Ah, Masterchef! That now hallowed TV series treasured by food aficionados all over the world, a franchise that has variants in the UK, Australia, Asia – a place where aspiring chefs can achieve some measure of fame by impressing a select panel of expert judges with their cooking skills. Masterchef has become an institution, and one that has gained some credibility thanks to famous chefs like Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver taking up the role of judge.
Unfortunately, a controversy has arisen that threatens the credibility of Masterchef UK, at least in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Brunei. Contestant Zaleha Kadir Olpin recently presented her nasi lemak ayam rendang during the quarter-final knockout rounds, only to be told by chef judges Greg Wallace and John Torode that her chicken was not “really soft and falling apart”, as Torode’s critique went, and that “the skin wasn’t crispy”, as Wallace complained, thus leading to her elimination and sending the Nusantara Twitterverse into a rage over this seeming unfamiliarity with what the classic South East Asian dish should be like. To make things worse, John Torode, who once hosted a series on Malaysian food for the UK’s Good Food channel and should know better, attempted to dispel some of the hatred online with glib comments that only further angered the masses of both Malaysian and Indonesian users protesting what they saw as an unfair criticism of Zaleha’s nasi lemak ayam rendang.
Maybe Rendang is Indonesian !! Love this !! Brilliant how excited you are all getting .. Namaste 🙏🏻 https://t.co/CThRmhaEAc
— John Torode (@JohnTorode1) April 2, 2018
Well, Johnny boy, if you expected your comment to lead to Malaysians and Indonesians debating over who ‘owns’ rendang, you might have been right about that in almost any other circumstance – except that you and your colleagues’ assessment of the dish was so entirely wrong that you’ve managed to unite Malaysia and Indonesia over the issue! Also – namaste is an Indian greeting, not an Indonesian one, and if it was a call for peace, you’re gonna need a lot more than glib comments to get away from your wrongheaded criticism of our food, and we take our food damn seriously.
But John Torode and Greg Wallace are merely the symptoms of a bigger cultural problem. In 2016, American chef Tyler Akin attempted to tell people the definitive way to eat pho – which includes not mixing in sriracha or hoisin sauce, and savoring the soup the way the chef meant you to – without the limes, of course, leading to Vietnamese outrage over the arrogance and temerity of a non-native chef proclaiming his way was the definitive way to eat pho. This tendency to define the ‘white way’ as the ‘best way’ gave rise to the term Columbusing, which means claiming to discover something that did in fact exist, and has to be the most appropriate description of this particular mindset among white chefs who now presume to tell Asians how Asian food should be made or consumed. There is also the adoption of ghee (the clarified butter in our roti canai) by hipsters, leading to RM65 bottles of the stuff sold at hipster boutiques, and Time Out London’s insistence that Xiao Long Bao should be burst before eaten instead of whole the way it’s meant to be. Don’t even get me started on the smoke and mirrors dissembling they passed off as an explanation.
Columbusing nasi lemak is not entirely new – after all, we make fun of the increasingly elaborate and snotty-nosed descriptions of Asian food found in fine dining restaurants, but in this case where a native chef was criticized for her dish not living up to ‘white’ expectations of nasi lemak takes the whole Tyler Akin case to a different level and leaves us with the question of whether we’ve been doing nasi lemak wrong this entire time, and whether we should bow to our white overlords’ impression of what makes the dish perfect. Perhaps Columbusing is far too kind and gentle a term for what John Torode and Greg Wallace are trying to do to our national dish with the doubling down of their criticisms. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the first example of colonizing a dish – where the only right way is the white way, and if you intend to be recognized on an international stage, you had better do it that way.
Given the British attitude to their colonial past (meaning they glorify it, while it is a stain of shame for us), perhaps it was wrong to expect the judges of Masterchef UK to recognize that their way is not always the right way. Unfortunately, it looks like neither Malaysia nor Indonesia will let this issue go anytime soon, and rightfully so. This trend of assumed cultural superiority is wrongheaded and inimical to the credibility of these ‘chefs’ on an international level – and it’s hard to imagine someone like the aforementioned Gordon Ramsay leveling such a stupid criticism at nasi lemak – given he had to learn under a Thai chef what real pad thai is supposed to taste like.
Let’s face the truth. This is not the first example of colonizing food, nor will it be the last. All we Asians can hope for is that our food is judged by it’s own merits – its origin, its roots in our culture, and the traditional way these dishes are supposed to be presented – unless that’s too much to ask from people like John Torode who seem to think raising an argument between Malaysians and Indonesians is a valid reply to valid criticisms.