KUALA LUMPUR: The “alley Starbucks” has cleaned up pretty well. Ho Kow Hainam Kopitiam earned the moniker from students of a nearby college.
Once tucked in the alley of an alley, the coffee shop fuelled many would-be lawyers and accountants with cheap caffeine and calories.
Today, Ho Kow Hainam Kopitiam has moved out of the dingy space it occupied since 1956 into a ‘heritage-hip’ – some would call it gentrified – lot with a view of the main road. Or, more accurately, a view of a queue waiting to get a seat.
The taste of yesterday sells well today. Amid the pressures and changes of urban living, historical eateries recapture sepia-toned memories of the idyllic ‘good old days’.
For Mr Tan Jee Tjun, a lawyer, and Ms Serene Yap, a homemaker, the coffee shop held many of such days.
The husband and wife marvelled at the spruced-up coffee shop. Their last visit was 14 years ago, when they were college students.
They reminisce fondly about its former shabby interior. Sometimes, they played truant to hang out with college mates there.
Mr Tan misses the “gritty” ambience and dishes of his old stomping ground. Some of his old favourites, like the Indomie goreng (fried instant noodles) with half-boiled eggs, are gone from the menu.
However, he admits that his nostalgia is irrational. “The gritty food (I used to love) is unhealthy anyway,” said Mr Tan, who is careful about his diet.
Ms Yap, on the other hand, enjoyed the comfortable, air-conditioned environment and expanded range of dishes. Most importantly, both she and her husband noted, the food tastes just as good as they remember.
It always comes back to the food. For heritage food businesses to continue thriving, their taste must stay consistent.
At the same time, these businesses need to grapple with changing operational realities, including a greater reliance on foreign manpower and automation trends.
For heritage hawkers, preserving the taste is usually a painstaking and labour intensive endeavour.
A consistent taste is what helped Rosli Mee Rebus to survive 47 years, several relocations, and most recently, the passing of its cook, Md Rus Awal. At least, this is what his 62-year-old widow, Laila Wati, believes.
“Before his passing, my husband had always insisted to never change the recipe. Even when customers requested that he add some squids to his dish like other stalls do, he never budged,” recounted Mdm Laila, who now helms the cooking and follows the original recipe to the tee.
The humble stall’s mee rebus (noodles in thick gravy) and fried tofu draw a loyal crowd.
One lady dining alone told CNA that lunch at Rosli Mee Rebus was a routine when she worked at the city hall nearby. Now that she is retired, she still makes the trip there occasionally for a meal.
Mdm Laila is not alone in her strife to keep a five-decade-old flavour alive.
Mr Moorthy Rengasamy, who runs the Moorthy’s Mathai Restaurant in Subang Jaya, is doing the same. He inherited the recipes, along with a banana leaf rice business that has been operating since 1969, from his mentor.
But maintaining a taste for fifty years in a changing world is no small feat. For the 62-year-old, this means doing all the cooking, starting at 3am every morning, on his own.
He does not want to rely on delivered produce. Instead, twice a week, Mr Moorthy wakes up at 1 am to go to the market for the first pick of the freshest seafood and meat.
Being picky is especially important in this age of commercial farming, he explained. Fish and chicken may have become contaminated with chemicals, and this affects the taste of the food, he said.
Staying true to an old recipe sometimes puts a premium on the cost. It is a tough balancing act, according to Jack Lee, who runs Yut Kee, a 91-year-old Hainanese coffee shop in Kuala Lumpur, with his son, Mervyn.
He explained that one of their most iconic dishes, lum mee (thick noodles in gravy), used to be served with fresh crabs. But these days, the high cost of crab would have doubled the dish’s RM8.50 (US$2) price tag. Every rise in price risks customer complaints.
Low prices are embedded in the DNA of traditional coffee shops and hawker stalls. After all, these cheap eats cater to a diverse customer base, and this in turn conjures a convivial and unpretentious vibe that people pine for.
Dr Khoo Gaik Cheng, a co-author of the book “Eating Together: Food, Space, and Identity in Malaysia and Singapore” noted that the traditional coffee shop was not only missed for its representation of the “good old times”, but also for its setting as a cross-cultural melting pot.
