FOOD is part of our culture.
It is at every event whether it is during happy times such as celebrations, or even solemn events such as funerals.
Food is always a highlight even when we are fasting as seen during the month of Ramadan, with Ramadan bazaars and Iftar buffets. Food cuts across all races and economies.
We have witnessed food bringing people together even at green events recently organised by the Malaysian Vegetarian Society (MVS) at two different Muslim-owned, 100% plant-based and vegan restaurants – Hijau Kuala Lumpur and The Vegan Place.
On the buffet spread at the event in Hijau Kuala Lumpur were Raya dishes such as lontong, nasi impit and kuah kacang, mushroom rendang and lemang daun lerek, satay, Indomee curry, and an assortment of Malay kuih-muih.
While at The Vegan Place, we had kampung-style dishes like nangka masak lemak, rebung, sambal petai and tempeh, ulam-ulam, roti jala, pengat durian, sago gula Melaka and even some authentic Pakistani mushroom briyani and vegan cakes.
The food was delicious and both the events attracted a mixed crowd from different demographics as well.
Everyone enjoyed each other’s company while feasting on sustainable foods.
Muslim-owned vegan restaurants, though still limited in numbers, are a growing market.
Vegetarian restaurants and other eateries having vegetarian options have been the norm here in Malaysia.
However, there is a growing trend toward vegan and plant-based foods as our society is growing more conscious and aware of the foods we choose to eat and their impact on our health, the planet and people.
A universal menu
Some of the guests we had at the Makan-Makan MVS Raya Hijau at RexKL and Makan-Makan MVS Masakan Kampung The Vegan Place in Hartamas have never tasted Malay dishes.
When they were asked why they said they were born vegetarians for religious reasons and had never tried Malay foods because it was known to contain meat or seafood in almost all the dishes.
More often than not, even a simple vegetable dish would contain some hidden flavouring enhancers such as anchovies or dried shrimps, or chicken and meat stock.
Growing up in multi-racial communities and attending multi-racial schools, we started understanding this back in our primary and secondary school years.
When I went to my Indian friend’s house, my friend’s mom made sure I used utensils and pots that they used only for their vegetarian meals, even though we were only making instant noodles.
They recognised that as a Muslim I had dietary restrictions because of religion and they respected that.
Through the years, we have attended Chinese friends’ weddings where they served non-Halal foods.
But they also had a reserved table for family and friends who were vegetarians or Muslims, serving vegetarian and Muslim-friendly food.
They also ensured that our foods (and drinks) had no alcohol.
Again, it was a show of respect for friends and family with different dietary restrictions.
This practice among other cultures made us reflect on our own Malay culture too.
When we go to Malay weddings, were there vegetarian options for our guests with different dietary preferences?
Would our vegetarian Hindu and Buddhist friends be comfortable attending and eating at our Malay weddings?
In a traditional kampung setup, most weddings would not have specific vegetarian options.
Therefore, vegetarian friends would most likely have eggless desserts and drinks, or choose not to attend the event.
However, in more recent hotel wedding setups we have observed our society being more inclusive and having a vegetarian table or a separate vegetarian buffet line too.
And it is interesting to see that even non-vegetarians would be helping themselves to plant-based foods and trying them out.
Another example of how plant-based menus are universal would be when we go travelling overseas.
Muslims who do not eat pork and Hindus who do not eat beef would more often than not be searching for vegetarian options to meet their dietary needs.
Looking back at the time when our families were overseas for about four years studying abroad, our families were eating mostly vegetarian and pescatarian foods the entire time as halal meat was not easily available then.
So going plant-based to adapt to unfamiliar places is not an uncommon thing.
Therefore, vegetarianism should no longer be associated with only specific religious practices.
Vegetarian, vegan and 100% plant-based foods, except for onions, garlic, and alliums, can be adopted and practised as a universal menu, regardless of religion, race, or dietary restrictions.
Food security is the current buzzword and is something we want to achieve. But what is food security?
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations defines it as when “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.
