You are what you eat. And through the years, Malaysians have chowed down simple hawker fare, steaks and fast food. Currently, the flavour of the masses seems to be ‘mamak’ with such 24-hour outlets popping up all over the country.
Itinerant hawkers era (1900s - 1970s)
HAWKER food has always been a part of Malaysian life. Back in the old days, hawkers were not stationary but made their living by going from street to street or house to house.
“Those were the days when food came to your house,” said Florence who grew up in Malacca.
As a young girl in the late 1940s and 1950s, she waited eagerly for the satay man and the kon loh mee (dry wantan noodles) man to make a pit stop at her house, which was located on Jalan Tengkera.
“We used to wait with our plates and bowl and the food was cooked right in front of us,” she laughed.
“There were also women peddling nyonya kuih. They would balance the trays of cakes on a wooden pole or kandar that they carried on their shoulders,” she said.
These itinerant hawkers were part and parcel of the communities. While some walked with their food balanced on their shoulders with a pole, others went around in large tricycles.
Cries of “satay, satay” “mee goreng” or “kuih, kuih” were common in mid-afternoons. Some of these hawkers knocked on their utensils to indicate their arrival.
Thus came names such as tok tok mee (tok tok being the sound made by knocking a pair of chopsticks on a bowl) and tah lan woon (breaking the bowl as the hawkers knock on two bowls).
The era of these hawkers came to a close in the 1970s. The trade died with some of them, while the younger ones who took over decided to set up permanent stalls.
Steakhouses (1950s - present)
“COPPER Grill, back in the 1950s and 1960s, was the place to eat steak,” recalled food enthusiast Datuk Kok Wee Kiat. Located at Jalan Raja Chulan, on the top floor of the Weld building, it was the most expensive place to eat in town.
“It was a place to go to celebrate an occasion and I enjoyed watching the waiters flambe the Bomb Alaska,” laughed Kok who added that he had not seen one of those in a while.
“Another place that served good steaks was the Melaka Grill in the old KL Hilton back in the 70s. It occupied the area which later became Fic’s.”
The 70s also saw the emergence of The Ship as the steakhouse in Klang Valley.
You can’t miss the flagship restaurant along Jalan Sultan Ismail, with the bow of a ship at its entrance. The Ship served steaks and other Western dishes such as prawn cocktail, chicken a la Kiev and mixed grill at prices that won’t burn a hole in the pocket.
Following its success, other steak houses such as Eden and Victoria Station emerged, offering dishes such as lobster thermidor and cheese-baked escargot.
In the 90s, Jake’s Charbroiled Grill and Outback Steakhouse made their presence felt.
Freestanding coffeehouses (late 1960s - early 1980s)
DURING this period, freestanding coffeehouses started to mushroom all over the country. Drawing inspiration from hotel coffeehouses, these coffeehouse offered a cheaper alternative to dining at hotels.
Dimly-lit and serving a motley of dishes such as fried rice, French onion soup, fish and chips, chicken chops and floats, they were popular places to celebrate occasions.
Most of these coffeehouses also had a bar where people can also dine and chat with the bartender.
Just as fast as they emerged, these coffeehouses disappeared from the F&B (food and beverage) scene by the early 1980s.
Ice kacang vs designer ice cream (1930s - present)
ICE kacang – shaved ice topped with sweet corn, black jelly, cendol, red beans and attap chee (palm seeds), drenched with rose syrup, gula melaka syrup, condensed milk and evaporated milk – has long been Malaysia’s favourite dessert.
The Lee family in Swatow Lane, Penang, started operating one of the earliest known stalls in the 1930s.
Other icy goodies are ice balls (where the shaved ice in shaped into a ball and liberally doused in syrup), ice cream potong (usually made from red bean soup, comes in a bar which the vendor will cut – potong – into different lengths) and ice cream Malaysia (any sweet drinks such as rose syrup, poured into a cylindrical plastic, tied at the opening and then frozen)
In the 50s & 60s, it was fashionable for dating couples to visit ice cream parlours to have a scoop or two of ice cream.
In Malacca, Tai Ching Hygiene Ice Cafe on Jalan Bunga Raya continues to make its own ice cream.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Walls became a brand children loved. With just 10 sen, a child could treat himself to an ice cream.
In the late 1980s, Swensons made its way into Malaysia.
An American chain restaurant, it was better known for its ice cream. Who can forget the Earthquake that came with eight big scoops of ice cream with your choice flavours?
Designer ice cream such as Haagen-Dazs and Baskin Robbins then entered the market in the late 1980s and early 1990s where a scoop of ice cream cost at least RM4.
Since then, more brands have come in such as New Zealand Natural and Gelato Frutti.
