Penang Food at a Crossroads

By Lim Sok Swan

December 2022 COVER STORY
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Photo by: Wilson Teh
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PENANG’S STREET FOOD has always been a crowd-puller. Part of it has to do with Penang’s early history as a port. That inspired into being a smorgasbord of foods that marry food ingredients and cuisines from different cultures into innovative, popular and practical dishes. Penang’s street food was conceived to not only be cheap and filling for port workers often involved in manual labour, but also to include elements that reminded them of their ancestral homes.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, I had time to cook for myself and to consider more thoughtfully what I put into my mouth. I also started an exercise regime. Now that we have resumed working in the office and my schedule is filled up with work commitments, chores and exercise, I find myself hard-pressed to find affordable, low-carb and healthy meals in Penang. Hokkien Mee, Char Koay Teow and Nasi Lemak, all while appetising and immensely enjoyable, do not fit my current health and nutrition needs.

For a long time, I wondered how I, for whom street food is at the core of my culture and eating habits, can find a diet that satisfies my cultural taste buds while still meeting present-day healthy eating guidelines.

From Farm to Table: A Discovery of Local Ingredients

Eating wholesome foods that are fresh, unprocessed and diverse is a basic tenet of healthy eating, but it is also becoming increasingly difficult to achieve on the urban dining table. I was quick to blame the problem on the increasing gap between the actual eating habits of our overworked society and a more reasonable and assuredly healthier handling of fresh ingredients, inspected and mindfully chosen before purchase, and later, thoughtfully cooked and eaten. Indeed, symptomatically, KL is the third most overworked city in the world after Dubai and Hong Kong, according to a survey by Kisi, an access technology firm. And parallel with this fact, Malaysians eat out at a noticeably higher rate compared to citizens of most other countries. According to a survey, 87% of Malaysians dine out at least weekly, compared to 74% globally.[1]

It was Tan Yew Ming, a housewife who also runs a private kitchen, who inspired me to explore local ingredients in depth. Scrolling through her social media account where she would post photos of her elaborate cooking, I was captivated by her farm-to-table concept. Many of the dishes she makes incorporate herbs and vegetables that she grows on a small plot of land at home. Whatever she cannot get from her garden, she gets from wet markets.

Tan Yew Ming

“Cooking is not like baking a cake; you don’t have to follow the recipe to a T and much of it is done agak-agak (by guesstimation). I do a lot of research on the benefits and pairings of local herbs and vegetables on the internet as well as on my trips to the wet market, always looking for the best flavour combinations,” says Tan.

It is difficult to draw clear boundaries between cuisines in a multicultural society. When different cultures have been intertwined and mutually-influenced for hundreds of years, it is not easy to trace the cultural origins of many dishes. Tan, whose family is of mixed Chinese, Thai and Indonesian descent, grew up eating an interesting diversity of food, where various ulams and accompanying sambals frequently decked the dining table alongside Chinese dishes. This practice is adapted into her own cooking now, which always features a platter of ulam as an appetiser.

When Tan graciously invited me to her home for lunch, I was introduced to eating an assortment of raw vegetables such as snake gourd, Thai eggplant, wild bitter gourd, petai and others – a far cry from the cucumber and tomatoes I have been used to. I was surprised to learn that the flowers from a type of ginger called Golden Dancing Ladies (Globba schomburgkii) can be eaten and have a unique flavour, that drinks can be made from roselle flowers and that the leaves can be eaten raw.

Like most cooks who know their ingredients well, Tan uses every part of them in her cooking. Besides using coriander leaves as garnish, she also grinds its roots into a paste for her green curry. She then adds coconut oil, coconut milk, fish sauce, kampung chicken, eggplant and turkey berries, and cooks the stew for hours till the chicken just about falls apart. As an homage to her Thai heritage, she also adds young coconut shoots which she gets from Bayan Baru market. I have had green curry chicken many times and love the dish, but this is the first time I learned how fantastic it can taste when paired with salted fish, pickled vegetables and a salted duck egg.

Green curry with salted fish, pickled vegetables and salted duck egg.

A whole platter of raw vegetables and herbs may sound intimidating and unpalatable to many, but Tan prepares two punchy and piquant Thai dipping sauces to accompany them: Nam Prik Ong, an umami-rich pork-based relish made with minced pork, dried chillies, lemongrass, tomatoes and tua nao (a fermented soybean paste popularly used in Thai cuisine) and Nam Prik Kapi, a pungent, zingy sambal made with Thai belacan, fermented shrimp paste, coconut sugar, roasted garlic, lime and turkey berries, which she grows in her garden.

