Here's the scenario: you, an enthusiastic but embarassingly inexperienced fan of all things Asian and edible are going to Southeast Asia for just under a month. You of course want to eat, learn and experience as many of the great eastern continent's culinary wonders as possible. Thanks to the multitude of budget airlines in the region getting between places is cheap and easy; the only thing you have to decide is where to go. From past experience you know that although it's tempting to want to do (and eat) everything, you have nowhere near enough time to do so, particularly since you'll have to tend to some work-related obligations as well. In fact, to be reasonable and to give yourself enough time to experiencing things properly you should probably limit yourself to three destinations. They must, however, be three of the best food destinations in Asia. The kind of places people go just for the food.
But how on earth will you choose? It's kind of like going to Paris and restricting yourself to three restaurants, or San Crispino in Rome and tasting only three flavors of gelato. There are enough tempting options to send even the most resolute of decision-makers into meltdown, particularly when you know that the ones you pass up will haunt you for the rest of your life.
Luckily, for me one of the decisions was easy: Penang, Malaysia.
Look up any information on this small island off the west coast of Malaysia and you'll be inundated with references to its food: "the food-obsessed island", "home to the best food on the planet", "a food paradise", "nivana for food-lovers"... Occasionally you'll run across something else being lauded - the capital Georgetown's UNESCO world-heritage architecture, the many incense-drenched temples and colonial churches, the bustling markets, the bucolic rainforested interior and palm-fringed northern beaches, but these always come across as afterthoughts, almost as if they're mentioned because they have to be while everyone knows that local cuisine is the real attraction. Food is, apparently, what this island's all about, and I've been hearing its praises sung for about as long as I've been eating. Coming here was, for me, a no-brainer.
But what makes Penang food so special? Well, as a former British colony and centuries-old trade and cultural hub, Penang offers an utterly unique cuisine, one fused from the flavors of its melting pot of ethnicities: Malay, Indian, Chinese and Nyonya, a.k.a. Straits Chinese. Add to that the abundance of ingredients that flourish in this tropical location, a food-savvy population whose discerning palates have been weaned on the bold flavors of their myriad cuisines, and the kind of weather that, well, maybe doesn't stimulate the heartiest of appetites but makes hanging around the table one of the more attractive options on offer. What really seals the deal, though, is the accessibility of the food: unlike other countries where the best examples of national cooking are confined to restaurants or home kitchens, here they're available on every nearly every street corner and in every back alley on the island, and for the kind of money most of us lose behind the sofa cushions without even noticing.
It does sound like a food paradise, doesn't it?
After being there, I can say that Penang deserves all the hype it gets, and more. This is one food-crazy island, and the food there is beyond belief. We quickly fell into a routine of eating at least two of every meal: two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners. We'd stop in at one place for a bowl of this and a plate of that, and then head out into the heat for a digestive walk before settling down someplace new for another round. I think the only thing that kept us from eating even more than that was the weather. Unfortunately we found we simply had to retire to our (air-conditioned) hotel room at regular intervals just to keep from collapsing of heat exhaustion.
But there was one thing I didn't like about Penang. No, it wasn't the weather (although I'm tempted to invest in a thermo-cooled space suit for my next visit), and it wasn't the shabby, ragged urban landscape (though I have to wonder, shouldn't they be investing a little more in the upkeep of these world-heritage buildings?), it was this: there was too much good food and too little time. Every time I tucked into a plate or bowl of something, no matter how good it was, there was a nagging little voice in the back of my head asking me if I wasn't squandering precious time and stomach space on this when there were so many other worthy contenders out there. In a place like this it's easy to get caught up in a frenzied quest to try every must-try bite in the city, to push yourself (and your long-suffering loved ones who would really rather be lying by the pool instead of watching your last remnants of sanity slowly drip away in the heat) to seek out every morsel worth ingesting in the entire city when you know full well it would take a lifetime to properly experience it all. But such is the curse of Penang - it plays funny games with your judgment.
Although no visit will ever be long enough to taste it all, it's almost impossible to spend a few days in Penang and not eat great food. You may not be able to try the best of the best of everything, but let's face it: even sub-par is pretty good around here. To increase your chances of finding gastronomic bliss, there are of course several strategies you can take. In general anything with a crowd around it is probably worth visiting, though a popular hawker stall often means long waits. There are also several places where some of the best bites seems to congregate: Penang Road, New Lane, Macalister Road, Lorong Selamat. Another strategy is to just hop in a taxi and ask him to take you to his favorite place to eat. Whatever you do and wherever you go, though, I'd advise you to not miss the following foods, my personal hit-list (including a few suggestions for where to find particularly good versions) from an all-too-short stay in Penang.
