Brandon Hastings - Mall Culture

To me at least, there's something really different about sitting in a restaurant in a mall. Not a strip mall. A mall-mall.

I don't mean sitting at a food court table in a mall, having just purchased your food from a nearby vendor. I mean actually sitting in a restaurant, in a mall. It feels a bit like being inside one of smaller boxes they put in the larger boxes when they package those jumbo Toblerones for Christmas.

Back home, there's the occasional White Spot (that's a British Columbia burger chain), Earls, or some such eatery, usually with glass windows and visible to outside passers-by, but this scattering of mall-based diners doesn't hold a candle to the plethora of full scale, sit down gastronomic experiences available at the Mid Valley Megamall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Maybe it's just that Vancouver isn't really large enough to support these sorts of consumerism-bourne-grotesqueries (maybe you can see the west-coaster in me coming out in that statement), but I have actually never been confronted with such a strong mall culture as I have been in South East Asia. This 420,000 square metre, 6 story mall is not atypical of what one would find in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, or Mainland China.

Sat with my teammates in an Indian restaurant in the Mid Valley Megamall, I pushed away my 33 RM tandoori chicken half, 9 RM white basmati rice, and 4 RM bottle of water. I was full(ish), but oddly dissatisfied; there was no sauce, no spiced yoghurt, nothing. This meal had cost, in total, 46 Malaysian Ringets, or approximately CAD $14.50, and the major component was plain white rice which I had to order separately. We had selected this restaurant instead of the Japanese restaurant to the right, the Thai restaurant on the other side of the linoleum walkway, or a third, the type of which escapes my memory. My meal tasted like authentic Indian food, but it wasn't really "good.

I reflected upon my last Indian meal 3 days ago in Singapore near Little India MRT. We walked up a craggy sidewalk, sat in plastic chairs at wobbly tables, were confronted with an eclectic mix of pseudo-religious, religious, and just straight-up confusing artwork on the walls, ate from metal dishes, and drank from metal cups. The staff was jovial, the service left something to be desired, the restaurant opened onto the street, and (if you cared to look) the curries were stored in metal bins behind panes of glass. It was delicious, relaxed, and fun. In the Mid Valley Mall, the staff was attentive, all donned the same uniforms, and prepared the dishes with precision. I can't say that my experience at the mall was bad - it was just a bit... clinical by comparison. Sort of like my white rice - the experience was lacking a bit of flavour, spirit, and, well.... sauce.

In Singapore, you'd be hard-pressed to find a place to eat such as this. Most of the food in Singapore, even in the most opulent districts, is served in food courts. I ate in the basement of Lucky Plaza on Orchard Road after a meeting once last week, and was gratified to see I wasn't the only person wearing a suit. A meal like this in Singapore would most likely run you no more that $5 CAD, and it would be dripping in sauce, the water would be free (and come from a tap; tap water is potable in Singapore), and would include rice at no charge.To be fair to Kuala Lumpur, I'm sure that it has it's fair share of side of the road, authentic, greasy spoon Indian joints, as I'm sure Singapore has it's share of pretentious, overpriced, and artificially lit concessions.

As I wandered back into the fluorescent light of the 6th floor of the Mid Valley Megamall I was struck by how nice it was to be located conveniently only a few air conditioned steps from the entrance to my hotel. Despite this, however, I couldn't help but reflect how little "authentic" Malay cuisine I had seen that day as I ran all around Kuala Lumpur on our trade mission's cultural tour component. Maybe it's because I'm from Vancouver and the west coast hegemony has biased me towards vegan-hippy-surfer-hipster-organic-foodie culture, but if you ask me for my opinion on food: Singapore wins this round. I miss the sauce on my rice; or maybe I'm just biased by an intense dislike of megamalls.

by Brandon Hastings, BBA, JD, Junior Team Canada Ambassador