What Has Come of Istanbul’s Famed Spice Bazaar?

By Cagan Duran (Istanbul).For centuries, Istanbul was the destination for the world’s spice trade. But, as the tumultuous 20th century changed much of the world’s economic structure, Istanbul’s famed Spice Bazaar now holds a different place in commerce.
Entering this, we are immediately assailed by an odor so powerful as to fairly knock one down: this is the Egyptian Bazaar, where are deposited all the wares of India, Syria, Egypt, and Arabia, which later on, converted into essences, pastilles, powders and ointments, serve to color little hands and faces, perfume apartments and baths and breaths and beards, reinvigorate worn-out pashas, and dull the senses of unhappy married people, stupefy smokers, and spread dreams, oblivion, and insensibility throughout the whole of the vast city.

Edmondo de Amicis (1846 – 1908) an Italian novelist visiting the Egyptian Bazaar.

Known as Misir Carsisi or sometimes the Spice Bazaar, The Egyptian Bazaar takes its name from the abundance of Egyptian products that have moved in and out of the bazaar since the 18th century.

As vivid historical accounts such as de Amici’s have recounted over the centuries, Istanbul hosted the mass convergence of people and goods from the Mediterranean to China during the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Much of the city’s economic fervor was a blessing of geography. The Balkans, Black Sea and Mediterranean intersect at the natural harbor of Istanbul, making the city an attractive point for trade routes, including the ancient Silk Road.

Spices lined up at the Egyptian Bazaar.

Spices lined up at the Egyptian Bazaar.

This natural port of Istanbul—specifically the Eminönü district—would become host to the world’s spice trade, which the New Spice Bazaar, commission in the 1500s and finally constructed in 1664, would become the physical anchor. Before the physical marker of The Egyptian Bazaar was built, there already existed a Byzantium trade market which was called as “Makron Envalos” in it’s location. In Ottoman times, at the turn of 17th century, Safiye Sultan, who is the wife of Sultan Murad III, aimed to construct a complex of buildings adjacent to a mosque. In 1664, the complex was finished and it included the Egyptian Bazaar, which was called the “New Bazaar” at the time.

Sketch of the Egyptian Bazaar. Courtesy of Cagan Duran.

Sketch of the Egyptian Bazaar. Courtesy of Cagan Duran.

The Egyptian Bazaar is constructed in an “L” shape, which includes five gates, 88 cells, and 18 shops outside. Herbalists and sellers of cotton were the first craftsmen in the bazaar. Traders distinguished their stall with a specific symbol on the wall, such as a fire tower, a small ship, an ostrich egg, or a tassel. If a person bought a product from the Spice Bazaar, he identified the shop with this specific sign. Today, I stood at the bazaar unsure where to take my first step. I barely heard my mother tongue. Murmurings of Spanish, German, English, French, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, and Italian enveloped me, and these were just the languages that I could differentiate from the buzz of the bazaar. I watched the sellers joke and tease with customers, cajoling them into purchases.

Bustling passages in the Egyptian Bazaar.

Bustling passages in the Egyptian Bazaar.

I decided upon stall number 75. There, I found the vendor Mahmut Yıldırım, who has run the shop called Temiz Baharat or “Clean Spice” since the 1970s. He started to work as an apprentice before becoming a connoisseur himself. Yet, while Yildirium has worked in the trade for years, he explained that there are less and less apprentices now. “Young people do not prefer to stay with us long,” he explained.

The economic role of the Egyptian bazaar has changed significantly since it was first commissioned in the 17th century, and particularly so throughout the 20th century. Already, prior to the Ottoman fall after World War I, new European trade relationships had usurped the importance of the Mediterranean trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. Istanbul, which was once the Ottoman empire’s hub of mass consumption and a robust, culturally diverse unification point for spices and goods from the Mediterranean and Far East trade routes (the Silk and Spice trade, for example) had instead become an importer of new, increasingly popular European imports from the west. How retail was managed, too, changed along with a shift in product origins. The control of markets became more centralized and separated from the local religious community—which had previously guided financial protocol in Istanbul. Although most city dwellers still preferred small, independent retailers for most of the 20th century, large, modern wholesalers and chain markets began to creep into urban commerce (The evolution of Istanbul in world economics is explained in the article “The Changing Morphology of Commercial Activity in Istanbul,” Nebahat Tokatli & Yonca Boyaci, 1999).

