per cent of the total tourist arrivals of 25 million.

For the first nine months of this year, tourist arrivals from the Middle East hit 222,935.

"There are many people from the Middle East who come here now and they want familiar foods. Malaysia itself has developed into a 'tourist country' with many attractions," said Mr Ali Yaghoubi, assistant general manager at Naab, an Iranian restaurant in the Kuala Lumpur retail centre of Bukit Bintang.

Malaysia, which has also been marketing itself as an education hub, has doubled its foreign student population to about 95,000 today from a decade ago. About 15 per cent to 20 per cent of the students are from the Middle East.

These students include several thousand doing post-graduate studies at Universiti Putra Malaysia, Universiti Malaya and the National University of Malaysia, said Professor Mohd Safar.

Turmoil caused by the Arab Spring in such places as Egypt, Syria and Libya have also drawn wealthy families who stay in Malaysia for months at a time, officials have said.

Others follow their children who are studying in Malaysian colleges.

"We have been here for two years with our daughter who is a student" at a Kuala Lumpur university, said retired Saudi businessman Ibrahim Al-Maktoum.

Pointing to the four Middle Eastern restaurants beside the Seri Maya condominium, about 10km from downtown Kuala Lumpur, where he rents a unit, he said: "It is wonderful to have many of our foods here."

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