Thursday, 30 October 2014

"If Migrants Can't Work The Wok, How Lah?"

Strangely enough, it wasn't the announcement of the ban that seeded the thoughts for this op-ed, but another opinion piece in The Malay Mail Online weeks earlier that seemed to support the ban as it was being mulled.

One of the offending phrases was, "A French masterchef once told me that you can never beat a French chef when it comes to cooking a good French cuisine."

Even if that's true, can anybody identify "good French cuisine" by taste? When even food snobs can be tricked into thinking McDonald's is organic? And do you care who is making your 'Thai' boat noodles?

Hell, maybe the idea of "authenticity" in cuisine (Thanks, Robyn Eckhardt) is bullshit all along.

Still, I thought they'd never go through with it. But 2016, the year this ban goes into effect, is a long way off. Anything can happen in between.

If migrants can't work the wok, how lah?

First published in The Malay Mail Online, 29 October 2014

So, foreign migrants will not be allowed to cook hawker food in Penang.

The move, ostensibly, is to safeguard the authenticity of Penang's street food culture. Nobody wants to eat hawker food made by foreigners, it's been claimed. The thought of a Myanmarese, Nepali or Bangladeshi frying char koay teow, dressing jiu hu char and stuffing pie tee is just too traumatic for gourmands who endured long hours of travel to finally bask in the glow of one of Malaysia's street food meccas.

I don't know if I should be appalled, angry or amused (or maybe all three) at this.

First of all, most of today's Penangites were descended from foreigners, who brought and shared their own food cultures with the locals. How else did this unique panoply of aromas, colours, flavours and textures arrive and evolve into what we're Facebooking or Instagramming today?

Former chef Tony Bourdain, one of my favourite writers, seems fine with the Hispanic migrants cooking French food in the restaurants he's worked in, saying that they have better work ethics than some Americans. They pick things up, he says, can take it on the chin and cook French cuisine right. Can't migrants to our shores be similarly taught?

Second, how do we determine whether something tastes "100 per cent Penang-mari"? I doubt many Penangites — even those who've never left their neighbourhoods — could agree on one set of flavours that represents the state. Let's not mention the "outsiders", including the sons and daughters of Penang who've been away from home for so long, who probably can't tell, either.

Food writers and lifestyle people tend to lament "the passing of a legend" or "the fading away of an institution" in terms so melancholic you'd wonder if they're mourning the passing of a country's founding father.

But did Char Koay Teow Auntie ever want to be an institution? Maybe all she wanted was to get out of the house or put her kids to school so they won't have to slave over a stove like she did.

Then some rube from CNN encounters her stall and elevates her signature dish to UNESCO-heritage status — when she's on the verge of retirement. What if she's adamant on closing shop and not selling the business off to someone for the sake of preservation?

For every "institution" hyped up in the press there might be a dozen or so somewhere in the boondocks or a quiet alley, hidden from treasure-seeking hipsters, serving a clientèle selfish and smart enough not to share their little gems with the outside world because they know what will happen if they do.

Cooking isn't something you can totally pick up from books. You need stamina, a love of food and the drive to see food happen in your life and share that with people. Maybe that's why I feel some of the best cooks work out of their own kitchens.

Preserving a range of flavours for commercial or entrepreneurial reasons can be even more daunting. You need pros — people trained and drilled to churn out the same things, day in day out. If the descendants of Char Koay Teow Auntie would rather go into sales or blogging than stepping up to the stove and fling flat rice noodles, cockles and bean sprouts all day, an chua-leh?

For me, the bigger issue is how are we going to preserve the hawker fare we grew up with. The hints of cultural jingoism in the response to the foreign cook ban suggests Penangites feel the street food culture is best preserved by keeping it in Penang. I wonder what Bangkok residents feel about the rise of boat noodle places in the Klang Valley.

If the dishes peddled by the hawkers are so unique to the state, we shouldn't be too picky about the custodians. A street food academy or the introduction of modules on street food in existing culinary courses might be more helpful than not letting foreigners in the kitchen.

To assume that our local food culture is done evolving is a fallacy. No culture or civilisation is ever done evolving, except when it's extinct — or insulated from change. Penang's street food culture is no different, and it will eventually fade away if we don't learn to let it flow with the times.


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