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A food vendor stirs a large wok of noodles with a long poll.
Cooking up a storm at the Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Satun, Thailand.

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On the Thailand-Malaysia Border, Food Defies Nations

The governments of Thailand and Malaysia proudly promote national cuisines, but people along the border cook dishes that elude tidy patriotism, part of a larger struggle to maintain their identities

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If national borders were decided by dietary preferences, a line might run north to south along the Sankalakhiri and Titiwangsa mountains. The range forms the backbone of the Malay Peninsula, stretching from southern Thailand to the middle of Malaysia, splitting the thin band of land and the communities that inhabit it. On the western side, warm spices and hot chiles turn up dishes like khao mok gai (chicken and rice) and gaeng som (fiery fish soup). To the east, the food turns sweeter and more fermented in items like khao yum (herb-packed rice salad) and budu (long-fermented fish sauce).

Contrary to the divisions of dietary preferences, the political border — established in 1909 between Siam and British Malaya — runs west to east. The partition, which hopscotches between various mountains and rivers, separates fluid communities into a number of Thai provinces (Satun, Songkhla, Yala, Narathiwat, and Pattani) and Malaysian states (Perlis, Kedah, and Kelantan).

A woman in a bright pink hijab sets up a roadside stand beneath an awning with various advertisements in Thai.
A roadside restaurant in Satun, Thailand.

“I have a Thai passport, as does my mother-in-law, but my husband is a Malaysian citizen. We all need passports to visit each other during the holidays,” says Dawan Sarin, the proprietor of Dawan Thai Kitchen, a Thai Muslim restaurant on the island of Langkawi, Malaysia, which is close enough to see Thailand even on a cloudy day. “I often miss my own mother’s cooking,” Sarin says wistfully.

Along the historically porous border, though, people’s lives and pantry staples cannot easily be neatly divided. Different languages describe the same dishes, like the Thai name “khao yum” and the Malay “nasi kerabu” for the same rice salad. In Langkawi, neighborhood children from Thai families attend Malaysian schools but speak Thai at home, and spicy homestyle Thai stir-fries like pad prik and phat phet fill dinner tables. Like the majority-Muslim community in Malaysia and southern Thailand, Sarin cooks halal food, combining versions of Thailand’s greatest hits like pad kaprao and pad thai with southern Thai favorites gaeng som and grilled prawns; the menu attracts a crowd of borderland locals, but it might not make much sense to someone from Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok.

Customers at outdoor tables in front of a small restaurant.
A coffee shop in Kaki Bukit, Malaysia.

In the 20th century, as Siam became Thailand and Malaya became Malaysia, both countries used food as a tool to establish modern national identities. Far from the border, government ministries and capital residents began to distinguish their food cultures from their Southeast Asian neighbors. Two purportedly distinct food identities emerged, contained by a set of unique national dishes like pad thai and nasi lemak, even though the countries grew similar produce and shared pantry ingredients.

Yet people in southern Thailand and northern Malaysia continued cooking foods that defy this sort of tidy nationalization, part of a larger, ongoing — sometimes violent — struggle to maintain identities along the border.

A road leading to a large covered section where many flags fly, with mountains beyond.
An army outpost in Betong, Thailand, near the border with Malaysia.

For a roadmap to borderland cuisine, check the street carts in southern Thailand. In the morning, they serve khao mok gai, nicknamed Thai-style chicken biryani by residents. The foundations for the dish were laid by Arab and Indian merchants, who arrived on the west coast from the 13th to the 17th century. Along with Islam, which they spread throughout Malaysia and southern Thailand, they also brought densely layered rice dishes like biryani. Similar to the Indian version for which it’s nicknamed, khao mok gai combines chicken, rice, and spices like cumin, coriander, and cinnamon, except local chefs use jasmine rice instead of the basmati common in biryani and they add a spicy-tangy dipping sauce made with local bird’s-eye chile and mint.

Another map of sorts wafts up from budu, a thick, cloudy fish sauce made by fermenting local anchovies for about a year, resulting in a salty, inimitable brine. Historically, the Malay community used budu as a dip alongside raw vegetables and grilled fish. But when waves of Chinese migrants, fleeing unrest and searching for work, arrived on the east side of the peninsula in the mid-19th century, they reinterpreted budu; dishes like budu bak (stir-fried pork with budu) use the fish sauce as an umami-boosting seasoning instead of a dip and combine it with pork, which local Muslims don’t eat.

