City Guide: Penang Food ChallengeOctober 11, 2016
- Noni CabreraWords
Penang is a destination like no other.
Its collection of government buildings, traditional shophouses, fortresses, squares, churches, and mosques all reflect a jumble sale quality, demonstrating a rich colonial history that has shaped its identity throughout the centuries. Portuguese, Dutch, and British influences are distilled into its townscape, and over 500 years of commerce and intercultural exchange between Penang and the West have birthed to this small town that the UNESCO found worth including in its list of World Heritage Cities.
The city today is a product of waves of immigration and settlement by Chinese fishermen and traders, their Straits-born Peranakan descendants, Indian rubber plantation and railroad workers, and the bumiputra, ethnic Malays who settled in the island long before the rest came. These immigrant communities can still be seen occupying their own enclaves and communities, but there is an overall sense of harmony that is made possible by assimilation and decades of peaceful coexistence in such a small area.
The result? A culinary culture that is vibrant as it is diverse.
It’s epicenter George Town, the capital of the State of Penang, is a culinary treasure Guidebooks and travel websites have touted George Town as a traditional, unique and remarkable locality known for its vast array of edibles. Globalization is such a great thing for cuisine because it makes possible for the hybridization of techniques, recipes and influences. In Penang, it is possible to say that each street has its own trademark cuisine. Imagine walking around and sampling the best Malay, Indian, Chinese, and even Western food in just a few cobblestoned alleys. That makes George Town deserving of its title as the best food destination.
On a recent trip, I did not have a set itinerary so I arrived by bus from Singapore without a clue on what to expect. Incidentally, the first brochure that I picked up from my hostel was a culinary map of the city. UNESCO and the city’s tourism board came out with this free tourist map featuring the best restaurants, hawker centers, and street food stalls. What would be the best way to enjoy this city, I asked myself. And so I rented a motorbike (and later on a bike; I ditched the scooter because it was difficult to find parking), decided to follow my tastebuds and explored the town, one bite at a time. Because of the fear of missing out on the best fare, and my gluttonous tendencies, I put myself up to the test of just how much I could eat in 5 days.
The challenge? Eat all the things listed on the brochure, all 32 of them. That’s 7 rice meals, 10 noodle dishes, several street side snacks, and desserts.
In retrospect, that sounds like a crazy mission, but I felt like I truly deserved to imbibe in the culture and the culinary heritage of the town. After all, I saved up quite a bit to enjoy without scrimping too much and minding my expenses. Still, I know I had to set some ground rules.
Penang’s Hokkien population came from Southeastern China, the region with an affinity for all things porky. Since I don’t consume pork and processed pork products, several Hokkien items were automatically knocked off the list: porridge with braised pork belly; wan tan mee (large egg noodles, pork dumplings and char siu pork); koay teow th’ng (flat rice noodles with pork rib broth); chee cheong fun (noodle rolls with char siu pork slices, doused with shrimp paste sauce and sesame seeds); loh mee (not unlike our Batangas lomi: fat noodles in thick starchy gravy with round pork dumplings); curry mee (laksa with coagulated pigs blood and char siu slices); and char koay kak (radish and rice cakes stir fried with chives in pork lard). The Chinese restaurants in George Town are always brimming with locals. Here, dim sum is consumed in copious amounts for breakfast, and any time of the day is perfect for xiao long bao or ha kaw, washed down with loose leaf tea or Penang’s best kept secret: kopi putih (lit. white coffee) – a heady concoction of coffee beans roasted in palm oil margarine and made extra creamy with generous amounts of milk.
The rest of the dishes were pork-free, and so down the hatch they went.
Here is a definitive list of the best food that Penang has to offer, where to get them and how to enjoy them best:
Char Koay Teow
Char Koay Teow literally means stir-fried flat rice noodles. It is a dish that originated specifically from the coastal Penang region due to its abundance of seafood. Cockles, shrimps and fish cakes are stir fried with rice noodles, eggs, and bean sprouts in a smoky and gratifyingly greasy dish. Street side cooks usually make them in well seasoned woks that make it possible for the smoky aroma of the dish. Woks allow them to flash fry the noodles over high flame (the hotter, the better), so your char koay teow is made fresh within seconds.
