On the surface, the concept of economy rice is deceptively simple. You will always recognise the economy rice stall. There will be a simple buffet-style display of dishes and a bucket of rice ready for you to accompany your selection.
You can find some version of it everywhere in South-east Asia. In Penang alone, you will stumble upon an array of nasi kandar, nasi Melayu and nasi dalca establishments within minutes. Each form of economy rice is rich in its own traditions.
Despite their commonness, the economy rice dishes of Penang are a microcosm of historical, economic and diasporic trends in the region. Here, we trace the journeys of three communities to Malaysia in this culinary adventure.
Chinese Economy Rice
The Lean Thye Coffee Shop on Lebuh Ah Quee shares a row with paper shops and small printing presses. A sign proudly declares that it has been open for business since 1951. Arrive after half-past noon, and most of the economy rice dishes would be finished.
At the back of the shop, right next to the cramped kitchen, trays of food are laid out. These consist of standards such as fried eggs and stir-fried vegetables to elaborate curries. Sometimes, there are some distinctly Peranakan-style dishes such as gulai.
Ah Ngor, who inherited the business from her in-laws, stands by the wok, constantly cooking until the lunchtime crowd fades away. She mostly wants to keep busy – her children are all grown and supporting themselves, running a fruit stall nearby. They could simply pop home for lunch. In fact, Ah Ngor’s dishes are the sort that many Malaysian Chinese would have grown up eating.
Running an economy rice establishment is never easy. When she first started out, she had no idea how to cook; but she watched how it was done, and learned the various aspects that went into surviving Penang’s frugal customers. Ah Ngor learned to select the best ingredients available at the morning market, and how to price each serving reasonably at a moment’s glance while rotating between specialties to keep the small crowd of customers happy.
Customers taking their pick at Lean Thye Coffee Shop. Ah Ngor also serves up a wicked soup – on some days even bakuteh.
Her business is just one of the many competing economy rice places in the vicinity. Other joints range from simple roadside stalls with chairs and tables crowding the five-foot ways, to Lam’s Cafe, with its tasteful décor and images of old Penang. Wherever large Chinese communities have taken root across Malaysia, economy rice businesses have opened. We know the following details: they are usually family-run establishments; the kind of dishes that will likely be available; and the fact that prices will be fairly reasonable. Places like Bar Wang Rice on Jalan Macalister may have glass storefronts, ambient lighting and trained employees in hairnets, but they are ultimately still economy rice places at heart.
Yet very little has been written on the subject. Who coined the term “economy rice”? How did so many places start serving roughly standard fare?
It is probably impossible to trace the answers. Economy rice is not Peking Duck or dim sum. It is a way to offer home-style cooking to a primarily working-class crowd, falling beyond the notice of imperial scribes and Western tourists. One often forgets that over the years, they depart from purely Chinese recipes. Dishes and ingredients mutate, blending influences and spices from the region. The foods would never be the same again, taking in the flavours and fragrances of a new environment – the same way that the kitchens of Chinese migrants to places as varied as India and the Dutch East Indies and the US adapted.
While economy rice could be costlier in the more prosperous suburbs, Ah Ngor keeps her prices low. (Even so, some customers still complain that her food is expensive.) Ah Ngor would reminisce about how bowls of noodles and sugarcane used to be bought on less than a ringgit, and how it is now impossible to raise a family on the earnings of a single shop, unlike in her youth.
In Rice Media’s article, “I Ate ‘Cai Fan’ Everyday For A Month to Save Money”,1 an amusing journalistic exercise becomes a closer inspection of the economic role of economy rice. Lower-income earners often have little time and less opportunity to prepare their own meals. Economy rice provides an option, comes with no-frills, and the dishes are hearty and provide enough sustenance for each new working day.
From a historical perspective, many of the labourers from places like Guangdong or Fujian Province who arrived in Malaysia would have been young men, who in an alien environment, tried their best to eke out a living. They would have had little money, and the ability to choose from a wide variety of dishes offered a small touch of luxury in an otherwise harsh reality.
Either way, economy rice stalls would have been part of the fabric of the growing Chinese community – their way of place-making, alongside the temples and medicinal halls.
Indonesian Nasi Padang
Pak Tommy’s nasi padang stall lies right on Jalan Burma, and has a distinctly cosmopolitan approach. In addition to popular Padang staples such as rendang, tempeh, ayam goreng serai and tauhu bergedil, there are Indian-style vegetables, Chinese stirfries and Malay favourites. There is something for everyone, and for Indonesians, including foreign workers and medical tourists, it is a taste of home.
As a young man, Tommy was one of many Indonesians who left home to try their luck elsewhere. The unique matrilineal system of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatera led to the tradition of merantau: without any guaranteed rights to property, young men were encouraged to leave home and seek their fortunes elsewhere. These youths became unwitting culinary ambassadors, bringing the cuisine of home – nasi padang – all over Indonesia, up to Singapore and Malaysia. It is distinct for its spicy flavours, in sharp contrast to other regions such as Java, known for its sweet-tasting dishes.
For Tommy, this is the first time he has owned his own business, after working under various bosses since his arrival in Penang in 1993. The day begins at six, with shopping in the market and several hours of cooking to assemble the massive spread of dishes awaiting the morning and lunchtime crowds. He is no stranger to hard work, having done everything from cleaning fish and dishes. “I used to watch how my employer worked, and I mixed everything together. Malay and Padang cuisine, we can cook everything.” And sure enough, people came – perhaps partly attracted to his low prices.
