Myopic ban on foreign cooks for Penang street food


I was planning to write something about this ban, but a Kamal Solhaimi Fadzil beat me to it in this piece published in Malaysian Insider.

I just want to add two more points to what Kamal has written: the skills that foreign cooks pick up here will not be lost when they return to their home countries. Who knows, they might set up stalls selling Penang nasi kandar and Penang Char Koay Teow in places like Burma, Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam. Couldn’t we see these cooks as potential street food ambassadors for Penang, when they return to their home countries and perhaps start promoting Penang street food over there? Wouldn’t the customers in their home countries be curious to find out what Penang char koay teow actually tastes like in Penang? That would be akin to us visiting Italy and once over there, being curious enough to sample the pizza there to see if it is anything like what we find in Malaysia.

The other point is that we are on the verge of realising the Asean Community in 2015. Why confine Penang street food to just Chinese, Malay, Indian and Indian-Muslim varieties? Shouldn’t we be encouraging foreign cooks to broaden the variety of cuisine offered in Penang? Wouldn’t locals here want to savour Vietnamese and Nepalese street food, for instance? After all, as Kamal points out below, that’s how we started in Penang: as a melting pot of cuisine brought in by settlers especially after the 18th century. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Penang is known not just as a haven for a special kind of Malaysia street food but a paradise for South-East Asian or even Asian street cuisine, with a special Penang twist to it (just like how we modified Chinese and Indian-Muslim dishes to come up with popular local versions like Penang char koay teow and Penang nasi kandar in the past)? Why limit the opportunity to “innovate”, to evolve and come up with new local versions of popular Asian dishes?

And what kind of message does this ban send out: that foreign workers are only good enough for washing plates and clearing tables, but cannot learn skills like cooking Penang street food?

This ban also makes it difficult for older Penang cooks who are reaching retirement age and would like to step back and assume the role of mentors. They could otherwise train other workers, whether foreign or local, to carry on their thriving businesses while passing on their culinary skills to a new generation of cooks, never mind if some of them are foreign.

Okay, this is the Insider opinion piece by Kamal:

Dear Sir, your article made me ponder on five themes.

Allow me to elaborate below:

First, where did the unique Penang food originate?

Second, your statement on Japanese, Italian and other foreign food cooked by locals is not accurate. A lot of these restaurants hire foreign cooks from Bangladeshi, Myammar, etc as cooks. The food turns out great in many instances.

Third, you say that these foreign workers have no choice but just to follow what the stall owners or their employers tell them what to do.

You said: “Telling foreign workers that they cannot cook in hawkers stalls is not denying them their rights or depriving them of their passion for cooking because they are indifferent – it is a job not of their choice, but the decision of their employer… any culinary skills these foreign workers acquire would be lost because foreign workers will have to return home after a period of time.”

The statement reflects a shallow generalisation. Foreign workers experiences and interests are diverse. So are treatment and relationships they share with employers. While there may be such low standards for respecting foreign worker rights, many employers have good hearts. It is not uncommon to see foreign cooks in quite jovial interaction with their employers.

And, since when is any skill set, particularly, culinary skills not useful anywhere in the world?

Fourth, Penang food is the greatest?

“Unlike other cities, tourists come to Penang for food.”

This statement does not do justice to your outward personality as intelligent and urbane. I assume as chief minister, you do see the world quite a bit. But this statement unfortunately, reflects a katak bawah tempurung.

Just for your benefit sir, let me share a little from my experiences in travelling: people go to Melbourne, Sydney, London, Paris, and the list goes on, because of their cuisine.

Penang is not special in that regard. Even by local standards, not so special. Locally, people go to Sarawak for their kuih lapis, kolo mee, etc.

They go to Ipoh for food, they go to Bidor for the prawn curry mee, and the list goes on. In fact, people travelling to eat is not that novel a concept.

Final point on your say: “Malaysians must take over as cooks, and not through relying on indifferent foreign workers, whose skill would be lost when they return home… (the ban) will be refined to exempt foreign wives of hawkers and other circumstances from this ‘no foreign workers’ ruling.”

I don’t even know how to respond to this. First, you fall back on the oft-heard (but seldom qualified) statement blaming the foreign worker for everything.

