Migrant Food Identity and Culture

Country: Nepal
Name of dish: Dhal Bhat & Momos

Dhal Bhat: Dhal served with sautéed onions & peppers, spicy chili sauce, green bean and mushroom, sautéed spinach, raw veggies, vegetable curry, and white rice. It is often served on a large tin tray.

Momos: A typical Tibetan dumpling, similar in appearance to Chinese jiaozi. Made from flour dough, it is steamed and its fillings are made from minced yak meat and served with red-hot chili sauce.

Expressions 1: “Parisrama ki fal mitha hunchha.”
Translation: “The fruit of hard work is sweet.”

Expression 2: “Na biraunu na darau nu.”
Translation: “There is no need to be afraid if you do things in a right and sincere way.”

Narratives, Memories, Food Culture

S (23 years old, Nepal)

S has been working in Malaysia for the past 4 years. He is working in a manufacturing factory producing industrial foam and works as a production assistant. S mentions that he misses his parents and the freedom to sleep in, work as and when he wants. When asked on how living or working in Malaysia is like, he says “Whether in Dubai, Nepal, Qatar or here, as long as we behave well with people, they behave well with us. There are always good and bad people; it is how we respond to them that matters.” On his favourite Nepali dish, S says: “The major dish is rice, Daal and Tarkari (vegetable) but Sel Roti and Momos are popular. Here in Malaysia, there is no time to cook, we eat out as we are too tired to cook after work; fortunately for us there are Nepali run eating joints where we can still enjoy the taste of home despite being away from home.”

S plans to open a motorbike workshop in his village in Nepal when he returns home.

R (29 years old, Nepal)

R has been working in Malaysia for the past 8 years. In the interview, he misses his family, the food and changing seasons in Nepal. When asked if he likes living and working here, he says: “We have made friends with the various races here and also some foreign workers where we work. Malaysia is a good place and has a lot of greenery like Nepal.” His favourite food back home is Daal, Bhaat (rice) Tarkari Masu (meat), Puri and Sel Roti.  R plans to return to Nepal, get married and plans to open a cosmetics store in a shopping mall and will work in Malaysia for another two years. R has a favourite saying: “Na Biraunu Na Darau Nu” which means: There is no need to be afraid if you do things in a right and sincere way.”

Country: Indonesia
Name of dish: Ayam Penyet & Gado gado

Ayam Penyet: Fried chicken that is smashed with a pestle to soften it, served with sambal, cucumbers, occasionally sliced tofu, tempeh, and cucumbers.

Gado Gado: Indonesian salad with hard-boiled eggs, fried tofu, boiled potatoes, tempeh, lontong, crackers, and is served with peanut sauce.

Expressions1: “Tak ada gading yang tak retak.”
Translation: “Nothing is ever perfect.”

Expression 2: “Je’ tak santak tako labu.”
Translation: “Do not rush in completing a task or it will end in failure.”

Narratives, Memories, Food Culture

K (47 years old, Indonesia)

K has been working in Malaysia for the past 15 years and hails from Surabaya. She has two young daughters and she misses them very much. She can only afford to return home once every two years. As Malaysia and Indonesia are very near, she has no problems adapting to the food, culture, and way of life in Malaysia. Her favourite hometown food in Surabaya is Nasi Pecel, Nasi Goreng Ayam, and Sampang. When she returns home, she plans to open a food stall and buy a piece of land for farming.

Country: Myanmar
Name of dish: Mohinga

Mohinga: A type of rice vermicelli noodles dish served with rich fish soup and garnished with fish sauce, lime, coriander, spring onions, crushed dried chillies.

Expressions 1: “Pai san ko chuey ta pa.”
Translation: “Save for a rainy day, don’t spend unnecessarily.”

Expression 2: “Zuey shi ba.”
Translation: “Always complete one’s assigned task.”

Narratives, Memories, Food Culture

A (36 years old, Myanmar)

A has been in Malaysia since 2012 and travelled all the way from Myanmar in a car. She misses her younger days as a student and her best memories in life are her memories studying in school. She is an UNCHR card holder and currently has 3 children with her husband. An NGO is currently helping her with life in Malaysia but life is hard as she does part-time work in a coffee shop while taking care of her children. Regarding food, A misses the common staple food of Mohinga from Myanmar which is a noodle dish in fish broth (there are a few variations to this dish). As for her future plans, she hopes that as UNCHR card holders they will be offered a place in the U.S.

Country: Bangladesh
Name of dish: Naan (flatbread) with various curries on a tin tray and Velpuri.

Naan with Hilsa (fish) curry, Dhal (lentils, peas, beans), Chachchari curry that is made from a spice blend of ghee, ginger, fennel, mustard, cumin seeds, and a combo of chopped vegetables such as eggplant, cauliflower, and potatoes.

Velpuri: Savoury puffed rice snack served with vegetables and tangy tamarind sauce.

Expressions 1:Bhabia korio kaj, koria bhabio na.”
Translation: “Think before you do, not after you are done.”

Expression 2: “Jotokhon shaash totokhon aash.”
Translation: “While there is breath, there is hope.”

