Set up an international street foods institute in Penang

A delectable plate of char koay teow at Kimberly Street - Mouth-watering, ya?

Should migrant workers be allowed to cook Penang street food? Anwar Fazal answers this question beautifully and expresses so eloquently my own gut feelings on the subject.

As the street food capital of the world(!), Penang should also have its very own institute to teach aspiring cooks, whether local or foreign, the art of rustling up favourite Penang street food dishes. This institute could hire accomplished retired hawkers – or ‘ori-maestros’, as tunglang puts it – to act as mentors for budding street food chefs. That way our culinary heritage can be passed down from one generation to the next.

Migrants, street foods and humanity
by Anwar Fazal

The controversy over migrant workers being allowed to cook Penang hawker food is, like the banning of soup kitchens in Kuala Lumpur saga, a sad story bereft of fundamentals of reality, history, humanity and foresight.

Firstly, Penang’s hawker food has largely been the beautifully enjoyable creative outcome and legacy of generations of waves of migrant workers,
creating a grass roots cuisine eg. nasi kandar, mee jawa, Hainan chicken rice, roti bengali, roti canai etc.

The informal business of street food vendors or hawkers as they are more popularly called, was often denigrated and despised by the authorities during our colonial history but later became legitimised and subsequently celebrated as the wondrous smells, colours and flavours of the “Pearl of the Orient” and now the street food business is among Penang’s leading tangible and intangible assets.

Penang has often been described as the “Street Food Capital of the World”. I have often challenged anyone to show me a place with better four point “Street Food Index” measures – taste, diversity, cleanliness and economy. If they show me any place better on these four counts, I will treat them to Penang Laksa or Pasembur for the rest of their life. No one has yet been able to come forward so far with anything better!

Secondly, we urgently need a new paradigm in the way we manage and treat migrant workers.

We can no longer deal with them as the new “coolies” subject to all the inhumanities of servitude of the slavery kind. We need to move to reach out to them as brothers and sisters and as human beings deserving our care and our compassion.

I have a dear friend, a former distinguished lawyer, whose family treated their maid as one of them. They taught her to drive a car, sent her for part time courses in language and computer classes. The maid’s time in Penang became her liberation for a new great life back home. She was ever grateful and will never forget the family, the place and their kindness and help.

There is now a United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families. Penang should instead take leadership and work with groups like Jaringan Utara Migrasi dan Pelarian (Jump) (the Northern Network for Migration and Refugees in Malaysia), and put that Convention into practice, at least in spirit, until the Federal Government has the courage and humanity to accede to the Convention. That move forward will then be like the innovative Speakers’ Corner at the Esplanade and become another one of Penang’s special public places and practices.

Thirdly, if the “crime” is that a migrant worker assisting or cooking at a stall is not skilled enough, we should recognise humbly that so are some locals.

The most unconscionable solution is to ban them from engaging in cooking.

Instead they should be taught the skills, the art and the science of these culinary delights. Schools of popular local cuisine – like the amazing Nazlina Space Station in Campbell Street, George Town, the centre of the Slow Food Movement in Penang, which stands out as a shining example of creative positive responses. The Station organises daily tours which involves marketing at the local wet market, getting to know herbs and spices, preparing and cutting the foods and then enjoying eating their “handiwork”. Hundreds of foreigners have gone through the culinary delights of Penang’s food and experience in this way.

We need more of such places and regular classes. A project to set up in Penang is a unique culinary campus in cooperation with the Slow Food Movement’s University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy is very possible and should be explored to champion “good, clean and fair” foods.

Fourthly, foreigners will create and enlarge the demand for our unforgettable culinary delights and Penang Laksa and other great dishes will start appearing in cities and villages all over the Asia Pacific region as they have already done in the Australia, US, UK and other places where Malaysian “outbounders” have settled.

I recently had the opportunity to officiate the opening of an International Exhibition on Street Foods in Penang, Malacca and Bandung by one of the leading architecture schools in the region based at the University of Singapore. The street food culture is an amazing story, locally and globally and needs research and development.