Spice shop at the Egyptian Bazaar.

Spice shop at the Egyptian Bazaar.

Down the corridors of the Egyptian Bazaar.

Down the corridors of the Egyptian Bazaar.

Goods sold at the Egyptian Bazaar.

Goods sold at the Egyptian Bazaar.

Yildirium mentioned the opening of Megacenter in 2005, a competing spice wholesaler. Megacenter, he claimed, is now the biggest dry food wholesaler in Istanbul. Prior to Megacenter, it was from the Egyptian Bazaar that people from all around Turkey would come for their spice and medicinal supplies. While many spices do still flow into the bazaar from Turkish cities such as Bursa, Gaziantep, Antalya, Mersin, Adana, Malatya, Kayseri, and Diyarbakır, the increase in urbanization throughout all of Turkey (not just around Istanbul), as well as the competition from modern wholesalers, has compromised the Egyptian Bazaar’s prominence.

Tourist group at the Egyptian Bazaar.

Tourist group at the Egyptian Bazaar.

The crowds of people I witnessed, who seemed to come from all corners of the world, are more than likely tourists, and not the world’s traders as it had once been. In 2013, over 10 million tourists visited Istanbul and many of them wind up at the Spice Bazaar, which is the second most visited place in Istanbul. Today, it is tourism and some of the older, nostalgic people of Istanbul that define the Egyptian Bazaar’s purpose—not an empire.

The second main gate outside of the Egyptian Bazaar.

The second main gate outside of the Egyptian Bazaar.

The Eminönü district, the old Istanbul, is no more a single center that determines the nature of trade of Turkey. How many other historic markets of the world have met the same fate? How many others have remained economic cornerstones?

Posted in Istanbul

Rice Supply in the World’s Wettest Place

By Anne Patrie Lyngdoh (Shillong). In many parts of the world, highway infrastructure is crucial in connecting rural food sources with cities. The city of Shillong in North-eastern India is no exception. Anne explores the miraculous bounty of rice available in the Megahalaya state in India, yet the lack of infrastructure to preserve this coveted staple for those who need it most.

Rice seedlings ready to be transplanted. Photo courtesy of Anne Patrie Lyngdoh. width=

Rice seedlings ready to be transplanted. Photo courtesy of Anne Patrie Lyngdoh. Click here for video of women harvesting seedlings.

The connection between city and village is an important and complicated one here in India. Having had the joyful, yet backbreaking experience of planting rice, legs calf-deep in sludgy soil, I can understand the amount of labor that is needed to feed a family, not to mention the incredible work and many hands needed to feed an entire rice-eating city such as Shillong. The production of rice is a feat in and of itself, but there are also other challenges to the harvest, such as the increasingly unpredictable monsoon rains that feed the small, terraced hillside fields, as well as increasingly difficult to find sources of fertilizer (cow manure). The process of cleaning, packaging, and transporting the beautiful grains to the city requires added organization and planning along unreliable roads, peppered with potholes and crowded with trucks (the only means of efficiently transporting substantial/large amount of goods in the state).

The city of Shillong sits in the state of Meghalaya in Northeast India. The region is known for its Horticultural abundance and its heavy rainfall. Shillong receives around 90 inches of rain a year (Seattle receives around 36 inches per year), while other parts of the Meghalaya state receive as much as 460 inches per year. Meghalaya is so known for its rain, in fact, that The Atlantic recently featured a series of photos of the state, which is known as”The Wettest Place on Earth.”

The rainy climate of Meghalaya helps to make it one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Hundreds of rice species, which vary in both cultural and biological significance as well as taste and growing profiles, thrive in the region. However, most of the rice that is currently grown in the state is used only for subsistence consumption and amounts to less than 50% of the total amount consumed in Meghalaya (Meghalaya State Planning Commission, 2011). Red rice, known locally as Khasi rice, is a rich flavorful rice which many of the farmers prefer to eat. Though, each farmer would attest to the fact that they have their favorite varieties for differing purposes, including: medicinal properties, certain family gathering meals, for their kids preferences, rice snacks, ritual practices, for selling, and for growing in particular soil conditions.