Narratives, Memories, Food Culture

M (37 years old, Bangladesh)

M has been working in Malaysia since 2008. He misses his family, especially his mother, wife, and son. His favourite food back home is Mutton Bryani that he eats on special occasions. His common staple food would be rice, vegetables, lentils, and fish. He occasionally cooks and has no issues finding the ingredients in Malaysia. On whether he likes living and working here, he says: “Good and bad are found everywhere but here in Malaysia, I have mostly met good people.” M plans to work for another 3 years before returning home and to build a family house.

Regional Spices
Curry leaves, Thai basil, chillies, cumin seeds, star anise, garlic, black peppercorns, bay leaves, ginger, cinnamon sticks, cloves, poppy seeds.

Accompaniment to the water colour art work: A string of spices

About the Work

This collective artwork ensemble is the artists’ watercolour interpretation of migrant food culture and other symbolic representations on 6’X8’ pressed watercolour paper.

Food, identity and culture are the themes of these watercolour painting series. It is an artistic exploration of migrant food identity whereby the artist honours that tradition of migrant food from the four largest migrant communities in Malaysia (Myanmar, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Nepal).

The thematic focus was chosen because the artist believes that food remains an integral aspect of culture and identity. They have long histories and are cultural markers of nationhood and ethnicity. As such, this collective artwork explores the notion of national cuisines as a source of collective unity, diversity, and a symbol of pride and belonging.

Each watercolour painting depicts a popular culinary cuisine from the four migrant communities. Each art piece depicts a dish or a combination of dishes and this is drawn against a background panorama of “home.”

The top half of the watercolour paintings represent the colours of the national flags of the countries where the migrant workers come from. In each of the artwork, a popular proverb, idiom or expression is written at the bottom margin of the visual.

The collective artwork is “held together” with a string of spices, further symbolizing the concept of an imagined future that is depicted by the region’s multicultural diversity and rich cultural heritage.

Migrant workers in Malaysia are often viewed as the “other” and marginalised from mainstream society. The artist opines that there are more similarities than differences and the base ingredients/condiments (represented by the string of spices) is a testament to this ‘culinary belonging.’

The artwork is also the artists’ visualization of the diverse culinary landscapes and how food identity and culture remain are an aspect of an imagined past and a plausible future where the culinary diversity of the region is a source of food transnationalism and a shared cultural past/memory/history that is rich in human ingenuity and steeped in the richness of community heritage.

The artists’ intention is also to invite Malaysians to partake in a ‘visual conversation’ and to view the migrant workers in a different light, where food and art is the proposed medium of engagement for this project.

The research for this artwork entails interviews done with 10 migrant individuals working in Malaysia. Their names are withheld due to privacy concerns. The interviews were conducted in English as well as the Malay language.

In the interviews, the individuals were asked about the popular dish of their homeland as well as questions about their experience living in Malaysia. The selection of the central watercolour image (the popular dish) was done from this process. The migrant individuals were also asked about a popular saying (and its meaning) in their native language which is then documented.

The visual/artistic depictions are the artists’ creative interpretations from the qualitative data obtained from the interview process as well as his own research and involvement with the communities. Therefore, there is an element of subjectivity in the artistic depictions and the representations are therefore open to interpretation.

In addition, the artist is aware of the issue of “cultural appropriation” and wishes to acknowledge that the creation of the artwork was done with creative/artistic liberties taken in the process of artwork creation according to the artists’ interpretation from the interview process as well as his own research findings. It is a creative artwork that does not aim to generalize nor stereotype but was created to show the great hybridity of southeast Asian food cultures and how it is interpreted in the art form envisioned by the artist.

Artist’s Note

See related references for this work:

PANAP: Food And Rights Talk: Malaysia’s Xenophobic Crackdown Amid Pandemic

Food Cultural Appropriation: It’s Personal | The Cornell Daily Sun (cornellsun.com)

(PDF) Food: Identity of Culture and Religion (researchgate.net)

Spare a thought for migrant children, families, Mr Home Minister | Free Malaysia Today (FMT)

About the Creative

David C.E. Tneh dabbles in the creative arts, visually as well as in the written form. He has published in creative writing journals locally and abroad and is interested in aspects of creativity in teaching and the digital humanities. David research interests are in areas such as identity, performativity, and culture. He was formerly an Asian Graduate fellow at the Asia Research Institute (NUS) and was awarded the 2019 Study of the United States Institute, institutional fellowship by the US Department of State at New York University-Steinhardt. He is currently the Dean of the Faculty of Creative Industries, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR), Malaysia.   


Project Future Malaysia wants to create conditions to guide an expansive vision of the future for Malaysia. This perspective will include a deeper engagement with science, technology and the various arts of literature, philosophy, film and music. By re-imagining and manifesting better alternatives for Malaysia’s future, we are freed from our everyday assumptions about what is possible. We can then imagine pathways forward which enable us to embrace bolder visions and hopeful possibilities for Malaysia’s future. If you resonate with the vision of this project, we invite you to grow and support this project via collaborations and conversations. 

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Chevening, Project Sponsor for Project Future Malaysia