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Makan! (Yes, Eat..)

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Kari kepala ikan


What would you say is Malaysians’, or most Malaysian favorite word, thought, or subject? Aside from sex – that is predominantly men. What’s the other one?

Makan – lah!

We are a country that eats many times a day. We eat breakfast, morning tea/coffee, lunch, afternoon tea/coffee, dinner, supper, and sometimes early morning supper (after clubbing)!

If Ray Charles sang “Georgia On My Mind”, we’d sing “Makan On My Mind!” On MY mind at least…

Malaysia’s Favorite Topic

I always posted about makan (food) on my LinkedIn; about Malaysia’s favorites – nasi lemak, char kway teow, mee curry, etc. Only one person objected. I believed that even after many years, he hadn’t enjoyed being here, in Malaysia.

I don’t know many other nationalities or people who talk so much about food. About the dishes they enjoy, the way the dishes were cooked, etc. – other than Malaysian. Except for maybe Singaporeans, Indonesians, Thai, and probably Vietnamese. I had never visited the Philippines; thus, I can’t comment.

Reference & Memories

When we talk about food, many would have their “reference” – the best food of that kind; the best they’d ever tasted. Often, this would bring childhood or teenage years memories.

I give you some examples here: when the words like “masak lemak cili api” (meat cooked in a yellow coconut gravy spiced up with tiny bird’s chili), “nasi lemak” (rice steamed with spiced coconut milk and served with piping hot fried chicken, sambal, etc.) or maybe “char kway teow” (flat rice noodle stir-fried with cockles, eggs, bean sprout, and chives) – our inner child would transport us to our childhood.

Often, the people who cooked those delicious dishes were our mother (typically), grandmother, a favorite aunt, or at least a helper at home whom we were close to. I am writing from my own experience at least.

My Mom

My mom, as a girl growing up, was not a great cook. A tomboy, running barefooted jumping into the nearest “parit” (irrigation canal) – which had 1001 things in it. Once her kids started to eat rice and dishes, however, she started to notice that when we ate out, or at my grandmother’s house, what were the things that we liked. She started to learn to cook those.

She had a challenge to even fry the whole chicken drumstick and thigh – to ensure that the inside was fully cooked, yet the skin was nicely cooked and crispy. Today with the air fryer, microwave, and whatnot this task was simple enough. But in the days that our gas stove was the size of Astro’s dish…

She went on to make her superb nasi lemak, fish soup, kueh slopes, etc. Many more, became the yardstick for my 3 siblings and me. Even my father started to “tune” into her style of cooking.

Talk About Makan

One of my favorite topics when it comes to selling, or teaching about selling, is how we use food and “makan” to connect. I am talking from my experience selling and developing business in Southeast Asia, at least. It holds true too as far as Japan, but I don’t quite recall me talking about fish “n” chips except for what’s a “Dory” or “Orange Roughey” – with my crew in New Zealand.

I remembered in Japan when my manager tried to “yucks!” me out when he ordered a freshly prepared “unagi” (freshwater eel) straight out of the fish tank; complete with the blood mixed with sake (methinks!). It tasted so dang great!

Makan is our go-to icebreaker in most Asia/Southeast Asian countries. In Japan, other than the unagi, the boss tried to shock me with that thin layer of wasabi within the sashimi. In India, we gobbled the freshly fried vadai or boiled chai masala tea – by the drain!

While most westerners, and even Japanese talk about the texture and taste of the body of the food i.e., the texture and “sweetness” of the fish, the lobster, the fresh asparagus, etc., most southeast Asians, Malaysians typically talk about how the special blend of spices, married well with the meat.

The Indians have a different blend of spices for the various styles of curries – vindaloo, parattal, varuval, korma, etc. In Malaysia, we have the localized Indian curry powder mix for fish, chicken, beef & mutton. Though the Chinese don’t cook many versions of curries, they have their own concoction of spices too. The Malays, with Malaysia being the “melting pot” of these cultures, enjoy various mixes and many had been tweaked to suit local tastes, together with infusions from the islands of Java and Sumatera in Indonesia.

Heritage As a Topic

With this rich heritage (we are still talking about only food) there is always something that someone in Malaysia loves. The nasi lemak; or at least the humble “roti canai”. What is a roti canai but a mix of flour, water, oil, and pinches of sugar and salt, kneaded to produce a lightly fried magic, dipped in delectable dhal curry with just the right consistency?

Mention that to me, will evoke the memories of my grandmother making her dhal and roti canai. Maybe a tear or two… Which is your favourite roti canai?

Tonight, my wife made some killer “fish head curry”. Not many westerners would know what it is, much less appreciate this. However, if you’d lived long enough in Malaysia – especially Kuala Lumpur or Penang – I’m sure that you might have been introduced to Restoran ZK or Kari Kepala Ikan Tugu; and Hameediyah in Penang. It is an acquired taste I must say…

Roti canai n fish curry… or bread.

Talk About Curry…Or Maybe Nasi Lemak

My son acquired that taste this evening in a homemade version – my wife’s cooking. Finished his rice, he took two pieces of Gardenia bread and lapped up the gravy. He also scooped some curry into a small bowl and slurped it!

Curry, nasi lemak, crispy fried chicken, roti canai, poori, or whatever – there will be something that will trigger a Malaysian or a foreigner who has adapted to the food here to tell a story. You want to bring that story out.

When you have that story out, and you pay attention to it, the person will like you, bordering on loving you – guaranteed.

When he likes/loves you, you will be his friend. When you are his friend, you’d begin to understand his need and wants and look at crafting a solution for him.

Remember Dr. Covey’s habit #5 – seek to understand. We do this first by connecting. Makan is one of the best ways I know to connect.

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