A roadside stall advertising various dishes in Thai and English.
Khao mok gai stall in Malaysia.
A plate of fried chicken, rice, fried onions, and cucumber, on a bright flowery tablecloth.
Khao mok gai.
Michelle Yip Xiao Hwe
A top-down view of a bowl of bright red sauce, with chiles floating inside.
Outside a thin restaurant inside a food hall.
A restaurant in Betong, Thailand.

These dishes have become ingrained along the border, but they also differentiate cooking in these communities from foodways elsewhere in both countries. Along the west coast, for instance, deep, fatty curries are the norm, informed by dishes brought from what is now Indonesia by migrants who started arriving in the 14th century.

“Many of the people here are originally from Sumatra and Java, who migrated to Malaya, and eventually traveled up north into southern Thailand,” says Abdul Waris Haji Ahmad, mayor of Che Bilang, a coastal town not too far across the border from Langkawi in the Thai province of Satun. Those heavy curries noticeably differ from lighter, aromatic curries found elsewhere in Thailand today.

Similarly, over on the east coast, chef Hisham Abdullah of Kantan in Melbourne, Australia, says his family in Terengganu, Malaysia, cooks with a lot of palm sugar, torch ginger, lime leaves, lemongrass, and toasted coconut, while people elsewhere in Malaysia center dishes more on bay leaves, tomato, onions, and shallots.

A variety of dishes, including chicken in broth, rice, fish collar, and cucumbers with dipping sauce, on a colorful tablecloth.
A meal in Che Bilang.

Take gaeng som. In central Thailand, the soup is reddish and sweet-and-sour. But Sarin’s electric, sweat-inducing version is totally different: spicy with dried chile paste (influenced by Indonesia), tinged yellow by turmeric (adopted from Indian traders), and girded with fermented shrimp (drawn from preservation practices in Southeast Asia). The contrast in Malaysia is even greater.

“When I mention gaeng som to friends from Kuala Lumpur, they don’t know about it,” Hisham says. “Growing up, I thought the Malay community was homogenous. Later I realized we are different because our backgrounds are influenced by different cultures, like Indonesian or Thai.”

At the opening of the 20th century, northern Malaysia was nominally a protectorate of the British, who had arrived in the late 18th century. “Britain and Siam wanted clear demarcation,” explains professor Thanet Aphornsuvan, author of Rebellion in Southern Thailand: Contending Histories. “It was agreed that the British would control Perlis, Kedah, and Kelantan, and they recognised Siam’s claim over Pattani.” That treaty, signed in 1909, defines the countries’ borders today.

After Siam became Thailand in 1939 and Malaysia gained independence in 1957, politicians got busy nation-building. Both countries established ministries of culture, arts, and tourism, which were dedicated in part to preserving and promoting Thai and Malaysian food, especially to foreign visitors. Through school textbooks, tourism events, culinary origin stories, and other forums, the modern nations supported distinctive understandings of their food cultures (though proud residents also helped reinforce these narratives from the bottom up), with little patience for cultural gray zones along the border.

A large archway with writing in Thai, with a hanging banner proclaiming a festival.
The Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Satun, Thailand.

“In Thailand, you are Thai first. You are no longer Chinese or Malay,” says Bernard Keo, a historian at the Geneva Graduate Institute. “National identity is not just what you are. It is also what you are not.”

This thinking makes it difficult for dishes from blended border cultures to gain recognition, and border food has been relegated as a “regional” cuisine, without much hope of breaking into the “mainstream.”

“There is no hyphenated food in Thailand,” says Richard Poole of Tai, a southern Thai restaurant in London. He says that’s a shame because Laotian, Malaysian, and other influences “actually show how [Thai cuisine] is receptive and adaptive to other cultures.” He points to pad see ew, which is inspired by Chinese flat noodles but now known squarely as a Thai dish.

Colorful dishes under plastic wrap on a bamboo table.
Items on display at the Peranakan Museum in Kelantan.

“To be considered national food, it must cater to everyone’s taste or it has to be in Bangkok,” professor Aphornsuvan says. “You need support from the media and government [to popularize a regional dish].”

Items can break through in Bangkok, like som tum (papaya salad) from northeastern Isan. But the south, where many residents are Muslim (like most people in Malaysia), has the added challenge of religious difference in Buddhist-majority Thailand. Aphornsuvan says tension has built in the area over decades, as Bangkok has introduced programs to promote central Thai culture, make Thai the official language of schools and government offices, and gradually replace pondoks (Muslim religious schools) with modern Thai schools (which do still teach Islamic subjects).

Division is especially clear in Pattani on the east coast, once an autonomous state ruled by a Malay sultan. Malay Muslim separatist groups have called for independence since 1948, and the insurgency movement has only intensified. More than 7,000 people have died in the conflict since 2004, as separatists carry out attacks and accuse the Thai government of extrajudicial killings.

