Monday, September 22, 2014

The Penang Food Post: the Foods I Loved in Penang, Malaysia

It had always been difficult for me to pinpoint a place when asked which city in Southeast Asia is the foodiest-foodie of them all. There's Singapore with its much beloved hawker center fare. There's Chiang Mai which has the best of Northern Thai cuisine. There's Saigon, too, with its street-side soup and noodle stalls. It was always difficult to choose which city is the best for food lovers, or in this case, travelers who'd travel just for the food.

That all changed, of course, when I came to Penang, Malaysia.

Lebuh Chulia Street Food, Penang, Malaysia
Lebuh Chulia in Penang's historic UNESCO World Heritage city—George Town—turns into a street food market every night. Definitely have dinner here at least once.

I always like to describe Penang as the city with the most number of delicious food choices per square kilometer. The quantity of quality food here is only matched by its accessibility, too. And by that, I mean, food here is cheap. Unbelievably so. A delicious, filling meal, you ask? Well, you can have one under three dollars US!

Let's not delay this any further. Here is my ultimate Penang food post: my list of Penang food recommendations and, more importantly perhaps, the places in Penang where you can stuff your face with them.

1. Roti Canai

Little India, Penang, Malaysia
Roti canai and teh tarik. Do not leave Malaysia without trying them.

But how can you ever pass through any part of Malaysia without having this simple and wonderful snack? Roti canai is a dish that is said to have originated in the city of Madras, otherwise known as Chennai, in India. And I am forever thankful the Indian immigrants brought them over into Southeast Asia.

It is a piece of soft, thin, buttery, and flaky bread, which you tear piece by piece so you can coat each piece with the tangy, spicy curry sauce. Order this with teh tarik, or pulled tea. The tea is frothy, sweet (very sweet), milky, and strong. It's perfect with the equally tasty roti canai. An order of roti canai is around 2-3 MYR (1 USD) and it's 3-5 MYR (1-2 USD) for the teh tarik.

Where to get it: Restoran Kapitan (along Lebuh Chulia); Restoran Kassim Mustafa (in front of Restoran Kapitan along Lebuh Chulia)

2. Kaya Toast

Old Town White Coffee, Penang, Malaysia
It's western, sure, but it's the Strait Settlement's version of "western."

We're starting with the light snacks here, so if you are not a fan of rotis and curries, then what's wrong with you! (I kid. I kid.)

If you are not so much into rotis and curries, and prefer a more western start to your day, perhaps kaya toast is for you. Kaya is a type of coconut jam. So you can say, it's western, but it's the Strait Settlement's version of "western."

It would be wrong though to liken kaya jam to the coconut jam popular in the Philippines. Kaya is less thick, still gooey and sticky, but very subtle in its coconut flavor. So kaya toast is bread with thin slices of butter and a layer of kaya spread in between. It's light and it's the perfect breakfast or midday snack. Definitely order it with the subtly salty, umami-ish Malaysian white coffee, too.

Where to get it: Old Town White Coffee (along Lebuh Pantai because the branch there is housed in a grand, romantic, colonial building)

3. Pasembur

Persiaran Guerney, Penang, Malaysia
It's a not a looker but it's definitely the dish you'll want during or after a night of drinking.

If there was one food item in the Malay-Indo food world I will always be thankful for, it would be peanut sauce. I would gladly drench that thick, sweet, and spicy liquid anywhere. ANYWHERE. So I'm glad that not only could you use peanut sauce with satay (meat on skewers), you can also use it with salads (e.g., gado-gado) and this one, pasembur.

It's basically a mix of potatoes, tofu, prawn fritters, fish fritters, bean sprouts, cucumber shreds, and whatever seafood is available in the market that day. The whole plate of these soft and crunchy goodies is drenched in peanut sauce. So, yeah, you can say this is stoner food Malay-style. Very good accompaniment to beer, I reckon.

Where to get it: Pasembur is served in the many stalls of Persiaran Guerney, the food market behind the Guerney Plaza mall. Also available at Persiaran Guerney are basically all the dishes mentioned in this post.

Persiaran Guerney, Penang, Malaysia
The hawker night market that is Persiaran Guerney. It's right behind Guerney Plaza Mall, a 10-minute bus ride from central George Town.

4. Biryani

Little India, Penang, Malaysia
A clay pot of chicken biryani goodness. You know you want this.

If you find yourself staying in a hotel in or close to Little India (because probably you will), I highly recommend having for lunch or dinner the various biryani which the Indian-Malays here make so damn well. I won't even begin to identify all the spices and herbs used to flavor the meats and the rice in the biryani. I'm sure you've had a biryani or two back home. After all, this dish is quite popular outside of the Middle East and India. You can just imagine how good the biryani is here in Penang with its considerably large Muslim Indian population.

We tried the chicken and beef biryani and spent the rest of the day truly satisfied. (I mean do you see how big the servings are here?) A plate/clay pot will set you back around 9-12 MYR (3-4 USD), and that's actually good enough for two.

Little India, Penang, Malaysia
We also tried the beef biryani. Equally good.

