Contestant Zaleha Olpin was eliminated from the BBC cooking show last week
After a judge's comments on her chicken went viral, even Malaysia's leaders chimed in to defend her
Judges on the popular UK television show ‘Masterchef’ have sparked an international incident after they criticized a Malaysian-born contestant’s chicken rendang curry for not being “crispy.”
The controversy has caused a social media storm in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, where people – including the Malaysian Prime Minister – have expressed shock and annoyance at the apparent ignorance of the UK judging panel.
Contestant Zaleha Kadir Olpin presented the judges with a nasi lemak, a coconut rice dish, accompanied by chicken rendang, prompting judge Gregg Wallace, a writer and former greengrocer, to complain “the chicken skin isn’t crispy, it can’t be eaten, but all the sauce is on the skin I can’t eat.”
In a traditional rendang, the meat is slow cooked in a coconut-based curry sauce, and should be tender and moist, not crispy. The dish originated in Indonesia but is popular across southeast Asia, and is most often made with beef. In 2011, it came top in a poll of 35,000 CNN readers as the world’s best food.
Later in the BBC show, as he and fellow judge John Torode were deciding to eliminate Zaleha, he reiterated the point, saying “what disappointed me was that the chicken skin wasn’t cooked, and the flavor of the rendang sauce was on the skin.”
Torode, an Australian chef, also knocked Zaleha’s rendang, but for the opposite reason as Wallace: “It hasn’t had enough time to cook down and become lovely and soft and fall apart, instead the chicken is tough and it’s not really flavorsome.”
After the show aired, Southeast Asians took to social media to defend Zaleha’s cooking technique and call out Wallace for not understanding their cuisine.
On Facebook, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman accused Wallace of “whitesplaining” to Zaleha, and said he hoped to meet her “one of these days.”
The country’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, also chimed in, posting a photo to Twitter with a caption expressing bewilderment that anybody would eat a “crispy” chicken rendang.
Writing on her Instagram, Zaleha said she was “gutted to be eliminated … but I stand by my traditional way of cooking nasi lemak. Will not change it for the world.”
“Thank you so much for all your support and good wishes,” she said in a post which included numerous comments from southeast Asians again castigating the judges for not knowing how a rendang should be cooked.
Torode, though he seemed to at least understand how a rendang was cooked, didn’t help matters when he joked – in a since deleted tweet – about the long-running dispute over rendang’s origin.
“Maybe rendang is Indonesian,” he wrote. “Love this!! Brilliant how exited you are all getting .. Namaste.”
Namaste is the name of a traditional Hindu greeting, used in India and Nepal, and not, except among the Indian diaspora, in Malaysia or Indonesia.