Nam Prik Ong and Nam Prik Kapi are perfect accompaniments to the various ulams.

To the already brimming appetiser platter, she adds Indonesian tempeh, pork cracklings and homemade rice crackers. Tan tells me that tempeh can be tricky to make in our hot and humid weather, which affects the fermentation process, but she can easily get organic tempeh from the market. The rice crackers she makes use Thai black glutinous rice that is cooked, then sun-dried and dehydrated in a food dehydrator. She handles these processes herself to ensure cleanliness and quality. She does this in bulk as well, and the products can be stored and consumed slowly.

Some of the vegetables shown are: green, unripe mango, karela (Indian bitter gourd), wild creeping cucumber, petai (or stink bean), Golden Dancing Ladies ginger flowers and culantro.

From Tan, I learned that a healthy diet does not necessarily mean eating bland and tasteless food like boiled chicken breast and overcooked, mushy broccoli or patronising health food stores for overpriced quinoa bowls. Tan’s cooking has expanded my understanding of traditional local ingredients and proves that a nutritious and locally available diet is not beyond our reach as long as we are in touch with our local ingredients and food heritage.

A cluster of turkey berries in Tan Yew Ming’s garden which she uses in her curries and sambal.
Local vegetables and spices that she grew, foraged or bought from her farmer friends.

The Transformation of Wet Markets

Changes in the way people eat affect the supply of produce. Traditional ingredients such as ulam are becoming increasingly challenging to find in urban wet markets nowadays. In the long-established Chowrasta market in Penang, old store signage indicates that there were ulam stalls in the past, but their supply has markedly dwindled because ulam is now hard to come by. A vendor who now sells ubiquitous vegetables such as kailan and cabbage, tells me, “Vegetable farmers are reluctant to grow crops that fetch low values. People in urban centres also don’t really eat them anymore.”

The wet markets of today are undoubtedly very different from those of the past.

“Nowadays, wet markets on Penang Island are mainly frequented by food business operators. Only a small proportion of households still do their shopping in wet markets,” says Tan Ban Ben, the president of the Penang Island Wholesalers Association and the second generation managing Sin Soo Hup, the largest wholesaler and retailer of fresh vegetables on Penang Island.

Sin Soo Hup supplies vegetable vendors in markets in Balik Pulau, Batu Maung, Relau, Sungai Ara, Lip Sin, Air Itam, Mount Erskine and even occasionally, Sunshine Square. Tan Ban Ben, who has been in the business for decades and witnessed the transformation of Penang wet markets, says, “In the past, only a few wholesalers will buy vegetables from the farmers in Cameron Highlands to be distributed to the rest of the states in small trucks. Now, anyone can export and sell vegetables from the source if they can find a buyer. When the competition is stiff, wholesalers have to operate as one-stop centres to ensure that customers can find everything they need in one place, like how supermarkets are these days.” For example, some vegetable stalls now also sell dried goods such as garlic, eggs and fruits such as pineapple, watermelon and honeydew, which used to be solely sold in separate, specialty stalls.

Tan Ban Ben

According to Tan, people nowadays consume a much larger variety of vegetables compared to the recent past. In the early days, Sin Soo Hup sold only a few types of vegetables; today, more than 100 kinds of vegetables are in their database. 60% of its vegetables are from Cameron Highlands, 15% from China (carrot, cauliflower, broccoli, celery and potato) and 15% from Thailand (bird’s eye chilies, green chilies, petai, asparagus and yam). The rest, such as spinach, water spinach and kidney beans, comes from local lowland farms.

Vegetable sellers also now sell vegetables that were unheard of in the past but are now in great supply because of recent popularity and demand, such as royale chives (qing long cai), ice plants and zucchinis. They also have to cater to the needs of restaurants and hotel caterers.

As fewer and fewer people, especially the young, now do their grocery shopping in wet markets, they are also less likely to be aware of the ever-fluctuating prices. “Many of them aren’t sensitive to the changes in vegetable prices, which are announced daily. They do their shopping at hypermarkets, which are more convenient and have a supply allocation mechanism that does not necessarily go through wholesalers, so their prices are more stable.”

Vegetables that come to the wholesale market have to be carefully selected; those that look shriveled or unappealing are thrown away. Tan points at two large trash cans overflowing with rotting vegetables placed at the entrance of Pulau Mutiara Wholesalers Market, where rejected vegetables were dumped.

This store sign at Chowrasta market indicates that the store used to sell all kinds of ulam.