Where to get it: Restoran Kapitan (along Lebuh Chulia); Restoran Kassim Mustafa (in front of Restoran Kapitan along Lebuh Chulia)

5. Chicken Rice

Kedai Kopi Thew Chik Cafe Chicken Rice, Penang, Malaysia
A thing of simplicity and deliciousness. A chicken rice meal like this should set you back around 6 MYR (2 USD).

My curiosity was piqued by a claim that the best chicken rice was not found in Singapore, that the best one was not the Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice chicken rice, that which was claimed by Anthony Bourdain himself as the best there is. And if you are any familiar with chicken rice, you'd know that it is considered Singapore's de facto national dish, and any claim to the top spot would be hotly contested.

So off I went one midday and plunged into the lunch rush of Kedai Kopi Thew Chik Cafe in Penang. First thing I noticed is how the chicken is drenched in this soy sauce-based sauce, which definitely makes the chicken meat juicier every bite. The sauce itself is salty and sweet, but very subtle. Of course, the rice is packed with that ginger flavor any noteworthy chicken rice dish should have.

And you know what? There is reason to this claim. That maybe, just maybe, the chicken rice in Penang's Kedai Kopi Thew Chik Cafe is better than the one served at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice in Singapore. Maybe. I will just have to give both a try one more time just to confirm. Yes?

Where to get it: Kedai Kopi Thew Chik Cafe (along Lebuh Chulia)

Kedai Kopi Thew Chik Cafe Chicken Rice, Penang, Malaysia
Kedai Kopi Thew Chik Cafe. Best to come early and avoid the lunch rush.

6. Nasi Kandar

Line Clear Nasi Kandar, Penang, Malaysia
Only big plates for big appetites here at Line Clear Nasi Kandar

Another signature Penang dish is nasi kandar, or rice with various meats, vegetables and curries. It was invented by the Indian Muslims who populated Penang and Northern Malaysia. Perhaps the most popular nasi kandar restaurant in Penang is Line Clear Nasi Kandar, located at the intersection of Penang Road and Lebuh Chulia (I swear, Lebuh Chulia is the best lebuh of all).

Here, I had white rice with crispy fried chicken, large meaty prawns, steamed lady fingers and fresh cucumber slices. Everything was then topped with curry sauce. As soon as I took the first bite, I realized that what nasi kandar lacked in presentation (note the delicious-looking mess in the photo above), it more than made up for in combination of tastes. The curry sauce complemented the saltiness of the chicken, the freshness of the prawns and the crunch of the vegetables.

Best to take it easy with the dishes you pile onto your plate. The price does rack up a bit. That assembly in the photo is already above 20 MYR (7 USD). Hefty, yes. But a good meal altogether.

Where to get it: Line Clear Nasi Kandar (Penang Road cor. Lebuh Chulia)

Line Clear Nasi Kandar, Penang, Malaysia
I can't be sure but these fish heads go into the fish head curry, no? If so, yum!

7. Char Kway Teow

Penang National Park, Penang, Malaysia
Prawn-flavored stir-fried noodles eaten under a hut by the beach. Yes, please!

Yet another Malaysian specialty, this dish is popular everywhere in the country. It’s basically rice noodles stir-fried in a wok. The best ones though will flavor the noodles with broth and will have that distinct smokiness from the wok. In our case, it was flavored with juicy prawns (prawn head included, of course).

The thing was, we tried char kway teow in Kuala Lumpur’s Jalan Alor food street and along Lebuh Chulia's night market in historic George Town, but it was only in the small beach shack in Penang National Park's Monkey Beach where we liked it. Go figure. The sea is right there. Seafood was most definitely fresh.

Where to get it: I cannot honestly recommend a good one that I have had other than the char kway teow we were served at Monkey Beach in Penang National Park. Of course, you don't have to make it out there to have the dish. It's sold everywhere in George Town. I hear the char kway teow at Joo Hooi Cafe, along Penang Road, is good, too.

8. Wonton Mee

Lebuh Chulia Street Food, Penang, Malaysia
Noodles, a few steamed wontons and veggies, and a soy-sauce based sauce. A winner.

There was this one stall along the Lebuh Chulia nightly food market which called my attention at the get-go. An elderly auntie was meticulously soaking the thin egg noodles into piping hot water under just the right amount of time so that it becomes soft and chewy, but not overly so. The noodles are then dumped it onto a bowl along with a soy sauce-based sauce and boiled wontons. It's best eaten with slices of pickled chillies, which this auntie also serves. The dish is quite simple, if you think about it. But it's so packed with deliciousness.

Lebuh Chulia Street Food, Penang, Malaysia
Auntie and her utterly delicious wonton mee

Where to get it: Street food stall in the photo above which opens every night at the Lebuh Chulia Street Food Market

9. Mee Sotong

Hameed's Mee Sotong, Penang, Malaysia
The main man Hameed creating the magic that is mee sotong

This dish was a complete novelty to me. Well, not completely. I've seen this featured in a TV show once. UK celebrity chef Aaron Craze nearly challenged Hameed of Hameed Pata Special Mee to a cook off in his show, but perhaps intimidated by the complex flavors of Hameed's dish, Craze opted to compete with another chef. This tiny stall in the eatery beside Fort Cornwallis is quite well known apparently. Various news and magazine clippings are plastered on the stall itself. We soon discovered, of course, that the acclaim is well-founded.

