A palate for economy food in Miri

More food selections — and steamed kasam ikan for tasting at Ruas Kitchen.

ECONOMY rice? Fast meal? Mixed Rice?

It’s all a question of language or even dialect, according to Linda Tan.

The busy kindergarten teacher has very little time to cook an afternoon meal for her two kids. So once a week, for a change, she would bring them for a quick and ‘economy’ meal in Miri town.

The other four days she prepares a simple packed lunch for her children to bring to school before six in the morning.

What would be the best name for this kind of food business that emerged in the 1970s?

Fast food which comes with a very expensive price tag, would not exactly cut it since it mostly refers to western fast food chains.

Rather, economy rice is the name usually used by Chinese food hawkers to describe their offers of an array of ready cooked dishes to accompany a plate of rice.

One can get two vegetables and one meat or two meats and two vegetables on top of the rice. Some outlets offer more than 12 different dishes, while others up to 24.

Most economy rice outlets occupy a small part of a coffeeshop to save operation costs. And many can be found in the once popular open air markets.

Thus, the Chinese term for ‘economy’ is exactly what the word means — reasonably cheap and affordable.

Some locals prefer the names ‘Chap Fun’ in Cantonese or ‘Nasi Campur’ in Bahasa Malaysia. However, one has to be careful because sometimes ‘Halal Nasi Campur’ can be quite expensive, especially where prawns and fish are served. Prawns can be charged up to RM12 per serving.

Those looking for a real budget meal would not be disappointed by an economy rice stall. The rule of the thumb is to go to a place where one can meet up with a familiar ‘towkay’ or ‘towkay neo’.

A popular mixed rice dish – a Mee Mee specialty.

Happy customers

Marianne Lau, who only has an hour for lunch, told thesundaypost: “Economy rice or Chap Fun is a way of life for many in Sarawak and it’s an easy choice if you don’t mind the mixed crowd. Two vegetables and one meat or all three vegetables come up to RM6. Lunch is done in a jiffy.”

Lau, her friends and many others have many economy food outlets to choose from in Miri, some of which offer as many as 20 types of food. At times, it’s not just hot steamed rice on the menu but porridge as well.

A young customer, known as Jenny, noted: “We like to pick and choose our dishes, especially at outlets with warmers. Some outlets have servers to scoop our orders for us.

“As the queue is long, we have to decide fast and we have no chance to change our mind. That’s usually my problem — sometimes, I may suddenly like two dishes which are at the end of the display cabinet.

“My friends and I go to different economy food outlets on different days. It’s quite an adventure too in Miri because we can have economy rice from stalls, operated by Malays, Orang Ulu, and Ibans.”

For Annie Tiong, from Sibu, she is most happy when she sees stalls offering dishes similar to the ones her grandmother cooks such as steamed egg, toufu (with tougay) and braised pork.

She used to enjoy lunch at Fat Cat in Bintang Plaza where she had good customer service, cheerful servers and polite cashiers.

Special ‘servings’ of selected items from the buffet

Popular Miri outlets

Mee Mee at the Miri Open Market must be the oldest economy rice outlet in the Resort City. The ‘towkay’ is always cheerful and respectful.

The affable operator can even remember people who seldom frequent his stall, and ask after their health when he sees them again, politely asking: Wah, long time no see, how are you?”

It’s such courtesy and civility that give open air markets all over Malaysia their unique character.

A quick lunch at his stall would also include an order for a mug of hot ‘kopi-O’ from one of Miri’s oldest coffeestalls which still uses a copper boiler!

The boiler is more than 70 years old — about the time of the Japanese Occupation. So there is even an element of historical interest here.

Ruas Kitchen in Miri offers six types of dishes on ‘slower days’ but more than 12 on busier days.

The trays of the popular food constantly get a re-fill (hot from the ‘kuali’). One can really enjoy delectable traditional Iban foods self-served from warmed trays.