1. Hokkien Mee
This was my absolute favorite Penang hawker dish. A deeply rich and savory soup chock-full of prawns, pork ribs, wheat and beanthread noodles and water spinach, and crowned with a hard-boiled egg, a mountain of fried shallots and a spoonful of fiery sambal, it was at once rich and light, hot and cooling, slurpable and chewy. An interesting thing is that around Malaysia and Singapore you'll find the same name for many different noodle dishes ('Hokkien' refers to a southern dialect of Chinese and 'Mee' means noodles in Malay), but the Penang version is really in a class by itself. I can't even think about it without salivating.
Where to find: The best I had were at Sim Kan San Coffeeshop at the junction of Macalister and Rangoon Roads (mornings) and at Lo Eng Hoo Coffeeshop on Lorong Selamat (afternoons)
2. Char Kway Teow
This Chinese-inspired fried rice-noodle dish is probably the most iconic street food of Penang. It's slippery, chewy, oily, crunchy, salty, and, when done right, imbued with an incredible charred flavor from the pan (the elusive 'wok hei'). Apart from noodles you'll find prawns, blood cockles (small wine-colored clams), slices of Chinese sausage, chives, beansprouts, egg and of course fiery sambal. Lard is apparently the frying fat of choice, except for a few vendors who have switched to vegetable oil - a sacrilege, according to purists. In any case, of all the hawkers I felt most sorry for the Char Kway Teow fryers, since not only do they spend their days on their feet engaged in physical activity in Penang's blisteringly-hot climate, but they're hovering over a blisteringly-hot wok, being constantly showered with sprinkles of blisteringly-hot oil. This guy, however, didn't seem too bothered, maybe due to his ingenious fashion-cum-safety accessory. Wok goggles, I need some too!
Where to find: Sim Kan San Coffeeshop at the junction of Macalister and Rangoon Roads (mornings), Lo Eng Hoo and Heng Huat coffeeshops on Lorong Selamat, and Kafe Khoon Hiang on Jalan Dato Keramat (mornings)
When my mother-in-law saw this picture in my last post, she said the green bean soup looked delicious. I had to break the news to her that it wasn't green bean soup, but a very famous local dessert! Funnily enough, though, there were beans in it, though they weren't green but red. The green things are pandan-flavored pea-flour noodles, the soupy stuff is lightly-salted coconut milk and underneath it all is shaved ice, lashings of gula melaka (dark palm sugar) syrup and those sweetened red beans. Apart from the beans which I had a hard time getting my head around (cultural bias, I guess - I've never been one for beany sweets) it was incredibly delicious and refreshing. Leave out the beans and cendol might fight it out with Hokkien Mee for number one.
Where to find: Teowchew Famous Cendol, the original stall at 475 Jalan Penang, or their new cafe location on the ground floor of the Prangin Mall (much more comfortable, in my opinion)
4. Nasi Lemak
This typical Malay dish is the perfect one-plate meal: a combination of rice cooked in coconut milk and flavored with pandan, a crunchy and succulent piece of fried chicken, hard-boiled egg, cucumber slices, fried peanuts, dried anchovies and sweet-spicy sambal sauce. Locals often eat this for breakfast - look for hawkers selling little leaf-wrapped bundles in the morning hours.
Where to find: everywhere on the streets in the morning, Gurney Drive hawker center (night)
Gurney Drive Hawker Center at night; yes it may be a teeny bit more expensive than other hawker joints, and you will see a few more foreign faces here, but nowhere else will you find such a vast selection of what makes this island famous.
No one ever said hawker food was supposed to be healthy, but if you're looking for something that approximates a salad this is your best bet. Rojak is the healthier of the two, a shredded mixture of crunchy fruits and vegetables topped with a thick sweet-sour-shrimpy sauce and ground peanuts. Passembur (pictured above) is the Muslim-Indian take on this that replaces most of the vegetables and fruits with fried items. Typically at a passembur stall you're handed a plate and a pair of tongs and invited to select your own salad makings, which include deep-fried fish cakes, fritters, sausages, prawns, potatoes and tofu. Everything is then hacked up for you and topped with a few token vegetable shreds and a crown of that sweet sauce. You can also ask for them to keep it separate so you can combine the elements to taste.
Where to find: Gurney Drive hawker center (night)
6. Ais Kacang and Ais Tingkap
Ais Kacang is something you either love or hate. Or both simultaneously, like me. I thought Cendol was pushing it in the bean department, but Ais Kacang is in another league entirely. You see that perfectly-innocuous mound of pink topped by a scoop of ice cream? Well, underneath that lies not only more beans, but canned corn, palm seeds, and jiggly black cubes of something called grass jelly. On top of that oddly salad-esque mixture goes shaved ice, a vividly-hued bubblegum-tasting syrup, some evaporated milk, and if you're lucky, a scoop of ice cream. It was one of the bizarrest sweet things I've ever eaten and for that I loved it, but I don't think I could make a habit of this one.
Ais Tingkap, on the other hand, is perfect for when you need some non-bean-containing refreshment. A concoction unique to Penang, this tasty if lurid drink consists of coconut water, rose syrup, chewy basil seeds and shavings of young coconut. Ais Tingkap also goes by the name 'window sherbet', a reference to the manner in which it was originally sold.
