First, brain drain … and now, street food drain?


Are hawker maestros in the street food haven of Penang being lured to neighbouring cities and countries? Should we be worried?

This is the Malaysian Food Street in Sentosa, Singapore… and “17 of Malaysia’s best hawkers” have been hand-picked to set up stall there, reports CNN.

I heard that even the street food taste in some parts of KL are gradually losing authenticity as hired hands take over the actual cooking. Is this true?

Should we be doing more to protect our street food heritage in Penang? That doesn’t mean gentrification of street food or using artificial marketing gimmicks. After all, street food has to be on the street out in the open in natural settings.

As CNN reports here:

Without a doubt, the longest-running and most vociferous war between the two cities has always involved food.

In Singapore, street food equals hawker centers. And let’s face it — while they’re supposedly cleaner, they just don’t have the taste of a gritty roadside stall. While Singapore does do better Peranakan and Teochew cuisine, and a meaner chili sauce, there’s something to be said about street food actually coming from the street.

And in Kuala Lumpur the stalls are never-ending — from Ramly burgers to lok lok and satay. Their popularity proves something that oh-so-clean Singapore can’t: when your street food is still in the street, you know you’re in Asia.

Verdict: Kuala Lumpur

We could celebrate Penang street food in all its glory – while being open to other cultural influences in this melting wok.

READ MORE:  Oh no, major new north-south highway on Penang Island ... plus three new artificial islands

We also need to recognise vendors who have contributed so much to Penang. That’s where a street food museum or hall of fame could come in handy.

This report from theSun:

Malaysian street food at Sentosa
Posted on 5 January 2012 – 12:52pm

S. Indra Sathiabalan
[email protected]

POPULAR Malaysian street food find pride of place at Singapore’s Resorts World Sentosa’s Malaysian Food Street.

Officially opened last month, members of the media from Malaysia, Singapore and China were treated to what the street has to offer.

There are 18 stalls, including two halal ones selling roti canai, nasi lemak and briyani.

Most of the stalls cater to famous street food from Kuala Lumpur as well as Penang.

They include Kuala Lumpur’s well-known Jalan Alor Hokkien mee, the Fung Wong Confectionery, Petaling Street Famous Porridge, and Huen Kee claypot rice.

Penang offerings include the Ah Mei Hokkien prawn mee, Penang Hai Beng Hainan lor mee, Penang Ah Long lor bak, Penang Lim Brothers char koay teow and cendol from the original stall on the island.

The interior of the Malaysian food street is designed to evoke the look and feel of streets in Malaysia with facades of old buildings, complete with outdoor tables and chairs for a casual dining experience.

According to Haw Kian Siong, manager of operations for Malaysian Food Street, the concept took over a year of planning.

One of the major challenges was convincing the original hawkers to come in as they had never branched out of their locations before.

However, once they understood what Malaysian Food Street was all about, they jumped at the chance.

Adolf Tan, chef de cuisine at Malaysian Food Street, said in order to decide which hawker fare to feature on the street, they had to consider whether or not the food was eye-catching, as well as its aroma and, of course, taste.

“We later finalised the eight best hawker food. Some of the hawkers who make them have been around since the 60s,” he added.

The opening of the Malaysian Food Street adds to the already wide selection of food and beverages options found in Resorts World Sentosa which range from celebrity chef-run restaurants, themed dining, to the hottest bars and clubs.

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  1. The owner of Singapore’s Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint wants S$3.5 million ($2.8 million) for their 60-plastic-stool establishment, a premium over the S$1.25 million assessed value of the site. Tprice includes the property, their recipe for roasting duck, pork ribs and crispy pig skin as well as other Cantonese-style classics, plus three months of cooking lessons — and, presumably, the loyal clientele that lines up outside, sometimes for more than an hour.

    Perhaps Penang street food maestros can one day command such premium for their trade?

