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Malaysia seeks to spice up world cuisine's premier league

By Linnie Rawlinson, CNN
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Malaysian food, world's next top cuisine?
  • Malaysia is investing to put its cuisine on menus around the world -- and boost its processed food industry
  • But an expert told CNN that establishing a cuisine as a global favorite is a long-haul effort -- it takes "many years for a national cuisine to be accepted"
  • Malaysia's food exports reached $4.3 billion in 2008; the Trade Commission hopes to grow them by eight to ten percent year-on-year
  • Malaysian cuisine is a "melange" of Indian, Thai, Indonesian and Chinese influences

(CNN) -- Can Malaysia's spicy fusion cooking take on the full English breakfast, or triumph over sushi?

Malaysia's trade commission is betting yes. The country is hoping to become the next big global cuisine -- and they're hoping that it's the key to boosting the country's food exports.

Malaysia's cuisine -- a blend of Asian influences including Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and Thai -- grew from its location as a trade hub. It includes dishes such as beef rendang (richly spiced dry beef curry), laksa (aromatic noodle soup) and nasi goreng (spicy, stir-fried rice).

Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar told CNN that Malaysian cuisine was a "melange" that had fused different cuisines and cultures over hundreds of years.

We hope in the future people will recognize Malaysian food as a mainstream cuisine, just like Indian curry
--Raja Badrulnizam, Malaysia's trade commissioner in London

"The coming of Indians, the going of British, Portuguese, Dutch, Thai, Indonesians, everybody together has made such an impact on Malaysian cuisine," he said.

To push their cuisine, the Malaysian trade commission MATRADE is funding promotional events in London, New York and Australia, teaming up with restaurant owners and food importers to raise awareness in a move that they hope will spark interest in Malaysian cooking.

But while Malaysia hopes its campaign will boost tourism -- with tourism booths and information prominent at its London event -- Malaysia's trade commissioner in London, Raja Badrulnizam, told CNN that the Malaysia Kitchen campaign was primarily "part of a broader strategy to promote and export Malaysian food products."

That industry was worth $4.3 billion in 2008, according to a report published by the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers. That's paltry compared to Thailand's $24.2 billion of processed food exports in the same year. But MATRADE hopes to see the value of their exports rise by eight to ten percent, year on year.

Badrulnizam told CNN that the campaign is part of a three-step initiative.

"The campaign itself is relying on the existent restaurants in London to deliver and sustain demand for food products," he said.

Gallery: Malaysian cuisine -- a melange of influences

Once people are familiar with Malaysian restaurant cuisine, Badrulnizam hopes they'll then want to recreate it at home. "That will help in terms of people's demand for our products," he continued.

And ultimately, the Malaysian government would like to see Malay dishes like beef rendang on non-specialist menus around the world.

"We hope that one day (top) restaurants will carry one or two or maybe more (Malaysian dishes)," Badrulnizam said.

At an event in London's Trafalgar Square, chef Jason Atherton told CNN that the market for Malaysia's "melting-pot" cuisine was ripe, saying the country had a "fantastic opportunity" to grow as an international cuisine over the next decade.

And a rise in the popularity of Malaysian dishes -- whether served in a restaurant or cooked at home -- would significantly increase demand for curry pastes, spice mixes and sauces, Badrulnizam told CNN.

But Simon Anhold, a policy advisor who works with governments on national identity reputation, told CNN that establishing a nation's cuisine as a global favorite was a long-haul effort.

"You can tell (what the world's premier cuisines) are by going to a luxury hotel and seeing what they offer on the room service menu," Anholt said, citing Chinese, Japanese, Italian and French cuisine amongst others in the first tier.

"Malaysian, Thai, Korean, Lebanese and Turkish are in the second rank," he continued, "and it's very competitive. People only have finite room in their tummies."

"It takes many, many years for a national cuisine to be accepted," he said. "The Swedes have been trying to get there for 20 years and they're slowly getting there."

However, MATRADE remains hopeful that its efforts -- and significant investment -- will pay off.

"We hope in the future people will recognize Malaysian food as a mainstream cuisine, just like Indian curry, Chinese and Japanese food," Badrulnizam told CNN.

"There's a lot of challenge ahead of us, because the Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisines have been promoted for the past 25 years," he continued.

"But we're getting there."