As far as economy rice dishes go, nasi padang has a particularly well-documented history. If you were to visit an elaborate nasi padang restaurant in Indonesia, you can opt to order dishes hidang style: waiters will quickly portion out little dishes and serve them out to patrons. But for most smaller places, you can simply pesan: point and choose individual dishes – something that the lunchtime crowd of Penang is more familiar with.
The selection of dishes that Tommy offers. The editor's favourite is the ikan cencaru and the egg-fried french beans, which very often run out before 1pm.
For Malaysians, the dishes bear strong similarities to Malay cuisine, given the close cultural links between the Minangkabau and Malay cultures. For that reason, Negeri Sembilan, with its strong Minangkabau heritage, has particularly similar flavours. And then there is rendang – it betrays a distinctly Indian influence, and was brought from Sumatera by Minangkabau traders and settlers, making its way to Malaysia by way of Melaka in its heyday as a regional powerhouse. In this process it has become a symbolic dish of the entire region.
Then colonialism intervened, breaking established links and creating new narratives and networks of dependencies. The history of nasi padang took an interesting turn when the Dutch finally encroached on Sumatera – they quickly appropriated nasi padang’s elaborate presentation and variety, transforming it into the ostentatious rijsttafel banquet. The concept of their “rice table” was tied to power: they would showcase the extent and might of their tropical empire through the sheer diversity of dishes.
The Indonesian historian Onghokkam explored the history of the rijsttafel in witty detail. Ignoring the subtleties of nasi padang, fine restaurants would simply cobble together an incongruous mix of dishes. Fried bananas, satay and loempia all showed up at the same seating, and the mix of flavours was uncoordinated and unbalanced. Diners, served by a small army of waiters mimicking the hidang tradition, would gorge themselves on the sheer variety of food, which was simply the prelude to the true main course: an enormous Dutch beefsteak, with plenty of beer to go around.
Naturally, this showy, decadent tradition did not survive long in modern Indonesia. In light of anti-Dutch sentiments, the rijsttafel barely survived after the War of Independence. However, it still survives in the Netherlands, and some establishments in Indonesia today still serve the rijsttafel to those hungry for a taste of colonial life – albeit on a much smaller scale.
Where does Tommy fit into all of this? As long as he stays sincere and his work is halal, he is willing to be stoic and keep earning a living. At some point, he will return to Medan where his family lives, but exactly when that will be remains hazy.
Burmese Economy Rice
Walk to the first floor of the Komtar podium and past the shoe shop, and unusual smells permeate; different languages and faces start to take over. Penang’s relatively large thriving Burmese community gravitates here, and where people congregate, restaurants follow closely behind.
Shwemintar Cafe sees a regular influx of customers, just about all of whom are from Myanmar. It stands out from other Burmese restaurants because it serves halal food. While the rest display portraits of the independence fighter and revolutionary Major General Aung San, Shwemintar mounts one of U Razak, a Muslim member of Aung San’s cabinet who was assassinated alongside him and several other ministers shortly before Burmese independence from British rule.
An assortment of Burmese dishes are available at Shwemintar Cafe.
The restaurant is run by Ali, who has been based in Malaysia for 20 years. Although he initially lived the life of a trader, going between Myanmar and Penang, Ali has become more settled over the years. He speaks Malay with a distinct Penang accent, and has been running the cafe for the past eight years. He finds it relatively easy to source the ingredients; only some dry ingredients, such as spices and condiments, need to be imported. It is also a family affair – his wife and sister help run the business.
In a corner of the room, a variety of dishes are laid out on display – fresh vegetables, spicy fish and various curries. As with Malaysia, economy rice is a staple of everyday life. The food is spicy; the flavours are strong and take some getting used to.
Shwemintar also prepares fresh meals. One of their specialties is lahpet – a sour and bitter salad made of fermented tea leaves. It is one of many dishes that the patrons come in to order, eating together and drinking little cups of tea, replicating life back home.
Ali’s customers are almost exclusively Burmese. However, anyone who walks in is welcome to dine there. “During days off, when people are done with work at the factories, they come here for meals or just to gather,” Ali says. “It’s the same for Malaysians – if you went overseas, you would look for Malaysian food. Most Burmese people are not used to the flavours of local cooking – for example, Chinese-style food might be too sweet – and they want something that reminds them of home.”
As Malaysians, we have a complicated history of belonging and multiculturalism. Our official narrative had to be coherent, and in limiting itself to a Malay, Chinese and Indian trinity, the historic diversity of the region fell into neglect. Anything else was an anomaly, betraying Penang’s own historic cosmopolitanism – it has always been a place of regional diversity, reflected in the names of the roads and streets running through the city. Moulmein, Irrawaddy, Burma, Bangkok – various communities and groups of people came and went, but their histories are largely invisible to us.
Going back to the example of economy rice, it really started out as a diasporic cuisine. It was brought here to cater to the needs of a community of migrants. Over time, it became established as a larger, more permanent community took shape.
But is there room for more diversity in the national pantheon of dishes? What does it take for something to be accepted as “Malaysian cuisine”, and how does this tie in to larger questions of belonging and multiculturalism? Has our selection of national dishes stopped growing, or will there be, as in the case of the UK and chicken tikka masala, change?
Perhaps it is foolish to guard these divisions, fighting over our cuisines and going back to the divisive topic of authenticity and purity. An official truth forgets networks of historical trade links and settlement, but we are still more multicultural than we think. We may have various origins, but our strength lies in diversity – not much unlike an economy rice joint.
The writer would like to thank Teh Li Wah for her help with the research and interview process.
William Tham has been published by Buku Fixi, Looseleaf, Calibre and more. His new novel, The Last Days, will be published by Clarity Publishing in 2020.