Off a dirt road in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay recently faced off against Indonesia’s famed chef William Wongso in a beef rendang showdown.

Set against a picturesque backdrop of cliffs and lush greenery, the duo were cooking for West Sumatra governor Irwan Prayitno and his family.

That was how old Irwan felt about cooking: he thought if you worked hard enough and prospered long enough, you’d get someone like Gordon Ramsey to cook for you. 

Still, food for thought, what? If you noticed, no one said anything about Malaysia having any claim on rendang.

It wasn’t like that two years ago. 

Remember when a culinary contestant on MasterChef UK got booted after her offering of nasi lemak – comprising chicken rendang among other components – was deemed inedible on the grounds the said chicken rendang “wasn’t crispy” enough.

At the time, Malaysian social media users thought that said fowl had been taste-treated most unfairly and said so in such numbers that it made the pages of the British press.

Even the then British High Commissioner to Malaysia Vicky Treadell got into the act.

“It can be chicken, lamb or beef,” she declaimed poetically, “And never crispy. Heaven forbid, chief.”  

Gordon Ramsey shuddered at the verse and recoiled at the idea of chicken in rendang. “Fair was foul and fowl was merely fair,” he agreed with the Bard, “But beef was the answer to life’s problems.” 

Still, Mr Ramsey dismissed Messrs Wallace and Torode – the judges in the MasterChef question – as confused cooks who thought that the dish might have been something you got out of Kentucky Fried Chicken

Actually, both the chefs were pretty good at their craft. Mr Wallace wanted to be a great cook because his mother had been terrible.

He only realised this when he was eight and began wondering why his morning toast had bones.  Another time he’d cried is when he saw his mum chopping up Onions. 

Onions had been his favourite rabbit. 

So, when he got to culinary school, he never took anything for granted. In fact, he was indefatigable. If the recipe might have talked about separating eggs, for example, the intrepid Wallace would invariably ask, how far? 

Chef Torode, the other judge in question, may have been equally sinister. He was famous for crating the concept of “pre-heating” which is the practice of heating up an oven for a specified time so that one might burn one’s fingers twice – when inserting in the food and when extracting finished product.

Of course, the whole fuss was nothing more than national hubris run amok. The problem was that Malaysians were notoriously touchy about their food. 

We shouldn’t be. Now it appears that Indonesia might be the home of beef rendang. It is a horrible thought because it might mean that Chicken Rice actually originated in Singapore. 

Maybe we should be less fussed about these things and be like the English. The country only contributed the chip to world cuisine but it’s an important invention nevertheless – to couch potatoes the world over. 

We should get over it. I mean, there’s bigger fish to fry.

One man’s pleasure is another’s treasure

Indonesia has struck a mighty blow against inflation. 

In a battle for market share in South-East Asia’s biggest economy, e-hailing rides Gojek and Grab are giving discounts of as much as 50% and more on purchases made online or with e-wallets.

It’s making food more affordable especially fried rice, the country’s national dish, whose price has dropped by half. It’s even allowed the country’s central bank to cut interest rates. 

The Indonesian obsession with fried rice, or nasi goreng as they call it, goes all the way back to 1842 when the country was still under Dutch colonial rule. 

Pa’ Kapuas had been one of the cooks in the kitchen of Pieter Van de Voort, the then Dutch Governor when the word came down that the great colonialist was sick of pea soup and would appreciate something different.

PK was racking his brains for an idea when his eye fell idly on some steamed rice, salt, eggs, onions and chilli in that order. A superstitious man might have shuddered and thrown some of the salt over his left shoulder to avoid the evil eye. 

A weaker man might have gone for the safe option and prepared an omelette. But PK was made of sterner stuff and he stir-fried the whole combination, delicately garnishing the result with some crisply fried garlic.  

Laid before the potentate, it made for an appetising sight and it pleased Pieter powerfully. Indeed, the personage pronounced it patently pleasurable and promptly named a river after the delighted chef. 

This was how Indonesia’s longest river – the Sungai Kapuas – got christened. And if the dish was good enough for a Governor, it was good enough for the people. 

In fact, Jakarta is considering applying to UNESCO to recognise its fried rice as an “intangible treasure”, a valuable heritage not unlike India’s yoga, the US’ Dylan and Italy’s pizza.

The Italians knew they deserved the honour because Dean Martin himself had equated it to love in his famous Amore.  But they weren’t happy that Chinese fried noodles had also been given the same status. 

It made the Italians furious actually because they thought it was nowhere near its Roman equivalent. That’s why they were convinced it was an impasta. 

For their part, the people in that country could not understand why everyone kept referring to its cuisine as “Chinese” food. In China, everyone just called it food. 