What we must champion is an International Street Foods Institute (ISFI) and what better place to locate it than in Penang. This would be an innovation and an investment for global leadership in the culinary area from the bottom up and put Penang on the world map as a leader in research and development of both a tangible and intangible culture.

Fifthly, punishing poor struggling migrant workers and depriving them of development opportunities is the way of inhumanity and pettiness.

Penang is a place recognised globally by Unesco as a world heritage site for its universal values, its multiculturalisation and as a great learning centre. The wonderful culinary experience must also be the essence of this great joy, diversity and beauty.

The negative measure of banning immigrants from learning, assisting and cooking local hawker food will only demean Penang’s reputation as a happy, caring, people-centred place. The idea of prohibiting migrant workers from learning and working as cooks at hawker places should therefore be abandoned for more positive and creative solutions.

If not, this place of great migrant history will join the ranks of certain hypocritical governments of countries that colonised vast areas outside Europe, appropriated history and now, sadly and vindictively, have growing movements that demonise the so-called new immigrants. And tragically, many of these “new” immigrants come from conflict zones too often created or linked to the geopolitical interests of these very nations.

We must not make Penang suffer the same international shame that was the result of the attempt to close soup stations in Kuala Lumpur. The greatness of any civilised people is in its care of “the other”. Penang has been special for that including its iconic “Street of Harmony”, which the former President of India, Dr Abdul Kalam, described as a magnificent school for the whole world for learning humanity and living together. Let us continue to be a beacon of compassion, caring and creativity and not degenerate into anti-migrant stances that are sadly no better than bigotry and racism.

Thankfully, Kuala Lumpur has announced it is withdrawing its proposal to close the soup stations. Penang should do the same with its attempt to restrict foreign workers from operating in the street foods arena.

I would like to end with a poem by Cecil Rajendra, one of Penang’s greatest poets. It not only reminds us of our illustrious multicultural history in this archipelago where monsoons meet but also expresses the sadness of how migrants tend to be demonised, and now even more so, by fascist nationalists, bigots and racists all over the world:

From mangrove and swamp her forefathers
hacked this rugged land,
laid tracks, townships, roads and ports.
With wife and child in tow,
sweated blood
in tin mine and rubber estate
to give this country its spine of steel.
In the teeth of disease, death, torture
her fathers fought from the heart
of our deepest, darkest jungle
to wrest this land from the martial fist
of the occupying imperialist.
Her mother’s wit,
inventiveness genius
enriched our language, culture, cuisine
With cake, curry, kebaya, boria, porcelain.
Her tools now so entwined with strands
of this country’s history/future
she felt not one iota less than a full citizen.
Till that fateful morning when she awoke
to find herself branded IMMIGRANT.

Anwar Fazal, the writer, is the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award popularly known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’. He was the President of Consumers International and the initiator of World Consumer Rights Day (15 March) and International Migrants’ Day (18 December).

What do you think?

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Chela Vazquez

We tend to forget that most people around the world are immigrants from past or recent migrations. Also, it is often overlooked the contributions of migrant workers in Malaysia and everywhere else. Malaysia and the world is continuously enriched by this mix of people. Let’s welcome and treat immigrants the same way we wish for ourselves when we are outside our national borders.


Long long ago people can migrate from one place to another as there is no immigration control.
The world is a different place right now. Outsiders are now welcome as tourists, as visas are issued for limited stay.


Is your char kwat teow served on a Styrofoam plate or paper plate? Not clear frim the picture you posted. I thought Penang has banned non-degradable styrofoam food containers.

Super K

Anil, I want to complain. There is someone trying to confuse your reader. My nickname is Super K and please ban the nickname of Super L.

Super K

Ok never mind, will consider new nickname.

Super K

I tell you what. If they are gone crazy, they will sooner or later, set some rule like laksa must have certain things else it is illegal or punishable by samans etc.

Hawker food are simple business. Why complicating the simple, beautiful and delicious business? This time I cannot bodek LGE anymore. His idea simply stupid and tak boleh pakai. Ai yoyo tak boleh ini machiam. You can’t impose 5 star hotel expectation on hawker business. What else? ISO certification for laksa stall? It’s plain stupid, isn’t it?