Tan laments that vegetable wholesale is no longer the lucrative business it once was. On top of the number of staff they have to hire to run the operation, Sin Soo Hup also maintains seven refrigerated trucks to supply hotels and restaurants with fresh vegetables. The cost of operation has increased significantly, while the demand has been declining at the same time.

That said, the situation for vegetable wholesale on the island is quite different from that of Seberang Perai, where, as the largest vegetable wholesaler in Penang, the one in Bukit Mertajam obtains its vegetables at a lower price because of the larger quantities purchased.

To ensure adequate supply and lower costs, modern markets have an unintentional tendency to standardise and streamline goods – in this case, what we eat, how we eat and where we buy what we eat. Therefore, as much as Tan Yew Ming’s cooking represents the ideal, her laborious cooking process, which includes a deep knowledge of wet markets (mostly open only in the mornings and therefore unfeasible to many of the working class), becomes a luxury few can afford regularly. This is also why traditional markets are gradually losing relevance in contemporary society.

Many bemoan the loss of this “cultural heritage” and strive to preserve elements that may no longer be applicable or compatible with modern society and modern living. To me – culture is something that is in flux; it shifts and transforms as it comes into contact and engages with external conditions. Perhaps a better way of ensuring its vibrancy is to realise that we need to adapt to current needs and conditions. This is, of course, a challenge in itself. Penang street food is also at such a crossroads.

Street Food: Between Culture and Modernity

Street food vendors in Chowrasta market are faced with a dwindling customer base – already most of their regulars are from the older generation. To compensate for this, 90% of them are forced to also provide delivery services, says KOMTAR state assemblyman, Teh Lai Heng.

“Foreseeing a shrinkage of street food markets with fewer and fewer hawkers, the government has earmarked existing market spaces to be transformed into cultural and creative spaces.”

Teh Lai Heng

Street food in George Town fared well in the city’s economic transition from port trading to tourism, largely because street food has become an indispensable product of Penang’s tourism. Tourists come from all over the world to enjoy and explore our street food as a way of experiencing local culture.

However, this also means that Penang’s street food is subject to more scrutiny on top of the already changing social landscape. The latest available health data in 2019 show that food poisoning is one of Malaysia’s and Penang’s top four communicable diseases.[2]

Furthermore, the existence of street hawkers can be a stumbling block in urban planning, affecting the traffic and the drainage system.

“The local government is trying to combat the hygiene problem by adding sidewalks and drain covers, as well as recommending that hawkers wear hats and aprons when doing business. They are also advised to not smoke in the vicinity of their stalls and to install filters where utensils or plates are cleaned so that food waste is not simply washed into the drains.”

The government has also begun relocating hawkers to more suitable alleys – hawkers who had been operating on Chulia Street for decades were recently relocated to the adjacent Carnarvon Street to ease traffic. By clustering the stalls together, the government also hopes that hawkers can hold each other accountable to higher standards of operation.

Hawker stalls lining Chulia Street before it was moved to Carnarvon Street in November 2021. Photo by: mathees @ 123rf.com.

Moreover, hawkers have been forced to not only face the issue of rising standards of hygiene but also changing eating habits in the name of good health. Since the habit of hunting for good food is so entrenched in the culture of the people of Penang, Teh believes that it is impossible and draconian to prevent consumers from consuming as they wish, but policy changes may nudge people in the right direction. For example, the menu labelling policy announced by former Health Minister, Khairy Jamaluddin, which will implement a pilot project next year to label menus in restaurants and cafeterias in Putrajaya with nutritional information, is one that might prove successful.

That said, even if the government increases education and advocacy, habits can prove hard to change and will require individual cooperation and willpower. Regulating street food is a herculean task many countries in the region are struggling with; the challenge lies in striking a balance between raising awareness to change social behaviours and impactful policy changes that are not onerous or tyrannical.

The food court adjacent to the famous Cecil Street market, where patrons of the market would fill their bellies after doing their grocery shopping.

Footnotes:

[1] https://www.entrepreneur.com/en-au/news-and-trends/what-malaysians-want-to-eat/331196

[2] Number of Cases and Incidence Rate of Communicable Diseases by State, 2019. Health Statistics, Department of Statistics Malaysia. https:// www.dosm.gov.my/v1/index.php?r=column/cthree&menu_id=aTV1Qm QxQ2JoSUR3UERiZUJ1N1dvdz09

Lim Sok Swan

is currently focusing on heritage studies. She believes that more understanding among different groups and cultures can make Malaysia a better home for all.


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