Internet 'floggers' cash in on food-mad Asia
As a Hindu who does not eat beef but craves other meat, Tashny Sukumaran discovered her new passion for pork burgers through her native Malaysia's vibrant food-blogging, or "flogging", scene.
The Muslim-majority country's mainstream media shy from references to pork and other foods objectionable to Islam, but blogs have helped spark a burger boom in a nation with sizeable ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.
"I kept reading about pork burgers on 'flogs' but have never seen much in newspapers, I guess because it's non-halal," said Sukumaran, 22.
Food blogs have come to dominate Asia's gastronomical discourse, turning diners on to new foods and giving small eateries valuable exposure in an Internet-fuelled "democratisation of food reviews", as Australian "flogger" Thang Ngo puts it.
"The number of restaurant reviews is limited by a few pages in the paper each week. Smaller restaurants in particular love bloggers because many may never be reviewed by newspaper critics," he told AFP.
Food blogging is a worldwide phenomenon but has found an especially eager readership in Asia, a region whose diners are typically passionate about eating and fussy about taste, and where food holds great cultural importance.
In China, for example, a common greeting is "Have you eaten?" -- or, in other words, "How are you?"
Nowhere are the passions stronger than in Malaysia, where the dining scene is dominated by open-air cafes and food stalls.
These are typically too small for a restaurant review but inspire intense devotion and debate on blogs about where to find the perfect bowl of steaming noodles or best scoop of spicy curry.
"People don't pray before eating any more, they take pictures instead," says Nazeen Koonda, marketing manager for Time Out Malaysia.
As "floggers" draw increasing clicks, they are finding ways to milk cash from their following.
Singaporean Brad Lau, whose www.ladyironchef.com saw 1.5 million page views in December, sells ads on his site including some unrelated to food.
"Blogs are word-of-mouth on steroids," says Lionel Lau, co-founder of Des Gourmand, a restaurant group that runs several trendy eateries in Malaysia.
South Korea's vibrant online community has no shortage of food bloggers, including so-called "power bloggers" -- reviewers read by tens of thousands daily who can make or break restaurants.
Janice Tan, who runs Ninja Joe, the Kuala Lumpur fast-food joint whose pork patties are favoured by Sukumaran, opened the first outlet in 2009 with husband Tee Tsun Joo. They now have five sites as revenues have soared.
They credit their success to blogs, saying newspapers have avoided mentioning the non-halal pork burger trend. Tan adds that they were refused space in two of Malaysia's largest malls as they sought to expand.
"We didn't invite bloggers, they just came. But as of last year, we had over 130 postings on us," she said, adding that they have never advertised.
But can you still trust food blogs?
That is a question increasingly asked as flogging grows and becomes susceptible to the same influences for which it was supposed to provide an alternative, some in the industry complain.
Chief among these is a growing "pay-to-praise" industry that has spawned brokers who charge businesses large sums for media coverage and positive reviews.
Tony Hong, a South Korean actor who runs several successful restaurants there, de-listed one outlet from a popular review site in 2011, claiming one of its regular contributors demanded 120,000 won ($114) per month for positive comments.
"After we refused, the number of bad comments snowballed," Hong said.
Lee Khang Yi, food editor for The Malay Mail, a Kuala Lumpur-based newspaper, said Malaysian bloggers can earn from 300-1,500 ringgit ($100-$500) per favourable posting.
Bloggers in Singapore say restaurants will pay up to 2,000 Singapore dollars ($1,630) for a positive posting on a popular blog.
Restaurateurs also increasingly complain of camera-wielding bloggers demanding free meals and threatening bad reviews if denied.
Brad Lau had to publicly deny allegations that he refused to pay a bill of 435 Singapore dollars ($350) for himself and three friends at a top restaurant in 2010.