#BetterCities Talks Food

30 April 2014


Here at #BetterCities, we’re gearing up for the next talk series, slated to happen early June. This time, we’ll be having a conversation with a few people at the forefront of the urban gardening movement in Kuala Lumpur. Urban gardening has garnered much attention recently as the rapid urbanisation of cities worldwide and increasing degradation of agricultural land place food sustainability at the forefront of urban concerns. The benefits of urban gardening, or its larger scale incarnation, urban farming, is evident even to the most casual of observers. Not only are we reducing our carbon food print by reducing the distance food has to travel from the farm to table, keeping food dollars in the community could revitalise the local economy and create a meaningful source of employment for urban dwellers.

Additionally, we cannot talk about the future of food in our city without also looking at the food culture that exists in KL. As our recent trek to the markets of Pudu and Chow Kit reveal, Malaysians can proudly wear their foodie badge as the variety of the food that gets to our dining table is truly astounding. The sprawling wet markets of our city peddle traditional foods not found elsewhere and our thriving food culture is something to be proud of. On our visit, we encountered foods from deep in the jungles of Pahang that we could not identify, medicinal plants that some of us would not know existed much less how to eat, as well as vegetables and herbs for traditional dishes that Malaysians have enjoyed for generations.

Navigating the maze of stalls and shops in these markets is like a quick lesson on the history and geography of our country, and touches upon what it means to be a KLite. At the wet market, young and old converge to partake in the daily ritual of feeding a city of 1.5 million people. Rising above the jostling crowd is a cacophony of voices, a healthy mix of the familiar mix of dialects and languages spoken in this city. Here, you’ll find stalls selling foods that cater to our multicultural tastes and see migrant workers hard at work, stripping carcass after carcass of chicken or fish all for our convenience. Food is a central part to the life of a city and the stories our food tell us can help us understand ourselves and also the values that we share.

As Malaysians, we love our nasi lemak as much as we love our apples and there is undoubtedly a dependence on imported foods. While this is not something we should reject as it adds to the diversity of food available in our city, what we choose to buy does have consequences that reach far beyond the dinner plate. For example, when shopping in a supermarket, the only option for bananas might be an imported banana farmed far away and bred for its size and not its taste. In choosing what we eat and where we shop, we are therefore also choosing our future – whether it is one that supports local farmers or whether it is one increasingly dependent on foreign imports.

Perhaps the rhetoric surrounding urban gardening is a clue as to how far we have deviated from food sustainability within city or national limits. We live in a time when we speak of growing food as being a subversive activity and when gardeners become guerrillas. These are clues that it is time for us to reconnect with where our food comes from. Here at #BetterCities we hope to encourage people in KL to start thinking about their food and what they can do to make KL more food independent whether it is exercising their rights as a consumer or picking up a shovel and start digging in their backyards. To all foodies and future urban farmers and anyone else interested in this topic, keep your eyes peeled on our blog for updates on our next Talk Series where we will be addressing this very topic.