PENANG – Gastronomic Pearl of the Orient

Dr. Audrey Tang takes you on an intriguing tour of this culinary melting pot

Imagine having your food freshly cooked in minutes and brought to your table. Imagine being able to choose from a menu including Western, Malay, Thai, Indian and Chinese cuisine. Now imagine that the average price for the meal of your dreams can be less than £4.

From the locals who come every day for their Penang Kuey Teow (fried flat noodles) to the food critic charged with awarding the “Best Malaysian Laksa”, there is something to suit every palate. Even the city-based Malaysians take their weekend trips to Penang which they lovingly call the “Gastronomic Pearl of the Orient”.

Taking pride of place in front of the Gurney Plaza in Georgetown, are the Gurney Drive Hawker Stalls. Seafood is a specialty with Ochen (oyster omelette) accompanied by Prawn Sambal is almost a staple. Or try the traditional “Rojak” – sliced fruit with a dressing of sugar and peanuts. Note, nuts are used a lot in Malaysian cooking, so be sure to inform of any allergies. While I frequent the Gurney Drive stalls for fried sea food balls, my “go to” hawker centre is the Long Beach Food Court on the main tourist drag in Batu Ferrenghi (where a night market also runs starting at the Holiday Inn hotel and ending at the Rasa Sayang Golden Sands…2 tips for haggling: i) it’s expected; ii) they give you a price, you go at least ½ way down, and then you’ll likely meet in the middle). At “long Beach” is the outstanding Char Kway Teow stand that has been there for over 20 years, I like a bit of Roti Canai (flat bread) and curry dip as well as paus (fluffy dumplings filled with – my favourite – char siu (sweet) pork).

The al fresco dining at the stalls is an experience in itself – sat on plastic chairs or even upturned tubs, with only a tarpaulin shelter when it rains, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a well attended school bar-b-que, but the food is personally served by the chef, and the informality makes it all the easier to move around, sampling everything on offer. Plus, would you forgo the luxury of relaxing over an excellent meal in a climate averaging around 27 degrees Celsius all year?

My husband loves the samosas in “Little India” in Georgetown, also an UNESCO Heritage centre. Enjoy the street art as you explore, and there you can also find excellent vegan and vegetarian restaurants nestled within streets of temples and stalls selling floral garlands.

For those wishing to sample the more “medicinal” aspect of Chinese cooking the Mayflower Garden (next to the Cititel Hotel), presents the Chef’s special of goosefeet soup designed to settle the stomach (that is, if you can get it in there in the first place…the webbing gets me every time). Alternatively for the more “conventional” Chinese Banquet the Starview Restaurant in Georgetown presents 8 or 10 courses including crispy duck skin served in pancakes (as well as the more conventional duck meat with plum sauce and cucumber!), lobster with mango, and suckling pig.

If Mr Wu’s “All you can eat for £4.99” is more your thing, both the Cititel and the Bayview Hotels offer a buffet that far exceeds the sweet and sour onions you get back home. They include English food as well as curry and over 8 different types of desserts all for about £6 per head (NB: This is expensive for Malaysia!). With the Bayview you also get a birds’ eye view of the city as the restaurant revolves through the course of an hour.

…and when you need something to cleanse the palate – there’s a fruit farm at the back of the island where for 6myr (approx £1) you can purchase a sample fruit selection including Jackfruit, dragon fruit (very sour), mango, rose apples, papaya, lychees, rambutans and mata cuching (or longan…”Cat’s eye”). There’s more durian too – but don’t consider bringing any back to your hotel – it’s banned! Why? Smell it!

For Baba Nyonya food – one of the few remainders of the Peranakan (Chinese-Malay settlers) heritage, you might want to try out Ivy’s Nyonya Cuisine (rated number 1 by “Penang Foodie”). Nyonya cooking is not the same as the “melting pot” cuisines which draw from the many cultures in Penang, it has its own specific blend of spices and textures. Kuih (a coconut jelly dessert) or a pandan roll (think swiss roll but the sponge is flavoured (and coloured green) by the pandan – a tropical fruit) leaf, are two of my favourites for an afternoon snack.

But, speaking of afternoons, while it’s a little more expensive (but you’re paying for a piece of history), the afternoon tea at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (Penang’s answer to Raffles), is definitely a treat to savour. Alternatively, I’ve also enjoyed their buffet (which caters for western tastes too) at (variously) breakfast, lunch and dinner (the dessert station is divine!)

“New” to Penang, or at least growing over the last 10 years, is the popularity of the shopping mall food courts. The Queensbay near the airport does a great “claypot chicken” (chicken rice which benefits from the clay pot it’s cooked in (I will scrape that pot clean!); and you can get all kinds of delights (including waffles) in the Gurney Mall, and KFC at Tesco(!); or a good ol’ British “pub” at Straits Quay (note – if you order fish and chips there, you end up paying more for cod than the local specialties such as red snapper – so do be adventurous!)

Penang culture really is a self-proclaimed “melting pot” – a pot which, like the fairy tale, produces the most sensational food. And to wash it all down, consider a “snow beer” (frozen beer!), or perhaps a cocktail (or maybe just a baby coconut water – from the coconut) on the beach.

Cheers!

Images – Copyright Dr. Audrey Tang

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