Waste not, want not

Posted on June 26, 2011. Filed under: Waste |

-The Star- Restaurant operators estimate that between 30% and 10% of food is wasted on an average day, and that most customers are quite oblivious to the amount of food they waste.

A LITTLE part of J. Shanmugam hurts inside whenever piles of rice and gravy are thrown into the dustbin when diners order more than they can eat.

Shanmugam, the owner of the Sri Devi’s restaurant in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, makes it a point to politely ask his customers if there is something wrong, offering to exchange the food if it is not up to their liking.

“We can’t finish the portion,” the majority will reply. Then there are those who ask why he is bothered as the meal is paid for.

Wasteful habit: In Malaysia, where food is plentiful and eating out highly affordable, wasting food is turning into a habit which many rarely give a second thought to. – FAIHAN GHANI / The Star.

Just a few days ago, a customer took a few bites of his food before pushing it aside.

“He told me that he had just eaten and was full,” he says with a sigh.

Shanmugam believes strongly that food should never go to waste.

“It’s not about the money. All of us must respect food. It is God’s gift. Many people in the world don’t have food,” he said.

Hunger kills an estimated six million children a year, 17,000 every day, according to the United Nations, even though there is more than enough food for everyone.

Last year, some 925 million people starved daily, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Chef Ismail: ‘My grandmother used to tell me that even the last grain of rice would cry if it was uneaten’

In Malaysia, where food is plentiful and eating out highly affordable, wasting food is turning into a habit which many rarely give a second thought to.

Shanmugam estimates that about 15% of cooked food goes down the drain each day.

Another restaurant proprietor selling Malaysian and Western food who wanted to be known only as Loh, says food wastage is a very serious problem in the country. She estimates that 30% of cooked food goes down the drain daily despite rising food prices.

Even fresh fruit such as watermelon gets thrown away at times.

“They (customers) can always tell us they don’t want a certain item. But I think they would rather pay for the food and throw it,” Loh opines.

Women, according to Loh, have a greater tendency to waste food as they are more concerned about their calorie intake.

Loh believes that people sometimes pile food on their plate regardless of whether they can finish eating it.

She gives the example of cili padi, a favourite condiment of Malaysians.

“Before, people used to take the cili padi themselves. About 10kg to15kg was consumed on a weekly basis,” Loh tells.

After noticing that much of it ended up uneaten, Loh decided to control the amount given out. Now, she only needs to buy 4kg for her restaurant.

But when Loh tried to cut down meal portions to reduce waste, her customers complained.

“After two days, we had to revert to our original portions.” Wasteful habits are not just confined to food portions. Loh has customers who think nothing of using chili sauce to draw smiley faces, treating a food item as ink for their amusement.

Datuk Ismail Ahmad, the co-owner of Restaurant Rebung Chef Ismail, says that wasting food is considered to be dosa (sinful) among Malays and Muslims.

“My grandmother used to tell me that even the last grain of rice would cry if it was uneaten,” the celebrity chef relates.

He observes that at hotels and restaurant buffets, people tend to pile a mountain of food on their plates. This is more so during Ramadan when many food outlets offer buffet spreads.

“Maybe it’s a habit or a phobia that there might not be enough food. Waste is profit thrown down the drain. But it’s more than just money,” he insists.

He says a European friend told him that if you eat fruit or even bread, the leftover could be used to make a compost which can act as a fertiliser.

Now Ismail throws apple cores and fruit into his garden.

“It is food for insects and animals,” he adds.

It’s the same for bread if not used for pudding or crumbs, Ismail will leave it in a bowl outside for the birds.

As for his restaurant, Ismail says they have formulated ways to reduce food wastage, portioning food into small servings, although there have been some complaints about this.

“This portioning in individual bowls is more work, but it has to be done to reduce wastage,” he says, adding that they monitor the amount of food waste every day.

Ismail estimates food waste to be about 10% but believes that people are more educated these days and usually take the right portions for themselves.

As for leftovers of untouched food from his restaurant, Ismail sends them to homes to avoid throwing away good food.

Hotels too are taking measures to reduce wastage.

Cheryl Lum, Mandarin Oriental’s director of communications, says food waste amounts to less than 10% at the hotel.

This is because the hotel prepares small individual portions and does on-the-spot cooking to mantain quality and reduce waste.

One World Hotel, which caters mainly to corporate and business travellers, says food wastage is not a major issue and less than 5% of buffet food goes to waste.

“Sufficient portions are served at the buffet, and our chefs constantly check the buffet line to replenish when necessary,” says Florence Leong, One World Hotel’s assistant director of communications.

Leong adds that reservations are monitored closely so that the chefs cook according to the number of reservations made.

According to Leong, wastage tends to occur during public holidays when there are more walk-in guests with families and children; and children tend to pile more on their plates than they can eat.

In any case, she says that food waste is collected and sent on a daily basis to be recycled as bio-fuel.

Ratna Devi Nadarajan, vice-president of the Federation of the Malaysian Consumers Association (Fomca), suggests that hotels and eateries penalise people who don’t finish the food on their plates.

“People should be conscious. Any waste is only passed on to consumers in increased food prices,” she says.

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