Most city dwellers in Shillong prefer to eat white rice imported from the plains states of India because it is less filling than the red Khasi rice that rural farmers rely upon for sustenance throughout the day. Moreover, apart from the low supply of local red rice, white rice is cheaper than the local red or sticky rice when purchased in the city market (roughly $0.23/lb versus $0.34-$0.52/lb respectively). Rice grown within the state finds its way into the city in the form of rice snacks, which office workers, laborers, school children and others consume with daily afternoon tea. Dark purple rice is ground into flour and made into single serving size plain cakes (pumaloi), white rices are made into small pancake like breads (putharo) or are steamed with small pieces of pork fat (pudoh), and red rices are ground into flour, mixed with jaggery and steamed in leaves (pusla). These relatively flavorless snacks are the perfect texture and size for dipping in tea or soaking up small portions of meat or vegetable curries any time of the day.

Putharo and pumaloi rice snacks. Photo courtesy of Anne Patrie Lyngdoh.

Putharo and pumaloi rice snacks. Photo courtesy of Anne Patrie Lyngdoh.

To understand how rice is transported from the farms to the city, one must understand a bit about the state’s roadway system. The main highway from the nearest airport and train station in Guwahati, Assam state to Shillong city, for example, has been under a four-lane construction project for over a decade due to red tape, tribal land rights and corruption issues. Adding to the problems are the yearly monsoon rains and traffic loads which continue to wear away at the progress that is made. Yet, this section of National Highway 40 is a lifeline for residents of Shillong and the rest of Northeast India, where a small strip of land called the Siliguri Corridor (also known as the chicken neck of India) separates these sections from mainland India. The transportation issues found in Shillong are similar to those found in other hill stations throughout India. Without rail access to the city, rice and all goods from outside of the state are trucked in to the major cities, unloaded into Food Corporation of India warehouses, taken to wholesale markets by smaller trucks, buses, or vans and then daily-wage porters, who carry multiple 45+ lb bags through the narrow, crowded footpaths and maze of alleys, distribute the rice to shops and cafes. The numerous steps needed to ensure rice makes it from out-of-state-farms to tables adds up bit-by- bit to the cost of this staple food. However, because it is grown on a larger scale, packaged and distributed in bulk, this rice remains cheaper to the city consumer than its locally grown counterpart.

Transportation of rice and other goods to and from the main Shillong market. Photo courtesy of Anne Patrie Lyngdoh.

Transportation of rice and other goods to and from the main Shillong market. Photo courtesy of Anne Patrie Lyngdoh.

Two men transporting bags of rice via truck around the city of Shillong. Photo courtesy of Anne Patrie Lyngdoh.

Two men transporting bags of rice via truck around the city of Shillong. Photo courtesy of Anne Patrie Lyngdoh.

Local rice is brought to the city and sold to wholesale marketers when villagers make their way to markets early in the morning to ensure a higher profit than what they would earn selling rice in their villages. The villagers buy other necessities that are only available in the city with the income they make from selling rice in the morning, making the trip more cost-effective. The journey from the small rural farms to Shillong can be a difficult one as transportation from villages is often along small, curvy hillside roads. The taxi SUVs that make the route are brimming with people, cone-shaped baskets of produce, animals and other essentials that need to get from point A to point B and back again.

Besides the issues of transportation to Shillong, those buying and selling rice often must deal with inadequate storage facilities. As mentioned earlier, rice is often brought to Food Corporation of India (FCI) store houses, which are government warehouse facilities where excess grain is kept. India’s storage of grain–and how much ends up spoiling–has been a considerable challenge and often discussed in the national politics. The FAO reports that India’s grain production has increased, yet the amount wasted has remained at 10% for almost a decade, largely due to inadequate storage that allows rodents and moisture to spoil the grain. Rice is stored at several levels, from the individual farmer to the government FCI facilities, and much of the waste occurs at the farmer level. The Wall Street Journal, too, has run a story about the lack of dry storage leading to tons of rotting grain throughout India, which in turn has decreased the supply and driven prices up for consumers even more. Considering that India is one of the greatest producers of rice in the world, cultivating almost 158 million tonnes per year, yet has a serious hunger issue, with experts categorizing 43 percent of children under 5 years of age as underweight, the loss of precious grain due to poor infrastructure in the supply chain is particularly sorrowful.

Although the challenges in storage, safe roadways and nutrition are great, the manner in which projects and every day activities are carried out in India, in the face of all that can go wrong, is still quite miraculous. The amount of human labor and little reliance on large machinery in both the field and among the women who sort and sell the rice is astounding. There is still a long way to go in terms of food security, storage and distribution, but maneuvering through the markets, I realized that each step taken to get the food to this place, accessible to most people every day, is really remarkable. There are many hands taking part in the food system throughout Indian cities and there is an incredible reliance upon seemingly countless numbers of people to bring precious rice to hundreds of thousands in cities like Shillong, multiple times a day.