“[They] see the past Pattani kingdom as their lost Muslim kingdom,” says anthropology professor Wanni W. Anderson of Brown University. “The creation of modern Malaysia changed the political orientation.”

Though violent resistance has occupied the spotlight, people along the border region push back against Thai hegemony in quieter ways. Abdul Waris proudly says Che Bilang teaches Malay in public schools and encourages Malay Muslims to wear festive outfits during special occasions like weddings and Eid.

A vendor scoops food into a small plastic bag.
A food vendor in Che Bilang, Thailand.
Fried fish and vegetables presented on wax paper with colorful blue rice, white rice, and fixings.
Nasi kerabu in Kota Bahru, Malaysia.

The forces of hegemony aren’t as clear-cut in Malaysia, which defines itself as a multicultural nation with influences from all over Asia. The government (and residents) acknowledges historical influences from geographically far-off China or India, but it largely minimizes influences from Indonesia and Thailand because Malaysia has spent decades distinguishing itself from these immediate neighbors. Outside of major cities, xenophobic residents tend to other dishes with names that aren’t immediately obvious as Malay. Even in restaurants that serve nasi kerabu, there is rarely a mention of its Thai twin.

This official programming also shows up outside of the region. Since 2002, the Thai government has specifically popularized dishes from the central region around Bangkok.

“Thailand used gastro-diplomacy to build its brand. It doesn’t matter where you go in the world, you will find a Thai restaurant selling tom yum and pad thai,” Keo says. Foods from other regions and cultures don’t make appearances. And the focus on Bangkok affects seemingly independent chefs too.

“A lot of Thai people in London, especially the older generation, were enticed to go to the U.K. to be chefs. And the food they promoted was central Thai food or the ‘greatest hits’ like pad thai or green curry,” Poole says.

Leela Punyaratabandhu, a Thai American food writer and cookbook author, has a related theory.

“Bangkok has always welcomed the highest number of international visitors, and these are the same dishes that are staples on the menus of hotels, resorts, and higher-end restaurants where most international visitors go,” she says. “Given the financial risk of opening a Thai restaurant as an immigrant, it’s logical for early Thai restaurateurs in the West to choose these ‘safe’ dishes over lesser-known, regional ones.”

While the Malaysian government has a more hands-off approach to gastro-tourism, dishes with Indian or Chinese influences, like roti canai (flaky flatbread served with curry) and Nyonya kuih (colorful desserts) respectively, tend to get top billing.

A top-down view of a bowl of noodles in broth with fish balls, slices of meat, and herb garnishes.
Noodles in Betong, Thailand.
A bowl of thin noodles with wontons, slices of bright red pork, greens, and sauce.
Wonton noodles in Kampung Tasek, Malaysia.
Mountains enrobed in mist and clouds.
The view from the Titiwangsa mountains, looking towards Thailand.

Despite what their governments prefer, borderland locals will go on eating khao mok gai and budu. Most people don’t care how their food is presented outside their region.

For chefs who have encountered the disconnect, though, there are signs the culture is shifting. In the last 20 years, Punyaratabandhu has seen customers in the diaspora become increasingly keen to try lesser-known Thai dishes. Hisham has also found greater reception to lesser-known Malaysian dishes in Australia.

At home too, khao yum/nasi kerabu has shown potential to become one of those breakthrough dishes that sheds its regional status. It has gained mass appeal in both Thailand and Malaysia thanks in part to its bright blue rice, dyed by butterfly pea flowers.

“It looks very appealing,” Hisham says. “Whenever people from Kelantan move to Kuala Lumpur and start food businesses, they specialize in nasi kerabu, so now it has become the signature dish.”

Perhaps fiery, yellow gaeng som, umami-packed budu bak, and other dishes will spread as well. But most borderland cuisine is still tangled in a mess of national identities. For dishes to truly thrive beyond this narrow strip of land, chefs will need time and space to define their cuisine in their own words, unencumbered by language barriers, official messaging, or arbitrary lines on a map drawn by old colonizers and kings.

Alia Ali is a translator, cook, and co-founder of the Malaysian food website Periuk. She is based in Langkawi, Malaysia.
Annie Hariharan is a Malaysian Australian feature writer who focuses on food, food history, and pop culture. She is based in Melbourne, Australia.
Michelle Yip works in photography, performing arts, education, and social entrepreneurship. Her photography can be found on @mylightchaser.

Customers walk among food stands and eat at tables in a large tent.
Food vendors at the Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Satun, Thailand.

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