Chefs without borders

Researching an Asia Times article on issues between Malaysia and Indonesia gave me an opportunity to talk food with culinary masters from each country and sample their work at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

William Wongso is a scholar of Indonesian cooking as well as an author, chef, restaurateur and founder of ACMI – Aku Cinta Masakan Indonesia (I Love Indonesian Cooking), dedicated to preserving traditional recipes and spreading the good eating.

I sampled a fish stew and vegetables from the Batak group near Lake Toba in Northern Sumatra, prepared at The Kitchen, an addition to the Ubud festival that gives cookbook authors an opportunity to showcase and share their craft. The dishes used local spices to add a fresh tang, following Wongso’s edict, “Go back to our roots.”

One of his pet peeves is the modern obsession with presentation, also known as plating. “There are two things that matter: do the right thing in cooking; and use the right ingredients,” Wongso declared. “Wherever they talk about presentation, I ask, what is the benchmark? In Indonesian food it’s nasi campur,” a lump of rice surrounded by dollops of three or more vegetable, meat, chicken or fish items.

Chef Wan, Tourism Malaysia’s food ambassador, whipped up a version of laksa, a Malaysian standard. Born Redzuawan Ismail with Malaysian, Indonesian, Chinese and Japanese ancestry, Chef Wan noted how the region’s cooking draws from the groups that have visited over the centuries on the spice and silk routes. “Food to me is about diversity of culture and my family tree,” the famous television cooking show host and cookbook author said. “I encourage people to travel and learn about each other, marry each other.”

Turning to growing of intolerance in Malaysia, Indonesia and beyond, Chef Wan said, “Just because we have a different religion doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. I hate it when people don’t use their brain. It’s only a bunch of people who don’t understand others, who think they’re better than other people, that cause trouble.”

“I have a long relationship with Chef Wan,” Wongso said. “We don’t talk about politics because politics makes enemies. Food makes friends.” To paraphrase Robert Frost, sharing good food makes good neighbors.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.