Like the Indonesians, the French also yearned for its breakfast roll – the baguette – to be UNESCO heritage-listed. In fact, when not marrying his teacher, France’s President Macron was constantly writing letters to the UN organisation reminding it of its forgetfulness. 

The baguette has a proud and noble role in French history. 

It sustained many a French army marching towards surrender.  Marie Antoinette even lost her head over a careless reference to the revered dish. 

When told sometime in the 17th Century, that the French people were starving and needed food, the queen replied irritably: “Let zem eat baguette.”

You could see why some people might get testy over such a remark.

Malaysians might be pleased to learn that the traditional dance of mak’yong has been heritage-listed by UNESCO as far back as 2005.  Unfortunately, the Kelantanese traditional dance has also been first banned, then degraded by the Islamic party PAS which takes great pride in being Holier than Thou. 

“Holier Than Thou” is also the name of a tattoo and piercing parlour in Jinjang. 

Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Cold

The famously secretive Michelin guide in France is widely regarded as the definitive guide to haute cuisine. It awards stars to restaurants that it considers good and being awarded three stars is its highest honour, cuisine’s Nobel Prize if you like.

It is said that men who drink herbal teas seldom commit serial killings but it has been very much on Marc Veyrat’s mind these days. 

The flamboyant French chef has been railing against Michelin, demanding that his top restaurant be withdrawn from the guide. He told AFP that its inspectors had claimed he had used English Cheddar cheese in his souffle.

Sacre bleu!” exclaimed the outraged Monsieur Veyra. “I did use a different cheese but it certainly wasn’t cheddar.”

The excitable Frenchman didn’t think much of English fare, secretly thinking that its only contribution to world cuisine had been the chip. 

And it was true that he’d used a different cheese on the day the Michelin inspectors came but, Mon Dieu. It was as French as Brigitte Bardot. 

He’d had to substitute the cheese on the day in question as the shop of his local cheese supplier had burned to the ground on the very day leaving behind only de Brie.

Indeed, its lightly smoky flavour had actually enhanced the soufflé. 

Monsieur Veyrat’s La Maison des Bois restaurant in the French Alps was downgraded to two stars from the maximum three in January and he said the shock had plunged him into a six-month-long depression.

“How dare you take your chefs’ health hostage?” he seethed in a blistering letter to the guide. 

Veyrat, 69, took particular umbrage at inspectors “daring to say that I put Cheddar in our soufflé.”

“We only use the eggs from our own hens, the milk is from our own cows and we have two botanists out every morning collecting herbs,” the horrified chef declared.

“You are impostors,” he fumed, “who only want (to stir up) clashes for your own commercial reasons.”

“We are pulling our restaurant out of the Michelin,” he said.

But the iconic red guide remained unmoved and said Thursday that it would not withdraw its listing, despite Veyrat travelling to the French capital to confront its editors face to face.

The chef is a household name in France because of his culinary genius but it wasn’t always like this.

Indeed, in the beginning. Monsieur Veyrat could not cook at all and mostly left it to his wife. But her incompetence drove him crazy. He finally decided enough was enough after asking himself a simple question after one particularly unsatisfying breakfast.

Was toast supposed to contain bones? 

His rise to become one of France’s greatest chefs was inauspicious enough. Very early on, he mastered the golden rule of haute cuisine: if it looked like a chicken, walked like a chicken and talked like a chicken, it probably needed some more time in the microwave. 

And, along the way, he was bolstered by sudden flashes of genius. On a balmy spring day that made him think that God was smiling and all was well with the world, he suddenly noticed a stray hen looking at some lettuce and a tomato next to each other. 

“Chicken sees a salad,” thought Monsieur Veyrat joyfully and, lo and behold, one of the great contributions to world cuisine was born. 

Julius Caesar himself would have been proud.  

As for the Michelin inspectors, the great chef wasn’t without influence and he knew he couldn’t beat them. 

So he arranged to have them beaten. 

The Answer To Life’s Problems Isn’t Vindaloo

It wasn’t a plane and, no, it wasn’t a man with funny underwear over his tights.

But it was a funny-looking bird that looked orange and sick as it lay by the highway in Buckinghamshire in England early last week.

According to CNN, it baffled staff at a UK animal rescue centre until they realised it was just a seagull covered in curry.

“It’s a seagull covered in curry,” declared the chief vet after a judicious sniff at said gull. “How perfectly foul.”

The prudish staff at the Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital were shocked: they knew that fowl was a four-letter bird.

Actually, the bird – named Vinny after vindaloo – was an insecure gull which longed to be an eagle. As gulls went, it was big and was easily big enough to be a D-Gull but not quite big enough to be an eagle.

