If MSG doesn’t kill me, it will make me stronger: Penang Day 2

1. We wake up, we get a caffeine injection. At about 11AM we walk about twenty minutes down the road to a nondescript one-way street because we have a solid tip on the town’s best white curry mee: noodles in coconut milk broth with the chili paste served on the side. On the way we pass the Red Rock hotel, which has a restaurant inside with a good reputation. We never got to test that one out.

2. Our destination is Hot Bowl. Hot Bowl is rumored to have been a hawker stall that became successful enough to open a small restaurant. Cars are blocking the small driveway and double-parked on the street. There are several patrons, even though it is in the off-hours between breakfast and lunch. Josh goes to order at the counter while I grab a seat. Looking around, I notice each diner has a bowl of curry mee and at least one side dish, even the solo diners. The side dish appears to be chicken. Surprise surprise. When Josh returns to the table he reports that we have been told to order a plate of “white chicken,” which, even though I don’t like chicken, makes me happy. I have learned that paying attention to what other people are eating is the best way to have a good meal in Asia. No longer being a strict vegetarian helps, too.

We get one white curry mee each, and two side dishes: the “white chicken” and an otak-otak. Each dish complements the other. The “white chicken” is just chicken chopped into bits Chinese-style, bone and skin included, in a simple soya-based sauce, green onions, and a few welcome sprigs of cilantro and served room temperature. I don’t like chicken but I appreciate this approach with the fat and bone intact, allowing the small bits of meat to remain moist and bathed in the flavorful salty sauce. The dish is quintessentially Chinese–simple but magically tasty–with lots bones and fat and stuff to play with.

As an aside, Americans have forgotten how much fun it is to suck meat and fat off of bones, pick at fish heads, and use meat as accents instead of main events. Americans are about as out of touch with their food as is humanly possible, afraid to pick, play, prod, and eat organs. I believe this is just one of the reasons why Americans are fat and why vegetarians are angry.

Rant over. Back to Penang. Hot Bowl is a Nyonya (Straights-Chinese) restaurant so we get the glorious bundle that is otak-otak, a Nyonya dish that has no parallel. They take fish, mash it into a pulp with coconut milk, lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, and who knows what other aromatic spices, wrap it in a banana or pandan leaf, steam it and serve the bundle piping hot. The texture is about that of a really thick dip, creamy and slightly fluffy. We’ve sampled quite a few otak-otaks recently and Hot Bowl’s is the best one by far. The herbal flavors are outstanding, and they don’t a back seat to the coconut milk or fish. The texture is not too moist or too dry, it’s just right.

But the reason why we came to Hot Bowl is white curry mee, a Penang specialty. The bowl is small and the broth is a bright milky white. It looks naked. Before we add the curry paste, we take a sip. It tastes naked too, but the rich coconut flavor coats our tongues. We add a spoonful of the paste and the soup comes alive, its color changing from porcelain to a rich orange-red with freckles of spice and tiny globules of oil. The small bowl contains two different types of noodles, standard yellow mee and mee hoon/vermicelli. This in itself is rare, two noodle types in one bowl. We like it. Also swimming inside are oysters, bean sprouts, and tofu puffs. A sprig of mint adorns the top. We each finish our entire bowl. Unfortunately my camera lens was too dirty to take any good photos.

We are satisfied with our brunch, and with knowing we will be hungry in a few hours. That’s all part of the plan, of course.

3. After Hot Bowl, we return to the hotel. Josh has some work to take care of and I workout and do yoga in the gym after the food has digested.

4. Time to hunt our dinner. We have a few leads. The first is one we tried to hit up yesterday: Kheng Pin Cafe on Penang at Sri Bahari. It’s shut again, leading me to believe it may be a lunchtime only place. Our second lead is also closed: Nan Yang. The sign on the door indicates that Nan Yang will be closed for the next few weeks. This kind of thing happens to us here about as often as it did in country brewpubs in Franconia: we show up during stated opening hours and they are closed but it’s no biggie because there is always something else around the corner. Plus, the delay gives us ample time to gawk at the turn-of-the-century Chinese shophouses in the purple light of dusk.

5. We stop for a few beers at a very unusual bar on Chulia near the intersection with Penang St. The bar is interesting because it is (a) not for backpackers; (b) not corporate; (c) Indian-owned and patronized but by a mixed-gender mixed-race crowd. Out of solid ideas for this part of the Old Town, we decide to return to Goh Huat Seng on Kimberly St after our beer because we are fading.


5. What was intended to be a light snack turns out to be our whole meal. We get the same char kwey teow as yesterday. We also get a char kwey teow soup from the next stall over, and a soya-sauce egg (like a tea egg). While mulling over what our next stop will be, I notice the large table next to us. Each family member has a bowl of soup with a dark broth and some sort of dumpling inside. I saw this soup on many tables yesterday but could not find out which hawker it came from. Overcome with curiosity, we point and say, “We would like one of those.” A minute later, a bowl of mystery soup arrives. Inside the rich dark broth, probably made with blood, are a bunch of organs and white rice flour cone-shaped twists that are neither a noodle nor a dumpling. Another dish most Americans won’t like, this one more so than white chicken.

6. I get iced chrysanthemum tea to go from a nearby stall on the way home. It comes in a plastic bag. By the time I get home I have a raging MSG headache and feel slightly queasy. I am not used to eating so much animal product at one go, and tonight’s food must have had an extra dash of “flavor enhancer.” The stuff is poison. Penance for gluttony, perhaps.

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