Hello, friends! A recent survey ranked Malaysian food as some of the worst in the world. As full-time professional Malaysian food eaters, Jeremy and I decided that we needed to weigh in. In order to provide you with the most professional and informed response possible, we have done so somewhat drunk.
Where were you and what was your reaction when you found out about this survey?
Let’s see, I was in bed on my back, building up a healthy appetite. Being as it’s Friday, I knew it was going to be time to get some briyani soon. My initial reaction [to the survey]? Who the hell are these people? I’ve never heard of a survey response like this when it comes to Malaysian food. Immediate suspicion!
Yeah, because just a couple of days ago CNN called Penang a “must-visit for the food“ again, a bunch of publications have said you have to eat in Penang before you die and all that. My initial reaction was very Liam Neeson - Whoever you are, I have a very specific set of skills (eating), I will find you. And I will feed you.
So who/what organisation conducted this survey anyway? (Feel free to make assumptions)
D: This survey was done by a company called YouGov, who call themselves an “internet-based market research and data analytics firm“ and that’s already raising so many red flags for me.
J: I still don’t understand who they are, who do they collect data for and how? Is the data being sold? I have my own questions to your initial questions about this firm!
D: Yeah, I’ve been asking these questions as well! I mean, some of the local news sites have really picked up on this because Malaysians are very passionate about our food. We’ll let a lot of things slide, but if somebody says “Malaysian food is not that good“ best believe there’s going to be some… reactions to it.
J: This might be the biggest thing since “Crispy Rendang-Gate.“
D: Right?? Exactly! Like I said, this company already raises a lot of red flags for me, especially now when so many of these companies are all about clickbait and being contrarian just to get people to click on their stuff. Because my initial exposure to this whole thing was… a local publication had interviewed Chef Wan, who’s a celebrity chef here, and his response was, and I paraphrase - “What the hell?!“ And that was my response as well!
And upon looking at their website, the YouGov website, I… don’t know if this is 100% legit.
What does the survey say and how was it conducted? (And can we trust it?)
J: It seems like we don’t really know much about that. Just to go back to Question 2, why… how did this survey surface? Why is this major publication in Malaysia publishing this survey… or Chef Wan’s response to it?
J: Because it could have just died, you know?
J: Why are they bringing this? Because they know it’s going to stir the pot. It’s their own sort of clickbait.
D: Stir the pot. Pun not intended.
D: Well, I mean, my perception of it is that this is kinda how the internet industry works, right? Clickbait and ragebaiting and stuff like that. Penang has been getting a lot of attention and the way I understand this works is that if something is getting a lot of positive attention, you write something negative about the thing, or publish something that is the complete opposite of what most people feel, and then you get a lot of shares, and you get a lot of clicks, news sites pick you up and you get a lot of ad revenue. That’s how this stuff works.
What does this survey say? Well, the survey asked a bunch of people from a bunch of different countries, and we’ll probably post the screencap below for reference, about food from different places - Malaysia is one of them. Italian food rated the highest, and it’s sort of a choose between 1 to 5 survey of how much they liked a particular food. In the survey results about Malaysia, Malaysian food, there’s actually a question that asks “have you ever actually tried Malaysian food“ and what I noticed is that between 45 - 66% of the people who responded had never actually tried Malaysian food!
So that kinda just throws off the results for Malaysia for me.
D: How was it conducted? We have no idea! Because coming from a tech, science and engineering background one of the things we learn is that data is important, but how the data is collected is also very important. And when you do surveys it’s very important for you to figure out what are you testing for, how do you have a control group to make sure that the data is actually robust, you know? And a lot of other things as well. And having up to 66% of your respondents never even having tried Malaysian food, just rings a lot of… bells for me. Like a lot of red flags being raised here.
But there’s also no information, at least as far as I can tell and if I’m wrong I’m sure a helpful internet commentator will passionately tell us, but the survey doesn’t actually state who are the people that they surveyed. Did they try Malaysian food in Malaysia? Or were they talking about Malaysian food that they had tried back home? Which would be a lot like me talking about Italian food based on my experience with Pizza Hut.
J: As you and I were talking about the other day, it was you that was explaining that Thailand actually promotes overseas Thai restaurants.
J: Malaysia does nothing of the sort.
J: And coming from the States where there are… where I grew up there was one maybe two Malaysian restaurants that… Oh good lord no.
D: Right, right.
J: Reflected on absolutely nothing on the actual cuisine here.
D: Right. And it does beg the question, right - Are the respondents… Who are the respondents? Where have they tried Malaysian food? And are they basing their perception off of… takeaway that they get back in their city, or Malaysian fast food restaurants or whatever? We have no idea if this is based on any experience of having the food in Malaysia. The site doesn’t actually make that clear. And neither does the survey.
J: Yeah. As you and I both know, people that come to Malaysia, I would say maybe a majority of them don’t actually know what Malaysian food is. People come here looking to try Malaysian food. They don’t already know what it is.