That depressed the less-than-big bird as it contemplated the bleak and existential question that has tormented glum gulls for millennia: how could it soar like an eagle when it was surrounded by turkeys?

As it flew disconsolately over the cerulean-blue waters of the Buckinghamshire Bay, its answer came in a flash.

The answer was vindaloo.

The near-magical powers of vindaloo have been voluminously documented and chiefly revolves around its prodigious propensity to cure constipation.

History buffs will be interested to know that it was invented around the 13th Century by one Aravinda Pillai who was born in the village of Trissur in Kerala, India.

Even as a child, Aravinda was fascinated by flavours and all things spicy. At a precocious nine, he managed, one morning, to cook pancakes for breakfast. Aravinda was thrilled but his siblings were deeply upset.

Pancakes had been their favourite rabbit.

As he grew older, however, his fame as a cook rose until he was appointed as chef in the palace in Kerala’s royal capital of Trivandrum. And, one fateful day, the King himself confessed to being bored with the pedestrian fare being served up and beseeched Aravinda to come up with something original.

He was still thinking about it when his eye fell casually on some apple cider vinegar – used for washing hair – in his bathroom.

It takes true genius to recognise serendipity when it looks you in the eye but Aravinda was equal to the task.

He instinctively knew that if he simmered lamb stock and vinegar, sugar, salt and seasonal spices with choice cuts of lamb for just long enough, he would end up with a succulent, falling-off-the-bone lamb dish fit for a King.

The monarch agreed and named the dish after his Chef in a Bathroom. In short, His Majesty decreed that it should forever be called Vindaloo.

Vinny, the sad seagull, knew all about the restorative powers of the delectable dish created by Aravinda all those years ago. It also knew that when cooked perfectly, vindaloo is golden.

Which is why it seagull-dived into an industrial-sized vat of vindaloo outside the biggest curry-house in Buckinghamshire.

The bird was lucky in that the dish had been cooling for some time so it escaped being cooked.

Animal lovers will be delighted to know that Vinny has made a complete recovery.

But his vets have advised that trying to be a golden eagle may be prejudicial to its health.

It’s The Smell, Stupid

Talk about a clash of civilisations! 

A recent tweet that went viral recalled an incident where a Malaysian housewife living in Paris and excited about receiving some belacan (shrimp paste) from home, decided to toast it prior to making a curry. 

Her French neighbour called the police. He thought there might be a dead body next door.

The French should understand all about weird food. I mean, take the neighbour in question. Only the other day, she cooked Pancakes for breakfast. 

OK, she was thrilled but you couldn’t say the same for her children. I mean, they were miserable and you couldn’t blame them.

Pancakes was their favourite rabbit.  

The French loved defenceless animals especially in a creamy mushroom sauce. Interesting statistic: the French eat 500 million snails every year.

And they like things like rabbit and all parts of the cow including the brain, the udders and the tongue. In fairness, it must be pointed out that French cuisine is considered one of the best in the world.  

More intriguingly, there is the French paradox. This was a famous 1980s observation that noted that the French people had a very low incidence of cardiovascular heart disease despite having a diet relatively high in butter and saturated fat. 

The observation still holds true although the advent of fast food may have begun ruining a much-envied national trait. 

But we were talking about strange smells. There are many things associated with smell. One wakes up and smells the coffee, for instance. And there are odours that you indelibly associate with freshness and all things nice. Like rain on parched earth, newly mowed grass, the sea: a childhood memory of a sudden scent of jasmine walking past the neighbour’s at night in Seremban. 

And then, of course, there is the odour of belacan.

There is no getting around it. It is grim and very stern.  What do you expect? It’s shrimp paste and as writer and humourist P J O’ Rourke once observed: “Fish is the only food that is considered spoiled once it smells like what it is.” 

And even O’ Rourke could not have known that belacan is made from small shrimp that is crushed and salted and left to dry for several weeks until it stinks to high heaven. 

Now you know the French neighbour was at least half right. 

It’s like durian. Like Limburger or Stilton cheese, it’s an acquired taste if ever there was one. 

While discussing the Paris incident on WhatsApp the other day, my friend Radzuan mentioned that some Malaysian students had to evacuate their apartment in Cumberland in a hurry after the Fire Brigade turned up just as they were about to have a feast of durian.

The neighbours thought there was a gas leak.  

Thankfully, my daughter has never liked durian so it isn’t a staple in my house for which I am devoutly grateful. Food writer Adam Sterling once famously described the fruit’s odour as “turpentine and onions garnished with a gym sock.” 

I agree. 

I confess that I am not quite Malaysian in my tastes. My wife is a Eurasian from Malacca and both she and my daughter love all food associated with belacan. 

As for me, I love mankind: it’s prawns I can’t stand.