Pls do not insult Penang street food with such non-sensible comment. Unfortunately the ‘simplicity’ of Penang street food could not be duplicated by migrant workers as they lack the cultural touch!

Super K

If that is the case why bother to ban non local cooks? It is a total mistake to do so.


20 of the 31 murder victims in Penang this year are foreign workers.
Influx of foreign workers has also raise security issue?

Super K

I found LGE outright stupid idea to ban foreign cooks in Penang. Let the market force be the judge. A bad stall selling low class / bad taste food will never survive for long. We need a better CM. He is no better than MP who famous for “jaga longkang” phrase.

Please save Penang from stupid cowboys!!!!!!!

Ravi Vijaya

I don’t understand what the freaking fuss is all about. Penang food IS foreign in origin and is, has been and always will be cooked by foreigners who settled here long ago. If it’s gonna be cooked by the latest influx of “foreigners”, so what? In reality, will it make Penang food any less “local?”


Is it not freaking fuss to have such reliance on foreign workers in every aspects of our economy?
Why encourage such influx of immigrants? To keep your street food cheap?

A day will come when your kids will have to call them boss and work for them, then they will kow peh kow boh.


Over-reliance on foreign workers in every aspect of our economy is the freaking fuss. Most of the local hawkers in other states of Malaysia cannot cook Penang hawker fare to deliver that unique taste and flavour. In other words, their cooking and style cannot be copied so easily. If foreigner do that, the quality will drop and the heritage of Penang as a famous food hub will lose its shine and will become just a another state good for normal food. However, there are a certain group of people in Malaysia that somehow prefer influx of foreign workers as it… Read more »

Don Anamalai

Has influx of cheap foreign workers suppressed wage rise of low income earners? If the good Penang street food vendor can produce world renowned cuisines, then why can’t they charge slightly higher premium price in order to provide incentive for the family to sustain the business beyond the current generation, thus preserving the unique taste of Penang street food? If office workers or professionals or engineers can command pay rise each year, what about these street food vendors? Those advocating influx of foreign cooks are actually doing disservice to the children of these wonderful Penang street food vendors! Step into… Read more »

Shila Kaur

I think Datuk Anwar has written a beautiful essay on an aspect of Penang’s rich cultural heritage – its foods – street and otherwise – and the contributions of its residents, local and immigrant, to this richness. I think we must not and cannot deny the multiple roles that recent migrants play in the economic and social fabric of Penang and that their contributions have been immense. After all many of us ‘locals’ are decendents of migrants…. and Penang’s geography, history and rich social fabric draws the best. It is the immigrant who contributed to the richness of our cuisine,… Read more »


Anil,no tonly at kimberly street. Nowdays almost all the street hawker and kopitiam wash their utensils on the floor,sometimes near drain and washroom.i’m not into street foods anymore. i don’t mind pay bit extra to get cozyness and hyginic. At least if anything goes wrong coz of the food, i know where to turn and what to do.Migrants, no comments,havoc they create at residential areas….only the experienced would know the result.

Super L

i echo your view 100%.
may be some folks want to preserve such tonly scenes as trademark of Penang street food in the museum to showcase the uniqueness !


Where’s the data that this is a problem in the first place? If it is such a problem, getting the pitchforks out to blame the foreigner won’t solve anything at all. We have plenty of lazy lousy cooks so if a hawker doesn’t care about quality, he’ll get someone equally lazy to cook substandard food – no need to import mediocrity. Surely the solution would be to reward excellence? Economics are a great motivator. Put a state sanctioned list of hawkers that meet the standards of excellence (good luck defining it though) by being audited, and publish it each year.… Read more »


Penang hawkers are smart. Why should they pass down their recipe and method of cooking when they can sell their trade secrets to Singapore agents like those operating Malaysia Food Street in Sentosa?

I think Malaysia is relying too much on cheap foreign labour, bringing with it all kinds of social problems. Of course those cronies running foreign labour agencies are happy to import these pendatang asing for profit. There are many lazy Malaysians including those jobless graduates, they should venture into food business so that no foreign labour is needed!