However, some heritage eateries are no longer the multiracial neutral ground they once were. The associate professor at the University of Nottingham Malaysia noted that there is a drop in Malay Muslims dining in non-halal establishments due to heightened religious sensitivity.
There is pressure for heritage hawkers to stay true to the historical ‘brand’ that customers expect, even as they hire more foreign workers to cope with manpower shortage in the industry.
Running an eatery used to be a family effort. These days, however, the younger generation are shunning the laborious work with long hours.
Mr Moorthy of Moorthy’s Mathai Restaurant, for example, is still coaxing his adult sons to learn the recipes and the business, but their enthusiasm is lukewarm.
There are also those who do not want their children to inherit the difficult life.
“You don’t even earn that much; it is better that my daughter works in a comfortable office”, said a hawker who has been selling chee cheong fun (rice noodle rolls) for two decades.
Even when the younger generation does take up the mantle, they cannot run the ship on their own. Workers are needed to help with washing, cleaning, serving, if not also cooking.
Staying true to the historical brand is also important in the context of food tourism.
In Penang, which prides itself on its street food culture, a ban of foreign cooks in hawker stalls was imposed in 2016.
“Unlike other cities, tourists come to Penang for food, and the state government is not going to risk our tourism industry by allowing indifferent foreign workers to jeopardise the branding of delicious Penang street food,” the state’s former chief minister, Lim Guan Eng, who is now the finance minister of Malaysia, wrote in a statement in 2014.
Ironically, this is at odds with the intrinsic migrant origins of heritage food.
“We must remember that our local food began with migrants,” said Mr Lee. His father, who had founded Yut Kee, was a Hainanese immigrant from China.
Penang’s famous nasi kandar, for example, was cooked and sold by Tamil Muslim immigrants from South India in the 1930s, as Dr Khoo explained in the book “Eating Together”. Coffee shops from the colonial era were mainly run by Hainanese or Foochow migrants.
Many food and beverage industry players say manpower supply is now their biggest roadblock. Job advertisements for local workers rarely get hits, and many of them “don’t stay for more than a week or two”.
When applying for the work permits for foreign staff, some are seeing their applications stuck in bureaucracy for months while others grapple with policies and procedures that seem to change frequently.
For Mr Moorthy, the manpower situation was so dire recently that he had to close his business for three months.
CNA has reached out to the Human Resources Ministry on the reason behind foreign workers applications being held up for F&B establishments, but has yet to receive a reply.
AGE OF ROBOTS
Is automation the answer to manpower constraints?
At the Nam Heong Ipoh curry noodles’ outlet in Da Men Mall, Subang Jaya, three gleaming robot servers are delivering piping hot meals to customers and taking away dirty dishes.
Nam Heong Ipoh, first opened in the city of Ipoh in 1958, and has now expanded to 10 branches since the third generation of siblings took over.
One of them, Ms Micco Goh, explained that staffing shortage prompted the company to invest almost US$45,000 in the robots. Another two branches in Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur have seven and two of such mechanical servers respectively.
With robots handling the menial tasks, the human service crew are freed up for work that requires personal touch, such as getting feedback from customers or answering questions regarding the menu.
In other words, the robots – named after female Asian celebrities like Zhang Ziyi – were acquired to lighten the workload of the staff.
It backfired. The robots, according to Ms Goh, attracted an influx of curious customers.
“We ended up having to hire more people to deal with the crowd,” she said, laughing. “But this is what we call a ‘good problem’.”
It seems like a bold move for a 61-year-old business to serve “Ipoh’s culinary heritage” with robots. The celebrity robots, programmed to travel along a designated track on the floor and read out pre-recorded scripts, seemed out of place amidst the traditional food and nostalgic décor.
For Ms Goh, however, technological solutions just make business sense. Nam Heong Ipoh has even digitised the menu and ordering system, which allows for tracking customer preferences and inventory.
“The world is changing,” she explained. “We need to adapt, and we need to be adventurous.”
Just like the immigrants who first opened these heritage businesses in an unfamiliar land.