Penang: Day 0.5

It’s good to be back.  I’ve missed being TLG, and fortunately, my recent travels have left me with much to share.  My plan is to spend the next couple weeks getting the blog up to date while dialing down my present culinary goings-on.  By far, the most food-oriented part of my trip was the first leg in Penang, Malaysia.  My chicas and I trekked around Georgetown, soaking in the historic and eclectic city, a UNESCO world heritage site.  We also spent a day at the Penang Tropical Spice Farm, where I may have come into contact with some unknown that gave me the generous serving of hives I received a day after leaving Penang for Cambodia.  But for the better part of three days and change, we ate.  The virtues of Penang’s hawker food are no secret — in 2004, TIMEasia declared Penang home to the best street food in Asia.  I had chosen to visit to Penang almost solely because of its culinary reputation and so was determined to see what all the fuss was about. Our food bible, as one friend anointed it, was Rasa Malaysia’s Insider Guide to Penang Hawker Food.  We diligently mapped out the locations of recommended places, feverishly arranged our schedules around where to eat each day, and went the distance to make sure we got the fullest Penang hawker food experience possible.

There were some hits and misses, but the overall experience was exciting, rewarding, and provided for some memorable food encounters.  The night we got there, we dropped our bags down at the hostel and, on the receptionist’s recommendation, raced over to the Red Garden hawker food center.  It was almost 11pm by the time we arrived, but the place was still bopping: mostly small clusters of families and friends chatting and lounging around over Tigers and late-night snacks.

After taking a stroll to photograph and survey the options, we sat down to hawker food 101.  The first lesson was on the general process of procuring food at one of these places.  Basically, you choose the food stall you want food from, order there and tell them your table number or point in the general direction of where you’re sitting, go back to your table to wait for the food, and pay as soon as your food is brought to the table.  The efficiency of the system is easy to see: transactions are direct and hassle-free as communication is kept to a minimum.  Most of the stalls specialize in a single dish, so as soon as you walk up to one and smile, and maybe hold up an index finger or two, they know what you want.  No elaborate menus (the available drinks were posted on some flashy signage above us, visually accessible to every table) and no unnecessary waiter-ing.  It’s a thing of beauty to observe and a pleasure to take part in.

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S and L sprung for some chicken rice, which came with a light, flavorful broth. Both ate with satisfied smiles, a good omen of things to come.

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My friend E and I shared a char koay teow and an assam laksa, arguably the two superstars of Penang hawker food cuisine. Sadly, we were left disappointed with these dishes. The char koay teow was flavorless and the noodles almost melted in my mouth, in a bad way. The briny oysters were also an unpleasant surprise. Despite this reality check, however, I retained my willingness to try other versions of this dish because I could envision how sublimely satisfying it would be when well-executed.

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The assam laksa was a different story. I was put off by the essence of this dish — the broth. The noodles tasted soggy, but it was the broth that left me actually cringing. I’m not sure what made the flavor of the soup that off-putting — something like stale or expired — but the super sourness plus the intense fishiness just didn’t do it for me big-time. I did resolve to trying it once more, with a similarly sad ending.

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Some late-night entertainment:

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4 thoughts on “Penang: Day 0.5

  1. so that process of going to that place, ordering, sitting down, then paying is called hawker? quiiiite interesting.. too bad your food was not that good. ) = and hives?!

  2. This coffee shop is catered to tourists due to its location and just don’t have the best to offer. The “oysters” in the CKT is what we call “cockles” or bloody clams. They are, again, an acquired taste. Even in Malaysia, many people order CKT without them. I love cockles nonetheless.

    • hi bee — thanks for all your comments! we didn’t get to have any proper sit-down meals or seafood dishes, unfortunately. as for nyonya dishes, i guess i’m a bit confused as to what ‘nyonya’ refers to. i’m under the impression that CKT, otak-otak, and some of the others you mentioned in the insider’s guide are nyonya dishes, but is that not the case?

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