Where to get it: Kimberly Street night street food market; Jalan Chulia hawker stands
This Penang specialty of fragrant and mildly flavored biryani accompanied with a variety of spicy curry dishes and vegetables had Anthony Bourdain begging for more. You start with a canvas of steamed or flavored rice, and you pick from the selection of curried meats, vegetarian stews and gravies – and they pile it on top of each other in one messy but satisfying meal. I went overboard with the prawns and beef stew that I almost couldn’t bike back to my hostel.
Where to get it: Hands down the only place you should go is Line Clear on Jalan Penang (plus it’s open 24 hours!)
Days are humid and hot in George Town and a trip around the town hunting for its famous street art and murals will leave you with a hankering for something cold and refreshing. The Penangites have that covered. Enter cendol—an ice dessert not unlike bing soo, but with funky green sweetened pandan noodles, beans and a generous helping of gula Melaka syrup (cooked Muscovado or palm sugar).
Where to get it: the unnamed cendol cart in front of Joo Hooi Café, at the corner of Lebuh Keng Kwee and Jalan Penang.
Penang’s proximity to the sea affords it with fresh oysters that usually end up in omelettes and pancakes. Sweet and fat oysters are mixed in batter with chives and sprouts and cooked on hot griddles for a savory and briny afternoon snack.
Where to get it: Lam Ah coffee shop at Lebuh Pantai
Penang Assam Laksa
A lot of people confuse Penang Assam Laksa with its close cousin, the curry mee which is basically the Filipino idea of what laksa is. Curry mee, various seafood cooked in coconut milk, sambal, and curry spices is a rich and tasty noodle dish with a thick soupy base. Penang Assam Laksa, on the other hand starts with a thin broth that is fishy, pungent, and very sour. The fish disintegrates into the broth, and you taste bits and pieces of fish meat with every spoonful. Proceed with caution: it is an assault to the taste buds and is an acquired taste, but if you are into this kind of taste profile, you will appreciate the potent flavors that make up this local delicacy.
Where to get it: Joo Hooi Café; Lebuh Kimberly Hawker Cenre
The Malaysian version of our pancit guisado. Plain and simple.
Where to get it: Anywhere
An Indian dessert made from rice or idiyappam flour dough extruded to form thin noodles and sweetened with date palm sugar or gula Melaka, steamed with aromatic pandan leaves. This is a perfect antithesis to Penang’s spicy and fiery curries as it is laidback, sweet, and simple.
Where to get it : Putu Mayong carts at Jalan Pasar and Jalan Dato Keramat
We Filipinos claim that we invented the halo halo, and Malaysians counter by saying they made ais kacang even before we were making ube on sweetened fruits and ice happen. Ais kacang is definitely the best dessert you can get in Penang as it represents the fun ingredients that make this a true Southeast Asian symbol: nipa palm cubes, red beans, grass jelly, agar agar jelly and sweet corn on shaved iced, drowned in a mixture of evaporated milk, condensed milk and coconut milk. Not to be outdone, Penangites also add an extra dash of rosewater syrup and sarsaparilla to make this even crazier than it already is. Just pure sweet bliss in every spoonful.
Where to get it: the same cart where the best cendol is sold in George Town (see: Cendol)
We Filipinos can relate to popiah because we have our own lumpiang sariwa, meat and vegetables wrapped in a thin rice wafer or sheet. The Penangite version is made with cabbage, grated carrots, tofu, sprouts, and sometimes, shredded chicken or prawns wrapped in popiah sheets and served with peanut sauce (when eaten fresh) or sambal (when fried). This specialty is usually sold very cheap, so there’s no stopping you from going through several rolls in one sitting.