D: Right. And I suppose that’s also a kind of… well, a lot of times when we travel we’re googling stuff, looking at listicles, looking at blogs or something like that, but are those really representative of the culture, and food, and experiences that they’re trying to represent.
J: Who’s writing the listicles?
D: Yeah! Because… you know, for anyone who’s old enough to remember Lonely Planet-
J: Shut up. [Laughs]
D: [Laughs]… being the, you know, end all guides of all guides -
J: Millennials killed Lonely Planet.
D: Right? But these days you open up a Lonely Planet, there’s not a lot of, at least for Penang, not a lot of change from articles that were written 10 years ago because travel sites have gotten rid of full time journalists and are depending on, basically, internet commentators.
D: So that really begs the question, how authoritative is this survey?
J: Yeah, and you’re saying the same thing as the listicle problem. Having just travelled to Jogjakarta, I was looking to try some of the local dishes and most of the articles, not just the ones written in English because I read a little bit of Bahasa Indonesia, and the food being described was all by expats. Like, maybe 5 street food dishes and then, like, a lot of Western-style cafes and things like that. So a lot of these listicles are actually meant to suit the upper middle-class Western traveller palate.
J: So maybe that’s the same kind of target audience as this survey. But we don’t know what is the target audience of this survey, and I still don’t understand how or why it got on the table today.
D: Yeah! So I suppose that segue very nicely into the next question…
What’s your take on the findings?
J: If I could understand them I’d give you my take on it. A good chunk of the population that was asked haven’t even tried Malaysian food.
J: So that right there means that the survey doesn’t have much authority.
J: Who’s giving it this authority? Why is Chef Wan freaking out about this dumb survey?
J: Where did he encounter it? Was it published on BBC or something?
D: I think he was asked about it by a local reporter.
J: Pot-stirring, I guess.
D: Yeah, pot-stirring. Because they need those sweet sweet clicks.
J: He makes a lot of very good points though. He gives the example in his response about Italian food culture. Italians don’t eat out at restaurants that much.
J: Italians prefer… like, they’re favourite thing in the world is of course Italian food. Their home-cooked Italian food. When you go out to restaurants in Italy, it can be a hit or miss. You can have some pretty un-memorable meals there. But the ones you have in a home? Oh boy.
J: The food culture here… it’s not exactly the opposite, but you can have the entire gamut, all kinds of food here in Malaysia are available, if you look hard enough, on the streets, in the restaurants and cafes, food stalls, they’re all there. Or if you crash a wedding.
D: Which, like, we don't recommend on record. But just saying.
J: Or just get yourself invited.
D: Or that! And you have some experience in terms of Italian food, because of your heritage and the time you’ve spent in the south of Italy.
D: My take on the findings is… you know I constantly say that the internet is a useful tool. But at the same time, I often rant about people becoming too dependent on listicles written by… because it’s just this feedback loop, you know? Where somebody comes and visits and they maybe get some recommendations or whatever, or find the things that kind of show up on Google Top 5, and they do that and they write about it and then the next person Googles that, finds that list and that's the five things that they do, and they write about it, and the next person Googles that, and so on.
It’s just this feedback loop where you’re not really… traveling. You’re just showing up and doing the same things everyone else has done. And that’s fine. Maybe you just want to do those things. But at the same time, I feel like that’s such a huge loss. This is a really special place with a lot of unique cuisine and culture, and it’s very rewarding if you just step out of that comfort zone.
My take on the finding is that… I don’t think it’s authoritative either. You’re welcome to pay attention to it if you like, but at the same time, why would you do that to yourself? Right?
How should people take this survey results?
J: It’s kind of… worthless? Especially for the fact that it’s going to make some people riled up here. When you see that data think about why that is the perception.
J: Why are they getting that impression? What does that say about Malaysian food?
J: That it’s different? That maybe, it should tell Westerners and people from other parts of the world, when they do come here, pay close attention to the food culture. Look at it differently. That’s what I try to say when I meet our guests, is that… you know, take everything that you think you know and the way you’re supposed to do it and throw it out the window.
J: You’re going to get your hands dirty. You’re going to eat weird textures… or not weird, but contrasting textures. It’s a whole new way of experiencing something. So maybe the people that were surveyed weren’t up for that challenge or interested in it.
D: Yeah. My takeaway was… one, we live in a time where you can’t really take any information as gospel. Like, you gotta look at everything and say, like, well how was this done, who did it and why?
Second, I would say… break free. Of this idea of what you should have and having the internet of Facebook tell you what you should visit and what you should do. Go out there and reclaim the adventure.
D: Right! And I would say, if you're wondering where to get the really good food maybe ask someone who does this as a job, maybe?
D: And maybe you’ll be surprised!
D: And I think that's one of the most rewarding experiences of travel. Just leaving your comfort zone, doing something that suprises you and just having a really good time.
J: Yeah. And don’t read listicles.
D: [Laughs] Right. Let’s call that a day!
*Picture credits Jeremy Bernozzi and Danny Mahes