History of Malaysia's Hawker Culture

It is no secret that food is the pride and glory of our beloved country, Malaysia! A significant portion of that pride can be attributed to our hawker culture, Mamak stalls, and our fellow penjaja's. But do you know the origins of our colourful food landscape? You probably did not study this in school so let's travel back in time to learn about something every Malaysian will go to war for: our food and its history.

Did you know, street vendors of all races can be traced back to the mid-1800s in Penang and Malacca. Selling basic food items while seated on dusty roads, these pioneers of hawker culture were usually "unskilled and unemployed". But oh boy did those two words to describe street vendors in the 1800s soon become the biggest misnomers of all time, for they were neither unskilled nor unemployed. These street vendors soon became the best food entrepreneurs of their time and, more importantly, have paved the way for Malaysia's food landscape to flourish.

What is a hawker?

Did you know there were four different types of hawkers in the 19th century? Most of them were food hawkers, similar to the ones we are familiar with now. These food hawkers capitalised on people who had extremely packed workdays as well as those who were not very financially well off. Most of their customers were labourers working at the harbours of the Straits Settlements of Penang and Melaka.

The second type of hawkers consisted of small-scale farmers. In the morning, these farmers would sell their vegetables and even meat at the local market. Once done, they hustle on the streets to sell off their remaining stock rather than letting them go to waste.

The third type was solo entrepreneurs who were sort of the salespeople of food manufacturers and wholesalers. These salespeople would go into town and like their small-scale farmer counterparts, they would try to sell goods on behalf of the manufacturer or wholesaler they were working for.

Last but not least, anyone who has been to Malaysia has surely seen rustic old-looking shops selling everyday household items. Brooms, plastic cups, dishrags, mops, biscuits, you name it, except this sort of establishment did not start out as a shop. The fourth and final type of hawkers were selling these household items on the streets.

What do the four types of hawkers share in common?

The four types of hawkers may have sold a variety of goods but they all utilised the street as part of their business model. Why is this important anyway?

It was not a sheer coincidence for hawkers to operate their businesses on the rugged dirt roads of Malaysian towns and cities back in the day. Often overlooked, there are indeed benefits to such a venue (or lack thereof) to operate a business. Firstly, very little capital was needed. Renting or owning an established shop would be too costly for most. Not having a shop to manage also meant there was no need to hire additional employees. This was why street-hawking was seen as a form of self-employment and that every street-hawker was their own entrepreneur. Secondly, as they walked down busy streets balancing baskets of goods on their shoulders or heads, street hawkers never stood still in one location for too long. Why? The fact that street hawkers were able to move around town or residential quite easily meant that they could reach more customers as well as more types of customers. Over the decades, street hawking emerged as an extremely popular form of entrepreneurship and employment regardless of race; it is sewn into our Malaysian fabric as part of our rich and colourful food culture.

Hawkers today

Today, hawkers are mostly known to sell food. Most of the food our beloved hawkers sell today has not changed much over the years. And I say this with pride. Years and years of recipes, most often a secret, have been passed down through generations. However, as there is no shortage of innovation and creativity among our local food entrepreneurs, many have begun experimenting with their own recipes, for example, by adding a more modern twist to well-known traditional foods or by taking popular Malaysian ingredients and fusing them together to create something completely unique.

At Hawkr, we are committed to honouring Malaysia's hawker history and celebrating our colourful food landscape by providing all Malaysians a platform to achieve their F&B business dreams, all from the comfort of their home kitchens.

Hawkr believes the best-tasting and most innovative foods do not necessarily come out of a Michelin Star kitchen, but from one's home kitchen where one's initial passion for food was born. From all-time Malaysian favourites such as Nasi Goreng to modern Malay cuisine, and from authentic handmade pasta to signature personalised desserts, you can find home cooks and home bakers selling just about anything on our platform.

Today, we are grateful to support Malaysian home cooks of various levels of expertise and backgrounds who sell their food on Hawkr, by equipping them with the necessary digital skills and services of 2021 in which the need to digitalise is further accelerated by Covid-19. To learn more about how we help aspiring home cooking business owners succeed, click here.