What appeared to be an unassuming Instagram post introducing its new dish turned into one that stoked the anger of many after The Ritual, a cafe in the upscale area of Bukit Timah in Singapore, had advertised its self-styled “Nasi Padang” as one “without the nasties”.
The “nasties”, as described in its now-deleted Instagram post on Saturday (29 May), include ingredients such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) and “additives”.
The Ritual’s offering could thus allow diners to enjoy the traditional Indonesian dish “guilt-free”, adding that the cafe only uses “Himalayan salt” in their version of the delicacy.
A beloved dish among the Malays and other communities in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, Nasi Padang originated from the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra.
It comprises steamed rice, eaten with an array of pre-cooked dishes. Such dishes include various types of meat or fish cooked in gulai (a rich curry-like sauce, often with coconut milk as its base) and terung balado (eggplant with ground red chili, stir-fried with shallots and garlic, among other ingredients).
The Ritual’s version is made of “Lemongrass Chicken or Beef or Impossible Patty, Potato Fritter, Eggplant Balado, Quinoa or Rice and egg”, according to its post.
The original post, which has since been deleted, primarily garnered comments from many Singaporeans who were unhappy with the use of the word “nasties” to describe the ingredients used in the authentic Nasi Padang.
Educator and Malay Studies Masters in Arts candidate Mysara A. tweeted on 28 May: “MSG is not even in Minang cuisine in the first place. And this is an insult to the Minang and Malay aunties who struggle to sell to earn a living.”
MSG is not even in Minang cuisine in the first place. And this is an insult to the Minang and Malay aunties who struggle to sell to earn a living.
So yes. I am upset.
— Mysara A. (@heymysara) May 28, 2021
The incident involving The Ritual appeared to have prompted the Malay Heritage Centre to hold an online event called “Traditional Culinary Icons and Healthy Food”, in conjunction with the Singapore Heritage Festival this year.
Update on 7/6/21: The spokesperson of The Ritual noted that the programme had already been planned to take place ahead of the incident, and the timing was a coincidence. “For background, the Festival was ongoing from 3 to 30 May 2021, and programming had all been finalised ahead of the start of the Festival.”
In its sequence of Instagram Stories, The Ritual appeared to have apologised for its earlier post, stating that its team “wanted to recreate a healthier version in our own interpretation” and was “definitely not implying that the cultural dish itself is nasty”.
“Let’s not aggravate a mistake and let’s not spread any hate or negativity; we want to come together collectively to make it a better place for everyone,” said the cafe.
Cafe’s second apology fuels further criticism not only from Singapore netizens, but of those from Indonesia and Malaysia
The Ritual subsequently uploaded a new apology post, stating that it had “failed to articulate our original intentions and our respect for the culture and heritage of Nasi Padang as a dish” in its original apology post, which came after the Instagram Stories.
“It did not align with our team’s values, and we made the decision to remove it early this morning,” said the cafe.
“We are extremely sorry for causing any hurt, anger or offence. We meant to convey our own cooking philosophy and selection of ingredients. We love Nasi Padang and we want to celebrate our love for it with our own interpretation to cater to friends and guests with dietary restrictions.
“We would also like to thank everyone who has come forward to express their views on this. We have a lot to learn and, moving forward, we will definitely be mindful of how we communicate and be aware of the impact it could have on the various communities around us. We are dedicated to being and doing better. Once again, we are truly sorry,” said the cafe.
On top of comments from Singaporean netizens, The Ritual’s second apology post attracted remarks from Indonesian and Malaysian netizens after mainstream Indonesian news outlets Kompas TV and CNN Indonesia as well as Malaysian news outlet Malay Mail and online portal World of Buzz had reported on the issue.
“Even in your apology you still have the audacity to assume that traditional Minangese dishes are using MSG. I bet you never even tried the authentic Nasi Padang. This is gentrification personified,” said one user.
One user asked The Ritual about concrete actions the cafe is seeking to implement in the wake of their error.
