Malaysian Diary (II): Nasi Lemak

Some will be aware of my interest – scholarly as well as personal – in food and meals. Naturally, interesting food is one of the benefits of being in a place like Kuala Lumpur, where Malay culture and different varieties of Indian and Chinese influence mingle creatively at table. Those of us travelling here have had remarkable meals both in 5-star restaurants and in a local kedai kopi (coffee house).

Our hotel offered breakfast in various forms, and I tended to choose the local Malay specialty, Nasi Lemak – rich or fatty rice, literally. Nasi Lemak consists of steamed rice prepared with coconut, served with a number of accompaniments: cucumber slices, peanuts, fried ikan bilis (tiny fish, like whitebait or anchovies) and some form of sambal seem to be essential, but there are other options and infinite variations. While Malaysians will often buy their morning Nasi Lemak in paper or leaf packages from vendors, I was curious about how best to balance the tastes at a breakfast buffet table. I asked one local host for advice, and he assured me that it was a matter of individual taste – you construct it as you will.

If this sounds already like a culinary metaphor waiting to happen, well yes – but I was beaten to it by one articulate young Malaysian. Trinity sponsors a public speaking contest annually along with a leading local school, Sri Kuala Lumpur, in Subang Jaya (not far from KL). There, fifteen talented high school students spoke on topics chosen from a list, one of which was “The Sugar and Spice of Life”, and one young woman picked up the Nasi Lemak concept – the combination of contrasting tastes and textures, assembled in just the right way for the particular eater – as a Malaysian contextual version of the topic.

She didn’t win, but the metaphor holds, as does the fact of that speaking competition itself, to illustrate how Trinity is contributing to students from Malaysia and other countries in the region. We often find that they have well-developed skills in quantitative disciplines, but have not had the same opportunities to foster communication, critical thinking and creativity that will be necessary for success in the Australian University system and beyond. I have been struck by how often our hosts have focussed on the importance of what are sometimes also referred to as “soft skills”, and how well they recognize Trinity’s Foundation Studies program as a means to developing them. The TCFS experience amounts to the addition of new flavours or elements to the local Nasi Lemak, complementing the existing ones and making the whole even better.

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