Banana leaves, Ulam, vapes and Malaysian kitchens 

Words and art by Theo Verden

The scene opens on a busy Malaysian fusion restaurant, Dusun, in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. The heat, tension, and business of the open-plan kitchen spills into the dining area.    

*Crash* *Bang* *Pan sounds*     

KITCHEN STAFF: “Dua nasi lemak dusun ayam, satu asam pedas udang galah. CEPAT CEPAT!” (“Two coconut rice and chicken, one sour spicy prawn. QUICK QUICK!”)    

SUSTAINABILITY INTERN (me): “Excuse me….”    

KITCHEN STAFF (ignoring intern): “Sambal ada?” (“Do you have the sambal?”)    

SUSTAINABILITY INTERN – “Excuse me, do you recycle these cardboard sambal packages, and do you have a bin for glass waste?”    

KITCHEN STAFF – “No.”     

For the month of June 2022, I worked as a sustainability intern for a restaurant called Dusun, meaning Orchard in Malay. The restaurant had just opened in the February and its popularity was tangible. In the evenings, people would queue outside just to get a seat. I had only been in Malaysia for two hot days before I began. Most of my time I spent in the main office with the restaurant’s accounting, management, and administrative staff. I was told I would be helping with all things sustainability… hmm, the word is used so much these days it almost means nothing at all. Not to mention that, although I am interested in environmental issues, I knew little about sustainability in restaurants.   

My boss wanted me to create a ‘sustainability manual/guide’ for all kitchen and restaurant workers. This would be a simple, yet practical, manual to teach staff about the sustainable practices of Dusun, to be instantly implemented. I quickly scurry over to my desk and open my laptop. I go to Ecosia and type sustainable practice in restaurants. Ecosia offers me a list of ‘how to improve sustainability in restaurants’, with measures like ‘maintain equipment’ and ‘reduce energy usage’. Hmmm, broad, but I can work with this…   

I search both Ecosia and my brain to think of new ways to make Dusun more sustainable. I remember that time at Wahaca and they had a carbon labelled menu… I loved that! Did you know that the crab tacos had a lower carbon count than the chicken tacos? What if we could do that with Dusun’s menu? I go to the boss and propose the idea; he loves it, but seemingly because it’s something they do in hip London restaurants now. The often-benign trendiness of sustainability strikes again. I’m even doing it… I write for UnEarth 😎🌏  

So, the boss decides I need to get to know the kitchen first and sends me to investigate the kitchens for a whole day. This day changed my entire perspective on restaurant sustainability and how different cultures approach it. None of the ‘12 ways to reduce food waste’ articles nor the ‘11 tips for eco-friendly restaurants’ I had speed read the day before helped me here. All the articles I had read had been written by olivemagazine or opentable all of which had inherently western approaches to sustainability. Their practices, like using recycled paper tissues, reducing delivery carbon emissions and offering vegan alternatives, are valid and do help the environment. However, most of these practices are more ‘new age’, not necessarily rooted in more historical or cultural sustainability practices.   

At Dusun, these tended to be the issues that they were falling short on. They had no vegan menu, disposed of all their tissues in landfill and definitely weren’t concerned with the emissions of delivery vehicles. But this does not mean that they are not trying to be sustainable. They simply had a different approach. An approach that, to me, seemed more grounded in the historical sustainability practices and general frugality of Malaysians. So perhaps this article is in some ways a critique of some of our more ‘new age’ sustainable practices. Carbon labelled menus are cool but who makes the data on the emissions? And those articles I was reading, are they trying to help or lure clicks? Indeed, one of the articles I read was interrupted by an EasyJet advert…   

At Dusun, things were far from perfect. However, I found that there was much to learn from some of their sustainable practices. For example, they used the unused chicken bones and vegetable cuttings to create their special watery broth that was served alongside many of their dishes. Most recipes were informed by old heritage cookbooks and thus only used ingredients sourced locally. One of their salads, Ulam, is simply a raw selection of edible forest leaves that are foraged. These various leaves can only be foraged, not harvested, and thus their demand contributes to the need for Malaysian rainforest to remain. Moreover, Southeast Asia has an ancient culture of using banana leaf to wrap food. This is perhaps my favourite practice as it is a brilliant substitute for foil and cling film. Nasi Lemak, Malaysia’s national dish, when ordered for takeaway is almost always wrapped in a banana leaf or old newspaper. Finally, and perhaps most relevant, the kitchen staff did not use disposable vapes, in fact, they hated them and the bigger their vape was, the cooler they were.   

Working towards a more sustainable global society starts at the local level but that is not to say that we should get trapped in our own ‘sustainability bubbles’. It is easy to get into cycles of doing the same things to be sustainable, but there are so many different approaches. From using old receipts to pad the linings of your jackets to wrapping food in leaves, there is much that we, in the UK, can learn from other countries and vice versa. We should be more proactive in learning from societies that might be more in touch with an older human frugality that wealth and modern society has damaged. And in the same way, there is much to be learnt, globally, from more ‘new age’ sustainable practices.   

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