We flew into Penang on February 10th. It was our first taste of Malaysia. We stayed in Georgetown, recently listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, and as if we needed anything else to sell it to us Penang is also considered the street- food capital of Malaysia. To say that Penang is culturally diverse feels somewhat of an understatement, the languages vary, the foods, the smells and sounds, the ‘dress-codes’…. I could literally sit and people-watch here all day! But, perhaps the best consequence of Penang’s multiracial populace is the amazing range of cuisines on offer: Indian, Malay, Chinese, Thai and Arab influences, flavours and fusions can be tasted at any one of the hundreds of food vendors on the streets of Georgetown. 24 hour curry houses waft out deliciously spicy aromas, at the Char Koay Teow stalls flat rice-noodles are fiercely stir-fried over intensely hot woks, served with huge prawns, clams and a sticky dark glaze, then there’s Penang’s famous Laksa, Wan Tan Mee, Roti Canai and even Dim Sum! I wish we could have eaten six meals a day just to try everything! Exploring the streets of Georgetown has another surprise, the city streets showcase some incredible street-art, from huge twenty-foot high murals to cartoon-like sketches. Also dotted around the city are the steel-rod sculptures, depicting scenes of daily life in Penang and marking its history. It was good fun searching out the art work, it felt like we were on a treasure hunt!
Our first taste of Penang’s street-food was a Wan Tan Mee lunch. The dishes are cooked on stalls on the side of the street, and tables and chairs are set up inside. Each place has independent merchants selling particular things, for example, you buy your noodles from one guy, sit down and then another guy will be selling the drinks. Not only that but there’ll be one seller in the morning doing breakfast, then another for lunch, and another for supper! They work side by side and your kind of expected to buy a drink from the drinks guy as that’s all he’s selling. If you bring in your own drink you’ll get charged, but its only pennies. Wan Tan Mee is a dish that consists of springy egg noodles, Chinese won tons, barbecued sliced pork, and some spring onions and greens. It comes in two ways, either dry noodles with a clear broth and won tons on the side, or with a soy dressing and all mixed up in one bowl. I think we paid about 4.5 ringgit each (that’s about 80p!).
That evening we ventured out looking for a somewhere to have a couple of drinks before dinner. Alcohol in Penang is really expensive compared with Thailand or Vietnam. Its still cheap by Western standards, we were paying about £2.50 for a bottle of beer down Chulia road which is more of a backpacker scene. I’d imagine you could pay a lot more if you wanted to drink in a posher kind of bar. We walked through an area called ‘Little India’ (pretty much self-explanatory), the smell of spice here is fantastic, and people sit eating dishes right off a banana leaf with no cutlery. There is traditional Indian music, and loads of shops and stalls selling vibrant silks and sarees. The colours, aromas and sounds are really full on, it was certainly an interesting place, and nothing like we’d seen before.
Throughout our trip we’ve been trying to hunt down certain venues that Rick Stein visits on his Far Eastern Odyssey series. Its become a bit of a pilgrimage which I hope we can one day complete with a trip to Padstow. From the Dai Pai Dongs in Hong Kong, through Vietnam and Thailand we’ve searched out these random little places on his recommendations and not yet been disappointed. That morning we were trying to find a certain hawker stand at 56 Transfer Road for a Roti Canai breakfast. This guy has been in operation for decades, and there are claims that he sells the ‘best roti canai in the world’ (that’s a pretty big claim right?). The set-up looks nothing special and to be honest unless you’re looking for it, it’s entirely missable. We almost didn’t spot it but for how busy it was, and I’d say it was all locals. We were shown where to sit and made welcome. The drinks man came up and we ordered two iced teas, they come super sweetened with condensed milk, bit weird but actually rather nice! Breakfast was delicious! A roti canai is an Indian-Muslim style flat bread, soft on the inside but crispy and flaky on the outside. They are made freshly to order by a guy who stands there furiously kneading, tossing, spinning and slapping the dough down before banging it on a hot iron skillet where another guy flips and folds it until its done. It so quick and looks very skilful. Its traditionally served with some kind of curry. That morning for us it was a rich tomato based curry with chicken. It was so good, and we pretty much sat in the exact spot that we’d seen Rick Stein sat in! All-in breakfast and tea cost us less than £4!
We were very happy and extremely stuffed so we headed off in search of some street-art to walk it off. We walked all the way down to the harbour where we were lucky enough to see the Queen Mary 2 at dock. We went into the Cornwallis Fort for a look around, and to be honest it was a bit underwhelming. I thought that a bit more info could have made it more interesting.
Later on that evening we did some research and planned to find the stall regarded as the ‘best Char Koay Teow noodle stand in Penang’, located at 83 Kimberly road. The area is more like a food court with seven or eight different vendors all sharing the same dining area. They’re all independent and again you have a different person again to sell you drinks. We sat down, ordered a coke and a water and got given a big bottle of Tiger beer instead! Well, what can you do?! It was a little bit early for a beer but needless to say we struggled through! Char Koay Teow is a flat rice-noodle dish that apparently relies on the heat of the wok- the higher the heat, the better the noodles! The dish doesn’t seem too far removed from a Pad Thai, but not as sweet, and a slightly smokier flavour. Again this was super cheap, about 60p a dish, and luckily for us the portions sizes were small, a guy next to us had one dish directly followed by another! Its good because it allowed us to try all the dishes we wanted too without feeling too full, and with all the walking around hunting down street-art and sculptures we were working up quite an appetite anyway. I think it may be impossible not to in Penang, all of the hawker stalls just make the streets just smell so good! The ingredients are all so fresh and the dishes so healthy and appetising!
There were only two more dishes we wanted to tick off the list and this time we weren’t quite so lucky. We tried the famous Penang Assam Laksa and a dish of Chee Cheong Fun. I read that the Penang Laksa is famous as having been ranked 7th in CNN’s ‘World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods’. It is a noodle dish served in a tangy fish broth made from mackerel, lemongrass, chilli and tamarind. It comes served with fresh mint, sliced onion, cucumber, lettuce, chilli and a thick paste called ‘Hae Ko’ (or prawn paste). Now, I don’t think I’ve ever been what you could describe as a fussy eater, and the Laksa wasn’t unpleasant, it just wasn’t particularly pleasant either. Let’s put it this way, we both agreed we’d never have another! I guess it just comes down to personal taste. I think the prawn paste is what killed it for me, it was really sweet and earthy and I didn’t like it, (although I do like the shrimp paste you get in Thailand, it wasn’t like this at all). The fishy broth was quite nice but the mint in it seemed an odd combination of flavour. To be able to say it’s the first dish I’ve tried and not liked in 6 months worth of travelling isn’t really bad going! We also ordered a plate of Chee Cheong Fun, I thought this would be like the Chinese Cheung Fun that my mum and I always order when we have Dim Sum (one of my most favourite Dim Sum dishes). Despite the similarity in the name it wasn’t like it all, and there was that strong prawn paste again! Oh well, live and learn I guess!
Penang was such an interesting experience, I felt like there was so much to learn and discover. If we come back to Malaysia in the future Penang will definitely be on the list!