By Ravindran Raman Kutty
MALAYSIA has one of the best spreads of food, be it Malay, Chinese, Indian, or Western cuisine, and now with the mushrooming of several Middle Eastern restaurants offering their fair of dishes.
We are a nation known for our food and my focus is on why today’s Malaysians prefer to dine out, with more than 85% of our urban population frequenting restaurants and stalls, be it near their office or home.
Perhaps the general ambiance, look and feel, plus the condition in which we operate our restaurants, plays a big role in influencing them. Also,I am not being critical but wonder where we are heading to in terms of cleanliness in our restaurants and hawkerstalls.
Economic growth in the urban areas is one important factor that enables the urban folk to spend more on food. Food varieties offered in the urban environment coupled with accessibility to food premises also influence the urban community to eat out more often than before.
The new living environment and changes of lifestyle have resulted in new arrangements in eating, which was not the case two decades ago. Food businesses have grown due to the changing needs; unlike the traditional values and ways whereby women are expected to spend their days in the kitchen preparing food for the family. This is no longer the fashion.
This issue of eating out has its positive and negative points, depending on the sectors involved. The public benefits from the rampant cooked food services.
The domestic task of food preparation is no longer a burden to those with tight daily schedules as food services are available anywhere anytime. Working wives need not necessarily bear the burden of food preparation.
Eating out on a weekend or public holiday enables families to have quality time with their children and also enjoy food of their choice as they are normally less particular with food during weekdays.
The public also fosters better social relations by entertaining friends at food premises, as practised by businessmen to foster economic relations with their partner or clients.
With the opening of a new restaurants or stalls, new employment opportunities arise with the need of cooks, cashiers, cleaners, waiters and waitresses, drivers, etc.
Upstream, grocery suppliers become part of the industries as they supply raw ingredients such as chicken, meat, vegetables and rice. Furthermore,the licence fees paid to the local authority contributes to the institution’s annual income.
Sadly, however, our restaurants are in dire states. Stray dogs and cats loiter around these eateries; rats race across the restaurant floors or along the walls into the drains nearby; cockroaches on wet floors await your visit to the restrooms.
You are lucky if the toilet is clean or if you are a lady, who can safely say that you can use the toilet in any restaurants in our country. I sympathize with female diners, especially when my wife would rather wait and ease herself in our own toilet at home rather than to pay a visit to the washroom of an eatery or restaurant.
Toilet hygiene is a foregone conclusion. If the bidet is fixed, it will be leaking. If there is water, then the whole floor will be wet. You are extremely lucky if the toilet door’s latch is well fitted, or even if there is a latch to safely secure the door when the toilet is in use.
If everything in order, the toilet bowl will be stained or cracked, or even left unflushed by the previous user.
In addition, tissue paper is another concern in almost every restaurant.“Mamak” restaurants offer them in abundance whereas you have to purchase a packet or two in a Chinese shop.
How is it that you are welcomed to use the tissue paper as generously as you wish in one venue, but be required to pay for it in another? The other interesting element is the hand wash soap. Instead of providing customers with proper handwash soap, most outlets have green dish washing liquid as the hand soap dispensers instead. Why is this so?
Newspapers have reported cases of food poisoning among school children who had purchase their food at the school canteen (a reported 200 cases per year), while local authorities reported similar cases at illegal stalls.
Environmentally, food preparation results in tons of solid waste and proper management is required to ensure clean surroundings at the place of eating and where food is prepared.
Alfresco or open-dining areas are preferred by the public due to the hot weather, but ironically they are exposed to dust and other pollutants from passing vehicles. In such a matter, food operators and the public need to adhere to environmental ethics to ensure clean environment.
I would say that there are three sides to a coin. The restaurant owner, the customer and the enforcement agency are the three parties who are responsible to this improper equation which is a challenge for everyone.
The restaurant owner must pay full and proper attention to his outlet. The outlet workers, be it local or foreign, must be taught and trained in maintaining good and proper standards of hygiene in the eatery.
It is a mandatory requirement for the shop owner to check if everything in the shop is clean, in proper order, functioning well and above all presentable.
Every customer must take it upon himself to provide simple feedbacks to the shop owner. Be it the food, the ambiance or the cleanliness. I was once in a restaurant in SS2 area, where I spotted a waiter, chewing “paan”, and I went straight to the owner who was seated at the cash counter.
He laughed and told me that, he is tired of cautioning his staff. This is an excuse; while I understand that all restaurants face this serious problem among their foreign workers, this should never be an excuse for poor or substandard service.
I have also communicated several times on the poor upkeep of several restaurants in the Klang Valley and many have improved.
The third factor is our enforcement unit of the local authorities, which usually spring surprise visits and confiscate chairs and tables which are in the open area, but only for a while as they resume to the unhealthy practices later
Hence, the local authority’sresponsibilities in ensuring healthy food at food promises have become more challenging. Their duties are not only with the food businesses but also to educate the public on healthy eating.
In conclusion, while eating-out is not an unfamiliar phenomenon in Malaysia, however the changing lifestyle in the urban areas has encouraged greater numbers of the urban population practising dining-out.
The increase of urban population and their changing needs have been met by the changing urban landscape but not without the risk of unhealthy eating.
Hence, educating the public on healthy eating, together with social responsibility among food entrepreneurs and greater governance by the local authorities are important factors for quality of life in urban communities.
* Ravindran Raman KuttY is an avid writer, community worker, an award winning communications practitioner and a social activist, with a profound love for the environment, shares his take on Malaysian eateries.
*The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Times (TMT).