Posted in Shillong

Can CSF Morals be part of The Global Fish Trade?

By Meredith Slater (New York City). Meredith questions what the increasingly popular Community Supported Fishery (CSF) supply chain model can add to the fraught seafood industry. Is there middle ground between Village Fishmonger and Fulton Fish Market?

Can you guess the top four raw food products, ranked by value, produced in New York State? If you’re familiar with the state’s long history of dairy farms you might correctly guess that milk is number one, and the state’s popular nickname, the “Big Apple,” might give away number two. Where there is dairy there are cows, so it may come as no surprise that meat sits in third place. But perhaps you wouldn’t expect that fish comes next, ranking fourth. Yet, in 1924 New York City’s famous Fulton Fish Market was supplying 25% of the country’s fish, and by the turn of the century the New York seafood industry raked in nearly $8 billion in sales and employed about 100,000 people.

CSF oysters in the fridge, waiting to be shucked and slurped. Photo courtesy of Village Fish Monger NYC (c) 2014.

CSF oysters in the fridge, waiting to be shucked and slurped. Photo courtesy of Village Fishmonger NYC (c) 2014.

As recently as 2005, an impressive 5% of U.S. seafood sales still flowed through the new Fulton Fish Market, now located in Hunts Point Terminal Market in the Bronx. Originally opened in 1822, the Fulton Fish Market is the second largest fish market in the world, with Tokyo’s Tsukiji market taking the number one spot. Handling 200 million pounds of fish in 2012  the market currently houses more than 30 seafood vendors and meets about one third of New York City’s seafood demands. Fish are flown in from all over the world – from Mexico to Nova Scotia to Iceland to Yugoslavia – and as long as fishing conditions are good around the world, buyers have an incredible selection of seafood from which to choose on a daily basis . In the middle of the night the market comes alive with buyers for restaurant groups and fish purveyors haggling over prices which change over the course of the six to eight hour market run. The market ends at about 4am, when the purchased fish are loaded up to be taken to their respective restaurants and stores.

Snapshot of the Fulton Fish Market. Photo taken from the set of the Miracle of Feeding Cities Movie.

Snapshot of the Fulton Fish Market. Photo taken from the set of the Miracle of Feeding Cities Movie.

Yet, problems loom behind the hustle and bustle of Fulton Fish Market. The fish industry, like many parts of the global food system, is fraught with obstacles and consumer concern. Bioaccumulation (e.g. mercury in your fish), overfishing, by-catch, illegal fishing, and energy intensity–these are just some of the ills within the industry. Indeed, today,  The Monterey Bay Aquarium reports that of the wild fish populations that scientists have assessed, nearly two-thirds are deemed “unhealthy.” The FAO reports that fish makes up 17% of the global population’s intake of animal protein, yet 29% of the world’s marine stocks are overfished. That latter figure doesn’t even encompass the entirety of the countless seafood that is fished illegally, with some international fishery management agencies reporting that at least one quarter of the world’s fish is unreported, caught illegally or unregulated, which has alarmed conservationists. In addition to the implications overfishing has on the environment and the future of our fish supply, seafood fished from unsanctioned locations can be dangerous to human health.

These ills in the fish industry have worried consumers and scientists alike. A google search shores up a range of organizations committed to a healthier seafood industry: FAO, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Marine Stewardship Council, NOAA, Oceana and National Geographic Society, just to name a few. While the majority of the fish consumed in New York City is imported and passes through the Fulton Fish Market, local, small-scale fish distribution companies are also emerging, further indicating a desire for something different among consumers. Contrary to the Fulton Fish Market’s model of wholesale distribution of fish from around the world, these companies use the model of a Community Supported Fishery, or CSF. New York-based CSFs have created distribution chains centered almost exclusively in the state. Whereas fish typically passes from fisherman to seller to buyer to purveyor to consumer, this method allows fish to travel from the fisherman to only one middleman before arriving at the consumer.

