Monday 27 October 2014

Penang bans foreign cooks at hawker stalls

Penang's ban on foreigners cooking local food gets the thumbs-up from majority of hawkers
The Straits Times, 25 Oct 2014

GEORGE TOWN (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The Penang Government's move to ban foreigners from being the main cooks of local hawker fare, effective from Jan 1, 2016, received the thumbs-up from the majority of hawkers and related associations.

Penang Consumer Protection Association president K. Koris Atan said he supported the effort and urged the state government to immediately enforce the ban.

"Why does the state need to give a grace period? When the foreigners are brought into the country to work, they are categorised as cleaners, construction workers or even cooks.

"The authorities must conduct regular checks and penalise those who disobey the ban," he said when contacted yesterday.

Penang Hawkers Association chairman Lam Tong Ying also supported the ban.

"Penang is a preferred destination when it comes to hawker food. Tourists from all around the world travel to Penang for its local food so we must maintain the standard.

"The ban will help maintain the standard of our local food, unlike in Kuala Lumpur where foreigners are mainly the cooks," he said.

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng said the move was to preserve the authenticity of the state's local flavours.

Mr Lim added that all hawkers operating at coffee shops, hawker complexes, shopping mall food courts and roadside stalls should do away with employing foreigners as their main cooks and ensure that "only locals or Malaysian citizens" cooked their fare.

"Foreigners can still be hired to do the washing, handle orders or assist in preparing ingredients, but not to do the cooking," he told a press conference in Komtar yesterday.

Mr Lim said hawkers would be given a one-year grace period starting from Jan 1 next year, to enable them to adjust to the new regulation.

"This period is also to enable the Penang and Seberang Prai municipal councils the time to study and refine the implementation of this new regulation," he added.

He said the regulation was to maintain and ensure that the unique tastes and flavours of local food would be retained to safeguard Penang's food heritage, and to help ensure that foreigners would not take over Penang's hawker food business.

Mr Lim also said the local authorities would issue special stickers for hawkers to display at their stalls to prove that their food is authentically cooked by locals, and not foreigners.

"Most visitors would not want to come to Penang to taste food cooked by foreigners. Only when you maintain the original taste of flavours can you feel the warmth of Penang."

State Local Government, Traffic Management and Flood Mitigation Committee chairman Chow Kon Yeow said a survey conducted by the Penang Municipal Council (MPPP) from July 25 to Aug 31 on the proposal to ban foreigners from cooking local fare saw 14,810 respondents, where 55.85 per cent were Penangites while the rest were from other states or countries.

"From the survey on the island, we found that 87.45 per cent were in favour that local fare should be cooked by the locals while 86.02 per cent also agreed that the licences of the hawkers should be revoked if foreigners are employed to cook," he said.

Mr Chow said the same survey conducted by the Seberang Prai Municipal Council (MPSP) involving 1,591 respondents found that 85.3 per cent agreed to the move, and 85 per cent agreed that hawkers who failed to comply should have their licences revoked.

An informal survey on The Star Online's Facebook page showed that 80 per cent of 55 respondents supported the ban.

Only 9 per cent disagreed, while the rest did not mind whether their food was cooked by a local or foreigner.

Facebook user Rubz Loh said the ban was a great move to retain the consistency and special flavours of Penang food.

KS Chen believed that the ban was necessary to preserve our national heritage.

"What if you see a hawker stall owned by foreigners claiming to sell original Penang char koay teow or original Ipoh chicken rice? The future generations and even tourists will be confused," he said.

Ho Xiaojun agreed with the ban because she believed that "the essence of food comes from the culture".

"How can you expect a Bangladeshi who may have never tasted char koay teow to cook as well as a local?" she questioned.

Rais Redwan said authenticity was the key and only a local would know the taste.

Harry Oh said he could taste the difference in the local food cooked by foreigners.

"In Selangor, if a hawker is a foreigner preparing local food, especially bak kut teh, char koay teow and Hokkien mee, I can tell the difference," he said.

"They sort of bastardise the ingredients," he explained.

Kien Seng also agreed with the ban and believed that it should be carried out nationwide, rather than just in Penang.

However, some netizens felt that it did not matter if the cook was a local or foreigner.

Mei-Xian Shee said she did not mind if a foreigner was the main chef, just as long as the food was good and authentic.

"Food can only taste authentic when it comes from the heart. It's more than just kitchen and wok skills," Shee said.

Zoey Vz believed that if a foreigner had the talent to match a local cook, he or she should be allowed to take up the position as the main chef.