You can now get Penang food at “Penang Street” at Funan DigitalifeMall in Singapore:

Another outlet is at NUH Medical Centre:

One day you will find more authentic Penang food in Singapore if foreign cooks are to dominate the Penang food scene! Nazri our Tourism Minister obviously travels overseas often to have noticed the threat that many Penangites are still unaware.


I dread for the day when PenangLang or PenangKia got to travel to Singland to savour authentic Penang Hawker Food ! Won’t be surprised by the S$ magnet pull-in our famous generation (with the secret recipes) Penangites there to operate business !
Won’t you ?????

loo seng tak

Good hawker will guard his trade secrets, so the idea of food institute will not work.

Super L

Street Food Secrets can be traded by the lure of S$ !
$inple as that. The truth hurts …. so sorry to say so


I like ken’s comment, straight to the point and easily understood.
I read Anwar Fazal’s article 3 times, but still do not understand what he is trying to say. Also, it is still not clear what is Anil’s position on the issue of migrant workers cooking Penang hawker food. As for Michael, we value the contribution of migrant workers in sectors they are hired to work, but not as cook for street food in Penang. I doubt there is any official work permit for them to be street food cook.


I think foremost the Penang street hawkers must observe high standard (not necessairily incur higher cost of operation) of cleanliness. Otherwise they will lose out many customers as newer generation seek more comfort & pleasant sight at indoor-served food. MPPP must provide guidance to some hawkers eg food display like signboards don’t just simply scribble. A proper written signboard can last forever and won’t cost a lot but pleasant to foreign visitors ! Also for goodness sake don’t wash the plates/bowls next to stall by the roadside drain ! Collect them to be washed and cleaned out of sight of… Read more »

Batu Ferringhian

I agree. Malaysians should learn to treat people with people with respect. Treating migrant workers less than human beings is downright racism. Get in touch with groups like Tenaganita and Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign…

But honestly with the crisis in Selangor…food is the last thing on my mind 😛

I’m not an emotional eater who will drown my sorrows in cheesy wedges ha ha


Crisis in Perak, now in Selangor. Very soon in Penang ?
Must be behind the scene activities ?
No stomach for street food these days.

bty, street food institute is just a more fanciful “bin chui” calling for street food museum ?


As a current migrant of privilege, coming as it were from the shiny shores of New Zealand (several Malaysians have asked me why I want to live in Malaysia when you come from New Zealand) Anwar Fazal’s fine words resound within me as a clarion call to put words to paper. It seems that because my skin is white (actually to quote Steve Biko-it is red) it is assumed that I carry with me a similar distaste for those people many Malaysians call foreigners. This word ‘foreigner’ is usually used in a derogative manner to refer to people from Bangladesh,… Read more »


Perhaps you are still new in Malaysia and cannot understand why we do not want foreigners coming in via Projek IC and letting all those crony agencies making money thus encouraging from human trafficking. For this reason I do not support the idea of having foreigners being hawker cooks here when we should encourage the locals to venture in local food business with pride.


Hi Ken,

I am not so new to Malaysia and being ‘new’ seems to be used here to dismiss the points I was making above. The ‘foreign’ worker migrants did not arrive via a deceptive Projek IC acted out in Sarawak.

Try smiling at a foreign worker…let them know you regard them as important to the Malaysian economy…that you appreciate their input into cleaning your streets, building your houses, serving you at your restaurant and don’t forget to thank them.


I am most disturbed that Penang food might be cooked and provided by foreigners. To begin with why should there be foreigners in Penang to begin with, from what I can see Penang is still what it is to day and there should not be the need to import foreigners into the island. There should be enough of Penang born hawkers to do the job that most tourists are coming for. Don’t ape what every state in Malaysia is doing because Penang’s survival is in the hands of their own people.


Hi charleskiwi,

You mean you don’t appreciate having tourists (you know, another word for foreigners) coming to enjoy the warmth, the food, the beaches, the historical town…………