But that doesn’t even take the cake, the next statement is classic. Are you suggesting that at this point, the state ruling on foreign cooks in hawker stalls extends to include a ban on foreign wives from acting as cooks? Are you serious (since you plan to refine it once implemented)?

Lim Guan Eng, it goes without saying that I expected much more from you. I did not expect this shallow response to justify the ruling against foreign workers as cooks in hawker stalls.

If really there is a drop in food quality, why not look at how local hawkers train their cooks, look at the ingredients they buy and look at their recipes.

As you said, hawker food is diverse. Well so is quality. But the assurance for quality lies not with a resident status, but with skill transfer, training and monitoring quality assurance.

These are all transparent and structural – it can be taught and quality monitored. Lay blame where it should be and stop scapegoating migrant workers.

On that note, let’s revisit the first theme: where did Penang street food originate? The answer should be obvious enough; our common heritage as migrants.

The famous “local” Penang cuisine, nasi kandar, or laksa or what have you is probably a blend of migrant recipe adapted to local ingredients and tastes.

In a nutshell, isn’t it ironic, that we are now gentrifying “local” cuisine and denying its migrant “melting pot” heritage while thumbing our noses on people who come to do an honest day’s work?

If this isn’t discrimination, perhaps a stronger word is needed. Bigotry anyone? – October 28, 2014.

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David Loman

Myopic ban on ‘hot dog’ name in Malaysia?

gk ong


What is truly myopic is to ban non-halal food from FF1M 2014.

Do you think tourists want to sample Penang Char Kway Teow cooked without the key ingredient lard?

Is Malaysia still Truly Asia, or it is now Truly Islamic?


Why don’t these zealots just ban non-Muslims from Malay or Mamak restaurants?

Any chance a Chinese still with lingering lard on his lips (after a plate of Char Koay Teow) may just pop-in a halal restaurant for a teh tarik. The residual lark from his lip may just render the unfortunate cup ‘untouchable’ for life.
But then, business money speaks louder than the zealot’s unrealistic passion for all things halal.

What’s your say mamak restaurant owners?


To me the concept of hygiene is most important. The “authenticity” of the food is a matter of each individual choice/taste. I notice foreigner may not have the same hygiene concept/standard as ours and the safety of the food maybe compromise. I believe the concept of the ban is valid. I do not patronize the food stall if the boss himself/herself is not there to cook the food. However the BAN can be lifted and can be further refine to CERTIFYING hawker food cook rather than banning them outright. If the so call “foreigner” is a PR or citizen of… Read more »


Now BN authority is complaining that the pig farming is not hygienic.

LGE tak boleh

I believe in free market. Protectionism does work. Look at MAS and Proton. Let the foreign and local cooks compete. Who serve the best food wins the customers


Why encourage influx of foreign workers, who have qlready outnumbered the Indian population in Malaysia?


Happened to see the headline of the Utusan frontpage today: 30,000 pendatang asing in Cameron Highlands, 80% are Bangladeshi.


30,000 wai lao to pick tea leaves?
Indian tea leaf picking ladies may have to pack up their luggages & leave!
Where is the Labour Office in Cameron Highland?
The new commercial of (a tea company) may soon feature wai lao happily picking tea leaves while singing & shaking to the tunes of Bangla, Burmese & Vietnamese songs in a mix & match rapping!!!

I may soon miss the Indian lady aroma in Boh Tea!

LGE tak boleh

Let’s do a veil of ignorance test. Imagine a Malaysian selling Western food in overseas. What you think of the ban when the government bans foreigners from selling Western food?


Which Western countries merrily admitting foreigners (Europe only allows people of EC to enter freely) to be hawker food vendors?

Stylo Logan

With more foreigners as cooks in Penang hawker fare, we might as well go to Singapore for more authentic Penang food (by Penang migrants there) in the near future.


Lim Brothers Penang Char Kway Teow at Singapore’s Sentosa (next to Universal Studio) are cooked by Penang Chinese, not halal with lard. 99% Authentic Penang taste.

So why should Singaporeans fly to Penang for Char Kway Teow fried by Myanmar or Bangladeshi cooks?