With a mission “to reinvent how people select, prepare, and eat fish,” Village Fishmonger is one seafood company that offers a CSF package, sourcing  seafood from New York and New Jersey fishermen. Village Fishmonger aims to reconnect coastal communities to their local food system, promote sustainable fishing practices and strengthen relationships between fishermen and the people they feed. Fishmonger offers members weekly shares of fresh fish at a set membership fee. Its one truck heads down to the docks to pick up pre-arranged fish from the fishermen either as they are unloading their boats or immediately thereafter, and then transports the seafood to the kitchen where the fishmongers turn the fish into filets ready to be packed and labeled. The fishmongers bring those filets to the pick up locations for members to claim their shares.

Village Fishmonger squid from Cape May, NJ. Photo courtesy of Meredith Slater.

Village Fishmonger squid from Cape May, NJ. Photo courtesy of Meredith Slater.

According to Sean Dixon, “The Fish Guy” at Village Fishmonger, public education is among the greatest obstacles Village Fishmonger faces. Dixon explains that many people are not aware that there are waterways near New York from which they can obtain local seafood. He explains that while there are 300 species of fish in the New York/New Jersey Bight, most fish in New York and New Jersey ports are mixed in with seafood from around the world, making it difficult for residents of New York City to recognize species that are available year-round in their own backyard. Village Fishmonger aims to bridge this disconnect through its CSF.

It is nearly impossible to know what percentage of consumer demand CSFs meet, but it’s small to be sure. With a customer base of only 600 people and no middlemen, Village Fishmonger is able to track its fish from ocean to consumer. Yet, without a scalable model for CSFs, Fulton Fish Market will continue to be the main fish supplier in New York for the foreseeable future. In fact, despite the quantity of fish that comes through New York every day, the amount of fish harvested in New York represents a very small portion of the total demand in the state. Thus, the majority of seafood consumed in New York City is brought in from other parts of the United States and from around the world. There will always be demand for imported fish, and even if CSFs could scale enough to feed entire cities, they would not be able to supply everything consumers demand.

The visible gap between what a feel-good company like Fishmonger can provide and the quantity consumers do demand may feel defeating at times. Yet, the presence of CSFs provides more than just an alternative to consumers, but an opening-up of the conversation about the sustainability of local eating, particularly of seafood. Diligent thought, strategy and action could help conserve fisheries in the future and consequently shape the food supply chain. A recent World Resources Institute news release, for example, presents the startling evidence that fishery production may have to double in production to meet consumer demand in 2050, yet the article continues on to explore solutions–namely well-managed aquaculture–that could alleviate the production burden. NPR ran a similar story: Can Farmed Fish Feed The World Without Destroying the Planet?

Journalist Sarah Murray’s 2008 book Moveable Feasts, which explores the surprisingly vast movement of food throughout human history, also shows the modern food system as global, complicated, technical and counter-intuitive, at times out of necessity. She reveals, for example, that most salmon travels all the way to China for deboning, thanks to the fishes’ pin bones, which make filleting machines ineffective and require hand-extraction. China has become the world’s 8th largest fish importer, largely for just this processing. The deboning of salmon is just one of the examples Murray uses to illuminate the unpalatable reality of how far food travels–and has traveled since the Roman empire–for processing, and how technology has made the modern journeys of our food physically possible and economically viable.

What is certain is that New York depends on fish, but also needs effective ways to safely, sustainably and transparently source seafood. How could we integrate the aspirations and concerns of a CSF into the global framework of our food? Hopefully, a scalable, effective solution to overfishing and illegal harvesting–rooted in the supply chain–could be born from the extremes of Fishmonger and Fulton Fish market.

 
Posted in New York

Street Hawking: Pillar of Penang Food Culture

By Miguel de la Fuente-Lau (George Town, Penang). In many parts of the world, food is sold in neat, seemingly sterile packages and is supplied within a rigid framework of unions, middlemen and distributors. In other parts of the world, however, the food system operates just a bit more under the table. Penang, Malaysia is one of those places, where the “informal economy” of street hawking has satiated people on the island for generations. Making up 12% of the economy today, street hawking of all items is a critical form of employment, and, when it comes to food hawking in particular, a coveted one. Yet, as Penang’s streets lined with locally beloved vendors become increasingly attractive to tourists, the culinary knowledge and entrepreneurial sprit of aging vendors, quality and quantity of ingredients and the regulations and budgets of the municipality may collide.

