Guarding our reputation as food haven

Phuah Ken Lim (NST) – PENANG is an undisputed food haven with a myriad of local delicacies in every nook and corner, especially in George Town. However, the influx of immigrants working as cooks have created doubts over our gastronomic reputation.

Many Malaysians who have held Penang as the top foodies’ destination in the region, not because of some fancy restaurants but rather due to what the humble eateries and stalls that line the streets are serving, are now thinking twice.

This status as iconic local-food paradise is fast being lost as Penangites now rely more on foreign labour to help them cook.

Some hawker stall traders, not wanting their hands to be oily from stir-frying, have taken a back seat and even abandoned cooking altogether, preferring to just be cashiers.

Customers at food courts in Penang these days will likely be greeted by a worker with a thick foreign accent.

A Universiti Sains Malaysia lecturer’s remarks about foreigners replacing locals as cooks at a recent tourism forum has brought up the debate on whether local food standards still live up to their top billing.

Make no mistake, no one can deny the quality of Penang’s most popular culinary delights like char kway teow, assam laksa, tar sau peah, rojak pasembur, nasi kandar and Hokkien mee, but there have also been talk that the food standards are waning.

Those foodies who have been hunting for authentic hawker food are able to testify to the decreasing presence of local cooks.

It is now common to see more non-Malaysians cooking at hawker centres and roadside eateries, making many wonder if the authenticity of local delicacies still exists.

Gone are the old days where the eateries were manned by the finest, often elderly, gourmet masters.

Tourists visiting the island with the intention of sampling authentic food have expressed their concern that foreign cooks have started replacing locals at new eateries, especially the food courts.

So let’s put down our feet to bring back Penang’s reputation for abundant superb, authentic hawkers’ delights which the locals claim can’t be duplicated elsewhere.

Since the island is synonymous with good food, there should be a concerted effort by hawkers and chefs to transfer their traditional culinary skills to their successors.

Perhaps a new generation of local cooks can be groomed in time to take over soon.

The problem is, many youngsters these days are reluctant to become cooks for a number of reasons. Maybe the unthinkable statement that Penang’s food quality is arguably dropping will spur the young to buck up and learn straight from the masters.

Generally, many hawker food operators perfected their skills from their parents through observation, trials and testing.

Be it the Sisters’ char kway teow in Jalan Macalister or the Jalan Burma prawn mee, these operators never attended any culinary courses prior to becoming experts.

This is what makes their food so unique, that the cooks have lived up to their billing despite their lack of formal training.

The locals certainly do not like to hear negative comments that their street food is no longer as good as it used to be. Certainly no one would want to let slip the coveted status Penang has as the favourite food destination in Malaysia and, perhaps, even the world.

Several people have been complaining that our street food is today over-hyped and overrated. Individual opinions do not reflect the overall consensus on Penang food, but the changing groundswell has started to cast doubts at the back of our minds.

Many say Malacca may be more famous for their Nyonya culture, but in terms of cooking, it is the Penang Nyonya flavours that capture the hearts and stomachs of many.

Penang’s pride as the top food haven is at stake, and no effort must be spared in ensuring that this lofty standard placed on our local cuisine is maintained.