Malaysia's Food and Society Conference to focus on cultural and culinary discovery

The food conference will also celebrate the many types of nasi ulam that exist in Malaysia.
The food conference will also celebrate the many types of nasi ulam that exist in Malaysia.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - If we are what we eat, according to that old adage – then who and what are we, exactly?

Individuals, families, friends, communities, countries, regions – the world! – are all built in part by food ways and traditions, the politics of consumption and distribution, the formation of taste and the creation of edible stories, among others.

To explore the concepts of identity, heritage and history and how we fit into the world then, is also to understand how, why and what we eat.

Malaysia’s second Food and Society International Conference promises to explore, in fascinating depth and delicious detail, all the things on our tables – in forests, fields and farms, as well as markets and restaurants – that create food cultures in Malaysia and beyond.

To be held from Nov 17 to 19 at Hotel Istana Kuala Lumpur, the conference is organised by the Institute of Ethnic Studies (Kita), a national research institute within the National University of Malaysia (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia/UKM).

Kita studies the evolution of ethnic relations in the country, and seeks to preserve heritage, culture and identity.

“People will learn something about what they eat, thanks to food scholars coming from all over the planet, from Europe, and the United States, Japan, New Zealand, China and the neighbouring Asean countries,” said conference chairman Dr Eric Olmedo, who is also the director of Kita’s Antropotek Laboratory.

These scholars range from neuroscientists to ethnobotanists, and participants will also hear from on-ground experts like chefs and industry players.

“The conference is about educating our tastes, while reclaiming our culture,” said Olmedo who is married to a Malaysian. “It’s about making sense of the food that we eat here in Malaysia and in the Asia-Pacific region, via the social sciences and humanities.”

After the inaugural conference last year, feedback drove Olmedo and his team to create an even more dynamic and multi-faceted event this year.

So in addition to the presentations and panel discussions, there will also be a cooking demonstration by well-known Singaporean chef Devagi Sanmugam, a conference dinner themed Gardens of Malaysia, and a food and music workshop.

“Devagi’s session is called Cooking for The Gods, and she will be preparing three dishes related to prayer rituals,” said Olmedo.

“As for the food and music workshop, we will have chefs from Japan, Cambodia and Malaysia presenting recipes linked to their own indigenous and naturalised plants, with our resident ethnomusicologist then pairing their dishes with music from their own countries.”

The conference is open to the public, as is the Peranakan Cuisine Tour in Melaka on Nov 20, organised by the conference creators as a way to bring theory to tasty life.

It will explore the culture and cuisine of the Peranakan community of the babas and nonyas, as well as the Indian Peranakans, the Chitty community.

Helming the tour will be David Neo, a research associate with Kita who specialises in Peranakan culture and cuisine. It will include a tour of the Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum (complete with nonya kuih), artisan workshops and a temple, as well as lunch and stories at the private residence of a Chitty community leader. It promises insight into a fascinating culture. The all-inclusive tour to Melaka costs RM310 (S$100.60) a person.

Keynote speakers at the conference will include the renowned and eminently personable ethnobotanist Dr Francois Couplan. He’s a specialist in the traditional uses of edible wild plants and has studied them on five continents, also setting up his own school, the Collège Pratique d’Ethnobotanique, in Lyon, France.

Couplan also pioneered the concept of soft survival, a way to soften the edges of urban living and exist in harmony with nature by seeding and cultivating a relationship with wild plants. He presented the concept to an enthusiastic local audience at last year’s conference, and will be talking more about it at the conference this year.

Dr Maria Kozhevnikov, a neuroscientist from Harvard Medical School in the United States will be presenting on taste perception and imagery, drawing on cognitive neuroscience and psychology.

And Dr Mohd Desa Haji Hassim, CEO of the International Tropical Fruits Network (TFNet), will speak on food innovation and the socio-economic impact of tropical fruits, in Asean countries. TFNet is a global network under the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Those are just a few of the individual presenters, the number of which has jumped to 36, from last year’s 26.

In addition to individual presentations, panel discussions among industry leaders will discuss subjects like the urban transformation of inherited food knowledge in East Asia; the second day of the conference will see a special session on the heritage of Peranakan cuisine, and explore its identity, location and preservation.

“This year, our programme is even more Asian-centric, and has a special emphasis on lesser-known food heritage and culture,” said Olmedo.

One-day passes for the conference, inclusive of access to all sessions and workshops, lunch and coffee breaks, conference materials and evening activities are available to Malaysian delegates at RM375; full packages are also available. Registration ends on Nov 12. Go to for more info, or to register.