Friday, October 31, 2014

Nationality not a recipe for good food

OCT 31, 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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