When Noodles Aren’t Laksa

By Ai-Leen Lim

I’m usually proud, slightly smug even, when celebrity chefs in London mention a Malaysian dish: how to cook it, why it’s so good, where to source belacan. When that chef is Yotam Ottolenghi—dahling of Westbourne Grove lifestyle foodies who know their za’atar from their sumac, and purveyor of pomegranate molasses—the cachet rises.

Even in KL, mere mention of his name is shorthand for ‘I’m a rich, cultured, well-travelled Nespresso owner’. One evening in Bangsar some years back, a socialite friend was praised for her outstanding roast pork and asked for the recipe. She replied airily: “It’s Ottolenghi’s.” That was that. Translation? If you don’t know whether that’s a person, a deli, a book or all three, then maybe you’re not worth knowing.

Still, the chef’s standing amongst Malaysians may have been bruised, after his article on laksa earlier this month.

Now this is laksa. Nyonya laksa.

Now this is laksa. Nyonya laksa.

His blunder? Mixing up his noodles, by referring to prawn mee as ‘laksa-like’ and, worse still, Singaporean.

To be fair, the man became famous for peddling Middle Eastern-style salads and desserts—roast aubergine, tabbouleh, almond orange cake—to thin, wealthy, worldly ladies who lunch. He didn’t grow up in Penang, boiling pork bones from dawn.

Malaysians, however, are fanatical—and territorial—when it comes to their food. Plus ‘laksa-like’ isn’t part of the lexicon.

Joycelyn Lee, owner of Straits Heritage Foods was sufficiently irked to tweet her displeasure, even though she calls Ottolenghi ‘an innovator of the culinary world’. She reasons: “I applaud non-Asians who have taken to our food and welcome them with open arms … But after that boo-boo? I’m relegating my Ottolenghi cookbooks to the second level of my bookshelf.”

The takeaway lesson from this? Not all noodles are created laksa. And when is a soupy noodle not laksa? When it’s sar hor fun. Or mee soto. Or fishball kway teow soup.

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