A customer can even scoop rice into a takeaway box, choose from the dishes offered and pay at the cashier’s.

This kitchen is definitely kind to the pockets of civil servants, office workers and teachers. Even some VIPs have dropped by to enjoy a hearty meal.

It’s economical, and if you like, you can even share a mixed rice plate (two vegetables and two meats) with a partner who is a small eater, or a child.

The Iban culinary delights could prove uniquely tantalising as well. A plate of rice with one meat and two vegetables is only RM5.50.

Ruas Kitchen owner, Mrs James Joshua, said she shopped in the morning for fresh local vegetables such as bamboo shoots, palm shoots and green chillies.

At times, when she gets some tips from friends, she will go to the different tamus in Miri to pick up choice jungle veges. To stay within budget, she will try to buy direct from Bakong suppliers.

“Our wild boar meat comes from reliable sources,” she said.

Occasionally, Mrs James Joshua would also prepare a special ‘tasting dish’ Iban-style such as Steamed Salted Fish … to the delight her customers.

Another popular dish.

Tien Sin

A Chinese coffeeshop at the Centre Point offers more than 16 dishes of Orang Ulu food, prepared by Mr and Mrs Ranson, a husband-and-wife team. Mr Ranson is a retired policeman.

There are four kinds of rice to choose from — red Bario, purple Bario, plain white and leaf wrapped or ‘nuba laya’.

This is a self-service outlet and one pays at the end of the line. Quite often, one can go for more than three vegetables and two meats as the buffet is so inviting.

Special aspects

The operators can serve the dishes separately on request, increasing the bill, albeit by only a small margin as in Ruas Kitchen.

You can order all the special six dishes for your guests who enjoy Iban cuisine.

Bringing guests around 11am for a simple lunch at an economy rice stall is rather convenient — at a time slightly earlier than the office crowd’s. Besides, one can also order roasted pork, roasted chicken from another stall at the premises.

These are places where you can have a big choice of good local dishes at a bargain. One is able to choose from so many different styles of cooking — deep fried, fried, braised, steamed, curried and even food cooked in bamboo. Literally spoilt for choice.

A food show

Foods can be served in specially made display units, kept warm by hot water and an electric heater underneath.

Some outlets display their range of foods in open troughs, others in beautiful ceramic or glass bowls while a couple in enamel basins.

Economy Chinese food includes sweet and sour pork, braised tofu, braised cabbage, steamed egg custard, stir-fried Chinese vegetables, fried eggs, and an assortment of deep-fried items.

So it’s like a kind of food expo for foreigners and tourists.

Egat, the Iban cook, who has been working at the Miri Open Air Market for more than 10 years.

Freebies

Most of the stalls offer free soup which customers can self-ladle. The soup can consist of just a bit of chopped spring onions and some salted vegetables. Some stalls even offer egg soups.

Water — warm or iced — is free at some of the stalls. However, the practice of offering free Chinese tea is no longer observed. It was something the writer and many of her peers were used to when they were college students.

What does the future hold for economy rice outlets?

In the face of rising expectations on food hygiene and quality, and customer service and comfort, the focus for Mirians, in particular, will still be on value for money. So far, economy food stalls have not drastically raised their prices.

As it’s often time-consuming to wait for orders to arrive at some busy restaurants, many have opted for the speedy ‘pick, pay and eat’ self-service at economy rice stalls. What better way to have a quick good Malaysian meal when pressed for time!

Many stalls are using catchwords such as ‘homemade food’ to attract customers.

In fact, some housewives are already setting up home-cooked food buffet stalls outside their homes.

Economy ethnic food even provides a sense of adventure for the young and curious without breaking their wallet. It’s now trending to try authentic ethnic dishes and vegetables from the jungle.

Economy food may have been through more than half a century of history but with its increasing popularity, not forgetting convenience, as a value-for-money fast meal, the future of this enterprise looks promising.

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