  2. Moving the operators from Petaling Street or Penang is also a brain drain. Don’t be so elitist to think that brain drain only involves a guy or gal with a degree. Looks like the best of Malaysia are being moved down south.

  3. Penang Street Food is featured in March issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller:

    Penang has long been known to have the best hawker food in Malaysia among its fellow countrymen. It is not uncommon for outstation travellers to go on a hunt around the island for the best Char Koay Teow, Nasi Kandar and Laksa the very moment they arrive, even after a four-hour long drive.

    Over the years, with the increase of tourists, word has spread and Penang is now known to be Asia’s best place for street food. An Australian premier food and travel magazine, the Australian Gourmet Travelers recently did an eight-page review on Penang, what they call “a paradise for hungry diners”.

    The editor, Pat Nourse covers everything Penang is famous for, from Peranakan food and Nasi Kandar to durians and to each hawker dish, giving credit especially to Balik Pulau’s Laksa, calling it “one of the best things” one will eat anywhere and at any time. Penang is indeed Asia’s food paradise, setting the benchmark and “showing the world just how good hawker food can be”.

    To read the article, visit

    • so go for transformers ride at sentosa hen for penang food there – what a combo !

      if only there is a tiger park in Penang !

    • Helen Goh:
      His response to my statement that a lot of celebrity chefs travel to a country to show people back home how to cook a local dish was scathing. “I find it idiotic and offensive. I love to eat different foods but I am not so vain or egomaniacal that I would tell anyone how to cook it! I wouldn’t dare tell anyone how to cook chicken rice or sushi – I don’t care how good a cook you are!”
      That’s my 2-cents applause to Bourdain. Now you know why we should appreciate our Ori-Maestros of Penang Street Food. And keep them here for life!

      Also good that his taste buds for chillies have changed from serenading serious French love songs to hot exciting Cha-Cha ala P Ramlee!

      “It’s everything I like about gastronomy in one place.” Bourdain, you are spot on.

  4. Let;s review this before we talk about any ‘drain’.

    The fact is the majority of the people who benefitted from BN/UMNO’s largesse are Malays, some deservingly and many undeservingly. How then to convince the Malays to vote against the government that have provided them benefits, whether deservingly or undeservingly. Who care as a result of lopsided and poor implementation of NEP the country as a whole has not been able to be as rich and as competitive as it should be? Let me illustrate with a specific example to bring up a point. Malaysia has always prided itself as a labour shortage country with millions of foreign workers now working and earning a living here. But at the same time, have you seen the size of civil service, the army, the police, and Rela? Has it ever occurred to us that perhaps many Malays have nowhere else to go but the civil service to earn a livelihood?

    In the long term, it is of course not good for the country – we are just creating unproductive jobs, making the government finance unsustainable, building up bureaucracy and causing more inefficiency and wastage in the economy. But in the short run, who care, the Malays got their high paying unproductive ‘jobs’ and the government got its support. I think half of the Malaysians are rent collectors, they rent out this place call Malaysia to foreign capitals and foreign labour to produce whatever they want to produce, and our role is just to collect rental income from them. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not kecil hati of Malays enjoying the privileges. I am genuinely concerned with the longer term viability and sustainability of this country. With the implementation of minimum wage without due consideration for productivity, the future is rather bleak.

  5. All along we have losing many of our Brilliant Students and the BN government says it is ok ????? Now we are starting to lose our “BEST TASTE”. Malaysia TakBoleh !!!!

  6. Yes very convenient for malaysians to work. But in the end, You get CM, ADUNs are bangla, burmese, nepalese. The whole Penang Island will be swarmed by them as there is no Malaysian workers to replace them. Just like in KL “Chinatown”, you do not see Malaysians but South Asian people.

  7. According to CIMB’s daily brief (2/3/2012) the next decade will see the Singaporean workforce start shrinking, while more go into retirement, such that come 2030, there will be only six citizens starting their working lives for every 10 going into retirement. And beyond that, the Republic’s population will start to decline sharply.