Anil, SingKahPoh lang who read this article may have had to think twice whether to visit Penang for food binges. Remember 3 years ago we commented the pro & cons of foreigners dishing out or ‘morphing’ Penang local dishes, the state tourism head honcho was clueless & indifferent until now. Bakso Koay Teow, my goodness. It may be too late that some Penang hawkers have migrated to better places combined with the higher Sing Dollar value factor & unsupportive state gpmen for local hawkers, no matter how good they are in the category of Ori-Maestros. Who wins but the SingKahPoh… Read more »


Cooking up good food is about a combo of art , skill and passion. Agree that not anyone can cook . Not agreeable to banning of foreign cooks and the reasons are just bit lame. As if the foreign apprentice is not up to the mark, the stall owner would not take a risk and tarnishes his /her own reputation and business. Food is about varieties and no 2 stalls selling the same thing taste exactly the same. Therefore, by bringing up protecting a certain taste is flawed. Best to give full support to have hygienic food preparation Dislike such… Read more »

Penang forever!

Certain food courts on Penang Island catering primarily to foreign tourists are full of foreign cooks dishing out poor imitations of Penang hawker fare. The tourists who are brought there by the busload by tour companies and tour guides do not know any better and think this is the best Penang has to offer. If they get a bad opinion of the food (and service – as some of the China nationals working at those food stalls are very crude and have very bad manners!), who is to blame but the profiteering operators who is earning heaps of money through… Read more »


‘Cut corners’ by food stall operators, my tham chiah kuis. With high rentals (e.g. more than Rm1K for stall space monthly rental @ New World Park food court), increased ingredient costs & fuel/gas costs, what can a hawker cut costs to maximise profits? Employ cheapo ‘wai lao’ lah. And some hawkers who are reaching retirement & may have lost ‘steam’ (passion + hard work) would prefer to ‘than sai kai’ watching stock market online or get high at Penang Turf Club / Genting Casino & knowing that more tourists are patronising their stalls, notwithstanding a loss of genuine food taste… Read more »

Eng Hock

think domestic debt issue is more critical over foreign cook matter. 1MDB sovereign fund is at least RM36 billion in debt and still want to wander into the energy sector (buying up used IPPs) and real property and continue to bleed Malaysia ??? Public debt has definitely overshot the 55% of GDP debt ceiling if we were to include all the offshore account contingent liabilities that being shielded away from us ??? Household debt is near 80% of the GDP and young people can be insolvent at the age of 25 (car loans for example). When in debt, food cooked… Read more »

Eng Hock

how come Gerakan so silent on foreign cook issue ?
Income distribution, the worsening level of education, the deterioration of domestic and external security, the scourge of corruption were not addressed in 1Budget and yet Gerakan is standing up for them ???

ong eu soon

Demagogue Apartheid Party with apartheid housing policy not enough now want an apartheid labor policy.

Eng Hock

While Indonesia is adopting openness and meritocracy and more democracy, Malaysia is reversing. Malaysia is introverted, becoming more tight-fisted, and petty. After 5 years, the country has not transformed into what the various acronyms promised. The country is divided along racial, religious, and social lines; the security of this country breached so many times. We have millions of foreign paid security workers guarding our housing estates and commercial premises; the economy has grown at non-extraordinary rates, public debt has risen, household debt has grown to astronomical levels, religious bigotry and pettiness are on the rise. What has AhJibKo done? Long… Read more »

Stylo Logan

Jokowi traveled on Garuda, Lee Haien Loong travels on SIA and India’s PM Modi is abstaining from first class air travel.

But our 1PM prefer to waste our money on 1Malaysia private jet!

Phua Kai Lit

Better to certify than to ban.

Certify those stalls that have locals as the chef/cook.
Foreign tourists (those who do not know how local dishes should taste like) would
then gravitate to these stalls and avoid the ones where Indonesians and Bangladeshis
dish up faux “Penang” food.

Supply and demand, consumer sovereignty etc

Penang forever!

I agree with Phua Kai Litt. Penang needs a standards certification body for its hawker food. I see stalls in KL and Selangor claiming to be Penang fare but cooked by Myanmar, Vietnamese, Bataks and Ambonese from Indonesia, and China nationals! The food is mostly not tasty nor authentic tasting. The Penang state government should copyright “Authentic Penang Hawker Dish” logos and labels and only hawker stalls which qualify can use the certification openly.