“Will you be proactively seeking out minority voices and opinions before deciding on modifying recipes from other cultures? … Will you be training your staff in cultural sensitivity?” They asked, among other questions they posed.
Another said: “Have you thought about doing more than an apology? What about donating all proceeds from the sale of your nasi padang to the Minang community? Now that’s an apology.”
One user criticised The Ritual for deleting the original post, as there was “so much education in the comments, that are all now lost”.
“Minorities are forever spending so much heart pain and brain space to correct and educate and for naught,” they said.
Another user challenged the myth that MSG is detrimental to health, saying that it “stems from racist propaganda against Chinese restaurants in the US” and “has been debunked time and time again”.
In a string of tweets on the issue, Twitter user @mdzulkar9 criticised “performative” aspects of The Ritual’s apology, such as pairing their apology “with pics of your Malay staff donned in tudung” in what appears to be an attempt to “absolve yourself from the god-awful copywriting”.
Y’all are a bunch of Chinese ppl, who decided to appropriate Malay food—then had the gall to describe it your dish “without the nasties”, then go ahead to pair your apology with pics of your Malay staff donned in tudung as if to absolve yourself from the god-awful copywriting?
— Zulkarnain Sadali (@mdzulkar9) May 29, 2021
“And y’all still wonder why Malays were so pissed that we were singled out when the g0vt talked about diabetes?” He added.
Several Instagram users who commented The Ritual’s apology post highlighted that the depiction of traditional Malay/Indonesian food such as Nasi Padang appears to be rooted in a “colonial mindset”.
“Don’t like Southeast Asia food? Then sell the tasteless western garbage that you worship so much,” said one user.
Of ‘wellness’ as a colonial construct and the ‘cultural deficit theory’
A couple of Twitter users elaborated on this view — @nebulaboleh said that “the reality of SG’s violence against the Indigenous population cldn’t be more obvious” in the “casual conflation (of) Malay food w disease” as seen in The Ritual’s case.
@yongtaufoogazi highlighted the profiteering nature of “wellness” as defined through a colonial framework, which “waxes moralising, faddish rhetorics of nutritional purity & appropriates the cultures + labour of the global north + south”.
from casual conflation Malay food w disease, to caricatures of cultural events, to how violence festers when a conservative, patriarchal power is State-made to dominate our religious spheres. the reality of SG’s violence against the Indigenous population cldn’t be more obvious.
— ni nombor tiga. (@nebulaboleh) May 29, 2021
wellness is a colonial institution that waxes moralising, faddish rhetorics of nutritional purity & appropriates the cultures + labour of the global north + south into whatever unprincipled drifting brings them the biggest, middle class buck https://t.co/IAA6P4XWaC
— gan chin lin 🍮 (@yongtaufoogazi) May 29, 2021
Ms Mysara made an argument for how the cultural deficit theory has shaped discourse around racial minorities in Singapore as seen through the lens of the State.
“It blames issues that minority faces as one caused by their culture and erases the reality of issues of underdevelopment, which are tied to socioeconomic & other structural inequalities and & historical factors,” she wrote, in a string of tweets on 22 May.
She added: “Ethnic cultural norms and values are to be blamed when we try to account for socio-economic inequalities and power imbalances.”
The Singapore mainstream media has close proximity to the state as we all know. Which means it tends to reproduce a lot of the state narrative on minorities that reproduce cultural deficit theory.
— Mysara A. (@heymysara) April 22, 2020
An example of the perpetuation of the cultural deficit theory, she said, is an article published by TODAY in 2017, titled ‘War on diabetes: Changing eating habits of Malay, Indian communities an uphill task’.
Coconuts Singapore observed soon after that the article in question had received considerable backlash for overlooking “other elements such as income levels, costs of living, portion control, education and the existence of unhealthy foods from other cultures”.
Such portrayal of the Malay and Indian communities’ eating habits, Ms Mysara posited in relation to the TODAY article, erases the nuances and complexities that influence both communities’ way of life such as socioeconomic conditions, social habits and other factors — effe