A couple of months ago, I invited (read: coerced) two of my closest friends to do the Penang food trail with me to satisfy certain cravings. I wasn’t sure whether they were being adventurous or they simply had no choice, but it was a happy two days in Malaysia’s Pearl of the Orient, thanks to the smorgasbord of diet-worrying but tasty food. Read more…
First, indulge me for some introductions. My cousin-friend Christian has been an expat in Selangor for two or three years now, so of course, he’s been exposed to Malaysia’s states and their respective cuisines. Kerwin, on the other hand, is an expat from Bangkok who’s a self-confessed picky eater—although he has a strong weakness for noodle dishes.
I’ve been traveling across Malaysia for a time now. I’m proud to have been to all its states, and thus, I believe I can already encapsulate what Malaysian cuisine is by the sheer number of dishes I’ve tried. Truth be told, I’ve acquired a taste for Malaysian food, making me totally biased for them, so for this article, I’d let my two friends sell these Penang specialties.
We sought what help we can get from food maps, but with the Chinese signs, the heat, and the confusing streets, we got impatient looking for certain places. Thus, we stuck with our original strategy for the whole food hunt—eat whatever we chance upon while touring.
Curry mee may have yellow noodles (mee) or string-like vermicelli (mee-hon) in a coconut milk broth spiced by curry and sambal, and accompanied by chicken, cuttlefish, egg, and garlic.
Christian: I’m a fan of curry mee ever since I first tasted it. This one was no exception—savory, creamy, and just the right amount of spice to keep your heart rate up.
Kerwin: As a fan of anything noodles, this dish should be right up my alley. However, the creaminess and spiciness of the soup has a tendency to be heavy, so this actually serves more as a main dish rather than a casual snack.
Char kway teow , one of Penang’s most popular dishes, is flat rice noodles stir-fried in a wok over high heat with soy sauce, chili, belachan, shrimps, cockles, beansprouts, and garlic chives.
Christian: There are many ways to cook char kway teow, much like there are different ways to cook adobo. Penang’s version is one of my favorites; they don’t skimp on prawns.
Kerwin: I’m more fond of dry noodle dishes rather than soups, so this was quite a treat for me. Noodle bias aside, the Penang version is said to be the most delectable of all, and frankly, I’m not surprised. The dish was packed with so much flavor that it was easy to reach for a second plate. This reminded me a little of Thailand’s pad Thai, and though the two dishes are worlds apart, the joy in eating both is the same.
Wonton mee of Penang is composed of yellow noodles sitting on top of a thick brown sauce and laden with wontons (dumplings), char siu (barbecued pork), and spring onions.
Christian: I love soy sauce, and eating wonton mee is always delightful. The version we ate, however, had more oil and MSG than soy sauce. The first few bites were delicious, but the MSG, unfortunately, left a bad taste in my mouth.
Kerwin: I loved this dish, and it was perhaps my favorite among all the food we tried in Penang. It’s quite simple and probably not the region’s specialty, but it tasted really good! I’m a fan of MSG, so Christian’s complaint is actually a source of comfort for me.
Hokkien mee, also known as prawn mee and mee udang, starts with a broth slow-cooked for hours with prawn shells and heads. The resulting orange broth is poured over yellow mee and vermicelli then topped with shrimp, squid, beansprouts, shallots, and a spoon of sambal chili.
Christian: It had the same spiciness of curry mee, but it was laden with seafood. The broth was rich in shrimp flavor, probably slow-cooked for hours before it was served.
Kerwin: It was yet another great-tasting noodle dish. What did I say? I’m a big noodle fan.
Nasi kandar is a huge smorgasbord of rice piled with curries, meats, vegetables, and egg. Believed to have originated in Penang, it is, they say, best enjoyed at Nasi Kandar Line Clear.
Christian: It’s fascinating that a mixture of different curries blend so well together. It shouldn’t make sense, yet it does. If you want a hearty meal, this is the dish for you.
Kerwin: Hearty is an understatement. While the food is palatable, I find the portion overwhelming; I cannot believe this can be eaten past midnight as a snack.
Lamb biryani is composed of basmati rice seasoned with spices like turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and complemented with lamb and vegetables. Chicken tandoori is roasted with yogurt and spices in a tandoor (cylindrical clay oven). We had them at Restoran Kapitan, where both are considered signature dishes.
Christian: I felt the love that went into cooking the lamb biryani. It was moist and tender that the meat fell off the bone. The chicken tandoori, however, was dry and overcooked.
Kerwin: The lamb was tender and tasty—everything that you could ask for in a lamb dish like this. The rice was fragrant and delicious and was thus the perfect partner to the lamb. Kapitan has made a bit of a name for itself in Penang, so the establishment definitely did not disappoint. But like Christian, I thought the tandoori was dry and could’ve been more moist.
Peranakan food or Baba-Nyonya cuisine is derived from the culture of the Straits Chinese who migrated circa 15th to 17th century. However, it is a dying art form in Penang because of the time and effort it takes to cook these traditional dishes. We found a longstanding establishment, one of the few in town, called Nyonya Baba Cuisine, which is ran by a friendly old nyonya (lady). Her recommendations were her specialties, including otak-otak (grilled fish cake in a banana leaf), sambal udang (prawn in sambal chilies), and pork spring roll.
Christian: It’s amazing how much culture is epitomized in a single plate of food, let alone a whole meal. Our dishes were labors of love from our host and chef, who is sadly the last in her line to pursue cooking. It was an honor to share her food and her culture.
Kerwin: It was definitely a memorable dinner and one rooted so deeply in Penang’s history and culture. They say it’s a dying tradition, so we were definitely glad to have partaken of it. As someone who dislikes vegetables, the spring rolls were probably one of the most sumptuous vegetables dishes I’ve tried. The sambal udang was probably my favorite dish, but I’m seafood-biased. The otak-otak was the only dish I wasn’t too fond of.
Ais kacang is a curious permutation of bits and pieces, including palm seed, red beans, sweet corn, grass jelly, and agar-agar, sitting on top of shaved ice. It’s made more colorful by the red rose syrup, Sarsi syrup, gula melaka (palm sugar), and milk doused onto it. As an added treat, Kek Seng Coffee Shop tops their ais kacang with their special durian ice cream.
Christian: I’m not a fan of durian ice cream, but ais kacang can make anything taste good. The delightful mix of sweet beans, coconut milk, and other sweet ingredients reminded me of the Philippines’ halo-halo and of home.
Kerwin: It was a bit too sweet to my liking, and the syrup used for the shaved ice can be quite cloying and a turn-off. I’m not too fond of halo-halo, either, so it’s not just this one.
Cendol is a refreshing combination of coconut milk, green jelly noodles made from rice flour, palm sugar, and often, red beans. Shaved ice makes it a delicious cooler on a hot day.
Christian: On a hot day, nothing is more refreshing than a good cup of cendol. Coconut milk and jelly on ice will energize even weary travelers who are not used to the tropical climate.
Kerwin: This was better than the ais kacang, and I consumed it until the very last bean and the very last coconut milk drop. I loved it!
There are a lot of other Penang food that we failed to try and find, most notably the assam laksa—that tamarind-based noodle soup CNN Travel listed as the topmost among the “50 best foods in the world.” But our tummies, primed and enlarged for that trip, can only take in so much. And besides, we also tried a number of Penang cafes I’ll share on another post.
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