    Based on this forecast, Singapore will depend more heavily on other countries like Malaysia to increase its labour supply. If Malaysia does not improve the wages and benefits of workers, the brain drain problem will worsen. And it looks like small scale businessmen (e.g. hawkers) are joining the exodus.


    • Many SingKahPoh Lang with substantial nest eggs will think of emigrating to cheaper, affordable destinations like Penang Island. They can easily get a 2nd vacation home priced beyond the reach of average Penang Lang. And once here, can start to ‘really’ enjoy Ori-Maestro heavenly food in their retirement.
      And the raced-out, underpaid rats of Penang workforce will emigrate to SingLand to try their fortune for the next 30 years.
      So this inevitable 2-way migration of SingLand’s rich retirees and overworked, underpaid Penang workforce in the Malay Archipelago of contrasting wealth & beggar development.
      Sometimes, I knock my head for not taking that under-paying job offer in SingLand in 1983.

      • tunglung, are you sure singkapor lang (retired people)will come and stay in this Boleh/Bodod land, to be precise, Penang? Have you come across any?

        By the way, Jacqueline, that is good news, so (we) can just pack and walk across to Sg, and live there forever, no need to worry about Perkasa and UMNO…(?)

        Perkasa and UMNO can have rare earth plants everywhere they want and do whatever they desire…

      • Go check out Fettes Residence. One of my friends told me many wealthy foreigners bought the units averaging 3-4 million price tags for 2nd vacation homes. Including SingKahPoh Lang.
        And they don’t stay there 24/7/365.
        Can afford to park their money mah!

      • Let them la tunglung unless Malaysia is like Thailand, only their citizens can have their names registered as property owners.

        What BN government care is ada project ada masuk (pocket individual) !!!

        Lots of things are beyond us unless we have the regime changed and see how the new Pakatan federal government fair ya, ?

        Meanwhile, continue with your kopi o kau kau.

        Cheers and nice day !!!

    • My belief is the Iskandar will be a zone to supply labour to Singapore. Imagine the Malaysians can stay in JB and shuttle daily from JB to work in Singapore. Now you know why Singapore is very co-operative in extending its MRT line to JB (Tanjung Puteri?), all for the convenience of Malaysian workers to Singapore!

      • That is why Sg government is very supportive of Dr M as opposed to Anwar… That old man Lee is a very cunning one, Dr M cant even smell Lee Kuan Yew’s … !!!

        (Does) Lee want the Chinese to be frustrated under the regime of UMNO, so that (we) can cross over to SG…(?)

        At the end, the winner is SG la… UMNO and Perkasa, selamat tinggal !!!

      • Too bad BN is desperate for Singapore’s investment at Iskandar after the ‘pull-out’ of middle east investors. We have already witnessed some Singapore businessmen established ‘kum cheng’ relationship with Johor … to develop the Danga Bay, with private hospitals coming up as well (JohorCorp hospitals will fear such competition).

        We all know that the housing in Singapore is too expensive. Having brainy Malaysians staying in Iskandar (to satisfy their needs for big landed homes) while providing easy transportation (thus the MRT extension to JB) will therefore benefit Singapore as this is a good source of labour/amnpower/brainpower.

      • Penangites should not complain about high cost of housing.

        If you go to Johor’s Iskandar region, you will notice that the price of the private housing is really beyond average Malaysians. Just look at the development near the 2nd link, the bungalows and gated housing are targeted at Singaporeans and foreigners.

        So the BN in Johor is not really helping in the development of low cost housing at all.

      • Agreed. The newly developed properties at Nusa Dua (near the Johor-Singpaore 2nd link) are too expensive for locals. They are not built for locals but for the expatriates (including those working in Singapore) and rich tycoons. Frankly one can only affordif you earn in Singapore dollar, as the prices are pegged according to Singapore market.

