“No, we don’t live in grass huts." “Yes, we have McDonalds here.” “No, it’s not in China.” “Yes, Malaysians can speak English.” “No, it’s not an island and it’s not all jungle.” “Yes, Malaysia is a country.”
Just a few of the interesting - and hopefully sarcastic - questions I have been asked before about Malaysia. I’m sure Malaysians reading this will have many others to share, especially from travels in Western countries (and I’d love to hear them in the comment section below).
Who is at fault for these misconceptions? Is it the education system in the West? A general lack of interest in Asian geography and culture? Not enough people travelling to Southeast Asia? Probably a bit of each.
But I can understand the reasons. Malaysia is a small country (just over 25 million people), and we are far from influential on the international stage. To break stereotypes and improve people’s understanding of the country, we Malaysians need to take a more active role in promoting our home.
One Malaysian, a Penangite, is doing just that in the US from her home in the Los Angeles area. Last year on Capturing Penang, I talked with Bee Yinn Low who runs one of the largest Asian food sites in the world – Rasa Malaysia. I caught up with her again last week as she launched her first cookbook called Easy Chinese Recipes.
Thank you, the cookbook is available now in Malaysia and Singapore at all major bookstores. The US release date is September 10th, but you can pre-order the book now at Amazon.
It must be very exciting to hold the final product in your hands. It's called Easy Chinese Recipes, but I'm sure it was anything but easy to make happen. What was the journey like creating your first book?
I worked on the cookbook while I was pregnant with my son, starting from my second trimester and finished everything two weeks before my due date. It was a lot of hard work as I had to develop recipes, cook, style, photograph, and write the cookbook, in a little less than six months. The cooking part and food styling/photography were quite challenging, mostly because of my pregnancy. It was hard to stoop down to take the photos at a certain angle with the pregnant belly, but I did it and am very proud of the results.
That will be a fun story to share with Baby G when he’s older. I think you might be the first Penangite to publish a cookbook in the US?
I think so. I can’t think of another Penangite who published a cookbook in the US.
I heard that one of the biggest food chains in the world, Chipotle Mexican Grill, is launching a new venture called Shophouse Southeast Asian Cuisine, which will feature some Malaysian flavors. Being based in the US, do you sense that shift in interest toward Southeast Asia, and particularly Malaysian cuisine?
Definitely. Malaysian cuisine is the next “hot” cuisine and certainly up-and-coming in the United States. There has been a lot of press about Malaysian cuisine, and the fact that Chipotle is including it as part of their Shophouse business says a lot about the appeal of Malaysian food. It will officially put Malaysian cuisine on the culinary map of Americans. Southeast Asian food has been around in the United States - Thai and Vietnamese are very popular - but Malaysian cuisine is in a class of its own because of the diverse offerings of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and more. It’s about time that Malaysian food gets its much deserved recognition in America.
It’s a Chinese cookery book, mostly about Chinese food served in the United States, all-time classics, Chinatown favorites such as Dim Sum, dumplings, and many authentic Chinese dishes that I sampled during my many travels in China. It’s great as I love Chinese food.
Any plans for a cookbook with a Malaysian flavor?
Yes. I hope to prove myself and build my credential as a cookbook author; the second book will definitely be a Malaysian cookbook.
I hope so too because Malaysian food is definitely underrepresented in the genre of international cookbooks. It would be a great tool to promote Penang food to the world. Speaking of local food, do you have any concerns about the future of Penang's food culture?
What I am most worried about is the disappearing hawker culture in Penang once the current operators retire and no one in the family is interested to take over the business. Something that is already happening. I hope the state government is planning something to preserve it, e.g. apprentice programs to find the right people to continue the trade.
You are definitely not the only one. From speaking to many older hawkers over the past year, they have the same concerns too. That’s why you see many of them still working well beyond the normal retirement age. What would you like to see done in Penang to promote it as a premier destination for eating?
Penang state government or tourism authority has to step up their game in the international space (especially the US) when it comes to promoting Penang as a culinary tourism destination. They have to be strategic and invest in programs and initiatives that will bring them long term ROI. For example, sending our best chefs (hawkers, Nyonya chefs, etc.) to professional culinary events in the United States, to offer live cooking demos and food samplings. People in the culinary industry are always hungry for new culture, new tastes, and new eating experiences, and we have to market to the right people - renowned food writers, top chefs, culinary trendsetters, and media. Make them the evangelists for Penang food, and the rest will follow.
I hope to take it from online to offline one day. I am interested to explore TV in Malaysia if there is the right opportunity. I think the idea of having a food + eating + travel show can be a lot of fun. I am hopeful.
From blog to cookbook to TV...very exciting opportunities ahead.
Thank you Bee for sharing your thoughts on the future of Penang's food culture, and all the work you are doing to promote it on Rasa Malaysia. I wish you all the best with your new cookbook!
All images courtesy of Rasa Malaysia