Penang: An Overview

Hawker preparing roasted duck at a night market. Photo courtesy of Miguel de la Fuente-Lau

Hawker preparing roasted duck at a night market. Photo courtesy of Miguel de la Fuente-Lau

Travelers from all over the world come to Penang for one primary reason–the food. Just this year, Lonely Planet had revealed Penang to be its number one culinary destination for 2014. CNN named George Town, the state capital, one of the top street food havens in the world. The pilgrimage to Penang for the food is fast becoming a prerequisite.

Penang is the second-smallest state in Malaysia. Penang Island, where a majority of tourists visit, measures only 405 square miles. Despite its size, however, its historical and cultural significance is without question–from its colonial beginnings in 1786 as a key British trading port to George Town’s distinction as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.

What also makes Penang particularly unique is that it is the only state with a non-Bumiputra (or indigenous) majority. According to a recent report, nearly 42% of its population is Chinese. This in turn, makes Penang a minority state within a majority Muslim country, which presents, its own set of financial challenges.

Sin Lee Hin ‘kopi tiam’ during breakfast hour. Photo courtesy of Miguel de la Fuente-Lau.

Sin Lee Hin ‘kopi tiam’ during breakfast hour. Photo courtesy of Miguel de la Fuente-Lau.

Despite being Malaysia’s food capital, a study conducted by the Penang Institute revealed that the island is heavily reliant upon imported ingredients, and meat in particular. That being said, another report from 2010 revealed Penang’s potential as a major contributor to Malaysia’s manufactured exports as a provider of ‘halal’ processed foods, supplying products deemed permissible by Islamic law to the Middle East, and other countries in Asia, Europe, the U.S. and Australia.

Import dependent or not, Penang is nonetheless advancing as a food and tourist destination and has the appetites of both tourists and locals alike to satisfy. Street food, otherwise referred to as “hawker” fare in Southeast Asia, is a major way to not only feed the people of Penang, but also employ them. One study of hawker culture in Penang claimed that this informal business added 20,000 jobs to the economy. Hoards of visitors have come to Penang to taste for themselves the eclectic blend of flavors and ingredients, and witness first-hand the cooking traditions and techniques preserved and passed down for generations.

Hawking in Penang

Penang’s world-famous hawker food began as “blue-collar” street food sold to immigrant port laborers over a century ago. Hawker food has since gained a following from curious tourists, but for locals, it remains cheap food concocted from fresh ingredients sourced from the nearest wet markets selling vegetables, poultry, seafood from local fisheries, and other flavoring ingredients essential to Malaysian cooking. You might find a separate area for pork as well, though it is purposely sectioned off, as it is non-‘halal.’

In Anja Franck’s University of Sweden study “Women Hawkers in Teluk Bahang,” published in the Journal of Workplace Rights, she explains that Malaysia is one of the few nations where the government has formally recognized hawking, which is considered a quite “informal” section of a nation’s economy. In Penang, hawking is controlled by the Municipal Council of Penang Island (http://www.mppp.gov.my/en/perkhidmatan-lesen), which provides licenses to hawkers (and revenue to the municipality when they issue these licenses) and regulates the hygiene practices and location of stalls and pushcarts (Franck, 2010).

Cleaning up after a morning’s work at Tanjung Bungah wet market. Photo courtesy of Miguel de la Fuente-Lau.

Cleaning up after a morning’s work at Tanjung Bungah wet market. Photo courtesy of Miguel de la Fuente-Lau.

Despite the government’s approval of hawking, it is very difficult to pin down an exact number of current hawker vendors in Penang. The only figures available from the Municipal Council of Penang Island (MPPP) pertain to hawker licenses issued or renewed (2,555 in 2012 and 489 in 2011, respectively). But this number cannot possibly capture the total number of vendors illegally selling their food on the streets, operating makeshift stalls without any such license.

It has been a year since my wife–who is Malaysian-American from Kuala Lumpur–and I have made Penang our home and we have done our share of food hunting across the city. While working on this article, I accompanied my colleague and local food expert Shien Tan and his son on a “progressive lunch” to revisit and photograph a sample of Penang’s street food.

Dim sum breakfast. Photo courtesy of Miguel de la Fuente-Lau.

Dim sum breakfast. Photo courtesy of Miguel de la Fuente-Lau.

Motorbikes parked outside of Tai Tong, always a welcome sign for good food. Photo courtesy of Miguel de la Fuente-Lau.

Motorbikes parked outside of Tai Tong, always a welcome sign for good food. Photo courtesy of Miguel de la Fuente-Lau.

