Is cooking neutral?

Nik Shahrifulnizam Bin Che Rahim

Nik Shahrifulnizam Bin Che Rahim is a chef and entrepreneur who have been actively involved in activism and volunteerism in Malaysia since 2013. Nik has devoted his skills, knowledge, time and energy to help the urban poor by cooking and serving the unfortunates on Sunday evenings under the Dapur Jalanan Kuala Lumpur (DJKL). The soup kitchen runs by the youth and university students in collaboration with a communal space called Kelab Bangsar Utama (KBU). Besides charity and social work, Nik also actively involved in political activities through BERSIH2.0 or The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections. Nik was an assistant to Hishamuddin Rais, a committee member of the 2016 BERSIH5 rally and a renowned political activist and blogger in Malaysia. Nik Shahrifulnizam was also a volunteer in the BERSIH team which observed the elections of the Sarawak state in Borneo in the same year.

doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.42

I am a cook by profession. Cooks are among the few who can claim they serve humanity, from the most pampered to the most deprived. Whether we live in luxury or poverty, all of us need to eat. This dynamic creates the impression that cooking is a neutral act. While we may be what we eat, the act of cooking throws up striking contrasts between the “local” and the “global” and the cultural politics that surround them. What follows is a story of cooking for the homeless in Malaysia and the cosmopolitans in London.

I worked in Malaysia as a volunteer cook for the youth collective Dapur Jalanan Kuala Lumpur (DJKL), Street Kitchen of Kuala Lumpur, which serves dinner to the homeless every Sunday. Due to divisive politics perpetuated by its ruling political coalition, Malaysia has become increasingly divided in recent years along class, ethnicity, and religious lines. Antagonism between these groups has also potentially affected activism aimed to challenge the status quo. However, DJKL has miraculously become a space that transcends all such divisions. It has managed to bring socialists, liberals, and Islamists together, despite the fact that Malaysia’s youth have adopted cooking as a political act. Even those without any strong prior political convictions, myself included, became politicized in the process. We cooked with a sense of justice and in the process cooking has become a political equalizer.

Earlier this year, I travelled to London to experience its cosmopolitan food scene and meet the cooks behind them. Appreciation of foreign food is often seen as the height of positive cultural interaction in cities like London where multiculturalism is embraced. However, the high demand for Asian food in Britain is also responsible for the entrance of numerous illegal workers who labour to cook native cuisines for people who feel self-assured by their multicultural palate. It is not very easy to find qualified and experienced cooks in Britain to satisfy this palate. Furthermore, owners also encounter ever rising operational costs. The simplest way to cut these costs is to transfer the burden onto the cooks themselves.

Despite authorities’ routine checks, the illegal hiring of foreign workers without work visas continues. These workers will arrive in Britain under a tourist visa and simply stay on to cook. Most of them will have to remain in one workplace for a long time. It is not easy for these workers to change their job, no matter the working conditions. Most of these cooks are often abused, receive low salaries, and cannot afford decent living conditions. Overtime is not always compensated and there is no access to free healthcare or insurance. They live under the radar, unable to partake in the cosmopolitan experience of London, even though they directly contribute to its diverse culture.

Who we cook for matters more than we think. Being “paid” to cook for cosmopolitan citizens in a foreign land can be far riskier than cooking for free for the homeless.