This thesis is based on a six months fieldwork on the Chinese community in Penang, a small island-state on the west coast of Malaysia. My intention is to shed light on the connection between Chinese Malaysian food, ethnic identity and national attachment. The scope of this thesis is therefore to demonstrate how my Chinese informants used cooking, ingredients and eating habits in order to maintain and express their ethnic identity – within the Chinese community as well as in relation to their significant “other”, the Malays. I will suggest that food is part of what incorporates the Chinese in a moral community and helps unifying the different sub-divisions from within. Ethnic groups cannot exist in isolation though, but are always defined in opposition to other relevant groups (Barth 1969:14-15). I will therefore also show how food serves to differentiate the Chinese moral community from other moral communities on the island. In particular the single ingredient pork can be seen as an ethnic marker which highlights the different value systems of the Chinese and the Muslim Malays. I will argue that from a Chinese viewpoint these conflicting foodways also reflect the wider social, political and ethnic conditions in the country as well as their ambiguous minority situation. The Malaysian national ideology is based on principles of culture, race, language, religion and territory and the Chinese Malaysians are therefore defined as outsiders. They are Malaysian citizens but lack the defining incorporating features needed to legitimate their national belonging and identity within such a racial and indigenous state (Surydinata 1997:4-6). At the same time they continue to maintain various economical, religious and cultural bonds to China, something which serve to enforce their in-between situation in Malaysia.
Neither foodways nor identities are fixed or static entities though. On the contrary they are social constructions emerging from dynamic processes of borrowing, reinvention and negotiation. A particular Chinese dish with a mix of local and traditional components can in other words reflect both cultural continuity and local transformation (Tan 2001:140). I will argue that the widespread Chinese appropriation of local ingredients and cooking principles can symbolise the construction of a “new” localised Malaysian identity, clearly distinguished from both the Malays and the Chinese in Mainland China. Changing foodways can in other words be utilised by the Chinese in an attempts to incorporate themselves in the nation-state on their own terms