Monday, April 22

Are we too spoilt for choice in our hawker food stalls and new eateries?

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The old food court – Open Air Market at Jalan Market Kuching.

FOR the past few years, I have noticed the proliferation of many new food courts, hawker food stalls, and medium- to high-end eateries offering all kinds of culinary delights – especially in Kuching, Miri, Bintulu, and Sibu.

Just a case in point, taking Kuching as an example, in the last two years alone, the ‘new territories’ of Tabuan Tranquility, Saradise, Gala City, Matang, Kota Sentosa, Kota Samarahan, and others have seen the additions of hundreds of new (or branches) of hawker food stalls and eateries of all kinds of cuisine – from local dialectical fare like lui-char (thunder tea), kacang-mah (motherwort herbal chicken), to Malay specialities and native dishes, to foreign fare from Korea, India, Japan, USA, and Europe! That’s besides the fast food chains of burgers, pizzas, and so forth.

Yes, we are really spoilt for choice.

I remember back in the day, not so long ago, in the 1960s and even till the 1970s and 1980s, eating out was a rare and costly family affair. Not many families did that, especially if theirs is a big family – as eating out was considered a luxury and only for special events such as birthdays, weddings, and big celebrations which called for such extravagance.

Firstly, home cooking was the norm, routinely done on a daily three-meal basis; there was mostly communal living within a family homestead. Transportation was still an issue thus going out in a fleet of vehicles to a common destination would have involved some planning. Besides this, there weren’t that many eating places to speak of back in those days.

I believe our lifestyle started changing only in the 1990s, with many second, third, and even fourth generation children starting to move out of the family homestead, when lots of new housing estates were built and the opportunity of owning one’s own house became a possible dream rather than a rarity. Banks had provided easy loans, and houses had become somewhat affordable. Passenger cars too became necessities instead of luxuries. There were many double income families too.

This boom changed the lifestyle of the local consumer – as suddenly arose new opportunities for business-minded people to cash in on such change in habits. Many new shop houses were built; investors swiftly bought them, they were easily rented out, and many became coffee shops. The go-to business plan those days was the safest business to get into to gain the most profit without much risk in the quickest way possible, which meant to open a coffee shop. Everyone needed to drink and eat – three times a day and everybody pays cash. No debt, so no risk. Just provide the food, make a neat margin, and you’re on your way to your very first million!

It had all sounded rather easy.

Many of those who were in the early first and second wave of these local fast food providers did indeed make lots of money – as long as they had a decent enough product, it was easy to spread the good word by mouth – and there were still only a limited number of really good food outlets way back then. Don’t forget this was during the days before the internet, before social media, before Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Instagram.

What the providers of hawker stall fare lacked in variety way back then, they made up for with really good home-cooked food – and they did it with prices ranging from RM1.50 for a bowl of kolok mee to RM2.50 for a bowl of Sarawak laksa. A char sio pao from Hock Hai only cost RM1.20 and a plate of three siobees for RM1. These were prices back in the 1970s. Popular hawker foods available then, besides what I just mentioned included porridge, chicken rice, kuih-chap (or tu-ka png), chui kiaw (dumplings), char-kuih, satay, mee jawa, mee goreng, mee sapi, prawn fritters, as well as desserts like angtow peng, ABC, tofu hua, etc.

Today, you can probably find all these offerings and more at any decent sized food court in any part of town!

Yes, indeed – the times they are a-changin’ …

Within a short period of less than 10 years, we have also seen a fast growing trend of youngsters – some back from overseas, a few trained overseas, but the majority just watchers of TV food channels – open up a whole new world of middle- to high-end eateries; encompassing fusion, specialised ethnic foods, and traditional western or local Chinese, Malay, or native offerings.

A few have been highly successful, some are just surviving, and the rest are hoping for new investors to pump in more capital or to just sell off. It’s the same with any business these days. The highly profitable ones occupy hardly 10 per cent, 50 per cent are just treading water to stay afloat, and the rest are waiting to get out.

In the meantime, as customers, we are reaping the fruits of their hard toil and entrepreneurship. We have our pick of what we want for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In Kuching, I reckon that I could eat a meal at a different coffee shop or food court every day and I wouldn’t be able to finish all the existing outlets within a year. That’s 365 times three!

Social media has greatly helped the newly-launched eateries throughout the towns and cities – even to the most remote and out of the way places. Newly-created apps and social media platforms have encouraged new ways of doing business. I learned from my daughter that for RM5.80 plus RM5 delivery charge, she could order a takeaway from her favourite laksa stall (Sekama Laksa, Elvin at Jalan Song) and it can be delivered right to her office desk (a distance of 6km) within an hour! How amazing is that?

Changes in lifestyle, tastes, as well as communication and delivery have altered the way the food business is being done; and it will also change the way we are now facing the future. For many of us who enjoy the slow leisurely life befitting of someone in the twilight or evening of his years, we’ll just have to sit back and enjoy these unstoppable changes as it’s too late to shout: “Stop the world, I want to get off!”

The circle of life continues unabated. We can thank God that we are here to share and be a part of it all.