Nehru Sathiamoorthy did not agree with the ban and felt that the best man should retain the position as a main cook.

"May the best man win. But under the Penang meritocracy, to be the best you must obviously speak Hokkien and be born and bred in Butterworth," Nehru said.

Wong Seh Ho had this to say: "The point is the quality of the food. If foreigners can cook as good as the locals, then why not."

While Susan Lim preferred locals to cook her hawker food, she said she had eaten hawker food prepared by foreigners and it was not too bad.

"But given a choice, I would choose food cooked by a local," she said.

Mr Lim had first made the proposal in July and it met with mixed reactions from the public.

Renowned Malaysian celebrity chef Redzuawan Ismail, better known as Chef Wan, had called the proposal ridiculous, saying that such a strange ruling would only serve to make Malaysia the laughing stock in the eyes of the world.

Hawker licences meant for needy, says Penang chief
The Straits Times, 27 Oct 2014

PETALING JAYA - The ban on foreigners from being the main cooks at hawker stalls in Penang is not a discriminatory move as hawker licences have always been meant for lower-income Malaysians whose livelihood depends on their cooking skills, Mr Lim Guan Eng, the chief minister of the state, said yesterday.

He suggested, in a statement issued yesterday, that licensed hawkers should perform their cooking duty since the government has enabled them to own a stall.

Responding to critics who said the ban was discriminatory, Mr Lim also pointed out that the new ruling, which would come into effect in 2016, would neither bar foreigners from owning restaurants nor prevent foreign workers from cooking in restaurants.

Ever since Malaysia gained independence, foreigners had never been entitled to hawker licences in the country although foreign workers were allowed to assist, said Mr Lim.

"How can this ruling be undemocratic or discriminatory when it is intended to protect the uniqueness of Penang food, that hawker stalls must be owner-operated and that foreign workers can assist the hawker in other duties?" he asked.

Mr Lim added that there was no question of foreign workers being denied their right to cook as they were merely employees and hence indifferent about whether they were allowed to cook.

When they were told to cook, they were only acting according to instructions, he suggested.

"Further, any culinary skills these foreign workers acquire would be lost because foreign workers will have to return home after a period of time," he said.

Mr Lim also said the ruling did not prevent Malaysians from other states from getting hawker licences and operating hawker stalls in Penang.

"Ultimately it is all about the branding of Penang food," he said.


Penang laksa, strictly no foreign flavour
From next year, only locals can be main cooks of all hawker food
The Straits Times, 25 Oct 2014

GEORGETOWN - Penang has decided to ban foreigners from being employed as the "main cooks" at hawker stalls, in a move to preserve the Malaysian state's food heritage and flavour.

In a state famous for its char kway teow, laksa and nasi kandar, all vendors operating from coffee shops, hawker centres, food courts and the streets must from next year ensure that only locals are employed to cook local delicacies.

"The main idea of this is to safeguard Penang's food heritage and maintain the flavours that are unique to Penang," news website The Malaysian Insider yesterday quoted Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng as saying, after a state exco meeting.

"We hope by taking this measure, we can retain our unique local taste and show visitors the warmth of Penang."

The "local cooks" condition will be part of hawker licences next year, but the implementation will be in stages; there will be a one-year grace period from Jan 1 for hawkers to adjust to the new condition.

The Penang authorities will issue special stickers to hawkers, to certify that the food is authentic.

Mr Lim said the rule will help ensure that Penang's hawker food business would not be taken over by foreigners. But foreigners can still be hired to handle orders, clean up or prepare ingredients, and eateries with centralised kitchens will not be subject to the ruling.

Penang Municipal Council secretary Ang Aing Thye said the councils will study "grey areas" - such as the type of food the hawkers sell - before they fully implement the new ruling.

"We will start with what we can easily define first," he said.

Mr Lim first made this proposal earlier this year, getting mixed reactions from the public.

But exco member Chow Kon Yeow yesterday said a survey of more than 14,000 people conducted by the local councils in July and August found that 87 per cent of respondents supported this move to hire local cooks.

Singaporeans had also apparently praised this idea.

"They told me they felt that Singapore should have done the same a long time ago," Mr Lim said, of the feedback he received during his visits to the Republic.

Nationality not a recipe for good food
By Tan Hsueh Yun, Food Editor, The Straits Times, 27 Oct 2014

THE recent move by Penang to ban foreign workers from cooking hawker food might have prompted cheers among people who love the Malaysian state's rich street food culture.

I have friends who go there every year to revisit favourite food stalls and restaurants, and seek out others new to them.

