Penang's cuisine is great because of multiple layers of migration, mingling and messing about with recipes. Can this achievement be repeated?
Would Penang hawker food taste "authentic" only if it's cooked by locals?
My favourite "French" bakery-cafe (called Tous les Jours, in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur) is a place where I relive my fond memories of the boulangeries and patisseries of Paris. The taste of the pastries seems close enough to what I had during my one week stay there.
However, this "French" place is actually a Korean franchise run by Malaysian and Filipino workers!
On the other hand, when visiting Venice some years ago, I found that some Italian restaurants offering "tourist set menus" were really mediocre. Then I started wondering, was it because all the staff were Bangladeshi? Someone then told me that the "secret" to good food there was to look for places which do not have English menus (only Italian ones) - because that's where the "real" local chefs were.
So, is good food dependent on race? Or on other factors? Recently Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng suggested that only Malaysians, rather than foreign workers, should be allowed to cook at Penang's hawker stalls "to prevent our unique Penang flavours from 'mutating' to a foreign taste."
To be honest, if I were to see two unknown hawker stalls - one manned by a Malaysian, another by a foreign worker - I would place my bet on the local guy. Yet, as my friend Gary Lim pointed out: "The best Hokkien Mee in Petaling Jaya, near Giza Kota Damansara, is fried by a Myanmar cook."
And at My Elephant, a Thai restaurant in Section 17, Petaling Jaya (which has excellent reviews), the cooks are from Myanmar too. Think about it: a popular Thai eatery in Malaysia run by Burmese workers - Malaysia Truly Asia?
So, let's not be racist. Good food is all about the skill, training, dedication and motivation of the cooks - of any race. If Malaysians can follow recipes to make excellent Italian spaghetti Bolognese, Korean bibimbap or French pastries, then Burmese, Bangladeshis and Indonesians can, theoretically at least, do the same with Penang prawn mee.
But the sad fact is, food from most of our foreign-operated hawker stalls don't taste so good.
Is it due to cultural differences which in turn affect the cook's palate? It's not the foreigner's fault if his favourite childhood food is Burmese mutton curry or Jogja soto daging rather than prawn mee.
And perhaps someone who has grown up eating char koay teow (and even smelling its smoky aroma in his hair and clothes) as his favourite food for 40 years understands, indeed loves, the nuances much better than a foreigner who has tried it for only 40 weeks.
Or perhaps the key issue is motivation. It's the difference between small business owners giving their sweat and tears (not literally into the food though!) to make sure that every bowl of prawn mee tastes great (to ensure customers come back) versus employees going through the motions to get their meagre wages.
It's unfair to expect a maid who arrives here as a dish washer (some don't even know how to stir fry) to become the best maker of char koay teow after a two week crash course - especially if she is underpaid, overexploited, under-appreciated and overworked. Hell, if Malaysian cooks had to go through all of that, their char koay teow wouldn't taste very "Penang" either!
As someone named Kia Meng Boon posted on Facebook: "You spend all your time telling young Malaysians you better study hard, get a good job, make lots of money. Result? None of them want to be cooks or hawkers. (Yet) your Malaysian businesses want cheap labour and your people want cheap eating places, because their wages are not growing much. So you've been employing foreigners to do something that locals don't want to do. The problem is your entire system of exploitation ... you want to get more out of giving less..."
Are Malaysians willing to pay more for hawker food?
Lim has said that the proposed ban on foreign workers will only affect hawker stalls, and not hotels. But how often have you eaten mediocre yet overpriced hotel food made by poorly motivated kitchen staff? For me, if there is to be any ban, it should be on all under-performing employees - and bosses - of any race!
Deepak Gill, my former colleague at The Star wrote about declining food standards and uncovered a whole pot of reasons. Yes, this included the fact that some foreigners "do not understand that mee hoon needs to be blanched a little longer than kueh teow".
Yet, in the end, it all boils down to Malaysian hawkers willing to cut corners to make easy money, skimping on ingredients and worker training. Some even set up chains of "franchised" stalls manned by foreign workers who also have to double up by cleaning their bosses' homes!
Some have denigrated the Penang Chief Minister for implied racism in proposing the ban on foreign cooks. But are you racist if you prefer an Italian chef in Venice? Or just recognising socio-economic realities?
If the Bangladeshi workers in Venice had grown up there eating "mamma mia food", if they were motivated bosses of their own restaurants, then chances are, their food would be every bit as good as that of the Italians.
In short, when it comes to matters of food quality, there are many social, economic and political factors, not all of them within the Penang state government's control. What they can do is to ban foreigners from cooking Penang food - but it's a simplistic short-term fix for a complex issue.
Some say that Penang's unique cuisine was built by immigrants, so why discriminate against newer "foreigners"? However, there is a difference between maintaining original dishes, and creating exciting new fusion cuisine.
Take asam laksa. It probably originates from the Malay laksa Kedah which is also hot, sour and fish-based. However, the Penang Nyonyas adapted the original Malay recipe and added dried chilies and turmeric, more fish to thicken the broth, more fresh vegetable garnishing plus a dollop of hae koh, or sweet prawn paste.
Then stir in the Siamese influence: Penang's Nyonya cuisine tends to be more spicy and sour than that of the Malacca and Singapore Nyonyas, thanks to Penang's proximity to Thailand.
This is the reason why Penang food is so great - it's the result of multiple layers of migration, mingling and messing about with recipes. Can this historical achievement be repeated?
As things stand, I have my doubts. As wage slaves, foreign workers have little creative drive when forced to churn out carbon copies of supposedly "original" asam laksa.
But, if say the Burmese workers in Penang were given the freedom to be their own entrepreneurs, I believe they would naturally create an exciting new synthesis between asam laksa and mohinga, (a Burmese fish-based noodle soup) to produce something that THEY (not Malaysians) feel tastes fantastic.
This may also require a critical mass of Burmese customers with enough disposable income to pay for better food. Which might also mean duplicating British-era conditions when a much larger variety of foreign migrants had the opportunity to settle - and prosper - in Malaysia, rather than being here as impoverished temporary tenants.
If foreign workers here could participate - with a more equal stake - in a new food revolution, that would be spicy and stirring indeed. Why, perhaps we could even become Truly Asia after all.