Who? Me? I Waste?
It is tough to draw the line between socio-cultural practices and food wastage
ALMOST once a month in Zainah Anang’s five-room flat, her living room turns into a visual feast, literally.
Plates of rice, curry fish, vegetables, dal char, chicken biryani, murtabak, beehoon, and 10 other dishes are laid out on a long white mat for her guests of 30, mainly family members, to tuck in for the kenduri (a feast that comes after a half hour prayer session).
The 47-year-old business administrator always ensures that there is enough food to go around. “It’s a shame to the family when you let your guests go hungry,” she says.
The Asian culture of profligate hospitality is about providing an abundance of food to guests.
“When that happens, you can’t tell the capacity your guests would consume and this would lead to excess food provided,” says Edwin Khew, 61, chief executive and managing director of food waste recycling company IUT Global.
IUT Global collects more food waste, mostly from hotels and restaurants, during the festive period. This chimes with a December 2009 article by The Straits Times that reported a 30 per cent rise in food waste during festivities.
Restaurant consultant and food writer Guy Hoh, 37, attributes this to a culture where people like to see food in bounty. “I’ll bow to the side of abundance if I’m a businessman. It’s a lifestyle choice,” he says.
At social events such as Chinese wedding banquets, it is common to see hosts offering an eight or nine-course dinner, more than what their guests can usually finish.
“It’s a matter of face,” says Mr Khew. “If your guests clean up everything, it means you’re not providing enough.”
A former banquet waitress at Hilton Hotel, Toh Xin Yi, estimates that 30 per cent of the prepared food would be thrown away. During her one-year stint, the 19-year-old had noticed that most of the people were there to socialise, not eat.
Guests who attend dinner and dance events waste even more food than banquets, says a banquet manager who has been working with a four-star hotel for over 20 years. “They will be busy watching the show, leaving the food cold and barely touched.”
Social functions aside, religious events such as the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival sees a lot of food being dumped too.
At Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, an average of 20 large trash bags of cooked food were thrown away daily during the Hungry Ghost Festival, says Madam Lau, a helper who has been working in the temple for 11 years. She does not wish to disclose her full name and age.
During this period, thousands of devotees offer food to their ancestors in the Chinese temples. But some are convinced that it is bad luck to consume the food offerings after prayers, so they leave the food there to be discarded.
Housewife Ng Kum Hong, 60, believes that these people are just lazy to bring the food back home. “It’s the same as eating the food offerings when we pray at home,” says the Buddhist devotee.
In an email interview, food waste researcher and American journalist Jonathan Bloom, 33, says, “It’s not my place to judge cultural practices, but I would say that it’s ‘unfortunate’ in that it creates so much waste.”