Unesco nod for hawker food? Not so fast, Malaysians tell Singapore

A man grills satay at the Penang International Food Festival in George Town April 15, 2017. ― Picture by KE Ooi
A man grills satay at the Penang International Food Festival in George Town April 15, 2017. ― Picture by KE Ooi

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KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 6 — Malaysians have come out guns blazing against Singapore’s bid to stake a claim on street food common to both countries and for Unesco to recognise the latter’s hawkers as an “intangible cultural heritage”.

Ostensibly Malaysian critics have been bashing their island neighbour’s plan, deriding Singaporean hawkers and their fare as watered-down versions of their Malaysian counterparts.

In a report by New York Times, Malaysian foodies were quoted as suggesting that Singapore’s hawkers were too sanitised to be able to truly compete with the grittier and allegedly better-tasting Malaysian iterations.

“Street food has always been one of the few areas that Malaysians can confidently say they do better than their richer, cleaner and more efficient neighbour,” said Foong Li Mei in the report, author of The Food That Makes Us.

“This could be why Singapore’s petition for Unesco recognition of its hawker culture offends some Malaysians; it sounds as if Singapore is saying that their hawker food is the original, and best,” Foong was quoted as saying.

The report states how the island state is ramping up its bid to seek Unesco recognition of their hawkers following Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s announcement of intent in August.

Among the events organised to support the bid includes an exhibition at the National Museum and a state-organised petition, which has since garnered nearly 38,000 signatories, the report claimed.

If the bid succeeds, it will become the latest culinary culture added to Unesco’s intangible heritage registry, which started in 2003.

Singapore plans to formally submit its bid to Unesco in March next year.

Also quoted in the report was Samantha Khor, senior writer at lifestyle site Says, who said she felt Singapore’s hawkers still had a long way to go if they wanted to be compared to their Malaysian counterparts.

“We’re very proud and protective of our hawker culture, I think.

“Singapore’s hawker food is just not at our standard,” she said, citing the examples of states Penang and Sarawak, and cities Ipoh and Petaling Jaya.

Darren Chin, the proprietor and chef de cuisine at DC Restaurant in the capital, expressed how he felt it was important to differentiate between Malaysia and Singapore’s version of culture and food.

“Singapore’s hawker food is not especially unique because much of it originated in Malaysia,” he said.

“But because young Singaporeans have not embraced hawker culture as a vocation to the same extent as their parents, the nomination could be a much-needed way for the government to raise the cuisine’s profile.

“Singaporean hawker culture is under siege,” Chin was quoted as saying in the report.

The ribbing has not gone unanswered though, with Singaporeans immediately reminding their Malaysian neighbours of not one, but two of their Michelin-starred hawkers.

“Perhaps this discussion can be carried out properly after a hawker stall in Malaysia achieves a Michelin star (*cough* we already have two of ’em *cough*) — then we’ll be on equal footing,” said a comment on the Coconuts Singapore news site.

This was in reference to the Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle and Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle hawkers which have been conferred a Michelin one-star rating each.

Other food-related items on Unesco’s heritage registry include Belgium’s beer culture, France’s gastronomic four-course meal, and South and North Korea’s kimchi.

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