Hawker food needs passionate local cooks

I GREW up in a part of Penang where there were plenty of F words - floods, football and, of course, food.

The floods would hit almost every month when Sungai Pinang burst its banks and send a torrent down Perak Road, forcing everyone to scramble upstairs with whatever we could carry.

The area is still famous for its floods.

The football was great. Malaysian international Isa Bakar lived down the road with his mother. Shaharuddin and Namat Abdullah worked around the corner with the other Bakar brother, Ali, and the City Stadium across the road was where the crowd gathered to watch Malaysia Cup matches. You could even have a kickabout with these stars in nearby Padang Brown.

No, the area is no longer famous for its football.

And the food. Now, that was glorious.

Padang Brown housed a food court where one could get great food and - what any Penangite would love - at low prices. When games were played at the field, itinerant hawkers would flock there, too.

The laksa was amazing. The man selling it was a neighbour. Every man in the family sold laksa, at various locations around the island.

Which brings me to the point - is the Penang government right in banning foreigners from cooking local food?

I tend to go with the state. You see, I have tasted some of the best food the island has to offer. And it was always the locals who delivered. It's a passion with them.

Just down the road from my house, there was one coffee shop that sold all sorts of hawker food - char kway teow (fried flat noodles) hokkien mee (that's prawn mee to you, southerners), mamak mee (Indian noodles) and others.

Next door there was another coffee shop that sold only kway teow thng (kway teow soup). Each bowl was lovingly cooked in a claypot over a charcoal stove. There were four stoves in a row, so the hawker could cook only four bowls at any one time. There was a little electric fan that the owner and his wife - the two who did the cooking - would slap around so it swung to the correct stove to keep the flames going.

It usually was a long wait for the food, but it was always worth it.

Just across the road was yet another coffee shop. The speciality here? Mee Jawa (Java noodles). The man who cooked the dishes was an Indian-Muslim who walked with a pronounced limp. None of us knew his name so it was always Capek Mee Jawa to us. And it was delectable.

He, too, could cook up only about three plates of mee Jawa at any one time - that was all his wok could handle. You could choose between prawn soup or beef soup and he would slowly cook the dishes after telling you to wait.

A lot of people waited - with absolutely no regrets. It was that good.

All those coffee shops are no more, just like the cooking methods. Today, the soup is prepared at home and, at the stall, someone throws all the ingredients into a bowl, pours the soup over them, adds a bit of garnishing and voila! your food is ready.

Any Myanmar national or Bangladeshi can do that, right? But that's when the quality starts to slide.

Food preparation needs passion. It needs someone who wants to see others enjoy their food - someone who takes ownership.

The way I see it, the ban is not just about shutting out the foreigners. It's also about making sure the hawkers are responsible.

With Myanmar, Vietnamese and Bangladeshi labour coming cheap, some owners literally set up stall in many different places, prepare the ingredients at home, hand everything over to the foreign workers, sit back and wait for the money to roll in.

A ban like the one in Penang forces the hawkers to ensure that they are hands-on and deliver the goods. If their food is bad, they cannot blame the foreign workers. It's their business that is affected.

That, however, does not mean that foreigners cannot cook local food. It's not about being a foreigner, or Chinese, Malay or Indian. It's a desire to learn - and earn - that matters.

In Petaling Jaya, I recently came across what I believe was some of the best mamak mee goreng and mee rebus in the Klang Valley. But the cook was no Indian-Muslim. It was a Chinese man from Penang.

He said he had been making tombstones but then drifted from one job to another before learning how to make mamak mee. He enjoyed a roaring trade, until he went missing one day.

It just goes to show that one does not have to be a Penangite to cook Penang food. Or a Malay to make nasi dagang (rice cooked with coconut milk) or an Indian- Muslim to cook nasi kandar (rice with curry dishes). Or an Indian to make thosai. Anyone can do it, even a Myanmar national or a Vietnamese.

What is needed is the passion for it. And proper training - with a school of sorts that teaches people how to prepare the food just right.

I believe that if there is an institution like that, many locals will be lining up to learn. Those selling food now may no longer need their children to take over. The foreigners who learn the trade can also take the signature dishes home to their country and be ambassadors for Penang.

But how many hawkers in the state would be willing to give up the secret that makes their dish better than that of rivals?

Not many, I daresay. For now, it looks like the ban is the answer.