If wild goose chasing were a sporting event, Josh and I could easily be world champions. We chased a lot of geese on Penang island, but luckily the ones we caught laid golden eggs.
Penang Days and consisted of a lot of hunting proverbial wild waterfowl. First we seek what we both heard was the best asam laksa on the island. That’s about as valid as saying we are going to watch the best movie or drink the best beer…but it is like saying we are looking for the best asam laksa in the world, because Penang is the home of the sour, fishy, non-coconut milk noodle soup known locally simply as laksa.
To get there, we have to drive out of our way to Air Itam, an inland market town looked down on by an oversized Quan Yin on a hill. We do our part but are not pleased to find that the famous laksa stall is as deserted as a kosher deli on Saturday.
Our consolation prize is wonton mee in the market. We order one dry (without broth) and one in soup. Halfway through our bowls, we start to smell durian. Josh finds the stench like sewage, I find it a sign of god’s love for humanity.
In the ten minutes we were in the food court, two small wooden carts selling durian are set up and families are buzzing around them. In some countries it’s the ice cream man, in Malaysia it’s the durian man that brings out the throngs.
I saddle up to the cart full of greed and lust. The families around me gorge on durian standing up, hovering around the cart and asking the guy to chop up some more. Most of the customers know exactly what types of durian they like. They have the durian glow on their faces. I am offered a taste of a strange variety with a gray flesh that tastes slightly bitter. There are many different varieties of durian, and just as with apples and oranges each one tastes and feels different.
The durian vendor looks around for a small one-person size durian. He seems to intuit I will like it and proceeds to cracks open the punk rock rind to reveal the bright orange, sweet pudding flesh. Josh just stands by and watches, bearing the burden of the white man: intolerability to durian. For future reference, I ask what kind of durian it is. It’s called Siew Hung.
We then visit the Kek Lok Si Temple with its giant Kwan Yin/Avilokiteshvara statue before grabbing lunch. Lunch is at Hot Wok, a solid, no-nonsense, high quality indoor restaurant you can take all your foodie friends. A few of the dishes were superlative: the mango salad with dried prawn; the kangkung (convuvulus, a dark leafy green) with belacan sauce. The roast pork cincalok was delish but too salty and the otak-otak was too creamy and not as herbal as the one we had the other day at Hot Bowl. We drink nutmeg juice. Overall the meal was excellent, reasonably priced, and offered a nice air-conditioned break.
Properly full, we head over to Batu Ferengghi, the beach resort area. Our hotel, the Traders, has a sister property on the sea and we can use the pool facilities for a splendid beach side afternoon. I sunbathe (more like cloudbathe) while Josh plays pool volleyball with the Aussie package tourists. Afterwards we happily sip overpriced Hoegaardens as the day fades.
Before it fades fully into night, we visit the Tanjung City Marina. One of the reasons we came to Penang at this specific time was to catch a glimpse of the Jewel of Muscat, a faithful re-creation of a th century Omani sailing ship. The story behind the re-creation is fabulous, even for non-boat nerds. Unfortunately, the ship is not open to the public as we were led to believe by the Web site. Instead, we can only peer at it from the dock. We are surprised and frightened by how small the sailboat is: it would be dwarfed in a marina in Vancouver or Miami. They are sailing it through the Indian Ocean, without a motor, or anything else that they would not have had a thousand years ago for maximum authenticity.
Our dinner plans are vague. Knowing it is our last night in Penang, we both want most of all to return to New Lane for the atmosphere and hawker food. Armed with appetite and camera lens, we trek over to New Lane and…it’s deserted. Must be New Lane sabbath.
Shut out of New Lane, we wander down the road where we knew there to be other hawkers. This turns out to be some of the best food we’ve eaten on the island so sometimes things work out just the way they should. First we stop at food court #, an all-Chinese coffee shop grinding out fresh fruit juice in a loud machine as well as hosting all manner of hawkers including a fried oyster vendor. I’ve been craving the fried oysters ever since we got to town. We get a bowl of wonton mee, made by the vendor who moulds the wontons by hand. A few shops down is another Chinese non-Halal food court. This one is large and bustling with the best array of dishes we have ever encountered. The choices range from whole grilled fish to brick-oven pizza. The stall preparing brick-oven pizza is rolling out fresh dough. The tiny oven appears hastily constructed out of masonry bricks and is large enough for only one pie at a time. We forego the pizza, knowing that even though it is made with care it probably will be disappointing what with the quality of bread and cheese in Malaysia. We get a few decent dishes including curry chee cheong fun, char kwey kak, and Josh’s favorite dessert: satay.
The next morning we check out of the hotel and return to Air Itam, on the off chance the laksa vendor decides to be open. Nope, they goose us. Plan B is Ang Hoay Loh, rumored on the blogosphere to have some of the best fried oysters in town. They give us the goose too.
By now we are sick of wild geese and opt for a sure thing: Gurney Drive. Gurney Drive is about what I wish Ocean Drive on South Beach were like: lined with large but low-key hotels, dotted with hawker stalls, and to park costs cents.
Expecting Gurney Drive to be a tourist trap, we are pleasantly surprised to find a food court entirely devoid of anyone but locals and we pull up a chair for some laksa. Our first bowl of Penang laksa on the island turns out to be a decent one: the most balanced bowl we have tasted to date. It’s not too fishy, not too salty, not too sour, not too sweet. Setting the GPS to the Tropical Spice Garden and then the National Park in Teluk Bahang, we take in some nice nature (Josh almost got attacked by a monkey) before driving into the jungle of F.O.U.S.’s: fruits of unusual size. Durian.
The fruits hang like medieval mace from the tall trees. The forest canopy is so dense with durian that I ask Josh to please pull over so I can photograph the world’s richest fruit. On the road–the only road on this part of the island–there are dozens of durian stalls. The protocol is simple. Pull up, ask for the size and type of durian you want, and the vendor cracks it open for you to eat right there with your hands. We pass a mile of stalls before finding the one that feels right. Stall # and calls out to me because there are at least families seated around picnic benches chowing down. Many of the stalls offer an all-you-can eat price for families or large parties. Unfortunately, I’m in it alone and thus only have a crack at one durian. This durian variety is called Mosan King and is similar in character to the Siew Hung I had yesterday but a little more expensive. It is worth noting that one durian costs the same as four bowls of laksa. I want another durian but I can see Josh wants to leave so we pay up and go. It’s probably a good thing, as the winding mountain road might have led to some bright orange upchuck.
Leaving Penang island is a little sad, leaving the durian forest even sadder. But we have one more thing to look forward to: dinner at Yum Yum in Ipoh. About halfway from Penang to Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh the food city is a happy place to stop. The restaurant lives up to the hype: it’s more Nyonya food and we order well. Fish head curry, “Chinese brussels sprouts” with belacan sauce, pandan leaf chicken, and house special tofu. Washed down with calamansi juice, we toast the end of a killer road trip.