The love of good food is, undoubtedly, the one trait shared by all Malaysians. And why not, when Malaysia has some of the most imaginative and tasty cuisines, created by the mingling of cultures over many generations?
Food, in Malaysia, isn’t always just about food. Food also tells the stories of Malaysia, its people, cultures and traditions.
And that is the ethos of Food Tour Malaysia, founded by three Malaysians who like food but don’t think that food is the be all and end all. They started this enterprise almost five years ago to introduce tourists to quintessentially Malaysian street and stall food, often located off the beaten track.
Darren Teoh said food is the medium through which they introduce visitors to Malaysian culture and people, and to make Malaysia a memorable visit for them.
“Food is the way that culture is implicitly expressed,” he said. “If we take them to a mamak place, there is a cultural element there as well.”
Of course, good food matters too! Teoh knows his food well as he runs the well-acclaimed restaurant Dewakan, and he knows Malaysia well too, having roamed its streets and alleys from childhood.
He said the idea of food tours sparked when he and the other two co-founders kept taking their many foreign visitors to street eateries in the city, and telling them stories about the food and culture.
“We would take them out to give them a taste of local culture via food, and after a while, we realised that this could be a good business model as well,” he said. “We travel quite a bit too, and enjoy alternative tours when we are abroad.”
Today, Food Tour Malaysia runs four different tours, stopping at four to five eateries on each tour, and also do customised tours.
The stories can be simple ones. For instance, they may take guests to an old-school open air banana leaf place where they can eat with their fingers, as the guide explain the cuisine, culture and heritage that goes into making that meal.
It would make for an unusual experience for foreigners who want to go beyond cafés and restaurants. All its guests are foreigners, with the majority from Australia, Germany and United Kingdom.
“The tours are designed for foreigners. For locals, chances are that they already know these places,” said Teoh.
“It’s like having a local friend to show you around.”
Having begun in Kuala Lumpur, it has now expanded to Penang and Ipoh. Tours are led by one of their freelance guides who are picked for their passion, not just for food but for stories, history and culture.
“It’s like having a local friend to show you around,” said Teoh.
Most of their guests are adventurous, middle-aged, and fairly well off. They tend to be open to new experiences, interested in culture and food, and are adaptable enough to enjoy a warong meal by the roadside or a no-frills coffeeshop.
“For non-Asian first-time visitors, Asia can sometimes feel like the unknown or even intimidating. We try to raise their comfort level, and connect them to the real Malaysia,” Teoh said.
Food Tour Malaysia runs around seven tours a week with an average five persons in each group.
As both partners have day jobs, there are no real plans for expansion even though it is self-sustaining and a profitable venture. They are, however, considering running a concierge service to come up with off-beat tours, or even to produce guidebooks.
“There’s more to Malaysia than shopping malls. We are thinking of new ways of connecting tourists to interesting people and experiences,” said Teoh.