Ah, Penang. Where wafts of Chinese temple incense mingle with the stench of the nation’s best durians. Penang. Where curry mee comes white and you have to add your own chili paste to make the rich broth turn a sinister red. Penang. Where they throw fruit and squid together in a bowl, drizzle it with tamarind sauce, and call it food. Penang. Where they will eat curry mee, but not curry laksa, because only sour fishy asam laksa will do. Penang. Where history and character magically manage to overshadow overdeveloped beaches and an eroded shoreline. Penang. Where Chinese shophouses line narrow roads like medieval European towns, where trishaw drivers languish in their cabs after smoking too much heroin, where in spite of their being no bars we have a great time. We love you, Penang.
Here is a summary of the past few days.
1. We reserve a rental car for Monday 9AM, and they don’t have a car. An hour later they find us a car that has never been vacuumed and has no gas in the tank. We get out of KL at 11AM. Thank you Hawk Rental Car!
2. Arrive Penang island around 3:30PM but can’t move because the traffic is so thick. Takes 1/2 hour to move two blocks.
3. We check into the Trader’s Hotel, a 3.5-star landmark that still claims to be a 5-star like an old movie star who still thinks she is 21.
4. We are hungry. We walk aimlessly ISO food and within five minutes we find gold: a family’s living room turned into a buffet serving out food for the masses. I guess it’s “economy rice.” There must have been at least 20 different items ranging from whole fish to mapo tofu to yams, eggs, and five different leafy greens. The food was delicious, and cheap. Including 2 iced coffee came to 9 ringgit, less than $3 for the two of us.
5. Knowing we will be hungry a few hours later, we then check out the 3 pages of food recommendations we have culled from Internet research. First, we decide to first hit up one of these restaurants that isn’t actually a restaurant. It’s a coffee shop that doesn’t have its own kitchen; they just provide indoor seating space for the street vendors. They make their money on selling drinks. These establishments are ubiquitous in Malaysia, an integral part of the country’s food culture. The atmosphere is casual, and people of all ages and walks of life can be found supping up.
This one in Penang, called Goh Huat Seng, is at a hawker known for its char kwey teow (flat rice noodles with bean sprout, egg, dark sauce, a few oysters and prawns, and fried in…get ready…pork fat). We go for it and eat the best char kwey teow we’ve ever had. The stuff we tried before this doesn’t even deserve to bear the name.
Another stall has kwey teow soup, chicken feet, tea eggs, and other stuff but we want to save room for trying other places around town…
6. Oh forgot to mention. We had a small snack of char mee hoon (fried rice vermicelli) at a vendor down the road and Josh wanted to try the fried chicken stall and gets a wing as another snack.
7. After the insanely delicious char kwey teow and a couple of Jaz beers, we head over to some other recommended restaurants but find they are closed either for the evening or the day. A craving for rojak begins to settle in…
8. We walk about 20 minutes out of the way to check out another recommended street but the stalls are apparently daytime only. Undeterred, and happy to be building back up our appetites after the kwey teow, we walk back along Jalan Macalister towards our hotel and…we serendipitously find New Lane. I read about New Lane but did not know its whereabouts and there it is, just 5 blocks from our hotel. Score!!
9. New Lane is bustling. On the prowl, we peruse the bustling row of hawkers selling things we have never even heard of (and which I have since looked up online) like char kwey kark. Josh gets a decent chee cheong fun, a small Chinese dish made with glutinous rice dough, chopped up into little bite sized pieces, drenched with different sauces like sweet thick soya, and then sprinkled with sesame seeds. I had my fill of savory for the night so get bubu chacha. Bubu chacha sounds like what it is, a frivolous concoction made with undercooked blackeyed peas, peanuts, electric blue jellies, large chunks of cassava, chunks of yam, slices of starchy banana, and all drenched in sweet coconut milk broth. YES. I’m serious. That’s what it is…and it’s a lot of fun. Stall number one on New Lane is the only one doing this, ice kacang, and other psychedelic things. Note, I do not find the rojak I’ve been craving…