Taking examples of the past, pre-Merdeka days and learning from it, our great-grandparents survived that era and had enough to eat by growing and harvesting food around the house from roots and tubers like cassava and sweet potatoes, greens like kangkung and pucuk ubi to all other kinds of ulam, fruits and vegetables.
Fast-forward to the present day, community gardens, home gardens and balcony gardens are mushrooming all around us as we are going back to our “roots”.
Learning to grow our food can help people save money and also create an opportunity to make money.
When we are not able to grow it ourselves, we should source local produce as it will minimise the costs and reduce our carbon footprint.
FAO recommends that we can all be food heroes by growing our food at home, buying seasonal and local food, cutting down our food waste and eating more fruits and vegetables.
How does “what we put on our plate” help other people?
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in its Planet-Based Diet Report states “Nature restoration will depend on a combination of dietary shifts, reduction in food loss and waste, and adoption of nature-positive production practices.
“Dietary shifts are potentially the quickest action to achieve and can help facilitate the other two actions.”
What dietary shifts you might ask? “As individuals, we should choose sustainable foods. Eat more plants than animals. Eat healthily and minimise processed foods while ensuring balance and variety.”
According to WWF Research, adopting a plant-based diet can reduce agricultural land use by at least 41%.
Consequently, we can move towards optimising crop yields and feeding global humanity on existing cropland and cease deforestation.
An FAO report titled “Livestock and Landscapes Globally”, states that “there is enough cropland to feed nine billion (people) in 2050 if 40% of all crops produced today for feeding animals were used directly for human consumption, while available grasslands were more efficiently used as the basis for livestock feed.”
In terms of population, FAO reports that “it is estimated that between 720 and 811 million people in the world experienced hunger in 2020. Nearly one in three people in the world (2.37 billion) did not have access to adequate food (and nutrition) in 2020.”
Many factors play a role in this, but for us to be on track for the sustainable development goal of zero hunger by 2030, FAO states that “we need bold actions”.
So what are these bold actions? What can we do as individuals?
Many of us grew up being taught that before we eat, we need to make sure that our neighbours have food to eat as well.
It is a teaching by many religions. Even in Islam, it is taught that “he is not a believer who eats his fill whilst his neighbour beside him goes hungry”.
So many of us are already helping to feed the poor and hungry in our communities, with street feedings and soup kitchens, donations and charities.
Is changing what we eat ourselves going to have a global impact on other people?
To put it simply, yes. Through understanding the cycle and interdependencies of our current food system, these studies and reports show that animal agriculture contributes to world hunger through inefficient use of valuable food resources such as animal feed, it takes up about 75% of global soy harvest and makes up for 30% of global freshwater usage.
If these resources were instead used to feed humans, it can feed about 10 billion people on a plant-based diet.
Therefore, reducing our consumption of animal-based foods does have a direct effect on eradicating world hunger.
Do we know how much animal meat we are eating?
Statista Consumer Goods and FMCG reports that in 2021, Malaysians consumed an estimated 49.7kg of poultry meat per person.
This puts Malaysia among the top global consumers of poultry meat worldwide.
So what happens when we reduce meat consumption?
The WWF Planet-Based Diet calculator shows that as Malaysians, if we reduced our meat consumption to zero and ate a vegan diet, we would have minimised our carbon footprint drastically and there will be an overall decrease in biodiversity loss, GHG emissions, cropland and grazing land use, water use and eutrophication.
This reduction will happen because currently, animal agriculture is responsible for:
● 14.5% of greenhouse gases;
● 80% of rainforest destruction; and
● 80% of arable land
The WWF calculations for an optimal calorie range of 2,500 calories, with grains, roots, tubers, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, also indicate that we could reduce the mortality rate by 23.35% compared with our current diet.
So, as we celebrate Merdeka and Malaysia Day by cooking at home with our family or eating at restaurants with our friends let us all be mindful and grateful for what we have and what we can do.
Let food unite us. Let us eat green. Let us eat sustainably.
Let us do this together, for the people #KeluargaMalaysia. One green meal at a time.