Last week, retiree Amarawati Subramaniam, 69, sent a message to her usual vegetable supplier for her regular order of a week’s worth of greens. In the past, her weekly bill used to come up to RM40, but Amarawati says her new vegetable bill sent her spiralling.
“The bill came up to RM106 for the week and I was so shocked! I never really used to think about curbing my spending on vegetables, but I told my daughter ‘Oh my God, that is really, really high!’” says Amarawati.
Amarawati’s experience with soaring food costs is not isolated. According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, food inflation in April 2022 increased 4.1% from a year ago, with 89.1% of items in the food and beverage group recording price increases.
Across the country, many Malaysians are feeling the sting as exorbitant food costs have entailed making cutbacks, finding cheaper options or simply doing without.
And this issue isn’t just a Malaysian one. Throughout the world, global food prices have soared dramatically since the start of the pandemic. Inflation data for the United States for instance, shows that the price of meat, poultry, fish and eggs increased by 14% from a year ago while the price of beef increased by 16%.
The reasons for these ascending prices are manifold. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, global supply chain bottlenecks caused a surge in prices, which worsened when labour shortage became more acute with worldwide lockdowns and the impossibility of migrant workers travelling internationally.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also caused a chain reaction of sorts, as Russia and Ukraine are one of the largest producers of wheat, barley and corn. The shortage of of these staples in turn sent prices skyrocketing.
Climate change has also reared its ugly head, causing droughts, floods and a multitude of other (un)natural occurrences which have damaged crops all over the world in the past two years.
Cumulatively, this has resulted in a surge in food prices to the point where grocery bills have increased threefold for the average Malaysian.
So how have Malaysians been coping with these changes?
Feelings on the ground
For homemaker Joan Siaw, 52, shopping for essential food items used to be fairly painless but recently, the eye-watering cost of basic ingredients like chillies has given her pause for thought.
“The other day, I went to buy red chillies which is normally it is RM7 to RM8 per kilo. That day, it was RM21 per kilo. That is a 300% increase. I was so surprised that I decided not to buy the chillies – I think I can make do without it,” she says.
Government school teacher Rubananthan Paramasveran, 34, meanwhile is based in a rural area in Sarawak that is six hours away from the nearest town. As a consequence, he is only able to make a trip to the supermarket once a month to stock up on hardy provisions like canned goods and biscuits.
“I used to get the items I need for RM400 to RM500, but now I can get only 70% of it for that amount of money. So what I have to do is plan thoroughly and stick to my budget. To do this, I either have to find cheaper options or just fight my cravings,” says Ruban.
Tunku Sha’ila Tengku Azmi, 40 (better known as Shasha) meanwhile lives in a small kampung in Mantin, Negri Sembilan and says that she has no choice but to live with the new prices, as her family still needs to eat.
“I live with my husband, our six-year-old son and my parents-in law and I do all the marketing, so I know how high prices are these days. I used to buy a bottle of cooking oil for RM20, but it is now RM30.
“And in my household, we eat a lot of canned sardines, but sardines are no longer cheap – in fact, I think it is now a luxury. I even wrote an Instagram post about how if I want to cook sardines now I have to think of a special day to make it because it is so expensive,” she says, laughing.
Shasha’s views are echoed by Zadimas Barel, 34, a housewife with two young children, aged six and three. Mas, as she is better known, says that she has cut down on “unnecessary” items like squid and prawns, as the cost is just too high for her small family.
“I go to the market every two days or so, and before I would spend RM300 a week on fresh ingredients, but now it is over RM400 a week, so I have stopped buying prawns and squid and I even buy smaller chickens, because otherwise sometimes I end up paying up to RM30 for a large chicken,” she says.
Finding creative ways to make it work
When a situation isn’t tenable, people often end up surprising themselves and finding novel ways to adapt to their new circumstances. And for Malaysians in every strata of society, creativity has become the new way of dealing with soaring food prices.
Mas for instance says she now bulks up all her chicken and seafood dishes with the addition of ikan bilis or potatoes, so that a single curry can last longer than it normally would.
Shasha on the other hand says she is the “queen of leftovers” and has devised new strategies to repurpose every meal into something entirely new.
“Like it or not, we have to move along with how things are changing. If you ask me personally, I still have to put food on the table, so I have become the queen of leftovers.
