Penang street food: Rich aromatic blend of cultures

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We need to maintain high standards at all eateries

Trying to prevent the assimilation of other cultures is our loss, as we would fail to appreciate the uniqueness of each culture and the resulting richness of their marriage, observes Authentic Penang.

penang-hawker-centre

If Penangites think that our famous Penang hawker cuisine needs protection from being “counterfeited” by foreign workers and feel they should avoid any stall where a foreign worker is seen preparing a local dish, they should ask themselves where the same street fare came from, in the first place.

This state, since Captain Francis Light took possession of it for the British East India Company in the 18th century, has been a melting pot of cultures from various foreign lands. Over the centuries a vibrant exchange and melding of cultures evolved, the off-shoots of which we see, enjoy, and are proud of today.

But as we start thoughtlessly adopting a superiority complex and protectionist stance to maintain the ‘pure’ taste of Penang cuisine against all foreign influences, we fail to ask key question. Why are pau, fried kwayteow, mee sup or nasi ayam now part of Muslim cuisine, rustled up with substitute ingredients that are halal?

Why are our burger and hot dog stalls run by locals who have never seen or tasted anything more authentic than McDonald’s versions of hamburgers and A&W’s coney dogs? Why do we have versions of inchi kabin, which some believe is English Capon in pidgin English, served in expensive restaurants? Why do we have something like Roti John served in Mamak shops, with the popular murtabak probably originating from somewhere in West Asia or the Middle-east.

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Further, for the true blue born-and-bred Penangite, the quality of Penang street food in many ways and in many places at home is nothing to shout about. A plate of mee goreng can cost RM4++, but what is visible to the eye is a load of yellow noodles mixed in sauce and bean sprouts. The egg (supposedly added, on request) is hard to define; two or three small silvers of bean curd (taukwa) may be detected, as one picks through the noodles.

No cuttlefish slices, no fritters or crispy fried prawns, no garnishing lettuce, just a miserly sprinkling of fried shallots, to top it off. This ‘rip off’ affects street food across the board, not just mamak mee goreng. Just check out your neighbourhood prawn mee, tok-tok mee, chee cheong fan and nasi lemak.

Those who have not lived in Penang in the past 20-50 years, may or not be able to tell the vast change in the quality of Penang street food today, compared to a time when basic ingredients were more affordable than now.

So, what exactly are we (Penangites and ‘honourary Penangites’) making such a song and dance about? Preserving the current low quality of our locally cooked street food and calling it Penang’s pride and joy? This stuff is not the output of foreign cooks but the economised offerings of local hawkers.

In a local kopitiam, I found that the lam mee, Penang curry mee and wan than mee prepared by some Indonesian workers under the supervision of their local Chinese employer, served a generous portion of a virtually complete very authentic version of those dishes. It was certainly worth the money

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In the UK, you can get fish and chips (sometimes with mushy peas) from a Chinese take-away. The British patrons there don’t even bat an eyelid, buying their favourite local fare cooked by a foreigner. Some, actually find it more tasty. They frequent the shop as long as they like the food. In fact, the variety of Asian dishes also offered by these outlets are an added advantage to the business, and customers who get a larger choice of fare.

In New Zealand, the fish and chips from a Maori run take-away was one of the best I’ve eaten. The chips were perfect, crisp on the outside and tender inside. The battered fried fish was sumptuous.

In Auckland, I got a substantial roast meat- and-salad sandwich from a Korean run take-away in a food court. It was a delicious treat, with a large bit of crispy crackle thrown in at no added cost.

Just a few days ago, I had a few meals at a Bangladeshi kopitiam in Penang – authentic Bangladeshi and tasty, cooked by Bangladeshis themselves. From time to time, I sample foreign food at foreign-run joints in my home town, just to celebrate and enjoy the international flavours of this city.

Such a variety of food is made available to us, in Penang and the rest of Malaysia -, which we fail to appreciate. Instead, all we can grouse about is our narrow-minded, xenophobic fear that foreign cooks might spoil our local specialties.

Perhaps, foreign cooks need not even worry about this as they can take pride in offering their own traditional authentic cuisine to tourists and locals alike, providing a rich spread which is just as delicious and worthwhile as Penang’s homegrown specialties.

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Trying to prevent the assimilation of other cultures is our loss, as we would fail to appreciate the uniqueness of each culture and the resulting richness of their marriage. Penang would do well to cut out the xenophobia!

Authentic Penang is the pseudonym of a contributor to our Thinking Allowed Online section.

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