But the stew of cultures that bubbles away in my beloved Kuala Lumpur food courts is one of the last strongholds of Malaysia's multi-culti ideal. Half a century after the Southeast Asian nation broke free from British rule and formed a multiethnic state, national unity is being cleaved by race politics. The divisive mood was on display at the November party conference of Malaysia's biggest political party, the Malay-dominated UMNO, during which one delegate spoke of his willingness to “bathe in blood” to defend the Malay ethnicity. Another held aloft a keris ceremonial dagger. The targets of this demagoguery were unnamed, but clear: Malaysia's minority Chinese and, to a lesser extent, Indian communities.
The inflammatory tone of the party convention drew inevitable comparisons to the lead-up to Malaysia's 1969 race riots, in which hundreds of people were killed. Since then, an affirmative-action policy for Malays has redistributed the country's wealth away from Chinese and Indian pockets, in an effort to combat the economic disparities blamed for sparking the '69 upheaval. But, if anything, the country's three main ethnic groups now live even further apart than they did when blood flowed on Malaysian streets. Segregation starts early: Only 6% of Malaysian Chinese parents today send their kids to Malay-dominated government elementary schools, compared with more than 50% two decades ago. The trend is only slightly less stark for Indian children. Indeed, the ethnic separation has gotten so bad that in December, Malaysia's usually understated Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi labeled race relations “fragile.”
The fraying of Malaysia’s national unity is a dangerous development with profound consequences for the country. But, on a personal level, the parallel universes into which Malaysia's ethnicities appear to be moving is also bad news for my food fetish. Malaysia is home to one of the world's first fusion cuisines, Nyonya, a melding of Chinese cooking and Malay flavors that evolved, in part, from intermarriage between the two groups. To my taste buds, Nyonya is one of the most delicious cuisines ever created. I could write odes to its fish-head curry, and its aromatic braised meats.
The last time I ate Nyonya was at an outdoor food court in Kuala Lumpur. The dish was Chicken Kapitan, a coconut-laced curry redolent with tamarind, turmeric and shrimp paste. The waiter who delivered the bowl of curry was Malay. With me were TIME's Malaysia stringer, an ethnic Indian, and our taxi driver, a Chinese. Both snuck spoonfuls of gravy from my dish. I didn't mind. There was more than enough for all of us to share.