      • Same for the local Chinese in Shenzhen. The richie HongKees buy up/rent prime properties leaving nothing affordable. The majority work to earn so as to buy farm lands in the interior China.

  8. Street food drain, what is there to worry?

    Orang Penang banyak bising lor… makan pun mau cari pasal !!!

    My long lost cousin came to Penang and she said, “Bor chit hang ho chiak, none of the food in Penang is good.”

    As far as i am concerned the only hawker food that is good is char kuih teow, any stall will do.

    Let us worry more than food, ok, that is ABU, boleh?

    • Kee
      I am so used to big portion per serving at KL/PJ coffeeshps.
      Penang truly kiam siap and expect you to have many dishes and end up added cost.
      many nice Penang food already successfully assimilated into KL/PJ/Damansara with many hawkers migrated there during Gerakan K era in the 90s.
      I don’t miss penang Street food in KL/PJ area !!!!

      • ya, you are right Thrifty. Though the prices of food can be slightly cheaper in Penang but very small portion.

        In fact, i find it cheaper in KL/PJ if you were to compare the size of the food served.

        That is why i always said there is nothing special about Penang hawker food anymore.

        I can find good asam laksa in Taman Tun, the char kuih teow in the foodcourt next to Taylor’s College (Subang) is also very good.

        Wan Tan mee in KL is anytime better and so is curry mee, claypot rice too. O ya, bak kut teh has to be Klang’s la, Penang one “beh chiak”.

  9. Problem is that Sinkapore is claiming that some of the food comes from them!! For example bak kut teh, my sinkapore born friends never bring me to eat them and all the food and hawker stalls in Kereta Ayer, Newtown, Orchard, Geyland, Toa Payoh, Tiong Bharu, Rochor NEVER sell them when I was there years ago. Same as Yee Sang and Tow Foo Chuk. Now there are more malaysians working there and they bring the this food over there and claim it is theirs. Their Loh Mee is different from KL Loh Mee.

    As for foreigners cooking malaysian food, this happen years ago when this hawker is reaping and laughing at his profit. He paid his burmese cook over two thousand to cook day and night. How can UMNO?Gerakan?Mca? gives work permit to them so easily?

    What kind of job left behind for Malaysians? Malays – continue to finger licking good in KFC, Chinese parachute illegally to work in Chinatowns all over the world and Indians – God help them. If Graduate do not have a reasonable good job what about those with SPM in Malaysia?

    • Penang = Street Hawker Cuisine = Asian #1 Food Mecca.
      Not Soul Korean, not Kimmy Garish. Not Richie PapaMama.

      We cannot prevent a person from emigrating to greener pastures, but we can entice our Ori-Maestros from selling their secret recipes, brand names, food and ‘kungfu’ to other lands claiming Penang Street Cuisine as their originals.
      No need a PHD to think why Penang Street Food is #1 in the minds of competing food tourism strategists salivating to have all the Penang Ori-Maestros and basking in the glory of heavenly street food haven in their own recreated Penang Heritage Facade.

      Think for a moment before we love Bakso in our Hokkien Mee.
      One fine day will come, we will be seeing and tasting less authentic street food plus fewer Ori-Maestros to shout about. Lonely Planet will vomit out the corrupted street hawker food cooked mainly by foreigners, paid in branded Penang prices and sold as so-called Penang heavenly cuisine. The bad word of mouth will be more poisonous than the corrupted street food cooked by cheapo foreigners trying to practice Pg Ori-Maestro ‘kungfu’.

      I love Teochew Chendul @ Lebuh Keng Kwee for the fact that it is now big business as a family-run enterprise with branches in other states. And it didn’t sell its ‘street food soul’ to other Pg wannabe island nations. And it didn’t quit the heritage street stall for some slippery cleanliness obsessed food courts for fancy reasons. If I get the chance to bring about Penang Street Food Museum, this Ori-Maestro late Tan Teik Fuang gets my vote with pride.

