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My Scholarship entry - Understanding a Culture through Food

WORLDWIDE | Monday, 23 April 2012 | Views [123] | Scholarship Entry

Covered in a thin film of sweat and seawater, I gazed into the turquoise expanse before me: dense forested islands speckled the water; white boats drifted languidly; the receding haze of distant mountains. Perched on a secluded branch in a lush tree, an Indian Myna watched me before turning away. I had just ordered lunch in Langkawi.

Nasi lemak, the national dish of Malaysia, was the most enticing choice. The description recalled visions of the Chinese zongzi, a tetrahedral rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves that similarly incorporates its ingredients. Through syllogism, I saw the Latin American pastele or the humble tamale among its distant cousins.

Arriving loosely folded in a deep green Pandan leaf, the powdery yolk of a hard-boiled egg peeked out. I eagerly unwrapped it to reveal two curled shrimp sitting atop a mound of long grain rice covered in a sanguine chili paste. Huddled at the base were roasted peanuts intermingled with a dozen or so fried anchovies. A slice of cucumber leaned against the rice as a palate cleanser. My fingers danced with expectation.

Some travelers are inclined to hire tour guides for cultural insights, others choose cuisine for more savory glimpses into a country's history and current attitudes. Rice soaked in coconut cream, accents the Malaysian heritage, as does the use of spicy sauce. Malaysian Chinese variations may include pork, though in contrast, its absence speaks to the country's Islamic sensibilities; Indian versions preclude the use of beef due to similar restrictions. The Singaporean spin dispenses with subtlety, coming with a motley collection of sides. Such degrees of adaptation show coexistence amid cultures is possible simply by accommodating their differences. One could spend countless trips sampling the diversity.

It's extraordinary how food can regale its audience with a rich tale through a simple layering of flavors. As I took my first bite, the world disappeared in a swell of flavor.

Tags: Travel Writing Scholarship 2012

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