One of the saddest things about the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is the fact that many people have been unable to go back to their hometowns for months on end. Speak to anyone who hasn’t been back home to see family and you can instantly sense the intense homesickness that they feel.
And although traveling inter-state is totally out of the question, couriering or posting food across state borders is not. And in this way, food has served as a bridge and a balm to soothe hearts aching for something familiar at a time when fear and uncertainty are prevalent.
Which is why across Malaysia, the family postal service has been at work – dutiful parents sending their children all their favourite hometown treats through courier services.
These much-awaited, eagerly anticipated deliveries are especially meaningful for Malaysians unable to source their hometown food online or through delivery mechanisms.
“Before the pandemic, I was travelling to my hometown of Muar, Johor at least once a month. And each trip, I would get all my favourite comfort food – it’s something I can never forgo,” says Raymond Sern, a business owner based in the Klang Valley.
These days, Sern’s parents send him a regular stash of his favourite Johor must-haves, as he has been cooking up a storm in his kitchen and frequently makes all the Johor food that he longs for.
“My parents send me frozen otak-otak from the popular Otak-Otak Cheng Boi, mee siput and mee siam paste and sambal paste made by a small home business called Ten Chan. I miss all those things, especially the mee siput, which is a fried flour dough snack eaten with sambal tumis that only Johoreans knows about.
“I know I can get some of these ingredients in KL, but the taste is just so different back home,” says Sern, who was waiting for a shipment of otak-otak and mee siput from his parents when I spoke to him.
Lecturer Maizatul Zolkapli understands Sern’s longing only too well. Having grown up in Teluk Intan, Perak, Maizatul swears by the ikan bilis and dried shrimp in her hometown.
“We used to come back once a month and never failed to stock up on all these things. I honestly think there is a better selection of ikan bilis and dried shrimp in Teluk Intan compared to the Klang Valley and the pricing is much cheaper there too, because it is all made by small businesses in local markets,” she says.
These days, Maizatul’s parents send her family and her brother’s family a large supply of their favourite staples, which Maizatul then utilises very carefully so it lasts longer.
“I haven't been able to travel back home in months now, so my parents send everything in bulk – about 1kg of ikan bilis and dried shrimp each, so that I have enough to last for awhile.
“I always use the ikan bilis to make sambal tumis ikan bilis, as that’s what my mother makes when we ‘balik kampung’. But now I am very careful about using everything sparingly, because it is so precious to me!” she says.
For popular local actress Jasmine Chin, her yearning for her hometown runs deep. Born and raised in Kuching, Sarawak, Chin hasn’t returned home for over a year now and keenly misses her mother and the food staples that she is used to.
Consequently, Chin’s mother has been packing and sending her all her usual Sarawak favourites, including her must-have mushroom-flavoured soy sauce and a prized Foochow-style rice wine, made by a vendor in a market in Kuching.
“Before the pandemic, I went home every two months. But now, I haven’t been to Kuching in nearly two years! So my mother has been wonderful – she packs up my favourite kicap in bubble wrap and sends it to me, along with the authentic Foochow rice wine,” she says.
Chin says she simply cannot do without her kicap and rice wine, both of which are difficult to source here.
“My grandma used to make homemade Foochow rice wine so I grew up with it, and my mum now gets it from a market stall in Kuching that makes a great homemade version. I use it in my daily cooking and to make mee suah.
“And the mushroom soy sauce is really important to me – I cannot live without it! And I cannot find it in supermarkets here, even though I’ve looked. So my mum sends it to me, because I am so addicted to it that I will even bring a bottle of kicap with me when I eat banana leaf meals!” says Chin, laughing.
Although it would be easier to buy these products online, Sern says many of the small businesses that his family frequents don’t have an online presence as the business owners either don’t know much about technology or run a very small outfit.
“They are a bit out of touch with technology and social media, that’s why I have been getting it through my parents,” he says.
Sern says he does think it is important that more of these sellers have a wider delivery network or expand online, as he is worried they won’t survive the pandemic and many traditional food staples will then potentially die out.
“Oh yes, they must get on delivery channels, because we don’t know when this pandemic is going to end. People are not really encouraged to go out and buy and people like me cannot go to Muar at all, so third-party deliveries are the way to go,” says Sern.
But until and unless that happens, loyal customers like Sern, Maizatul and Chin (and their supportive parents) will be buying from all their usual small hometown businesses, using the tried-and-tested family network.
“I think it has become quite normal, especially during the National Recovery Plan and all the lockdowns before this, that we ask family members or relatives to send food from our hometowns. It is the new normal for those of us who cannot balik kampung lah,” says Maizatul.
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