      • If the boss of Teochew Chendul @ Lebuh Keng Kwee dare to go and claim 1BRIM’s RM500; then in 2 mths time Jabatan Hasil folks will stake out there to count number of bowls sold. The profit margin of the chendol is at least 75% minus the material and overhead cost.
        The ori-maestros like him are the rich penangites who choose to be modest !

      • One criteria for BR1M eligibility is the engine size of your car.

        Those who have got your RM500, Ah Jib Gor (who is so excited at the tax revenue windfall recently) has promise you no heart attack, but will make you sweat at night as he merrily despatch his Hasil flers (providing job for his jobless graduates) to collect more income tax. Better hide your 1600cc car elsewhere!

      • My former colleague is now working for Hasil. I was told with the information they have gathered from BR1M application forms, they (could) pay ‘courtesy visits’ to your homes to validate your eligibility. BR1M is actually a great strategy to lure income tax defaulters into the trap. Be warned as you may have to answer why you are driving a 1600cc car when you have applied for the RM500.

      • This shows the sly-intention of the Barang Naiki double-edged up to no good trickster.
        On the one hand he badly, sleeplessly needs the support of common innocent folks for the coming GE. But at the same time he seeks this double-edged opportunity to collect more taxes from tax evaders to finance his election campaign of buying frogs.
        That is the standard operation procedure of any Barang Naiki adventurism and Satu Lagi Projek.
        So be forewarned.

    • Why blame Singapore when Tourism Malaysia has the tendency to promote only ‘a certain kind of’ food in Malaysia?

      Look at the food brochure from Tourism Johor, no chinese or indian food is featured at all. Shame on Yen Yen!

      • This was also the case in Penang tourism during the Apanama 80’s & 90’s.
        Even things huge were downsized like the iconic, colorful & huge dragon heads of dragon boats. If the excuse was for balance, streamline boating and less air resistance, how come it was practiced for hundreds of years without much problems or constant accidents due to imbalance?
        Sometimes the brains have to be more open than mere phobic of other cultural dynamism in a land of diversity.

  10. for those who fear penang food drain or migration, fear not as some folks still fly to penang for it. hav a good sunday….eating yourself smartly and not so stupid ?

  11. People will go to place where more money can be made, nothing to cry for seeing Malaysian food in Singapore.

    YTL’s Lot 10 Hutong also ventured into China with Malaysian food.

  12. Both sides gained.
    Singapore retains their tourist and able to project Singapore as the center of Asean. While our hawkers are cross selling and promoting Penang Island.
    Penang will have some opportunity to draw in visitors from Singapore sector.
    While they are in Singapore , all of them will have to follow the strict hygiene law . Hopefully they will insist having the same law for all our Malaysian street food operators.

    *Years ago the DBKL drafted a law& insisted that all food vendors to wear an apron and a cap. I took a walk along the entire Jalan Alor and guess what i saw?.
    In Singapore, all of them will be in court the next day.

    • Yes Sinkapore promote the food as Orginated from them. They say Bak Kut Teh comes from them. So the whole world thinks that Sinkapore is food paradise and Malaysia is only good in belacan

      • Don’t forget the occasional Black Cake available in Komtar on certain ‘noisy days’.
        Well, I don’t have an appetite for it.

  13. tunglang’s effort to set up a penang street food museum not happening because investors looking at $ returns factor ?

    should have contact genting lim goh tong clan to do likewise for penang before “nasi jadi bubur” !

    what are draining out next ? hopefully toxic waste products from lynas plant out of malaysia ????

  14. Why do you think some or going to be many of Penang’s Ori-Maestros (forgive my branding of hawkers to sifu status) emigrated or dying to migrate to Singland like wildebeest?

