I used to have this colleague called Chong who I always tried to avoid near lunch time. Around 12.30 p.m. he would say something annoying like, “I’d ask you to join me for lunch at my favourite restaurant but it’s not halal.” I would also always reply graciously, “Thanks for the thought.” He would then grin and add, “It’s such a shame because the pork dumplings are the best in town.”
He would also try to “tempt” me to join him for a bak kut teh breakfast and whenever we would have to arrive at a consensus for an eating place he would go into a mock sulk, making it clear that he was “disappointed” we couldn’t accommodate his nourishment of preference.
Actually, I was not offended. Chong was a great colleague otherwise and I guess he only cracked these non-halal jibes because he felt comfortable with me. In fact, I’m very tolerant when it comes to people eating pork around me, having spent many years abroad. But Chong’s ribbings were more of an annoyance than anything else due to his misunderstanding.
I could see that his attempt at humour was based on a misconceived line of reasoning. I suspect he had a few hard-drinking Muslim buddies who also didn’t have qualms about eating non-halal beef and chicken abroad. I could see him further contemplating on the haram ruling on certain vices. It was not hard for him to come to the flawed conclusion that the purpose of sharia principles was to take the fun out of life (“What’s wrong with having sex with your girlfriend?” he inquired one time) and if not for the prohibitions, Muslims would knock themselves out silly with all that is prohibited, including pork. Hence, to him, dangling porkelicious temptations in front of me must have been a right laugh.
I can’t blame him actually. Muslims who show poor restraint when it comes to staying away from forbidden food and drink only add to the confusion. But Muslims, or Malays at least, would draw a line when it comes to pork. From small we are brought up to think of pigs as absolutely filthy animals. I’m afraid I can’t quote from the Quran but I can safely quote Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield character in Pulp Fiction: “Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I’d never know ’cause I wouldn’t eat the filthy mother . . . . Pigs sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I ain’t eating nothin’ that ain’t got enough sense enough to disregard its own feces.” That’s how our parents inculcate our inbuilt aversion to eating pork in not so many words.
In fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), even touching swine carries a burden. One is required to wash himself seven times with water (including once with water mixed with soil) if he comes into contact with a pig (or its product). We don’t even have to do that when coming into contact with excrement. So you can understand why we can’t bring ourselves to eat something that is considered dirtier than shit.
However, I also observe that it is a Malay thing, distinguishing the sin of eating pork from other garden-variety transgressions. Whilst living in the UK I notice that less observant Muslims from other countries, including the Arab states, would happily dine on roast suckling piglet washed down with a glass of cold crisp Sauvignon Blanc without having to discriminate between the two. Perhaps children in other Muslim countries are spared the Samuel L. Jackson lecture as in their countries, there was little danger in accidentally ingesting pork, being mono-cultural societies.
So there you go, a Malay sinner may down 5 shots of tequila in one go but will pass up the chance of gobbling down a sumptuous piece of pork chop or its equivalent. But not when it comes to pork scratchings, it appears.
In the UK of the late 80s, it was still relatively difficult to dine out if one observed halal requirements. So one of the more popular dining establishments amongst Malay students was Pizza Hut. One could choose between the vegetarian or seafood supreme pizza and have a nice bowl of salad for starters. The salad was not too bad because the veggies were fresh and to add crunchiness and flavour, one could add croutons and some mysterious crispy orangey bits next to them.
This udang kering-like ginger-coloured substance was all the rage then because it added oomph! to what would be typical rabbit food. That was until one Ramadhan evening in 1989. A group of 4 Malay students chose to break their fast at the Marble Arch outlet and they were pleased to be served by a Jordanian waiter whose faith was revealed when he excused himself for his iftar. Upon the designated time the boys rushed headlong for the salad bar and scoffed some spoonfuls of the “udang kering” stuff while no one looked. That was when their new-found Jordanian friend cried out in horror, “What are you doing? That is fried pig skin!”
The reaction of each person was interestingly different. Two of them ran straight to the gents to wash the offensive matter out of their mouths while the other two just looked at each other and one expressed disappointedly, “Damn, that could have gone on a little bit longer.”
Some other resourceful students made more inquiries and found out that the crispy stuff was the popular pub snack, pork scratchings. Wikipedia describes it as:
“…. typically heavy, hard and have a crispy layer of fat under the skin, some still retain the hair of the pig, and are flavored only with salt. The pig hair is usually removed by quickly burning the skin of the pig before it is cut into pieces and cooked in hot fat. Hair removal is not 100% effective which is why some retain a few hairs. The hairs are what usually makes people question the desirability of these pub snacks, but to some, these can also be highly desirable.”What an appropriate and effective addendum that would be to the Samuel L. Jackson sermon in case one was still tempted.
Back to the question of Chong, I did toy with the idea of getting my own back on him. I thought of bringing some really evil smelling tempoyak and waving it under his nose to put him off his lunch. But I had second thoughts in case he said, “Can I have a bit? That goes nicely with sweet and sour char siew you know.” It’s just not fair.
* tagline of El Cerdo restaurant
43 & 45 Changkat Bukit Bintang,
50200 Kuala Lumpur