Monday, 6 October 2014

Penang – Where the Good Food is!

For Baby Boomers, a visit to Penang is like finding once again the home we left all those years ago. While modernization and gentrification has altered the townscape quite a lot, certain pockets of Penang still transport the visitor back powerfully to Singapore of the 60s and 70s. Sights, smells, sounds, and especially tastes, still evoke what can only be described by the cliché, ‘the good ole days.’

The younger visitor, meanwhile, will find a town on the upswing, thanks to its new status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Hip hostels and cafes line the historic lanes of Georgetown, and specially commissioned street art cling to weathered walls and peep out from unexpected corners. But the most telling impression the youngster will take away is the stupendous street food, which literally carpets Penang.

Penang and Singapore share many similar flavors, not surprising given some of our common origins in Malay, Hokkien, Hainanese and Indian food. However, differences exist, some more obvious than others, because of geographical and historical circumstances. Just look at Singapore’s and Penang’s idea of laksa!

That being said, to anyone who has ever moaned about the food in Singapore going to the dogs, a trip to Penang is an antidote. Dress comfortably for sure; ideally in tees and Bermudas, as it’s hot and the best food is invariably found in non-airconditioned coffee shops, side lanes and outdoor spaces.

Meat Porridge and Fried Kway Teow
It may sound touristy, but to local and visiting foodies alike, the street market at Jalan Kuala Kangsar is not to be missed. The food stalls are mixed in with the usual market vendors along both sides of a thronging and narrow lane. Nearly all of Penang’s signature foods are here; but two stalls in particular stand out: the pork porridge, and Penang fried kway teow, located at the entrance to the market street, next to Campbell Street.

Forget about decorum: make a choice, shout your orders to the stall-owner, and grab a seat nearby. Your porridge will arrive in about 20 minutes, steaming and delicately smooth in texture. What’s unfamiliar – at least to us Singaporeans – was the shredded charsiew on top, which, surprisingly, went very well with the porridge.

The hawkers use itinerant pushcarts, and adjacent to the porridge stall across the lane stood the Penang fried kway teow. Although not on the usual litany of foodie favorites, this stall unfailingly serves up a heaving plate of cockle-filled kway teow perfumed with intense wok hei.

Jalan Kuala Kangsar Street Market
George Town

Penang Assam Laksa
Once located on the roadside next to a Shell petrol station in Farlim district, this laksa pushcart attracted droves. Following complaints, it was forced into a nearby coffeeshop, where it is still named after its original ‘address.’

Unlike most commercial stalls where canned sardine is used as the stock base, this one uses fresh fish and spices for broth. There was a right balance of sweet and sour coming from the blend of assam peel, shallots, garlic, and lemongrass. What stood out from this spicy thick stock was the Penang prawn paste and ikan kembong.  Freshly cooked ikan kembong was deboned and strewn generously on the bowl; and those who wanted more fish could simply request for it.

Another must-try was the fried spring roll. Eat it the local style, dipped into the laksa broth – another novelty for a Singaporean.

Farlim Shell Station Laksa Café
Medan Angsana 4, Bendar Baru Air Itam
11500 Penang
Telephone: +6016 459 7179

Curry Rice
Known only to locals in the Jelutong area, this family-run stall opens every night at 10.30 pm. It is a swift and efficient operation. Early arrivals will find the whole coffee shop looking deserted half an hour before opening. Then suddenly a flurry of activity erupts, and a 6-man team sets up the stall and brings out more 30 trays of freshly cooked food from the back of the shop – all in 30 minutes!

The food was predominantly Teochew, with a variety of spicy curry dishes to choose from. The taste was home cooked and simple; however every curry dish had its own distinct taste, unlike in Singapore, where it sometimes seems like a ‘one-curry-fits-all’ situation exists. The only thing to beware is that one tends to over-order as each and every dish looks equally appetizing.

Tong Sun Coffee Shop
Jalan Perak, Jelutong
Penang 11600

Fried Oyster Omelette
Amusingly, this rundown coffeeshop was listed in Penang food guides for the beef noodle stall it housed. But it is the fried oyster that is driving the crowds here. The stall-owner, Mr Gan, gained popularity when he operated for more than 10 years from an old coffee shop at New World Park. He moved due to high rents some two years ago.

Mr Gan serves two versions of fried oysters: the Thai style which is more dry and crispy, and the more popular starchy and wet style -- which is also the version Singaporeans are more familiar with.  Go for the Thai version, as the crispy edges of the omelette would blow you away when dipped in the special chili sauce.

Gan’s Crispy Fried Oysters
Lam Ah Coffee Shop
194 Lebuh Chulia
George Town

Mr Lous’s Lok Bak
No visit to Penang would be complete without a visit to the Lok Bak stall at this café. Mr Lou Joo Chon has sold lok bak for more than 40 years. He offers quite a selection but the must-try items are the prawn fritters, tou kwa, and fish roll. Also a must is the five-spice meat roll, simply known as lor bak.  Instead of minced pork, Mr Lou seasons strips of pork with a special concocted five-spice powder and wraps it in bean curd skin.

He then fries the rolls in a moderate heat that cooks the meat without burning the bean curd skin. Another of his unique offerings is the dipping sauce similar to our lor mee gravy. This is a derivation of the Hokkien-style dipping sauce, where heavy stock is used as the base and potato starch is added as thickening agent. Incidentally, Penang lor mee shares the same stock with lok bak, except meat bones are added to the lor mee stock.

The popular Mr. Lou makes an appearance at the annual Penang Food Festival held in a Singapore hotel along Scotts Road. But nothing beats eating at his stall, enveloped in the atmosphere of Penang.

Kheng Pin Café
80 Penang Road

Pasar Bukit Mertajam
A visit to Pasar Bukit Mertajam would remind one of eating on a movie set. Located just outside a 120-year-old Chinese temple, the dining space is a courtyard flanked by temples and stalls serving a variety of food from morning till night.

In the day, the dishes to aim for are wontan noodles, Mee Jawa, Hokkien mee and rojak. Look out for a unique dish known as “cup rice”, where rice is steamed individually in an aluminium bowl. Upon order, the rice would be topped with morsels of meat and braising gravy, and then served to be eaten soggy wet with gravy and pickled chili.

At night, the selection from the cze char stall reminds one of unpretentious home cooked food. The ambience is of Singapore streets in the 60s, where tables and chairs were placed randomly in any available space. The food and ‘feel’ of this place has made it one of the more popular spots for friends and visitors to gather.

Jalan Bunga Raya
14000 Bandar Bukit Mertajam

Curry Fish Head
A visit to Sri Siam makes the hassle of crossing to Butterworth worthwhile. Sri Siam is a name synonymous with street-style curry dishes in Penang, ask any Penangite and he would direct you to this place instantly. Be prepared to queue and elbow for a table during lunch though, because Sri Siam’s curry fish head is famous.

Unlike the Singapore version, the curry fish head here is light as it uses coconut milk. However, the taste of onion and mint come through strongly in the gravy. Apart from the curry fish head, the array of dishes available would satisfy even the most seasoned foodie. It is an eclectic mix of Chinese and Malay-influenced dishes, but stick to the spicy items and you won’t go wrong. Sri Siam’s food bears the strong influence of nearby Thailand, so the spices used slant towards sourness, and there is a generous use of fresh herbs.

Sri Siam
32, Medan Kurau 2
Chai Leng Park, 13700 Perai

Photos by Mark Ong