Yut Kee's Hainanese founder watches over the coffee shop's day-to-day business
KLue magazine, April 2007, Issue 102
Text: Robyn Eckhardt Photos: David Hagerman
I had to come to Kuala Lumpur to eat Western food.
I'm not referring to the hamburgers and barbecued ribs that I grew up eating in the, um, West. Neither am I alluding to the Weiner schnitzel served in Thai beach towns to sunburned Germans unable to countenance another bowl of curry. Nor to the mutations of spaghetti Bolognese and cream of corn soup found in Hong Kong's sai chan (Cantonese for 'western food') shops.
I mean those decidedly non-Asian, yet thoroughly Malaysian culinary stalwarts like chops, mushroom soup, and chicken Maryland: the Western food prepared pretty much as Westerners might prepare it (if they still did), that is as integral to the Malaysian gastronomic experience as nasi lemak and char kuey teow.
KL-ites take these dishes for granted. After all, here in the Klang Valley restaurants, kopitiam, and hawker stalls offering fish and chips et al are as plentiful as traffic snarls. To a Westerner, however, some of this Western food is surprising, and really rather foreign.
Maybe it's because these dishes are caught in a time warp. Western restaurants in the West stopped serving classic sauced chops accompanied by peas and carrots when bell-bottoms were fashion news (the first time around, that is). And chicken Maryland? Most Westerners under the age of 50 have never heard of it. This bizarre combination of chicken and fried bananas, which probably made its way from America (though not necessarily from the American state of Maryland) via Britain, appears on a British pub menu included in the 1953-54 edition of the UK's 'Good Food Guide'.
Classically prepared chops - here, Yut Kee's lamb chop - are a Malaysian Western food favorite
Of course, KL isn't the only city in Asia where one can find out-of-date Western food. With the exception of Singapore, however, Malaysian-style Western food is unique in the region.
Malaysians owe chops and the like to colonization and immigration. The British introduced these dishes, but it was Hainanese who took them to heart. Chinese migrants settled in Malaysia in waves. Cantonese and Teochew arrived first, had their pick of jobs, and ended up controlling many industries through clan associations. Hainanese came later, and many ended up working as cooks for foreigners, garnering experience that they later put to use in their own businesses.
Which goes far to explain why Malaysian Western food, unlike that found in Hong Kong, is so, well, Western. It's not indigenized, not altered with Malaysian ingredients to appeal to local palates. You'll find no sambal in the mushroom soup, no kalamansi juice in the gravy.
Western food was as much a part of the Malaysian immigrant experience as tin mining. Hainanese cooks took pride in serving, in their own restaurants to other immigrants, dishes that tasted as they would have if served in European homes. They took ownership of these foods - not by altering ingredients, but by replicating authentic flavors - and made them Malaysian.
Contrast the Malaysian chop, with its oh-so proper accompaniments of diced vegetables and roast potatoes, all smothered in a Worcestershire-based sauce - to the violations perpetrated against Western food in Hong Kong's old-style sai chan houses. Wok-fried pasta with meat sauce and borscht seasoned with soy may be tasty, but are about as 'Western' as American-style chop suey is Chinese. But that's OK. Canto-Western dishes were never meant to be truly Western. Introduced only four or so decades ago, they were Sinicized by local cooks for local customers, served in local-style eateries, and priced to local pocketbooks. Unlike the earliest versions of Malaysian Western food, these dishes were never meant to be eaten by Westerners.
Given its limited role in Hong Kong's culinary history, it's no surprise that see yau sai chan (literally, 'soy sauce' Western food) has become an endangered species in the SAR. But here in Kuala Lumpur, Western food is as beloved as ever.
Back in the day, pot pies and fish and chips owed some of their popularity to cache. 'The attraction was that it was 'Western',' remembers KL native Cheong Soon Gan of the chops he enjoyed as a youth.
'One felt slightly more important if one ate it with Worcestershire sauce. And one lorded it over one's classmates if one actually knew how to say 'Worcestershire' correctly.'
They're no longer status symbols, but neither are these dishes in danger of extinction. Witness the growth in recent years of nostalgically-themed coffee shops throughout the Klang Valley. Head to Old Klang Road where Tan Tun, an immigrant Burmese hawker who learned to cook Western food from a Chinese Malaysian, does a steady trade in mushroom soup and chicken chops. Or drop by the Hainan-pedigreed Yuk Kee around lunchtime any day of the week and count the number of under-thirty-somethings tucking into a fry-up.
In Kuala Lumpur, food fads will come and go. But Western food has staying power.