KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — President Obama had a chance to show off some of the Bahasa Malaysia he picked up while living in Indonesia as a child during a state dinner here Saturday night, while eating food that was designed not to shock his palate.
While Obama has made brief references to his history with the region since arriving in Japan on Wednesday, it is taking on a more central role now that he has made it to Southeast Asia. During the state dinner, hosted by King Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah at the Istana Negara palace, the president spoke of his mother's love of batik and uttered a few phrases in the local language.
During his remarks, Obama thanked Malaysians for hosting an exhibit two years ago featuring some of his late mother Stanley Ann Dunham's batik collection, noting that the fabrics reflected his mother's keen interest in other people.
"I remember when I was a boy growing up in Jakarta, she'd come home from village markets with her arms full of batik and she'd lay them around the house and look at them, and make dresses out of them. And I was a young boy so I wasn’t as excited as she was," he said, prompting laughter from the crowd of roughly 600 guests.
"And they weren’t particularly fancy or expensive — although later in life, she would get some antiques that were extraordinary — but for my mother, batik wasn’t about fashion," he continued. "It was representative of the work and the livelihood of mothers and young women who had painstakingly crafted them. It was a window into the lives of others — their cultures, and their traditions, and their hopes."
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The president also wished his guests a good evening ("selamat petang"); said thank you very much ("terima kasih banyak") and alluded to the "Malaysia Boleh" slogan, which means "Malaysia can do it."
King Halim, who delivered his toast in English, thanked the U.S. for assisting in the search for flight MH370 and making the journey to his country.
"We welcome the United States to continue working hand in hand with Malaysia to ensure the peace and stability of the region," he said. "This could be attained through the shared values and mutual respect, understanding and moderation, coupled by the strong people-to-people relations, testifying both our countries’ goodwill and mutual understanding."
The guests included Muslim Malaysians, Indian Malaysians and Chinese Malaysian wearing traditional costumes, according to a U.S. Embassy public affairs officer, as well as Americans. Some women wore dresses of brightly colored purple, teal and pink brocade, while others wore golden crowns.
The banquet, prepared by the executive chef at the Shangri-la Hotel Kuala Lumpur, included an array of Malay fusion dishes including spiced seared ahi tuna with wasabi cream; a Soto ayam begedil soup that features shredded chicken with rice cake, fried glass noodles and roasted peanuts in a clear broth; and banana fritters with vanilla ice cream.
The king's senior private secretary told Malaysia's New Sunday Times that the White House did not put in any special food requests in advance of the meal, but the palace made sure to tone down the heat of some of the traditional dishes.
"We want to introduce Obama to local food. The food prepared for the state banquet was not so spicy," said the official, Datuk Elmi Yuself. "Hopefully, he liked it."