A few weeks ago we sat at a table in a rear corner of Songkhla's morning market, nursing kafe booran ('ancient coffee' - the magic words that just might land you a non-Nescafe caffeinated beverage in Thailand). Halfway into my second glass, as neurons and synapses sprang to life, I focused on the scene in front of me.
A row of pork stalls: ladders of ribs and tenderloins dangling from hooks, pig heads propped on wooden counters, the notched surfaces of butcher blocks made from thick sections of tree trunk littered with odd pink bits. Behind me a butcher used a blowtorch to burn the hairs from a pyramid of pig's feet.
These stalls stood side-by-side and back-to-back with others displaying fresh vegetables and southern Thai kitchen staples like naam budu (super-fermented fish sauce along the lines of bplaa raa), palm sugar, taramind, and chilies. Behind each stood a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman.
As the (male and female) butchers and Muslim vegetable and sundries sellers worked they bantered back and forth, sometimes vacating their own stalls to hang out at their neighbors' for a few minutes. Muslim shoppers carrying bags spilling leafy greens ambled down the pork row, stopping in front of mounds of snowy fat to chat with the pig meat purveyors.
Nothing special, right? Well...
In Malaysia pork stalls are concealed, hidden away so as not to offend. Most every Malaysian wet market has one, but they're tucked down an alley, segregated behind corrugated metal walls, housed in a separate building, or - in the case of our neighborhood market - located in a far corner of the basement car park.
Many of southern Thailand's - and the majority of Malaysia's - residents are Muslim. So why the pork segregation in the one, but not the other?
For an obvious reason. Maybe.
Thai Muslims may comprise a relatively large portion of the population in southern Thailand, but they are a small minority in the country as a whole. For whatever reasons (and this post isn't about that) Bangkok has refused to recognize this population's language, culture, and Malay ethnicity; it's this non-recognition that's often cited as one of the drivers behind the deadly insurgency that plagues Thailand's south. In southern Thailand Muslims may be numerous, but it's most certainly vegetarian and pork-eating Buddhists (contrary to belief in some quarters, to be a meat-eating - and cooking - Buddhist is not so unusual, at least not in this part of the world) who run the show.
So I suppose you might say that Songkhla's - and southern Thailand's - Muslims (unlike Malaysia's) have had no choice but to accomodate, and that that accomodation is reflected in the market's lay-out: Muslims and pork, cheek by jowl (pun intended). Maybe.
In Jakarta's Glodok (Chinatown) pork is also sold right out in the open, pig butchers sharing lane space with Muslim mutton, kuih (sweets), and vegetable sellers. In an alley nearby, Muslim vendors prepare gado gado and rujak to order within whiffing distance of the porky steam that rises from the wok of Chinese Indonesians pan-frying pork dumplings. As in some parts of southern Thailand, it appears to be an easy coexistence.
This certainly is not a case of a Muslim minority forced to accomodate. Far from it. Economic success aside, many Chinese Indonesians feel that they are second-class citizens - a status that was, in fact, codified until recently.
Yesterday I lunched at Yut Kee, an early twentieth-century Hainanese establishment. At a nearby table sat three older Dato types ('Dato' is a Malaysian honorific title), two Chinese and a Malay (in Malaysia to be born Malay is - by law - to be born Muslim). While the latter tucked into his lamb chop his companions slurped beef noodles and shared roti babi, fried bread filled with pulled pork. A Malay eating in a non-halal establishment is something you rarely see here, though Malaysians of a certain age tell me that it wasn't such an unusual thing thirty or so years ago.
As a non-Muslim living in Malaysia who's lived and traveled extensively in neighboring countries with sizeable Muslim populations I can't help but draw comparisons. As a former political scientist I can't help but think about politics and politicians (and terrorists and insurgents) and their uses of religion. And as a food writer I can't help but focus on, well, food - and reflect on the way that, in southern Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia politics and religion and the ways in which they influence each other are played out at the market, in restaurants, at table, on the plate.
I've been pondering all this for a few years, actually, but more so recently as I've been working on a couple of projects - one that's partly about food as an expression (or not) of identity, and another about Muslim self-expression in Malaysia and Indonesia.
I haven't yet come to any great understanding. I'm throwing this out here to see what bounces back. I'd love to hear from anyone with something to say; leave a comment or send me an email.
A final thought that springs from a snippet I read a few months ago, can't remember exactly where.
The author wrote that in Malaya a few decades before Merdeka (independence), to be Muslim wasn't akin to making a political statement. It was during that era - centuries ago - that Chinese traders / immigrants to what is now peninsular Malaysia and Singapore married local (ie Malay, Indian, and Thai) women, giving birth to Peranakan (Baba Nyonya) culture and its exquisite fusion cuisine.
That, I think, is one culinary revolution that could not happen today. At least not in Malaysia.
Note: When I first published this post, a couple of hours ago, it wore a more benign title: On Hidden Pork Stalls. What I'd originally typed were the words that the title line now bears; I changed themright before publishing. Now it's back the way I thought, at the outset, that it should be. Hm. Why did I 'dumb down' my title in the first place? Not quite sure, really.
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