Where to find: Ais Kacang - Loh Eng Hoo Coffee Shop on Lorong Selamat, Kek Seng Coffeeshop on Penang Road, and lots of other places. Ais Tingkap - Lebuh Tamil, just off Penang Road.
Padang Brown Hawker Center, with barely a seat free at 3pm on a sweltering afternoon.
Think of these as the local take on fresh spring rolls. Soft, thin pancakes enclose a filling of blanched and fresh vegetables, fried tofu, chili sauce and seafood; the best version we tried was this one filled with lump crabmeat at the Padang Brown hawker center. Be sure to order the 'deluxe', or more expensive option, to get real crab instead of imitation.
Where to find: Padang Brown Hawker Center (afternoons)
8. Nasi Kandar
Rather than a single dish, this is a meal: a big plate of rice served with an assortment of Malay-Indian curries - everything from Korma to Rendang. Mix and match vegetables and meats to get an assortment of sweet, spicy, sour and creamy flavors. Order a roti canai (the local take on flaky Indian parathas) to mop up the last splatters of sauce.
Where to find: Nasi Kandar Line Clear (the most famous in Penang) and Nasi Kandar Yasmeen (where you'll likely end up if Line Clear is closed), next to each other on Penang Road.
9. Assam Laksa
When you think of laksa, you probably think of seafood and noodles swimming in a rich coconut milk-laced broth. Not in Penang. Here, ordering a bowl of laksa will get you a bracingly sour and fishy bowl of noodles topped with fresh cucumber, onions, lettuce, pineapple and chilies. It's not for the faint-hearted, but quite delicious once you get past the initial mouth-pucker.
Where to find: Kek Seng Coffeeshop on Penang Road (afternoons), Padang Brown Hawker Center (afternoons)
10. Nyonya food
While in Penang, don't miss the opportunity to try Nyonya cuisine. Also called Peranakan or 'Straits Chinese', this is the hybrid cuisine that developed when early Chinese migrants to the Malay peninsula married local women. Born out of an attempt by these women to reconcile their husbands' tastes with their own, the cuisine took on a life of its own and continued to evolve as it was passed down from one generation to the next, mother to daughter. Interestingly, there are two 'branches' of Nyonya cuisine; the southern style features richer, sweeter dishes and is found in places like Malacca and Singapore, while Penang is the epicenter of the northern one and has been more influenced by Thailand's hot and sour flavors just across the border. Some Nyonya favorites are available in hawker form, but to experience the food properly you should visit a local restaurant. Some must-try dishes there include Udang Goreng Assam (king prawns fried with tamarind sauce), Loh Bak (pork in fried beancurd skin), Kuih Pie Tee (pictured above; ruffled pastry cases filled with yam beans, shrimp and chili sauce), Otak-Otak (fragrant parcels of fish mousse steamed in banana leaves), and Perut Ikan (a curry-like dish of various vegetables, aromatic herbs, and fermented fish stomach).
Where to find: Hot Wok at 124 Jalan Burma, Mama's Nyonya Cuisine at 31 Lorong Abu Siti
Of course there was plenty more than that, and among the many runners-up I have to also mention Curry Mee (the local take on coconut laksa), Mee Goreng (spicy fried noodles), Oh Chien (a chewy, oily oyster omelette-pancake thingy), Chee Cheong Fun (fresh rice noodles with a pungent-sweet sauce), Nyonya Kuih (various kinds of sweet cakes) and the endless variety of fresh fruit juices (in particular sweet-tart nutmeg juice), the mud-thick local kopi (coffee) and teh tarik ('pulled' tea - frothy, milky and sweet)...
And finally, here are some resources to help you plan a trip (or just fantasize about one).
I honestly couldn't have done without Lonely Planet's World Food: Malaysia and Singapore. This has an in-depth description of everything edible you'll find in this part of the world, as well as tips on hawker and general dining etiquette, local customs, festivals and even a few recipes. And did you know it was written (and photographed) by the dynamic duo that is Mr. and Mrs. Chubby Hubby? They know their stuff, let me tell you.
As for cookbooks, my go-to resource is James Oseland's Cradle of Flavor. His focus is a bit more on Indonesia, but he has plenty of Malaysian favorites in here too.
Whether you're going to Malaysia or not, you should be familiar with Bee Yin Low's Rasa Malaysia, the gold standard for Malaysian food blogs. Bee's collection of gorgeous, mouthwatering Malaysian recipes is enough to inspire a trip in itself. What's more, Bee comes from Penang and has great info and recipes on many island hawker favorites. Her guide to Penang hawker food is an indispensable reference if you're planning a trip. She's also recently started a new site called Nyonya Food, exploring the singular flavors of her family's Nyonya heritage.
Also check out Robyn and Dave's Penang section on Eating Asia; they come here regularly and have lots of great recommendations.
Any tips of your own for Penang? Please share them in the comments!