Where to get it: Jalan Chulia night street food market
Nasi lemak is such a popular breakfast staple among the working class locals that getting to these beautiful parcels is quite a challenge. Nasi lemak fragrant rice cooked in coconut, fried anchovies, sambal, boiled egg and peanuts, all wrapped in banana leaves. I lined up for close to an hour in Toh Soon Cafe, the most famous nasi lemak purveyor in George Town. This unassuming hawker stall tucked in a bustling alley was brimming with patrons that people spill out into the neighboring streets, waiting for tables. They actually ran out of nasi lemak several times, so I had to tide over my hunger with grilled cream bread served with kaya spread and soft-boiled eggs. What’s the fuss about? Nothing, really. It’s very simple, but it evokes to the Malaysian locals a sense of nostalgia that is closely associated with their humble and unassuming national identity. Needless to say, waiting close to an hour was worth the wait.
Where to get it: Toh Soon Cafe, Jalan Campbell
A plate of nasi kerabu, with a variety of dishes. Note the bluish hue of the rice, which was achieved by mixing in juice from dried blue clitoria flowers
I took a Malaysian cooking class from a local legend Nazlina, and we made nasi kerabu, a traditional spread of dishes that constitute what is known as Malay rice. In the class, we prepared a variety of spicy dishes and salads, but the anchor of the meal was Nazlina’s steamed rice which came in a startling shade of blue. The blue coloring came from dried and preserved blue flowers hilariously called clitoria (Google it and see why it is named such).
An import from neighboring Indonesia, satay are sticks of meat broiled over coals and served with peanut sauce and sambal. Penangite satays are best when enjoyed with char koay teow or oyster pancakes, and washed down with teh tarik or beer.
Where to get it: hawker stands along Jalan Chulia, Jalan Macalister and Jalan Kimberly
The Malaysian Department of National Heritage declared apam balik as a traditional Malay dish. Basically a crunchy and sweet pancake similar to martabak, apam balik got its name from the process in which street side vendors turn it over in its round griddle irons to form a half-moon shape. This delicious sweet treat is perfect when taken with kopi.
A note about how to order Malaysian coffee like a local: the default kopi is rich coffee with condensed milk, kopi O is plain black coffee, and kopi C is unsweetened coffee with evaporated milk (kosong for hot, peng for iced).
Where to get it: Jalan Kimberly; Pasar Pulau Tikus
Mornings in Penang are made perfect by a serving of roti canai with a steaming mug of coffee. If you love carbs as much as I do, you will find yourself wolfing down generous amounts of this treat every morning. A breakfast staple among the Malaysians, it is also called roti parata. It is a chewy flatbread traditionally served with dal or lentil curry. Roti canai come in many varieties, but the best ones are filled with scrambled eggs, caramelized onions, meat or cheese. Sweet varieties that don’t come with a curry dip are flavored with caramelized sugar, Milo or ground coffee bean nibs.
Where to get it: most Mamak stalls or kopi tiams (mamak are traditional Halal carts usually manned by Muslim vendors)
Traditional Nyonya Kuih
Almost every predominantly Hokkien lane or street in George Town has a sweet shop that sells a variety of kuih (pronounced as ‘kwey’). Kuih are traditional sweets and pastries usually made with local ingredients such as sticky rice and beans, and are flavored with rosewater, pandan or gula melaka. They come in dainty little packages, and are usually sold in boxes as gifts and treats given away during Chinese festivals. I came in the height of the Autumn festival, which is a traditional feast season for giving away mooncakes and filled pastries.
So after five days, a few hundred ringgit, and several pounds gained later, I made a considerable dent on this mission. To recap, I excluded 7 dishes from the list of 32 specialties because they contained pork. I ate 15 dishes out of what remained from the culling. Seeing as I still had 10 dishes left to sample, I couldn’t consider this as a victory.
I chickened out of most noodle dishes (mee udang, mee rebus, mee sotong, mee ketam, and curry mee) because the servings were just massive. I also wasn’t so eager to eat the things that I already ate plenty of in Singapore, where I came from before Penang. That brings the tally to a shameful 15 out of 25 dishes.
Borrowing Adam Richman’s famous words, in the epic battle of man versus Penang food, food definitely wins.