Fast food (1960s - present)
IN 1963, the first A&W outlet in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman opened for business, heralding the entry of fast food.
Locals were introduced to hotdogs, burgers and root beer floats. In 1965, the first drive-in outlet was introduced in Petaling Jaya.
Malaysians' long-standing love affair with fried chicken began when KFC made its debut in 1973.
The first store was also located in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman and soon the nation got used to terms such as family plate, bucket and barrel. To date, there are 360 outlets nationwide.
In 1982, McDonald’s debuted in Jalan Bukit Bintang. It now has 174 outlets and its menu ranges from the Big Mac to Bubur Ayam McD.
The decade that followed saw a flurry of fast food chains making their way here such as Wendy’s, Carl’s Diner, Grandy’s, White Castle, Pizza Hut, Shakey’s (who can forget its Tuesday night buffet?), Domino's Pizza, Kenny Rogers Roasters and Burger King.
Supermarkets and hypermarkets (1950s - present)
SHOPPING for groceries and fresh food 50 years ago was mostly confined to sundry shops and wet markets. As life was hard for many at that time, it was common for families to buy on credit from the neighbourhood sundry shop.
The purchase amounts were entered into a small notebook (commonly known as 555, the brand on the notebook cover).
“There was Cold Storage back in the 50s and 60s but things there were expensive. It was a place where one could find imported goods,” said Azrah Kamala Shasi who grew up in Kuala Lumpur.
“Most of the shoppers were either expatriates or the rich. It was not a place that common people went to,” explained Azrah who also recalled another supermarket – Fitzpatrick – that didn’t last too long.
In the late 70s and early 80s, mini-markets were popping up everywhere.
Bigger and with better stocks than sundry shops, one of the most famous in Klang Valley is TMC.
“It started off as a sundry shop in Bangsar and the owner Teng Sek How used to cycle from house to house to take orders for groceries and he would then deliver them,” recalled Azrah.
TMC later moved to Lucky Garden and flourished. It went on to establish Giant – our home-grown hypermarket. The family has since sold its stakes in Giant but continues to run TMC.
The 80s was also the time when chain supermarkets such as Fajar, The Store and Jusco made their debut in our shopping scene.
In 1993, Makro became the first hypermarket to operate in Shah Alam, Selangor.
Hot on its heels came France’s Carrefour (1994) and Giant (1995). Britain's Tesco joined the fray in the early 2000s.
Gluttons’ square & ‘eat streets’ (late 1950s - present)
HEAD to any town in Malaysia and you will hear of a gluttons’ square.
A creation of the late 1950s and early 1960s, these gluttons’ corners are usually located at town centres or near scenic places such as the riverfront in Batu Pahat or seafront like the one in Malacca.
Made up of a row of shops, this is the place where locals would go for a meal on weekends or payday.
It is also a place to bring your date for a meal followed by a lazy stroll later. Food wise, it differs from places to places but there are the usual fried noodles, satay, steamboat, rice and dishes and desserts.
Most of these gluttons’ corners or eat streets continue to flourish although some, such as the one in Malacca, have been relocated due to development.
One of the most popular eat streets in Klang Valley is located in SS2, Petaling Jaya. Started around the mid-80s, the hawkers operate on the same street that houses the morning market.
Jalan Alor is another famous eat street in Kuala Lumpur. Formerly a red light district and shunned by many, it has reinvented itself in the past decade as one of the most popular places to eat in town.
Bangsar (1990 - present)
BANGSAR, especially the Jalan Telawi area, was the place to be during the 1990s. From a quiet neighbourhood, the area became the most chic place to dine in the Klang Valley. People had money to spend during this period due to the strong economy while the share market was on a bull run.
Chinoz, Alexis, White Rajah, Grappas, Planter’s Jim and The Talk offered stylish dining experiences. Tables spilled on to the pavement ... Bangsar was the place to be seen.
Over the years, the restaurant scene has changed. Newer ones such as Telawi Street Bistro and La Bodega have replaced most of the first set of restaurants here.
Old favourites such as Cocomo have moved to a new area but Alexis, which was a pioneer cafe/restaurant on Jalan Telawi remains strong with its loyal clientele.
The opening of One Bangsar on Jalan Ara and Bangsar Village and Bangsar Village II has added to the eating attractions but the place has lost the glamour and excitement of its heyday.
Food TV (1970s - present)
LONG before we watched Jaime, Nigella and Kylie cook on cable television, Kesuma was one of the earliest cook shows on Malaysian television in the 1970s.
The 30-minute show, which focused on women’s issues, had a five-minute cooking segment during which a dish was taught each time.
One of its hosts was chef Florence Tan.
