*For our recently published special issue, “Food in the Time of COVID-19”, we received more submissions than we could accommodate in the print version of the issue, so the following article forms part of a series of submissions which will be published as Web Exclusives which speak to the theme of Gastronomica 20.3.
By May Ting Beh
April 23, 2020: Penang, Malaysia
Amidst the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic, Malaysians are finding comfort in food. As I write this, Malaysia has entered its sixth week of social isolation, officially known as the Movement Control Order (MCO), which is an effort to curb the spreading of the COVID-19 pandemic. The MCO is a partial lockdown; only essential services such as health care, food, and the armed forces are still operational. People are only allowed to leave their houses, alone, for grocery runs within a ten kilometer radius from their addresses. Flouting the MCO is a punishable offense. In the Prime Minister’s speech on March 18, 2020 regarding the MCO, he advised Malaysians to only go out to buy food and other necessities only once or twice a week, or if possible, not to go out at all and rely on food deliveries (Prime Minister’s Office of Malaysia Official Website, 2020). This makes it important to plan one’s grocery list carefully when stocking up on food supplies. While there is no official policy on eating less food or using less ingredients, there has been an implicit expectation to only buy essential (food) needs, as Malaysians were told not to panic-buy. Pictures of people panic-buying and hoarding surfaced on social media at the beginning of the MCO and they were heavily criticized by viewers. In addition, standard operating procedures have been put in place for shoppers doing their grocery runs. Only a limited number of shoppers are allowed at any one time in the market or shops and they are only given a short period of time to gather their goods. Even with the latter condition, long queues are sighted every day at these places, which should discourage people from heading to the markets without the absolute need to replenish their food supplies. Due to these restrictions, it is expected that everyone will be more conscientious about the amount of food or ingredients they use to prepare their daily meals.
As I scroll through my Instagram feed, a flurry of food pictures turn up more than ever before: cakes, bread, pasta, curries, roast meats, dumplings, the list goes on. While everyone is supposed to be surviving on essential items and only stocking up their pantries once a week, these posts show that the opposite is happening. Many are embracing their “inner chef” spirit and indulging in delicious food. Some are discovering their culinary talents despite this daunting time. Being more adventurous with food now than ever before, some are baking for the first time, while others are cooking up elaborate meals. For avid coffee-drinkers, the dalgona coffee craze caught on and many attempted to become baristas at home. Dalgona coffee is a whipped milk-based coffee drink which gained prominence beginning in South Korea during isolation orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The viral trend of making this drink at home spread to Malaysia, especially in the first and second weeks of the MCO. This is due to the extra free time people now have from staying home and not being able to dine out.
While we miss going about our normal routines and having more human interactions beyond our homes, food has been a constant consolation. My observations are based on Instagram feeds which are only representative of people who are mostly fairly well off. I am aware that this is only applicable to those who are lucky enough to have roofs over their heads and are economically stable enough to have the luxury of eating well. Based on a 2015 report by Penang Institute, one of Malaysia’s biggest think tanks, unemployment, low income, and old age without a living family constitutes as the top three causes of homelessness (Penang Institute, 2015). With these struggles, getting food is in itself an issue for this community. With soup kitchens closed and with the absence of the usual foot traffic on the streets, the homeless lose their avenues of getting by. In order to help them, shelters have been set up in Kuala Lumpur and Penang for homeless community during the ongoing movement restrictions. They are provided with essentials, mattresses, blankets, and three meals a day.
Tomorrow, April 24th, will be the beginning of the fasting month of Ramadan. I can foresee that there will be many more social media posts of food from my Muslim friends who will be cooking meals for Sahur (pre-dawn meal eaten before fasting) and Iftar (meal eaten by Muslims at dusk to break their fast during Ramadan). Normally, Malaysians from all ethnic groups would look forward to the Ramadan Bazaars where Malay food and desserts are sold near mosques and housing estates throughout the holy month. This year, this will not be possible due to the banning of large gatherings to prevent the spreading of the COVID-19 virus. In response to this situation, some vendors, restaurants, and hotels have moved online and through word-of-mouth, offer Ramadan meals via deliveries and take-aways. It remains to be seen if families have been or will be gathering virtually for meals but so far, it’s the act of cooking and the presentation of the food itself which reach social media.
The pandemic has affected all Malaysians and everyone else in the world in many ways. However, we are keeping our spirits up through food and filling our time at home by experimenting with new cooking skills. Even in the Prime Minister’s announcement of the start of Ramadhan, he joked about Malaysians posting food-related social media posts. What started as a two week partial lockdown has now been extended to two months. It has become anybody’s guess when this will be over. What is certain is that Malaysian kitchens will continue to be hot spots for social media pictures. This goes to show that cooking remains a social affair albeit being a solitary activity now, with the sharing of one’s food on social media for everyone’s eyes to feast on.
Penang Institute. (2015, March). Homelessness in our cities. Retrieved from https://penanginstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/jml/files/research_papers/HomelessnessInOurCities_AReportbyPenangInstitute_Kenneth_21Jan15_OKM25Feb2015.pdf
Prime Minister’s Office of Malaysia Official Website. (2020). Perutusan Khas Covid-19-Stay at home. Retrieved from https://www.pmo.gov.my/2020/03/perutusan-khas-covid-19-18-mac-2020/
May Ting Beh is an Urban Anthropologist with interests in Food, Cultural, and Urban Studies. Born and bred in Penang, known as the street food haven of Malaysia, she finds joy in connecting ideas of food consumption with heritage and urban life, besides burning off calories during dragon boat training.