Instead of spending billions to build the sea tunnel, Penang gomen may consider these: 1) ‘offer to buy’ the original secret recipes of Penang’s famous street hawker cuisines 2) create a Penang Hawker Food University to train potential Ori-Maestros-in-the-making 3) engage Penang Ori-Maestros (like CEO Tan of famed Lebuh Keng Kwee Teowchew Chendol) to train aspiring Penangite hawkers 4) recognise hawkers trained with the necessary trade skills & hygiene practice as professionals 5) give recognition to aging Ori-Maestros for their contributions to food tourism (a hall of fame?) 6) set up a Penang Street Food Museum, both for tourists &… Read more »

Phua Kai Lit

Japan has its “Living National Treasures” i.e. humans with prized skills such
as master craftsmen and master craftswomen.
Penang can designate great hawker chefs as Living Penang State Treasures ! 🙂

Wee Chin

“This ban also makes it difficult for older Penang cooks who are reaching retirement age and would like to step back and assume the role of mentors.” The old Penang cooks are unlikely to pass down their trade secrets to foreign workers. No need for me to provide the reasons. Anyway, you can sell your recipe/trade secret for a profit, unless you have the noble objective to help the poor foreign workers to take over your business. The question is why their children do not want to inherit the business and be the 2nd generation cooks? One reason is they… Read more »

Penang forever!

I was greatly heartened to learn that a friend would be opening a Penang kopitiam in Kajang in Jan 2015. He would only be using Penang cooks (family members) for the 2 hawker stalls in the kopitiam and he would be handling the drinks. No foreign workers would be hired. He wants to guarantee his customers it would be a 100% Penang kopitiam experience! All local staff would be Penangites to ensure the superiority and authenticity of service. All “special” ingredients would be “imported” from Penang, especially the coffee and tea. Many coffee shops in KL and Selangor use inferior… Read more »


Easy excuse for laziness or pure exploitation using cheap foreign labour to cook on your behalf, while the boss sit by the side counting money or watching Astro. Relying on foreign labor (maid inclusive) is becoming a lifestyle of many Malaysians. By the way Indinesia is unlikely to export their maids here as their min wage of about RM650 at home will mean RM800 maid salary in Malaysia no longer attractive. Malaysia should import Brain to improve competitiveness in value-add sector and not Brawn. Just leave foreign labour to the construction industry. Anil may forget that many who support foreign… Read more »

Stylo Logan

Valid points by lst.

Penang forever!

Many foreign workers working at food stalls do not have work permits but are here on tourist visas. For instance, I asked the owner of a well patronized Chinese coffee shop who employed 5 Myanmar – 2 as cooks of hawker food – and he said he hired them from off the street and they have not received the necessary vaccinations! I have stopped eating there after hearing this! Most Malaysians do not care and will continue eating in such places employing illegal foreign labour until we have a major outbreak of a communicable disease spread by kitchen workers.


By the way, a resort at Balik Pulau illegally hires Myanmar folks as workers (no work permit) as the wages is only half of what you are paying the locals.

LGE tak boleh

If it is the permit and health issues, the immigration and health ministries should improve the enforcement.

Do we take cough syrup to cure stomach pain?

Penang forever!

Let us not forget something, most of these foreign workers are not migrant workers but sojourners. They plan to return home eventually after they have earned enough money. Only the Indonesians and Bangladeshis have a chance of integrating into Malaysian society (based on my observations over 20 years) and many have done so very well, but not as cooks or restaurant help. Invariably they always graduate to other businesses and do quite well for themselves. I know of former Bangladeshi kitchen help who are now college lecturers, marketing personnel, etc. Indonesians become contractors, traders, owners of lorry transport companies, etc.

Stylo Logan

Certain Umno folks are from Jawa, or have Bugis blood.


So what if the migrant workers come here for a shorter time than others? They are still migrant workers.

Penang forever!

Michael, have you ever spoken with them? I have, frequently, and most of them do not eat our food unless they are forced to. They only eat their own dishes if they are able to cook. One Vietnamese cook who worked for a Chinese boss for 7 years, left him to open up a series of Vietnamese hawker stalls in the Klang area and in Melaka. He told me he prefers to cook his own Vietnamese hawker cuisine like pho, etc. Most of his customers are Vietnamese workers, not Malaysian, though he gets foreign tourists daily who would try his… Read more »


It doe’t take a genius to learn how to cook, at the end of the day if the taste of the stall that employs a foreigner to do the cooking is not what a patron is looking for. Ultimately the stall will have to pay for the price of having less customers.