“It was a show where the cook not did not speak but just demonstrated all the cooking steps. The host does the talking,” laughed Florence.
Florence, Betty Saw and Azrah Kamala Shashi also had stints on TV3’s famous cook show, Kuali, which ran for a few years.
Initially, most of these shows focused on local cooking and on baking or making local kuih.
Kuali changed the landscape when the show started to add more international flavours. For a couple of seasons, it focused on cuisine from around the world.
Other popular shows that came along were Hey Good Cooking, which ran for a few seasons on TV2 in the early 1990s.
The 90s also saw a steady stream of cooking shows sponsored by big food brand names such as Ayamas, Nestle, Baba’s and Alaggapa’s.
Over the past few years, cooking shows have taken a new twist with celebrities such as Anita Sarawak, Erra Fazira and Kak Engku helming the shows to give them a touch of glamour.
Celebrity chefs (1990s - present)
THE name that tops this category is our food ambassador Chef Wan. He burst onto the culinary scene back in the early 1990s after spending some years abroad.
Skilled and also blessed with the gift of the gab, Chef Wan was a breath of fresh air in cook shows where cooks did not talk well or spoke only when spoken to.
He not only cooked but entertained as well, much to the delight of the audience. Within a short time, Chef Wan became one of television’s most recognised faces and was (and still is) as popular as the hottest Malay movie star.
He started hosting his own shows and published a few books along the way. Over the past decade, he has worked extensively to promote the country’s cuisine and has appeared on numerous international cooking shows.
To date, no one is close to toppling him from his position as Malaysia’s No. 1 celebrity chef.
Another food celebrity in her own right is Amy Beh who has a weekly column in The Star and three cookbooks under her belt; Agnes Chang, who has published a few books and DVD series is another popular figure especially within the Mandarin-speaking community.
Buffet (mid 1980s - present)
HIGH tea buffet at hotels was all the rage in the mid-80s.
Initially available from 3pm to 6pm daily, the hours were extended in the 1990s to attract more diners.
Weekend high teas started at noon and ended at 6pm.
The hoteliers also coined a term for this: tunch, a combination of tea and lunch.
Seafood BBQ buffet is also popular and is usually held by the poolside on Saturdays.
In the 1990s, hotels started introducing theme nights to their buffet, which would have offered the standard international and local dishes. There are nights dedicated to cuisine from a particular country or dishes cooked with particular ingredients.
Buffet prices started at less than RM30 but these days it is normal to fork out nearly RM80 for a buffet in a hotel.
In the past, dishes at buffets were laid out in food warmers and replenished when finished. By the early 1990s, stalls or cooking stations were introduced to add value to the dining experience.
In early 2000s, Shangri-la Kuala Lumpur’s Lemon Garden upped the stakes when it introduced a whole new concept to buffet dining.
While the food was served in stylish food warmers, the portions were small. Hence the food never sat too long in the warmer.
Some dishes such as fish and meat are only pan-fried upon request.
Kuala Lumpur Hilton’s Sudu also created waves when it opened its doors in 2004. The price of the buffet depends on the type of main course that one chooses.
Once that is sorted out, the diner heads out to the buffet spread where the dishes are portioned out in spoons or sauce plates.
The main course is filled once the diner has had his fill of the buffet. He only returns to buffet again for desserts.
Other interesting buffet concepts include the free-flow champagne brunch on Sundays that hotels such as Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur offer with prices from RM150 onwards.
MAMAK is a term commonly used to refer to the Indian Muslim community in Malaysia.
The community is known for its nasi kandar, which is a spread of rice and Indian curries. The term nasi kandar was coined after the manner in which the early vendor used to cart around their food in two baskets balanced at each end of a pole.
In Penang, the popular spots for nasi kandar are Line Clear, Craven Cafe and Nasi Kandar Kampung Melayu.
In the Klang Valley, the mamaks popularised teh tarik. Commonly known as mamak stalls, these places are favourite hangout spots for city folk in the wee hours of the morning.
While the mamak stalls have maintained their status quo, there has been an onslaught of nasi kandar restaurants in the country, especially in the Klang Valley, in the past decade.
The menu in these restaurants is similar – nasi kandar, various types of roti canai, thosai, naan, fried noodles and the quintessential teh tarik. Most operate on a 24-hour basis.
Kayu Nasi Kandar, which started out as a small stall in Chow Yang coffeeshop in SS2, Petaling Jaya, is one of the better known chain of restaurants.
Nasi Kandar Pelita is another big chain that started its business in Penang in 1995. Now, it has over a dozen 24-hour restaurants all over the country.
These restaurants have gone upscale the past two years with stainless steel tables, large flat screen televisions and wireless Internet connections – a far cry from their humble days.
Did you find this article insightful?