The Evolution of Food Discourses in Malaysia

By William Tham, Chin Kar Yern

August 2022 FEATURE
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Otak-otak remains a popular dish throughout Malaysia. Pictured is a Peranakan-style otak-otak.

SOME LESSONS MAY be gleaned from the past at a time when we have become more conscious about food security, self-sufficiency and sustainability, even while trawling the internet in search of fascinating new recipes to experiment with.

For example, what should be a straightforward recipe from 1968 for Kai Panaeng[1]—a Thai dish bearing no relation to Penang despite geographical proximity and this dish’s name’s phonetic similarity—looks complicated to us today. The culinary language then used by Berita Harian (BH) took after a distinctly Southeast Asian sense of scales, so while the ingredients themselves are recognisable, following the measurements provided will today require tracing trade and cultural histories. Mangkok-sukatan, measuring bowl, chamcha, Hindi for spoon, kati, a unit of scale recalling centuries of transregional trade in East and Southeast Asia… all these evoke a cosmopolitan past, even when the agenda of BH and state-linked publications was to use cooking to build a Malaysian identity.

While feeding and making healthy and productive bodies in the spirit of food science promised a prosperous nation, cooking also made for lucrative careers. The year before, Linda Quo, of the eponymous Linda Oriental Cooking Institute, had embarked on a whirlwind “well-acclaimed” world tour which took her as far afield as Europe and North America on cooking demonstrations.[2]

We can discern two approaches to food practices from here. One was generally more utilitarian and predicated on use-value, concerned with economising food for healthy and strong people, communities and populations. The other drew, in turn, on the surplus value that the commodification of these recipes afforded. Quo and her fellow author/cook, Chan Sow Lin, were arguably successful, operating in an environment where access to books and cooking classes were likely affordable for the middle class. Their material success alluded to ready desires of taste, aspirations to learn and gustatory joy. Learning about cooking allowed housewives the chance for self-reinvention, making their domestic work more interesting and meaningful.[3]

Dispatches from the Colonial Laboratory

The rhetoric of food science in 1960s Malaysia had its provenance in 19th and 20th century developments at the heart of the British metropole, perhaps best exemplified in Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management—it essentially suggested running a household very much like a factory, an ethos extended to include women of the poorer classes.[4]

Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management. Photo by:

Eyewitness accounts of the poor and the grim reality of hunger sparked the humanitarian turn to hunger and promoted research in statistics, nutrition and social science. In London, public pressure during this period eventually forced the authorities to report deaths by starvation. Prior to this, it had been largely overlooked except for one occasion in 1839 and hence, it had been almost statistically impossible to “die of starvation”.[5] Further research leveraged colonies as sites of experimentation, designed to combat famine. These colonial laboratories led to important findings, even if they sometimes became entangled in the discourse of “scientific” racism. Such findings would likely have been useful for British Malaya, considering its precarious food security and an agricultural system that was geared towards cash crops. The constant precarity of its food supply was exposed during the First World War, the post-war economic slump, the Great Depression and the Second World War, which resulted in the growth of squatter-cultivators stuck “between studied neglect and administrative control”.[6]

By this time, a more scientific conception of diet was developing,[7] with two competing schools of thought which remain until today: in thermodynamic (i.e. calorie intake) and biochemical terms (e.g. nutrition, vitamins).[8] Amid the growing recognition of hunger as a systemic problem rather than a sign of laziness or moral weakness, household management continued to be informed by Malthusian principles, which were particularly biased against the poor.[9] Rather than relying on State intervention, more responsibility was placed on women as managers of their own household economies. Such education proliferated along with the food science developments and social democratic planning underpinning the 1930s-40s to create a British society where no one would starve.

Food and the Nation

Returning to Malay(si)a, the introduction to a recipe book written by the chairperson of Seremban’s Lembaga Kebajikan Perempuan Islam is particularly telling about food as praxis. “Our purpose of publishing this little recipe book is first, to provide a public service especially for housewives who want to improve their cooking skills”.[10]

With rationing and the discourse of malnutrition established, a utilitarian approach to food was increasingly promoted in the metropole,[11] and a similar discourse operated during the period that Malaya gradually transitioned to independence. Common topics expounded upon in the press and popular culture were linked to domestic education (kemahiran hidup) and home economics (ekonomi rumah tangga). Milk distribution programmes, through UNESCO for instance, distributed surpluses through Malaysia’s public health systems, such as maternal clinics, hospitals and nutrition centres,[12] while 1960s-era school lunch programmes featured milk and bread as healthy staples for growing pupils. Agriculture was a key area of concern in the early post-independence period, where the need for a “more ‘sophisticated’ farming community” was urgently needed, tied in with the notions of education and progress.[13] Paddy was a particular concern, especially in a period when living memories of food shortages were still common.

With print media becoming ubiquitous, many brands that we still recognise, such as Nestle and Ajinomoto, brought out advertisements that marketed “nutritional value”, a translation and commodification of nutritional language distilled from experiments of social science. Nutrition informed the lifestyle choices of the consumer.[14] Whether out of familiarity or practicality—or an incipient form of brand endorsement—recipe writers often featured specific branded products.

Vintage Nestle and Ajinomoto (below) ads. Photo by: Nestle Historical Archives, Vevey.
Photo by:

At this time, the universality of our contemporary measurements was yet to emerge; and so thinking about scales was very much informed by readily available forms. Older measurement conventions were used alongside British-style ounces, but sometimes more colloquial estimates appeared, such as a Raya jam biscuit recipe which called for a cigarette tin’s worth of wheat flour.[15] Taking into consideration possible financial difficulties, other recipes helpfully approximated the cost of ingredients and cheaper alternatives if possible.