Hameed's Mee Sotong, Penang, Malaysia
Hameed's mee sotong (4 MYR a plate). Fishy, squid-y, spicy, and all things good. I wants me some now.

Hameed's food stall is where the main man Hameed serves his famous mee sotong (noodles in cuttlefish sauce). Hameed's mee sotong uses lot of chilli in the cuttlefish sauce lending it a vivid red color. The noodles are then stir-fried with eggs, tofu, potatoes and crunchy deep-fried batter before it is topped with the spicy red sauce. The sauce coats the noodles well, so every bite is packed with cuttlefish flavor. Fishy, squid-y, spicy, and all things good. It was so good that I went back for seconds the next day.

Where to get it: Hameed Pata Special Mee, located at the eatery between Penang Municipal Town Hall and Fort Cornwallis

Hameed's Mee Sotong, Penang, Malaysia
Tip: Order yourself the coconut milk shake in the stall next door. Relieves the spiciness of the mee sotong.

10. Penang Laksa

Joo Hooi Cafe, Penang, Malaysia
Penang laksa at Joo Hooi Cafe. One of the best bowl of soups I have ever had.

If there was one dish I would recommend to anyone visiting Penang, it would be this. Penang laksa is not your run-of-the-mill laksa, no. It's so much more than that. Firstly, unlike many types of laksa, this one does not use coconut milk. At all. I know, I know. Why not? Coconut milk makes laksa so damn good.

The thing is, unlike other types of laksa, the broth of Penang laksa is fish-based. It is also flavored with lemongrass, chillies, and tamarind (for that distinct sweet-sour combination). It uses pineapples, mint leaves, and onions, too, to add depth and sweetness to the spicy, tangy broth. Finally (and yes, we're not yet done), a generous spoonful of hae ko, or prawn paste, is added to each bowl. The combination of tanginess, sweetness, spiciness, and fishiness (in a good way), will absolutely blow your mind. It did mine.

A bowl of Penang laksa costs around 3-4 MYR (1 USD).

Where to get it: Joo Hooi Cafe (the always packed restaurant along Penang Road)

11. Indian Sweets

Little India, Penang, Malaysia
A kid in a candy store. That's how everybody, EVERYBODY, feels upon entering an Indian sweets shop.

Indian sweets, I believe, are an overlooked part of Indian food outside of India. It was some sort of revelation for me when I discovered Indian sweets a few years ago. Having just arrived in the Indian capital Delhi, our Indian friend and host took us to Haldiram's in the heart of historic Old Delhi. If you are familiar with Indian sweets, you know that Haldiram's is the one of the biggest Indian sweets manufacturers in the entire subcontinent of India.

As with any sweets, a lot of sugar is used to make Indian sweets. But since this is Indian sweets we are talking about here, ingredients also include yogurt, ghee (clarified butter), nuts, pumpkin, coconuts, cheese, etc. I'm telling you, if you walk into an Indian sweets shop, you will have a hard time choosing which ones to try. I do, however, always find myself going for the rasgulla, which is a soft and creamy milk-based ball of cake soaked in syrup. (Sounds divine, doesn't it?)

Where to get it: Walk around Little India in Penang and you are sure to find one of the many sweets shops there.

Little India, Penang, Malaysia
How can I choose from all these Indian sweets? How?

12. Cendol

Joo Hooi Cafe, Penang, Malaysia
Sweet, soft, and milky. Cendol is the perfect Southeast Asian dessert.

Rounding up this list is the dessert that should not be missed when you are in Malaysia. I think I have talked about cendol more than once in this blog. I have had this in Bangkok's Chinatown, in Malacca's Old Town, and in a couple of Singaporean hawker centers, too. And you know what? Penang's cendol, particularly, the one sold right outside Joo Hooi Cafe along Penang Road, is the best I have ever had.

Cendol is basically rice flour jelly shaped like worms (yes, that green stuff). Red beans, coconut milk, palm sugar syrup, and shaved ice are then added. The cendol here at Joo Hooi Cafe is generous with the coconut milk making it creamy and milky, and it has the right the right amount of palm sugar syrup so that it's sweet but not overly sweet. It's the perfect Southeast Asian dessert and it's definitely worth braving the long lines for.

Where to get it: Stall outside Joo Hooi Cafe (along Penang Road)

Joo Hooi Cafe, Penang, Malaysia
The long lines outside Joo Hooi Cafe for the cendol. People don't bother sitting down. That's how good the cendol is.

There you have them: my Penang food recommendations. There are definitely other dishes to try if you find yourself traveling in this historic island in Southeast Asia. Dishes like Hookien mee (prawn noodles), chee cheong fun (rice flour cakes with sweet sauce), curry mee (curry noodles), and many others. But for the average traveler who's only in Penang for a few days, the list above will give you a pretty decent sampling of the the wonderful foodie world that is Penang, Malaysia.

What is the foodiest-foodie city you've visited in Southeast Asia?

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