Of food, English and Terengganu’s new economy

On Saturday, I was invited for a breakfast gathering by a group of friends who were originally from Terengganu but who have now settled down in various parts of Kuala Lumpur.

Naturally, the main item on the menu was nasi dagang, a famous Terengganu rice dish served with special fish curry. Other popular Terengganu breakfast fare such as pulut lepa, ketupat and traditional Malay cakes and dishes were also served.

I went for the nasi dagang, which was delicious. I commented that it tasted almost the same as the nasi dagang which I’d get in Terengganu, prompting complaints from my friends that they were not getting enough of their favourite dishes in Kuala Lumpur.

Terengganu’s version of this popular dish has not been commercialised. Hardly any cafe or restaurant in Kuala Lumpur promotes nasi dagang. Often, what you get is the Kelantanese type of unpolished red rice with yellow “river” curry instead of Terengganu’s polished white rice with dark red curry.

One of my friends made a statement that I have heard before. Unlike the people of Kelantan, who are more enterprising by nature, the people of Terengganu appear shy to venture into business in Kuala Lumpur.

I thought, this could be overcome by training. Determined to dig deeper into their way of thought, I continued with the conversation.

It seems their main grouse is the cost of starting a business. Opening a cafe or restaurant in Kuala Lumpur or any part of the Klang Valley simply costs too much. To maintain the enterprise would also be very expensive. In Terengganu, they can set up roadside stalls and be in business straight away. But not in Kuala Lumpur or any other part of the Klang Valley, where there are restrictions and licences to contend with. Lack of funding is a major issue.

One of my friends noted that Terengganu food has not made it into the mainstream menu, definitely not to the same extent as Kelantan’s nasi kerabu, Penang’s laksa or Melaka’s asam pedas. Another friend said there was a need to further popularise Terengganu food, giving me a direct look as if I was primarily responsible for its lack of popularity.

Another came to my defence, saying there may not be enough Terengganu people in Kuala Lumpur to form a base market. People in Kuala Lumpur are more familiar with having a plate of nasi lemak for breakfast. Others prefer roti canai, thosai, or roti bakar with half-boiled eggs and coffee. Competition, my friend said, is obviously stiff.

Still another said that selling Terengganu dishes might not be a viable business model as there was always competition from mamak restaurants. There is a mamak or nasi kandar shop on almost every street corner. Another friend said people in the Klang Valley had gotten used to such food, no matter how unhealthy it may be.

Local food apps

One might expect that Terengganu dishes like nasi dagang, laksam, satar or the now-famous ikan celup tepong, which simply means local sea fish dipped in batter, would be readily available in Kuala Lumpur where the market is much larger. But unfortunately, this is not the case. Some promotion is needed here.

Tourists visiting Terengganu, whether in Kuala Terengganu or Kenyir Lake in Perhentian or Redang island, often end up eating local cuisine instead of international dishes. In fact, there is a popular food street in Kuala Kemaman that is littered with roadside stalls selling local delicacies. That street is always full of west coast and international tourists. Locals, on the other hand, stay away as they say that prices there are much higher than what they would normally pay for such fare.

But the point is, if you go looking for Terengganu dishes in Kuala Lumpur, you would not know where to go even if there was a cafe available somewhere. Often, there is no publicity unless you are part of an east coast chat group.

This is where food apps could come in handy. Perhaps MaGIC could look into this in order to assist local entrepreneurs.

Tourism belt

Of course, gatherings of this sort are never complete without a discussion of politics. Now that PAS has taken over the state government from BN, such discussions have become more candid and full of candour.

One of my friends, who is in the oil and gas (O&G) industry, and who has undertaken projects in the Middle East, vented his frustrations with the government’s policies on O&G and tourism.

He said as far as O&G is concerned, the state is not interested in building related industries beyond Paka, a small town about 20km south of Dungun. The designated area for the O&G industry is limited to between Chukai in the south, to Paka, a coastal strip about 50km in length.

Beyond Paka, the coastal areas that run to Kuala Terengganu all the way to Kuala Besut, bordering Kelantan, which is a distance of about 222km by road, have been designated as a tourism belt.

On that basis, new O&G industries must be located elsewhere, hence the Pengerang project in Johor although Terengganu is a big producer in the O&G sector. To my friend, this is a big loss to the state.

Although the policy looks good on paper, no tourism projects of any scale, big or small, have taken off in the last two decades. There are only two resorts: Tanjung Jara in Dungun (built in the 1970s) and Genting’s Awana Kijal (built in the 1990s). The coast boasts great beaches and many scenic sea fronts, but domestic and foreign investors alike shy away from Terengganu. Why?

According to my friend, it is mainly due to conflicting and unfriendly policies and religious restrictions that are not in sync with the needs of the tourism industry. My friend specifically mentioned the sale of liquor, which is prohibited throughout the state except for the islands of Perhentian and Redang. Why such double standards? Why is it okay to sell liquor on those two islands but not the rest of the state?

My friend compared it with the UAE, Bahrain and several Gulf states which are not exactly dry countries. No such restrictions are imposed there, despite them being equally if not more Islamic.

Another sympathetic friend, in a serious tone, said that Salim, a well-known singer from the 1990s of the rock group IKLIM, would have survived if he had been allowed to drink beer in Terengganu instead of taking to drugs. Poor Salim died in the middle of last year.

His argument was that drugs cause more damage to the youth of Terengganu than beer. Many such youth have fallen victim to drugs, a similar fate as that of their idol and local hero, Salim. Until today, drug problems among the youth are endemic in Terengganu. So which is the lesser evil?

Ecotourism

The previous BN state government also made a big mess as far as tourism in Terengganu is concerned. Remember the Monsoon Cup? That was a programme that never benefitted the locals and which has now been cancelled after billions were spent to benefit a few.

To me, one of Terengganu’s hidden gems is found in the interior part of the state: Kenyir Lake.

A big potential for ecotourism, which has not been given fair treatment in terms of access and infrastructure facilities, is about to unfold. At least it can operate all year round and, unlike Redang or Perhentian, it does not have water or electricity issues.

My Saturday eventually ended on a somewhat sweeter note. While finishing my dessert at a dinner event in Shah Alam, I learned that Entrepreneur Development Minister Redzuan Yusof, popularly known as Pak Wan, had made known his added responsibility as chairman of the Terengganu National Action Council to plan and develop Terengganu using the state oil royalty.

That is a big news item for Terengganu folks. I must therefore convey this message to the friends I met with in the morning. Combined with what I heard of the prime minister’s speech in Kuala Nerus last week on the importance of the English language, I think I can guess which direction the entrepreneur development minister is heading: a new Terengganu based on an entrepreneurial economy, meaningful investment for the people, and tourism. Thus the two added words, captioned “investment” and “trade” in his portfolio.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.