Saturday, 24 January 2015

Slow Food Movement in Penang

roti canai and dhal curry
The slow food movement is making waves in Penang's dining scene and Cheng Sim finds out more about this farm-to-table concept.

In a place where most associated with street food, the future of Penang's food culture is set to turn a new page. Bringing farm-to-table concept to a healthy number of homes and restaurants in Penang, cooking instructor Nazlina Hussin and consultant to Pesticide Action Network Asia & The Pacific, Shila Kaur, are the new purveyors of Penang's slow food movement.

Originally a concept founded by Carlo Petrini in the 1980s, the history of Slow Food has evolved from 'defending regional traditions, good food, gastronomic pleasures and a slow pace of life' to 'embracing a comprehensive approach to food that recognises the strong connections between plate, planet, people, politics and culture'.

The philosophy of slow food is simple and comprises the concept of good, clean and fair. Slow Food explains that the food we serve has to be 'quality, flavoursome and healthy' (good); consists of a 'production that does not harm the environment' (clean); and most importantly provides 'accessible prices for consumers and fair conditions and pay for producers' (fair).

Led by Nazlina Hussin and Shila Kaur who share a passion for slow food, there are currently over a dozen members in Slow Food Penang.

The Society of Slow Food

Slightly off the grid from the hustle and bustle of Campbell Street Market lies Yin's Sourdough Bakery, a humble establishment that originates from Balik Pulau and known for its range of sourdough breads. The idea came about during her family's trip to United States where they were stationed for a few years. 'It's the kind of bread that I would make for our children and my mother who is diabetic,' says owner Su Yin who is a biochemistry graduate with a passion for baking. Staying true to the slow food philosophy, no chemicals are added to the breads and Su Yin only uses flour and water to liven up the bread. 'The process is a lot longer. It takes about 30 hours to allow a loaf to rise and 20 hours for buns,' Su Yin adds compared to the use of commercial yeast that requires a four-hour process from kneading the dough to baking it in the oven.

Cooking class instructor Nazlina Hussin is no stranger in the local food scene and lately, in Penang's slow food movement. 'In my cooking class, I avoid packed and bottled ingredients,' she says. 'The food tastes so different when you pay attention to your ingredients and method of cooking'. Nazlina is also a regular in the Salone Internazionale del Gusto and Terra Madre, a convention that unites culinary players while drawing attention to sustainable agriculture, fishing and breeding, which Nazlina hopes to organise it here someday. 'We want to host a Terra Madre event in Penang.'

Green Acres in Balik Pulau is run by Eric and Kim Chong. The farm was set up six years ago and today it consists of 500 tropical fruit trees and spices, ranging from freshly growned banana, cempedak, papaya, rambutan and ciku as well as nutmeg and cloves. For the husband and wife team, the establishment of Green Acres has its own significance. 'It's all worth it when you have children and you want them to have a healthy lifestyle. Our children can pick fruits freely,' shares Eric. Today, the 16-acre private estate hosts tour groups and visitors who prefer to take it slow and enjoy chemical-free, organic fruits. Aside from emphasising on the slow food lifestyle, Green Acres practice sustainable living and has a eco-lodge that runs on solar energy and water from the springs.

Challenges and Misconceptions

Part of the common misconceptions about slow food practices are the costly ingredients. This, apparently, is not true. If you consume healthy food, you're less likely to deal with health complications.

Other challenges of the slow food movement includes the practice of fair trade and encouraging direct support towards the produces. 'Fair trade happens when food that is produced by the producer goes straight to the consumers. The middle person is not involved because they take up most of the money,' says Nazlina who later suggests proper education to the farmers who are not aware of the unfair trade happening.

Green Acres Penang
It is also important to encourage the use of locally sourced ingredients. In the case of Yin’s Sourdough Bakery, most of the ingredients are sourced from Penang to help local businesses to strive. ‘Unbleached flour is not easy to source locally. We try to use organic ingredients but the price might be too high for the customers, so we get the unbleached flour from a local company who sourced it from Australia. The rest we get from local suppliers,' says Su Yin. 

If you're interested to learn more about the slow food movement in Penang, visit their Facebook page.

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