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Malaysia-born chef Zaleha Kadiri Olpin was a contestant on MasterChef UK.

For the quarter-final episode, which aired April 2, she decided to serve the judges, John Torode and Gregg Wallace, a traditional Malaysian dish of nasi lemak with a side of chicken rendang.

The judges were none too happy with the chicken, with Wallace commenting, “The skin isn’t crispy. It can’t be eaten but all the sauce is on the skin I can’t eat.”

She was then eliminated from the show. It was a figurative slap heard all around Southeast Asia.

People in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and even Brunei were up in arms, saying that the two judges were not qualified to judge Asian food. Especially since there’s no such thing as crispy chicken rendang.

The dish is usually cooked with beef or chicken, with the marinated meat stewing in a coconut gravy over a long period of time.

This makes it almost impossible to produce crispy skin.

It’s Getting Hot in Here

It’s Getting Hot in Here
Twitter/KFC Malaysia

Before you could say rendang-gate, #CrispyRendang started trending on social media.

Malaysians were, understandably, more involved seeing as how one of their own had been so publicly snubbed, and on a subject that was dear to their hearts.

For a moment in time, even political opponents set aside their differences to defend rendang’s honour.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak posted a picture of chicken rendang on Instagram and Twitter, with the comment, “Mana ada orang makan rendang ayam ‘crispy’?”, which translates to, “Who eats crispy chicken rendang?”

His political opponent in the upcoming elections, Dr Mahathir Mohamed, got in on the action too, tweeting: “Maybe you are confusing rendang chicken with KFC.”

Even the British High Commissioner to Malaysia, Vicki Treadell, explained on Twitter that rendang should never be crispy and that it should not be confused with fried chicken, which sometimes accompanies nasi lemak.

Adding Fuel to the Fire

Adding Fuel to the Fire
Wikimedia

Wallace never responded to the controversy but his fellow judge and partner-in-crime Torode let this tweet loose: “Maybe Rendang is Indonesian! Love this! Brilliant how excited you are all getting.. Namaste.”

We can all agree that that wasn’t so much an apology as a determined way to get out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Some people were also calling him out for using Namaste, which is a greeting more commonly used in India and not Indonesia.

Dousing the Flames

Dousing the Flames
Getty Images

While things have certainly cooled down now, the culinary catfight has revealed that Asians take food very, very seriously.

The person in the firing line herself, Zaleha, did not engage.

She simply posted a picture of her dish on Instagram the day after the competition aired, with the caption: “My Nasi Lemak dish on MasterChef UK last night. So proud to have served this and will keep cooking the way my family loved them. No changing to a classic nations favourite.”

Apart from uniting several nations against one common enemy for a couple of weeks, the incident also prompted several brands to get creative with their social media marketing campaign.

Here are a couple of our favourites: Swedish furnishing company, Ikea, ran a picture of its Tolerant wok, with the caption: “Tolerates everything. Except ‘crispy’ rendang.”

KFC Malaysia also took a jab at the whole affair with a picture of their famous bucket of fried chicken, with the caption: “Not Rendang.”

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Reader’s Digest Magazine delayed due to coronavirus
Please be advised that due to the current lockdown in Malaysia and the Philippines, Reader’s Digest magazine will not be available at its regular on-sale date to our subscribers or through our retail channels in these regions. We hope to have the issues available around 15 April in Malaysia and around 24 April in the Philippines, but this is dependent on when the lockdown restrictions are lifted. We sincerely apologise for this inconvenience.
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– The Reader’s Digest team