Along the way, Shien explained to me that Penangites are unabashedly proud of their hawker food, and are incredibly loyal and protective about their favorite hawkers and their recipes.

“A great hawker has been consistently good and reasonably priced for a long time, meaning multi-generational. Penangites seem to demand good cost performance, so price and consistency is critical,” Shien says. “The mantis shrimp is what makes this dish special,” he continues. “Ah Leng is the only hawker on the island that serves Char Koay Teow with this.”

"Ah Leng Char Koay Teow" Hawker stand in Penang. For many years, Ah Leng,  has served one specific food--Char Koay Teow--a flat rice noodle dish typically served with shrimp, bean sprouts, cockles, fried egg and Chinese sausage.  Photo courtesy of Miguel de la Fuente-Lau.

“Ah Leng Char Koay Teow” Hawker stand in Penang. For many years, Ah Leng, has served one specific food–Char Koay Teow–a flat rice noodle dish typically served with shrimp, bean sprouts, cockles, fried egg and Chinese sausage. Photo courtesy of Miguel de la Fuente-Lau.

Cooking Char Koay Teow on the wok. Photo courtesy of Miguel de la Fuente-Lau.

Cooking Char Koay Teow on the wok. Photo courtesy of Miguel de la Fuente-Lau.

Hawkers have to develop ways of setting their meals apart from the rest of their counterparts. Even still, the mere introduction of unique ingredients does not generate a loyal following. They must earn it by building a long-standing reputation spanning generations, and of course, by offering a fair price locals are willing to pay for their signature dishes. But Penangites have earned the right to be critical. After all, they have been cooking and eating this food for over a century.

Challenging the Ways of Old

The question of quality, however, raises a challenge for locals looking to preserve the integrity of their culinary heritage. Locals are so passionate about getting Penang food “right”, that many have given their approval on a recently proposed ban on foreigners cooking at hawker stalls. How this will actually be regulated, and any political motivations behind such a ban, remains up for debate, but the zeal with which locals come in defense of their food is without doubt.

Still, even if locals took measures against the “watering down” of their dishes by foreigners, there remains no answer for the inevitable–older hawker vendors veering towards retirement. Many locals worry that the dishes they have perfected over decades will be lost on the future generation. What happens when hawkers’ sons and daughters find less labor-intensive vocations to live by? Wouldn’t immigrants come in to take those vacated jobs anyway? And as Penang’s popularity as a tourist destination continues to grow, how, with its limited resources, will it manage to keep feeding the hundreds of thousands of visitors coming every month, alongside the 1.6 million locals that already call this island their home?

What does the future hold for Penang’s hawker stall vendors? Photo courtesy of Miguel de la Fuente-Lau.

What does the future hold for Penang’s hawker stall vendors? Photo courtesy of Miguel de la Fuente-Lau.

Moreover, while some of the old guard still actually prepare their food roadside and sell it out of their own trucks or mobile cooking stalls, many vendors aren’t exclusively peddling on street corners, and much like the case in Singapore, are now found renting out designated stalls in large, open-air spaces or setting up in front of neighborhood coffee shops locally known as “kopitiams.” Franck suggests that the renting of these stalls is a result of stricter governmental policies that have controlled the locations where hawkers can legally set up shop. These new stipulations for licensure have made hawking more expensive for the hawkers. At the same time, however, Franck argues that municipal regulations have improved women’s participation in hawking and food entrepreneurship. The markets that are relegated to specific locations allow women to store items, as well as adhere to certain cultural standards while working, such as being in certain public spaces that their family approves of and having set operating hours that coincide with school hours so that women can still tend to their children.

While travelers look to Penang as their next food conquest, and as the city insists on building around its reputation as a “heritage site,” hawker vendors carry the burden of keeping on with the culinary traditions while maximizing whatever local ingredients remain cheaply available, all while also adhering to the municipality, which may become more keen on further regulating licenses to generate revenue. Yet, at the same time, the flux of tourists dreaming of famed hawker fare will support an industry that already provides considerable jobs, affordable food and opportunities for women.

Whatever combination of positive or negative change, Penang’s increasing presence on the global foodie scene will impact this robust, informal food system of hawking on the island. One can’t help but wonder, another generation removed from now, what will the hawkers keep cooking on Penang’s aging, ever-diversifying streets?

Posted in Penang