They might chow down on two to three versions of Penang char kway teow in a day, slurp bowls of Penang laksa from this hole-in-the-wall stall or that, and compare the standard of the handmade fishballs at their favourite kway teow soup stall with their taste memories from previous trips.

Penang's initiative to preserve its food heritage did not come about suddenly; the idea was floated in July this year. After a month-long survey, the local government found that more than 80 per cent of respondents backed the move.

Hawkers have a year to comply with the new law. They can hire foreigners to prepare ingredients and serve food, but these workers cannot be the "main cooks". Hawkers caught flouting the law risk losing their licences.

In return for sticking to the rules, the hawkers will be given stickers to display at their stalls, to show that the food they sell is "authentically local".

At a time when people who love to eat value authenticity and are willing to track it down to the ends of the earth, this sounds like a good move.

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, who mooted the idea, even said that during his visits to Singapore, people here praised his proposal and said that the Republic should have done the same.

It is a tempting idea.

Can you imagine the myriad ways in which the tourism authorities can use this to sell Singapore hawker food to the world?

The problem is that I just cannot see it happening here.

Any conversation or discussion on the food scene must take into account the severe manpower crunch the industry is facing.

It is being hit on two fronts: The Government limits the number of foreign workers that businesses can hire, and few Singaporeans want to work in these gruelling, unglamorous jobs.

So it is often the case of "use whoever we can get".

Not all of this is bad.

A couple of years ago, I remember feeling regret after ordering a plate of fried Hokkien noodles from a coffee shop near home. I had rattled off my order and when the cook replied, it was apparent that she was not from around these parts.

How could she possibly make a decent version of the classic hawker dish? How many versions has she had? Yes, she is Chinese, but our kind of Hokkien mee is not found in Fujian.

I ate my noodles with a serving of humble pie because the dish was cooked competently. It was not the best plate of Hokkien mee I ever had but it was not the worst either. The best and the worst were cooked by Singaporeans.

Mr Andy Lim, the owner of Le Chasseur, a zi char place that relocated from New Bridge Road to an industrial estate in Eunos, told me once that given the proper training and enough time, non-Singaporeans can cook his stewed peanuts, coffee pork ribs, barbecued squid and chicken claypot rice perfectly.

He had a hard time finding locals who were willing to learn and managed to hire some foreign workers for the kitchen. The standard of the food did not suffer because he kept an eye on the cooks and took the time to train them.

Years ago, when I was a rookie reporter, my colleagues and I used to frequent a popular cafe in Far East Plaza called, rather grandly, The Ritchie Riche Restaurant. It served cheap and good claypot and hotplate dishes. Soups, sizzling noodles and a particularly succulent chicken claypot dish came out of that busy kitchen.

"Look inside," my friend, a regular, told me on my first visit.

I did, and saw a staff of Indian cooks busy whipping up these Chinese dishes. We patronised the place every chance we got. The food was good, and it did not matter to us who cooked it.

That must surely be the guiding principle when assessing food. If it is delicious and, better yet, authentic, does it matter if the cook is not a native one?

I think of domestic helpers who have mastered popiah, mee siam, chicken rice, braised duck, nasi lemak and other dishes, cooked according to treasured recipes belonging to their employers.

Are their efforts less worthwhile because they were not born here and did not grow up eating this food?

And if we have a native- cooks-only policy, does that mean that only Italian chefs can cook Italian food and French chefs can cook French food here? I would hate to miss out on the creations of Taiwan-born Andre Chiang, chef of Restaurant Andre in Bukit Pasoh.

The Penang initiative was not without its detractors. One of them was Malaysian celebrity chef Redzuawan Ismail, better known as Chef Wan.

He described the idea as a "ridiculous" one, and The Star newspaper quoted him as saying that the law would make Malaysia a laughing stock in the eyes of the world.

He said: "We should stop blaming immigrant workers and the stall owners should take the initiative to train their cooks to be better.

"The owners should be the ones teaching them to cook in the right way and using the right recipes. Wouldn't it be better to train them properly and supervise them to do a better job?"

He added that these foreign workers could be ambassadors of Malaysian food when they went back to their home countries or relocated elsewhere for work.

It also seems absurd to think that people who grew up eating particular dishes are somehow able to cook them better than others who do not have the same taste memories.

I have a wide taste memory for a lot of local classics but that does not mean I can turn out perfect chicken rice, char kway teow or, yes, fried Hokkien mee without working at it.

Cooking is a craft that can be mastered. It is about having the right attitude, the desire to learn, the willingness to seek perfection every day and enough endurance for what is a difficult job.

Do you have to be a Singaporean to do this?

No, you do not.

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