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