Street Food Export

A section of diners in Malaysian Food Street food court
at Resorts World Sentosa, Singapore
While listening to a Singapore radio channel, I heard a chat between the two hosts about a weekend visit to a restaurant in Gelang Patah in Johor.  They are clearly connoisseurs of good food as they described the dishes and even before they mentioned the name of the restaurant, I knew they were talking about a particular seafood place that served fresh seafood that can be cooked to order.  Their food experience was so good that they were determined to go to this Gelang Patah restaurant again and order another variety of items from their menu!

For a long time, our neighbours in Singapore have been travelling across the Causeway to enjoy good food in Malaysia and they can go as far as Malacca for Peranakan cuisine or even Gurney Drive in Penang for a good char koay teow.  It is common knowledge that when Singaporeans learn about good food in Malaysia, they will make every effort to find their way, no matter how obscure, to savour it.  In fact, it is also part of the Singaporean psyche to join a long queue to buy any food item if it is reputed to be tasty!

Klang Bak Kut Teh is now in Singapore!
Every weekend, Johor Baru welcomes hordes of visitors who flood our city for a taste of good local food.  Food courts appear to be their favourite destinations because it offers a variety of food all in one place.  The traffic congestion in Taman Sri Tebrau on Saturday and Sunday evenings is proof of how our visitors enjoy their meals at the popular food centre and like to round off their meal with dessert of seasonal fresh fruits from nearby stalls.

As more shopping malls are established in the city suburbs, our visitors are now heading to adjacent food destinations in areas like Taman Sutera Utama, Taman Bukit Indah, Taman Desa Tebrau and Taman Mount Austin.  The number of cars bearing foreign registration plates parked in and around the malls is a clear indication of the popularity of these destinations among Singaporeans.  In fact, the prolific sharing of information and photos through social media about what’s good to eat in Johor Baru is doing our merchants a big favour and helping to boost our economy!

Entrance to Malaysia Food Street at Resorts World
Sentosa, Singapore, adjacent to Universal Studios
Historically Malaysia and Singapore used to be one country and since we share more than a common culture and heritage, it is not surprising that we also know how to appreciate the same good food.  For instance one of our favourite meals, Roti Canai, is called Roti Prata in Singapore but it’s still the same freshly made fragrant Indian bread that we eat with a side of curry.  
Someone tried to start a debate about which food originated from Malaysia or Singapore but it’s really not important because we all love our chicken rice, popia, satay, char koay teow and mee goreng mamak.

Malaysia Boleh food court in Jurong Point Mall, Singapore
With the increasing popularity of the modern kopitiam concept, the nostalgia of our coffeeshop culture is being introduced to a new generation of food connoisseurs.  Nowadays toasted kaya bread and half-boiled eggs are eaten at all hours of the day instead of for breakfast and the standard all-day menu often includes spicy mee siam, nasi lemak and curry laksa noodles.  Besides the thirst for nostalgia, the air-conditioned comfort and cleaner environment are additional attractions for young people to hang out in kopitiams just as their grandfathers used to.
I was filled with a strong sense of pride when I saw an air-conditioned food court called Malaysian Food Street in Resorts World Sentosa Singapore, recently.  The food court is laid out in quaint little streets like Jalan Alor, Jalan Ampang and Jonker Street with stalls that sell popular local street food, some I recognised as Ampang yong tau foo, Penang Hokkien prawn noodles and Klang bak kut teh, and hungry customers seated on wooden stools were busy eating at wooden tables set out along these streets.  I was totally charmed by the setting, reminiscent of a bygone era as the nostalgia of our street food is taken to a whole new level and presented to an international clientele at Resorts World Sentosa Singapore!

Notice the digital counter [Right] to help
keep track of customers and serve them
As I wandered around to look at the variety of popular Malaysian food being served here, I felt strangely proud of how good our food is that it is even exported overseas for the eating pleasure of food connoisseurs in a world-class attraction like Resorts World.  I could not help but notice that the queue of customers at most stalls was snaking quite long but they were being systematically served.  Then I spotted how technology is employed in a digital counter to help keep track of customers and maintain its international quality standards in food service!

More recently I was in Singapore’s Jurong Point Mall and was thrilled to discover Malaysia Boleh food court and the range of Malaysian street food being presented in one of the city state’s heartlands.  From the three-wheeler stall that sold popular Air Mata Kucing drinks at the entrance to the stalls inside that served snacks and meals like KL Hokkien Mee, Penang Apom and Petaling Street famous claypot chicken rice, the décor in the entire food court simply reeked of nostalgia.  It was mid afternoon but the food court was crowded with customers who clearly knew how to appreciate good Malaysian street food at any time of the day!

My discovery of the export of Malaysian street food to our neighbouring country is so exciting because established local brands like Ampang yong tau foo and Penang Apom are also being exported.  Even as more people have access to our popular street food across the Causeway, I can see from the heavy weekend traffic that it does not seem that less people are travelling to savour good food in its place of origin.  With their innate ability to sniff out any good food specialties, we can trust the Singaporeans to find out about our delicacies, very often, before the locals do!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 1 July 2013


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