Penang forever!

I have been patronizing Char Koay Teow and Curry Mee stalls employing foreign workers – Myanmar, Bangladeshis and Vietnamese – and the stuff they produce is not dissimilar to what Malays cook, but quite alien to Penang Chinese tastes. I am quite wary of “holier than thou” remarks made by Malays as few of them have any idea of how most Penang Chinese hawker taste like as they simply do not eat the food as it is not halal. So who is the real “katak di bawah tempurung”?


Tell me if the halal version of char kway teow kerang without lard can taste the same as the one Penang is famous for?

If so, the two sisters can have no distinct advantage.

SingKarPoh Lard Lover

Some Chinese hawker cuisines like Char Koay Teow and Hokkien Mee have lard to enhance aroma and unique taste.
How can have Muslim Bangladeshi to touch non-halal lard while cooking local cuisine?
Best to leave some of these dishes to Penangite chefs with unique noses, tongues and taste buds!
If I am a Singaporean coming here for the food, I would expect genuine hawker food with all the lard to satisfy my tham chiak kui spirit.


Indo-ma-ma-mia! Burma-ma-ma-mia! Vietcong-ma-ma-mia! PizzaHut may soon become Aseania-Pizza – A Truly Asean Pizza! Never mind if it tastes un-Italiano. The Godfather may forgive you on Christmas Eve for taking such a risky ‘gamble’ – a gamble of taste bastardisation of his favourite Ori-Italiano Classics. Penang street hawker cuisine has evolved from a cheap man’s roadside quickie-meal to become one of the most sought after irresistible street hawker food in the world. Cuisines like Assam Laksa, Char Koay Teow, Mamak Mee Goreng, Nasi Kandar, Teowchew Chendol, & many other multi-cultural cuisines have become “classics of Penang street hawker food” that ring… Read more »

Penang forever!

Well said, tunglang! Italian pizza has been bastardized in the USA. Ask any Italian and they will say it is nothing like the originals, and I totally agree with them. Nowadays I cannot accept the American taste and portions after tasting the originals. American pizza is the result of what happens when migrants introduce a dish from the mother country to their new home country and it gets corrupted due to a shortage of authentic ingredients and a loss of the original cooking technique. If a returning Myanmar tried to introduce Char Koay Teow to Yangon, it might come out… Read more »


I guess the order of the day is to ensure that foreign cooks are trained to replicate whatever dish they cook to perfection. That should be the prime concern.


Lets not beat around the bush….the Chief Minister is an advocate for discriminating against migrant workers. How quickly we can forget our roots.


The real discrimination came from those who called Malaysian-borned non-Malays as pendatang.

Kim Ang

I think the issue should be ensuring that the foreign workers are screened for contagious diseases, are healthy and have good training in hygiene matters.

Seng Hai Tan

A most asinine, discriminatory policy from a state govt of a political party that supposedly stands for justice and fairness. And why only for hawkers in stalls and foodcourts and not the restaurants and mamak shops?

Wee Chin

Pease read these statements from CM LGE:

“There is nothing discriminatory about barring foreign workers from being cooks only at hawker stalls because hawker licenses are granted for lower-income Malaysians and supposed to be owner-operated, whilst this ruling does not bar foreigners from owning restaurants nor prevent foreign workers from cooking in restaurants.”

“How can this ruling be undemocratic or discriminatory when it is intended to protect the uniqueness of Penang food, that hawker stalls must be owner-operated and that foreign workers can assist the hawker in other duties?”


it is expoitation by local owners personally overhear local owner of a stall he pay extra to a foreigner to cook at night. nothing left for locals due to cheap labour, bigger profit and less competiton as less local knows how to cook.


Like I said before, when I employed a foreigner to cook for me I expect the food to be almost good and authentic otherwise I may have to close shop. Its so simple as that.


Anil : I think you misunderstood my comment. There is no need for this banning of foreign cook because if he fail then I fail so I have to make sure he cook the food my way.



Any reason why my comment posted at 10am is not published?

Do I need to agree with you to get priority?