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April 18, 2010

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Old Malaysia family recipes find unlikely new venue

BEFORE you glimpse the roast duck on skewers, before you hear the clanging Chinese woks, the first hint that you're approaching a melting pot of generations-old family recipes is the sizzling smell of charcoal-fired noodles.

The place is Malaysia's newest food court, whose modern sleekness in a bustling mall belies the rich history of its offerings: many outlets here are run by families who have hawked their food for decades in pushcarts on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, surrounded by traffic fumes, noise and heat.

Now, these masters of classic cooking - once scattered across Malaysia's largest city - have come under one air-conditioned roof at the "Hutong" food court, sustaining a heritage some feared would be lost to fast food chains.

"We have a legacy of 60 years," said Herbert Wong, one of the scions of a back alley porridge shop pioneered by his grandfather in the city's Chinatown in 1949.

"The recipe is the same - since my grandfather's time, we did not change anything," Wong said while watching his employees prepare piping-hot bowls of creamy rice porridge topped with raw fish, pork intestines and handmade meatballs.

Like Wong's locally famed Hon Kee Porridge business, the most prominent tenants at Hutong are ethnic Chinese Malaysians who have whipped up a culinary storm for decades, earning immense popularity because their recipes handed down over generations were known to be the best in town.

The recipes were brought in by Chinese immigrants during the colonial eras of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most are cheap, hearty and relatively fast to cook.

But the vendors are aging and some of their children are reluctant to take over the business because of the long, exhausting hours in hot, humid conditions. Also, most of the children are better educated - Wong is a Singapore-trained mechanical engineer - and can secure more professional jobs.

Fearing these signature recipes might someday be lost forever, Malaysian tycoon Francis Yeoh had an idea. He persuaded selected hawkers to open stalls in a food court in Lot 10 - one of Yeoh's shopping malls - overseen by their own family members who control how dishes are prepared.

"It's good because you can see all these famous brands in one place and you can make sure that they stay alive," said 62-year-old Lee Ah Sang, who started selling "bak kut teh," a herbal broth made with pork ribs, nearly 40 years ago.

Yeoh, a self-avowed foodie and savvy entrepreneur who runs the property and utility empire YTL, hand-picked the vendors for Hutong, which he dubbed a "gourmet heritage village."

Hutong, Mandarin for courtyard neighborhoods traditionally found in Beijing, fits the look of this place. It's a sprawling but cluttered area where 20-odd stalls seem to spill over to one another.

Customers stomping over Hutong's gleaming, green-tiled floor jostle for space during lunch hour, when the mall benefits from being at the intersection of downtown Kuala Lumpur's commercial and tourist district.

Yeoh's spokespeople estimate 250,000 people visited Hutong in December, its first full month - an impressive figure because most of Hutong's stalls serve pork, which is off-limits for the ethnic Malay Muslims who comprise nearly two-thirds of Malaysia's 28 million people. Customers are mainly from Kuala Lumpur's ethnic Chinese minority.

Food bloggers have raved about being able to sample such vast variety without having to travel to each of the businesses' original stalls. Hutong's success is gratifying for vendors such as David Low, one of the few non-Malaysians whom Yeoh invited. Low, a Singaporean, has been preparing variations of Malaysian Chinese food, including oyster omelets and stir-fried noodles with prawns, in the neighboring city-state since 1972.

"For the older generation, they loved this kind of dish. But now, the younger people go for McDonald's, Western food, Japanese food. Slowly this kind of food might die out," said Low, whose children work as accountants and bankers and declined to join him.

Nevertheless, the booming business at Hutong indicates people aren't ready to let the foods go. Despite the proliferation of sushi bars and burger franchises, young office workers and families with teenagers are among the customers.

Yeoh's plan to preserve the recipes for many years to come also seems to be working because some of the vendors' children have shown increased interest in working in Hutong's clean, comfortable environment.


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