“I only eat local rice,” Mr. Mahathir tweeted.
Another opposition leader, Lim Kit Siang, said he had never even heard of quinoa. “I had to ask around whether anyone knew anything about quinoa,” he said, the news agency Malaysiakini quoted him as saying.
He added that quinoa “is about 23 times more expensive than rice, eaten by 30 million Malaysians.”
In a statement, according to Reuters, Mr. Lim added, “The 14th general election will be quinoa vs. rice; clean government vs. kleptocracy; and Najib vs people of Malaysia.”
Mr. Najib is facing a general election under a cloud of a corruption accusations. He has denied all wrongdoing. He has also denied wrongdoing in connection with the graft scandal surrounding the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state fund.
Though he has been blamed for a higher cost of living since a goods and services tax began in 2015, Mr. Najib is widely expected to win a third term as prime minister, thanks to a divided opposition, an upbeat economy, rural support and the redrawing of electoral boundaries that critics say favors the government.
But now the prime minister has been labeled as out of touch with ordinary Malaysians because of his quinoa remarks, made while he was visiting a hospital on Thursday.
In the question-and-answer session, he explained that quinoa — originally from South America — has less carbohydrates and sugar.
“It is better than rice,” he declared.
The prime minister also said that he had to watch his diet because he did not exercise as frequently as he wanted, according to the Singapore newspaper The Straits Times.
“I like to eat,” he said. “My problem is I love food — like most Malaysians.”
Mr. Najib said he was thinking about whether quinoa could be cultivated in Malaysia. “I’m trying to find out whether we can grow quinoa or its equivalent in Malaysia.”
But the grain is more expensive than rice; prices soared between 2008 and 2013 as global demand for the grain increased.
Mr. Najib also said that Malaysians had to live within their means if they wanted to improve the quality of their lives.
“If you live within your means,” he said, “God willing, you will be all right.”
It is not the first time Mr. Najib has caused outrage with culinary comments: He was ridiculed in 2014 after responding to complaints about the rising cost of living by pointing out that prices had fallen for some popular foods, like water spinach.
After social media users took exception to the quinoa remarks, Mr. Najib’s office said in a statement on Friday that “certain quarters” had manipulated his comments. Quinoa, his office added, was part of Mr. Najib’s healthy diet and had been recommended by a doctor.
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