Home 2006: 8 Food, fun and learning

Food, fun and learning

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rasa rasa penangOn a lighter note, Khoo Boo Teik reviews a book on a subject close to our hearts – or rather stomachs: Penang food, one of the few things here we can claim to be world-class! Anyone using Rasa-Rasa Penang will find it a wonderful eating-out guide filled with lovely photographs of dishes and spreads, chefs, stall-keepers and restaurateurs; simple and clear maps; and brief but accurate descriptions of what to expect.

Speaking on Vision 2020 once, someone said that its attainment would bring us ‘world class everything’, including, say, bakeries and French restaurants.

A colleague of mine whispered to me, ‘We already have world-class hawker food in Penang.’

My colleague wasn’t wrong or boastful. He was being matter-of-factly: Penang, as in hawker food, is valuable international branding, as the tourist sector appreciates.

In Kuala Lumpur (more so its satellite towns), food courts abound with signboards offering ‘Penang char koay teow’, ‘Penang prawn mee’, ‘Penang asam laksa’, and ‘Penang nasi kandar’. Hotels in Singapore were known to invite well-known Penang hawkers to operate in the hotels for extended periods. There are Penang hawker food outlets in city after city in Australia.

Yet, wonderful as it is, Penang hawker food is only a large part of the full complement of Penang food. As Lim Siang Jin shows in this informative and delightful culinary guide, Penang food includes home-cooked and other food served by small local eateries calling themselves restaurants, coffee-shops, cafés, and food centres.

Rasa-Rasa Penang only covers individual stalls, food centres, and small and medium-sized shops, that is, those that aren’t listed in ‘After Dark’ tourist brochures and newsletters. Fancy up-market restaurants are excluded, correctly so since these aren’t distinctively local enterprises serving home-grown cuisines.

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Anyone using Rasa-Rasa Penang will find it a wonderful eating-out guide filled with lovely photographs of dishes and spreads, chefs, stall-keepers and restaurateurs; simple and clear maps; and brief but accurate descriptions of what to expect.

One can read the book for fun, too, as a checklist of favourite stalls, a guide to family outings, an aid for tour-guide duty, or to stimulate memories of past encounters of the culinary kind.

Such is the extensive coverage in Rasa-Rasa Penang that those who know only George Town will be excited to discover stalls in more remote parts of Penang Island. Those who haven’t visited the mainland for food might now be tempted to do so.

Amazingly, one can read the book for learning as well although that wasn’t the primary intention of its compiler and editor, Lim Siang Jin, himself a trained sociologist, ex-researcher, ex-journalist, artist, publisher, and, alas, a member of Kuala Lumpur’s ‘Penang diaspora’.

The publication of Rasa-Rasa Penang was the culmination of years of scouting, tasting, photography and writing. The book documents a scale, depth and extent of cultural mix, culinary innovation and small-scale entrepreneurial talent that finds expression in the variety, quality and economy of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Indian Muslim, Thai and ‘hybrid’ cuisines.

No ‘serious book’ has attempted so much

Deliberately or otherwise, to document this vibrant, practically recession-proof, trade in food is to pay homage to a neglected cultural dimension of the making of a multiethnic urban community. It is to provide evidence of a process of cultural integration happening at its best.

The process was slow in its unfolding because of its numerous experiments. Its results were authentic because they were produced from below, not designed from above. Its impact lasts because it remains open to changes and exchanges.

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Above all, this process included sharing a vast array of cheap and popular food but rich and valuable experiences without provoking accusations of cultural inequalities.

The only thing Rasa-Rasa Penang doesn’t do is to rate and rank the hundred-plus stalls, shops and establishments that it covers, mostly on Penang Island but also on the mainland part of the state.

No reader who wants to discover ‘new’ stalls and sample ‘new’ food will find that dismaying.

As for the experts and the producers … well, just look around the stalls in Penang now and see how many of them proudly carry laminated copies of the ‘relevant pages’ from Rasa-Rasa Penang. It’s ample evidence they’ve been treated by Lim Siang Jin with respect and fairness.

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Dr Khoo Boo Teik, an Aliran member, is emeritus professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Tokyo, and visiting senior fellow at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. He is the author of Paradoxes of Mahathirism: An Intellectual Biography of Mahathir Mohamad and Beyond Mahathir: Malaysian Politics and its Discontents
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