And there were still chances for experimenting with zanier recipes, such as the Kuih Topi; sadly, this recipe does not seem to have survived.

The Joys of Cooking

Against the beat of utilitarian discourse, desire and taste still governed the food choices of consumers, from which emerged an exchange of recipes.[16] Food, in other words, could not be reduced purely to purported thermodynamic or biochemical constituents. Fixation over the protein malnutrition crisis had even introduced “high modernist” but culturally alien foodstuffs that included green jellies produced by putting inedible leaves in centrifuges and extracting protein concentrate from fish offal.[17] Even in the planning of nutrition, British findings across the empire suggested taking into account “the consumer of food AS HE IS and not as we should like him to be…”, bringing to mind the intersection between the cultural, social and biological meanings of food.[18]

It is in this context that we can look into everyday practices outside state-driven discourse, such as how readers pick up recipes independently and assemble them together. Quo, mentioned earlier, was fairly popular during her period of influence, and even hosted radio and Rediffusion cooking programmes.[19] Her recipes were more pan-Asian in orientation, as suggested by her bilingual Chinese- and English-language book, bringing “Indonesia prawn cutlets” and ikan otak-otak to broader audiences. It is of anecdotal interest that Quo’s previous jobs were very much tied to nation-building—for a while she was a translator in the police force and also a professional home economist.

Meanwhile, her rival, the Singapore-based Chan, also had several recipe books published. She presumably had an even broader target audience than Quo, and instructions on obtaining copies of her book from readers abroad were included. Available to Western readers were a comprehensive glossary and key terms spanning Nyonya, Malay and Indonesian dishes. One needs to ask what this process of translation tells us about the act of taking food abroad—whether these dynamics are necessarily appropriations, acts of commodification and simplifications.


Food-making is not always a straightforward process. Even looking at a recipe book invites us to think about commodification and how some stand to profit by collecting, synthesising and standardising recipes. Desire and (the production of) taste can spur one into reaching out into different food ways, even as foods become packaged into neat categories and recipes.

Sometimes food even gets tied into politics and identity, such as Penang’s temporary ban on foreign cooks for street food.[20] Here, we may be able to draw parallels with the policing of hawkers in the 1950s–60s, in terms of public concern regarding the making of food. Or else it is possible to become uneasy media sensations, such as the Sugu Pavithra husband-and-wife YouTube cooking show producers, who had to publicly deal with the fallout from a domestic incident.[21] Regardless, there are a lot of ways to think about food and culture, especially as both continue to intersect and evolve in unexpected ways.


[1] “Kai Panaeng.” (1968, November 26). Berita Harian, p. 6

[2] Quo, Linda. (1973). “Preface.” In Recipes (second edition). Malaya Publishing & Printing Company.

[3] “Peraduan Memasak.” (1963, July 9). Berita Harian, p. 6

[4] Vernon, James. (2007). Hunger: A Modern History. Harvard University Press, p. 201.

[5] Vernon, p. 81-2. Another “reality” of the construction of human mortality is revealed in how, in the statistically minded and somewhat deterministic 19th century, it had become almost “impossible to die of old age”. See Hacking, Ian. (1990). The Taming of Chance. Cambridge University Press, p. 75.

[6] Yao, Souchou. (2016). The Malayan Emergency: Essays on a Small, Distant War. NIAS, p. 66.

[7] Vernon, p. 90.

[8] Ibid., p. 114.

[9] Malthusian views were severely criticised even in Thomas Malthus’s day. See for example Foster, John Bellamy. (2002). “Malthus's Essay on Population at Age 200.” In Ecology against Capitalism (pp. 137-153). Monthly Review.

[10]  Nur Ainun bt. Dato’ Amar Haji Salehuddin. (1974). “Pendahuluan.” In Masakan Istimewa. LKPI Daerah Seremban.

[11] Vernon, p. 158.

[12] Pakiam, Geoffrey K. (2020). “Milk for Everyone?” Indonesia and the Malay World, 48(141), 225-246. doi: 10.1080/13639811.2020.1735155.

[13] Joseph, K.T. (1964). “Agriculture”. In Wang Gungwu, Malaysia: A Survey (pp. 288-289). F.A. Praeger.

[14] Vernon, p. 145

[15] “Pembacha2 sudah mulai memikirkan hari raya.” (1965, November 16). Berita Harian, p. 6

[16] Vernon, p. 118.

[17] Nott, J. (2018), “How Little Progress”? A Political Economy of Postcolonial Nutrition. Population and Development Review, 44: 771-791.

[18] Vernon, p. 139.

[19] See also Penang Monthly’s articles on radio and Rediffusion from the April 2022 issue.

[20] “Penang to ban foreign cooks at hawker stalls in bid to safeguard food heritage.” (2014, October 24”. The Straits Times.

[21] Tahir Alhamzah. (2021, March 2). “#Showbiz: Fans thrilled Sugu Pavithra back in action.” New Straits Times.

William Tham

His novel, The Last Days, is set in 1981 and covers the continuing legacy of the Malayan Emergency. He is currently an editor-at-large with Wasifiri and also an MA candidate at Universiti Malaya.

Chin Kar Yern

is a researcher/writer with an interest in historical and anthropological perspectives of food, labour and community. He is a research associate at the Asia School of Business. He is writing a book about Malaysian food discourse, practices, and systems in the 1950s–60s.