    1) It is a roaring land of opportunities to make money, more money, become more famous & be the more richer when Sing dollars earned can convert to more Ringgit (x 2.4). Now with Penang property market on the speculative upswing, just pack up and leave for Sing dollars is inevitable and urgent in the disquieted minds of enterprising Penang Ori-Maestros dreaming of “Than Sai Kai” in Gurney Drive millionaire’s row in the near future!
    2) More appreciation by SingKahPoh Gomen as a highly-prized Penang branded & respected hawker with sifu professional status (b’cos one is from Penang and cooks, smells, tastes and looks Penang).
    3) Brighter prospect for their children’s education in SingLand. May be in too near future, more Penang Lang hawkers will be motivated / lured with free children education, medicare and scholarships – a strategic move to draw more Pg Ori-Maestro hawkers to their greener, brighter turfs.
    4) More deep-pocket Tham Chiak Kuis who will not stinge with their hard-earned money to pamper themselves with regular eat-out makan-makan, come good or bad days. Which SingKahPoh Lang wants to cook at home when there’s famous and heavenly Penang street food at the corner now?
    5) Taste buds of SingKahPoh Lang are not as demanding as Penangites, who are too pampered by heavenly street food at affordable price. So Pg Ori-Maestros can relax a bit in SingLand yet earn more and their hawker’s life not too stressed out every morning in Sentosa in holiday mood).
    6) Singapore Food Museum in the strategic tourism plan. Which food will stand out in their history? Not SingLand Hailam Chicken Rice. Not Italiano Cuisine. Not even HongKee Sui Kow. Need no guessing. One fine day, Penang’s Ori-Maestros in SingLand may have their happy faces and rags-to-riches biographies carved in solid copper and smooth granite stone for eternity. This will be the Penang Ori-Maestros’ in SingLand ultimate legacies and pride of purpose appreciated by a Penang street food crazed island nation of profitable Tham Chiak Kuis with more money to binge everyday!
    7) The million ringgit homes by the north seaside with sun sets or on the emerald hills of Penang tourist belt only mighty Sing dollars can buy and the not so wealthy Penangites can only dream at night.

    So where is my earthly Kopi-O kau kau to help ‘dilute’ my mind intoxicated with envy, covetousness and ‘Cloud 9’ Sing dollar salivation?

  15. Can’t recognized the ‘Famous’ food from Penang.
    Do these ‘famous’ hawkers exist in Penang?

    • It’s called advertising and marketing to mislead the less discerning. Who in Singapore would know a hawker stall in Penang selling Char Koay Teow named Lim Brothers? Anyway, any Char Koay Teow from Penang is miles ahead in taste than the local fares in Singapore.

      • Advertising and marketing is all about customer perception. Once a favorable food brand sinks in the minds of receptive Tham Chiak Kui consumers, no amount of yelling or brainwashing will dislodge it. The normal taste becomes heavenly to the undiscerning SingKahPoh Lang, until he comes to Penang to binge first hand Ori-Maestro cuisine without the advertising!

  16. Yes many stalls in Penang are using foreigners to do the cooking and the taste of the food have become quite queer. For example there is one Hokkien mee stall in Macalister Road and it just does not taste like Hokkien mee at all. I can’t fathom out the taste. Anyway it will be the first and last time there.

  17. The other day I went to a chinese chicken rice stall in JB.
    The guy manning the stall now is a Myammar guy!!!

    Two worrying trend for me as afar as street food in malaysia is concerned:
    1) Taken over by foreigners (Indon Kakaks, Nepalese, …
    2) Those moving to food courts are halalized, thus we lose the authentic taste of chinese food without the lard. I do not mean to offend the Muslims here, purely from taste point of view.

  18. Chinatowm already become United Nation Town. Soon all foods are prepared by foreign, then you will have Burmese Laksa like in Bangsar, Indo Fried Koay Teow. Any how with LGe’s housing policy, quite a number of Penangites might even migrate to SP. As more people left the island only leave behind the rich, what do you expect from street hawkers?


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