Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Banana Leaf Eateries: Health, Culture And Halal Poser

By Zulkiple Ibrahim

PETALING JAYA, May 30 (Bernama) -- It is about 30 minutes to noon but the lunch-time crowd at an Indian banana leaf eatery on Jalan Cantek, Section 5 here starts to swell in numbers.

The scenario is the same about one km away at a stretch along Jalan 11/4, off Jalan Universiti, a spot adjacent to the University Malaya Medical Centre dubbed Petaling Jaya's "banana leaf meal hub".

The tag speaks for itself as at this spot alone there are four restaurants serving south Indian cuisine, including the famous chettinad food that has turned uniquely Malaysian, within a single row of shops!

The food had been a hit among many in the country and according to a Smart News Network International (SNNi) report, the Malaysian delegation that went to Singapore for bilateral talks in early September 2002, even had their meal at a banana leaf outlet on Race Course Road in the island republic.


Such restaurants have been growing in numbers lately, especially in the Klang Valley. A reason is the growing number of the Indian nationals in the country working in various sectors including the information and communication technology (ICT) industry.

But these banana leaf restaurants have been a hit among Malaysians and are drawing a large number of clientele from other communities including the Malays.

A chettinad food lover, 26-year-old Noorul Hafiz Jamaludin said he and his family came all the way from their house in Kajang to enjoy the banana leaf food at a popular restaurant near Jalan Gasing here.

"A friend introduced me to this restaurant and since then I became a fan of banana leaf meals," the science officer of a government agency told Bernama while enjoying a meal at one of the shops recently.

He said eating such meals gives him an out of the world dining experience.

"It arouses my appetite seeing a big banana leaf being slapped on the table in front of me the very moment I took a seat and watching mounts of steaming rice being laden onto it.

"Furthermore, where can I get a meal comprising unlimited rice, three to four vegetable side dishes, three types of crackers and freshly-fried chicken or fish cutlets at a bargain price," he said.

Noorul Hafiz's colleague, Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman said the ambience is also a factor why people like him enjoy such food.

"It is like a mini feast for family and friends where everybody sit around a table and tuck into the food like we used to do back in my village in Perak. Plates and bowls somehow seem to inhibit these atmosphere," he said.


For teacher Hasbullah Hasnan, 50, chettinad food provides him with a healthier diet.

"To me Malay food like nasi lemak and its side dishes such as rendang are heavy stuff, even food at the mamak shops is in the high-calorie category.

"At Indian banana leaf restaurants the vegetarian food is good for people like me who have diabetes, hypertension and kidney problems. The price is also cheap as a standard vegetarian meal at these shops cost about RM3.50".

Dietitian Normah Mohamed Annuar said Malay food like the coconut milk-based nasi lemak, rendang, gulai and lontong are definitely out of bounds for those with high blood cholesterol and sugar level and cardiovascular problems.

"It is better for them to take capati or tosai for breakfast or go for vegetarian meals or high fibre food. Banana leaf shops are one of their avenues as they can get more than one vegetable dishes for a meal".


Dr Hashimah Mansur, 48, a lecturer in arts and culture at a local tertiary education institution disagrees with the notion that eating using banana leaves is an imported culture.

"Right from the olden days, during the world war as well as the pre and post-independence years, villagers used to have their meals on "upeh" (palm sheafs) and banana leaf or had their food wrapped in these materials for them to eat while working at the paddy fields and estates or while travelling.

"Only the rich eat using plates then. Hence, it is already a Malay culture," she said.


What about the halal status of these shops and the food they offered?

As for people like Abdul Rashid, Hasbullah and many others, unfortunately the thought had never crossed their mind.

"As I noticed that many Malays are patronising such shops, so I take it for granted that the food is halal," said Hasbullah.

Hasbullah said he had ignored to ask the restaurant operator whether the food at the eatery is halal.

Dr Hashimah, who is also a consumer activist, said this is a complicated issue.

"Even many mamak restaurants do not have halal certificate issued by the Malaysian Islamic Advancement Department (Jakim), what more these Indian banana leaf outlets?," she said.

Early this year, a Malay daily highlighted Jakim's statement that many mamak shops had yet to obtain verification that the food they are serving is halal.

Jakim was reported to say that the mamak shops had failed to meet certain requirements including that each shop should have at least two cooks who are Muslims.

"If the Muslim patrons really go by the rule, they should not be patronising food outlets that they have doubts on the halal status".

Dr Hashimah said many of these eateries are trying to get round the issue by displaying Jakim-issued certificates which verify that the chicken they use for cooking is slaughtered according to Muslim procedures.

"This is actually a hoodwink, a way to deceive the Muslim public.

"The certificate is genuine but it is only for the chicken. What about the food preparation, ingredients and other materials?

"To some of these eateries as long as there is no pork involved, then the food is okay for Muslims which is an absolute nonsense"!

However, the issue is vague at times.

"This issue covers a wide aspect. What about the eateries offering Thai-styled menu. Do we take it for granted that food offered at such restaurants, at times operated by Thais and Indonesians, is also halal? Many of them, if not all, do not display halal certificates.

"What about the fast-food joints including that serving exquisite dishes like sushi and steaks, as we know these eateries are well patronised by Muslims?.

It is really an issue for the authorities to look into as Malaysia is progressing rapidly and moving towards becoming the world's major halal food producer.

A matter of making sure that you clean up your own yard first?



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