“For example, if I have a fried fish which hasn’t been eaten, I will put it in my curry the next day; and if I have leftover chicken, that goes into my nasi goreng the next day or even a chicken sandwich for lunch. That’s how I have been cooking lately,” she says.
Shasha also employs other tactics like cutting a whole chicken into smaller pieces to make it last longer. She also frequently makes economy one-pot meals like chicken rendang with pucuk ubi, ikan singgang with okra, lemak ayam cili padi with potatoes and masak tauchu fish with eggplant.
Siaw meanwhile has given up using garnishes or items like chilli in some of her meals, especially if it doesn’t impact the final result.
“The other night, I was making fish head curry so basically besides the fish, I needed okra, tomatoes and chillies, so I bought the tomatoes and okra, but I decided to forgo the chilli. I think we can forgo certain things, especially if it is not the main ingredient and doesn’t affect the taste of the dish.
“So garnishes like chilli and coriander leaves, which we used to use generously, can be left out. I think many people will do what I am doing,” she says.
Given the rural location that he is in, Ruban has decided to embrace his surroundings and has taken to swapping more expensive ingredients like sardines with fresh fish sourced from locals. These days, he even goes fishing and foraging with the villagers in the area where he lives in.
“Previously I used to buy mackerel or sardine, which can go up to RM40 per kilo, but now I buy the local ikan baung, which is only RM15 per kilo, so it is still protein but just under the guise of a different fish.
“I have also cut down on unhealthy stuff, like previously I would load up on all sorts of chocolates but I have cut that all out, so in a way, it is good for my health too.
“And finally, on weekends, sometimes I follow the villagers when they go foraging or fishing so it definitely helps minimise my costs, because for example, when I go fishing, whatever I catch is mine to eat. And when I forage, I can get vegetables and herbs like fiddlehead fern, terung pipit, tuhau (wild ginger) and buah mawang (wild mangoes) for free,” he says.
Amarawati meanwhile has found a unique, community-minded way to keep costs down in her household.
“After my seafood bill went up from RM200 to RM300 for just a few items, my neighbour Wee Chwee Geok and I came up with the idea of sharing. So now I will tell her ‘You cook one vegetable dish and share with me and I will cook a curry and share with you’. So in that way, we cut costs because she does something and I do something else.
“There are also times when we want to eat crab curry and we need seven crabs to feed everyone, so she will buy three crabs and I will buy four, then I will cook it and she will come over and eat with us. So in that way, we can enjoy the same thing, but we are sharing the cost,” she says.
Amarawati says she believes that more people could be tempted to turn to this old-fashioned neighbourliness and spirit of sharing that has sustained people in kampungs and villages for generations. It is an adept way of splitting costs, after all.
“I remember when I was young, my neighbours would come over and say, ‘I masak ini, ambil satu piring’ (I cooked this dish, take some please). So because all the neighbours used to share, we got different dishes every day.
“So yes, I think people will come up with creative ways to share the burden of food costs, like what we are doing with our neighbours. And it really goes back to the old days when neighbours used to share,” she says.
There are many basic ingredients that used to cost so little that most people often tossed it into their shopping carts without checking the price. But now many of these seemingly simple essentials are so pricy, it is enough to make tears spring to the eyes.
Which is why above and beyond getting creative with food, many Malaysians have taken to planting and growing herbs and vegetables in small plots in their homes – in an effort to curb costs.
“Oh yes, now we are quite clever, we grow little things in flower pots, like we’ve started to grow mint leaves and spring onions so we don’t have to buy these herbs anymore,” says Amarawati.
Ruban meanwhile has turned his hand to growing a small vegetable patch near his teachers’ quarters.
“I had this vegetable plot from awhile back but previously, I just grew a few vegetables like mustard greens, but I now I am growing chillies too, because it is getting so expensive,” says Ruban.
Shasha and her family meanwhile have gone the extra mile by utilising the space they have in their kampung to grow a large vegetable plot, almost akin to a small orchard.
“We have half an acre of land in the kampung that we turned into a veggie patch. This is where my mother-in-law and aunt plant vegetables like kangkong and mustard greens, bird’s eye chillies and also fruit trees.
“These days, we have such a constant supply of vegetables that we do not need to buy and on top of that, it has become a little side income source, as my mother-in-law now supplies vegetables to the local wet market in the kampung,” says Shasha jubilantly.