By Opalyn Mok
GEORGE TOWN, Oct 22 — It is that time of the year again when demand for vegetarian food skyrockets and with it, the prices of vegetarian food everywhere in Penang.
At a normal hawker stall, a plate of char hor fun with bits of chicken meat, eggs and vegetables may cost between RM3 and up to RM5 per plate.
Come the Nine Emperor Gods Festival when many Penang folk of Taoist faith go on a strict vegetarian diet, a simple plate of char hor fun with bits of vegetables and mushroom can cost between RM5 and up to RM7 per plate.
Many other hawkers would either take a holiday during this nine-day period due to a reduction in business or some may even decide to join the fray in earning a fast buck from the festival.
This festival, which started on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, is in honour of the nine sons of the Goddess of the North Star or Tou Mu who controls the books of life and death.
Her nine sons are deities whom the Taoists believe can cure illness and bring luck, wealth and longevity to devotees who seek their blessings.
However, to receive their blessings, devotees will have to undergo a strict vegetarian diet for nine days.
More than a decade ago, only a sprinkling of temples and religious associations would set up vegetarian stalls to sell vegetarian fare while raising funds for the respective temples and associations.
It is in recent years that commercialism has crept into what is termed as one of the more spiritual festivals among the many Taoist festivals all year round.
Individual hawkers and also vegetarian restaurants take advantage of the increase in demand for vegetarian food during this period to mark up their food prices.
This is a once-in-a-year festival where many devotees will throng vegetarian stalls located on roadsides and curbs, in hawker centres and markets, to fulfil their pledge to the Nine Emperor Gods.
It is a time when “economy beehoon” is not exactly economical as the plate of fried rice noodles with only small strips of cabbage can cost up to RM2.50 per packet compared to the same economy beehoon being priced at RM1.20 per packet on normal days.
Similarly, the prices of snacks are also doubled, for example, a vegetarian curry puff can cost RM2 per piece while a normal chicken curry puff only costs RM1 per piece.
It’s a known fact that many of these once-a-year hawkers can rake in up to RM10,000 in that nine-day period of selling vegetarian fare.
One of them, who wished to be known only as Lim, is a sales executive by profession but each year, he would take two weeks’ leave to set up stall to sell vegetarian food.
“This is the only time of the year where I can earn my ‘bonus’. In nine days, I can earn up to RM6,000 in profits, sometimes more,” he said.
He said he’s heard of other hawkers who would earn double his profit as they sell more varieties of food while he only sells the usual fried noodles and fried rice dishes.
According to State Health, Welfare, Caring Society and Environment Committee chairman Phee Boon Poh, he has received numerous complaints of over-priced vegetarian food.
“We can’t do anything but to advice these hawkers and sellers to price their wares reasonably because they will only drive away customers by charging sky-high prices,” he said.
He said there was no ceiling price for hawker food or any cooked food so there is no regulation to control the prices of hawker food.
“We can only advice and urge them not to go overboard with their pricing and at the same time, we can advice consumers to compare prices and go for the stalls that they feel are more reasonable in their food pricing,” he said.
He said the high prices set by some of these hawkers will only discourage people from trying out vegetarian food.
“They must remember that not only devotees eat vegetarian food as we also have tourists who want to enjoy vegetarian food and this period is the best time for them to try a variety of vegetarian fare,” he said.
Penang Consumer Protection Society president K. Koris Atan also advised consumers to pick and choose when it comes to frequenting vegetarian food stalls during this period.
“The best is to eat home-cooked food but if they are unable to cook their own vegetarian meals, then it is best that they choose carefully,” he said.
He also warned consumers to beware of the amount of monosodium glutamate (MSG) used by some of the hawkers to make the food taste better.
“Some of these hawkers will put a lot of MSG, preservatives and flavourings so it is not healthy,” he said.
In a few weeks after this festival, another major vegetarian event will be held — the annual Meatless Day Charity Carnival.
Vegetarianism is an increasing trend and according to Meatless Day Charity Carnival organising chairman Pishu Murli Hassaram, there are around 500,000 vegetarians in Malaysia.
“Many of the younger generation are also going vegetarian, not only due to religious reasons but due to health or personal choice,” he said.
On the high price tags of vegetarian food especially during the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, he said the price is due to market forces.
“The high demand for vegetarian food drives up a high demand for vegetables and accompanying ingredients so prices of food also go up,” he said.
He said on normal days vegetarian food is priced rather reasonably.
“This festival and the Meatless Day Charity Carnival are actually quite good for our tourism as there are more tourists who prefer to seek out vegetarian food,” he said.
He said Penang will one day become one of the top vegetarian food destinations due to the increasing number of vegetarian restaurants in the state.
Perhaps with the increase in vegetarian restaurants, a healthy competitive market will soon drive down the prices of vegetarian food to encourage more people to turn vegetarian and more tourists to come to Penang.