George Town Culinary Delights

Char Koay Teow at the corner of Penang Road and Keng Kwee Avenue  -  Joo Hooi coffee shop.

When you have only a few days to sample the culinary delights of  Penang,  you know you are going to be snacking every few hours, throughout the day and night.  Food places open late into supper time, some only do business in the morning and yet others start serving in the afternoon.  If you are fortunate to be able to drop by places for home cooking, that is even better.   The best mindset for a foodie journey here is with an open mind, to share the dishes discovered and to drink lots of water.

Several types of curry to accompany your Nasi Kandar - Chulia Street.

Being located at the northern end of the Malacca Straits, Penang is bound to offer many spices, herbs and a diversity of cooking styles to you.   An important consideration is whether your stomach can weather all this variety.    The earnest would go seek out the original best for each dish but practical reality may not permit that.  I suggest to just go with the flow wherever you are in George Town, for you are bound to come across trying something unplanned, unexpected and unthought of.
Crunchies, hard boiled egg, fresh lettuce, noodles and potato slices entice you to the South Indian Mee Rebus.

Be mindful of how much carbohydrates, sugar, deep fried stuff and chillies you are accumulating along the way.    Compare this with how much sitting and walking you are doing per day.   

The art of participating and watching can be fun as well  - we can observe what the people at other tables are eating,  we can note how the vendors prepare their specialities and we can share a variety of things on our own table together.    Several dishes are stir fried to order, others have ingredients all sorted out before being poured with the gravy or soup.

Servings of  Bee Kueh Moy at the Maple Palace Restaurant, Northam  Road.
The glutinous black coloured rice is mixed with coconut milk, a sprinkling of sugar and salt.

If you are not at a restaurant, but in a hawker centre, Kopi TIam or on the roadside waiting beside the hawker,  it is useful to have small coin change.  There are still paper currency one Ringgit notes, but nothing pleases a food seller in this scenario as having the  exact change.  

Pie Tee with chilli dip at Aunty Gaik Lian's, Bishop Street.

When plunking down at a table in a Kopi Tiam, it is imperative to order drinks, hot or cold, from the coffee shop operator.   It can get pretty crowded in certain coffee shops to get a seat, so one has to be fast acting and hawk eyes in such situations.   You pay only when you receive the food or drinks at your table.     Yes, the vendors still bring the food you ordered to your table, in contrast to many self managed queue and bring your own serves from the counter in many other nations.

Teochew Cendol.
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Vehicle parking can get to be a congested affair, so I recommend walking, cycling or using the motor bike in George Town.    Visualise the heritage area as a series of laid out lanes and roads, that they are connected in some way and you are well on the way to conquer foodie street hubs like Carnarvon, Chulia, Kimberley,  Bishop, Beach and Penang.   

Seek refuge in shopping centres when the afternoon sun gets too humid.   Alternate between air-conditioned and street side eating.   The best time is after the sun sets, when the locals come out and when a party atmosphere comes alive.

Vegetable Acar or pickles with a sprinkling of sesame seeds.  Made at the kitchen of Ms. Yong Kooi Chun.

Some of the best food are found in relatively simple spots, whilst others are served in heritage buildings, beside the sea or in contemporary buildings.   I always look forward to reunion lunches at a dear Aunt's place.  

On a recent  visit, I was taken by the family of a close friend to try out the home cooking of an elderly friend of theirs, an ex-teacher who carries an interesting conversation  and who still shows her good culinary skills.   I also found there is a coffee shop at the corner of Rangoon and Macalister Roads that hosts both Muslim and Chinese lunch dishes.  Penang locals also have fondness to gather at the ten seater round table, where Chinese customary practice also come into play.

The making of Ban Chien Kueh at Pulau Tikus.

And now we address the question of the all essential drink - why do you just stick to that faceless, bland spring water, as most travellers do?    As long as you know drinks have been boiled   -  and the water supply is pretty safe in Penang -  you can have no qualms for risking the condition known as Delhi belly.    Cold desserts and mixes are another matter all together, unless you are in a bar or restaurant.  Make the practical choice and use your own judgement.  George Town is a modern metropolis, although critics may not think so with street side eating.  There are bottled drinks of all sorts from cold fridges, ranging from herbal teas, American labels and own made concoctions.   

In a Kopi Tiam, the common drinks you can see ordered are Kopi Orh Peng (iced black coffee); Barley Peng  (cold barley drink);   nutmeg juice;  hot beverages like Horlicks, Milo and local coffee blends; lime juice;  orange juice; Teh Peng ( tea with ice cubes); and more.

Traditional fish curry Straits Chinese style or Ikan Tumis from Ms. Ung.

When you come across a crowd, or people eagerly lining up, even when the weather is inclement,you can be sure they are on to a good thing.   Comparable to Singaporeans, Penangites love to check out the latest sensation, the hype and the rumour of tasty things.   I am reminded of the rush to stock up on packets of White Penang Curry Mee a few years ago.

A medley of roasts.

They are still gathering around stalls like the Char Koay Teow along Siam Road (from afternoons only) and the Cendol stall at the corner of Keng Kwee Street and Penang Road.
One afternoon Sonny drove past the Malay curry food stall in Tanjung Bungah, near the Mar Vista apartments.   There is an implied sense of the robust need by the Chinese community to try any yummy food, crossing inter-racial lines and culinary traditions.  Foodies now transverse the island, west, south or north, to check out the new and persistently good food.

The dough for the Ang Ku or Red Tortoise cakes from Ms. Teoh Sian Kin.

What about the standards found in hotel buffets and breakfast options?   For the devotee in foodie land, there is a difference in the authenticity of the cooking skills and outcomes of several street food items.   Somehow, the outcomes of the dish often miss an ingredient, a cooking technique and the oomph of street cooks.  

However, such opportunities to partake food in a Penang hotel cannot be totally dismissed all together.   They do provide a sampling opportunity of coming across a whole variety in one spot.   If you do like some specific dishes, then it is time you make the effort to chase the good ones out there, away from the hotel environment.

You come across food stalls like this, when walking along covered five foot ways in the heritage quarter of George Town. 

Many of Penang's iconic dishes involve much on the input and attitude of the cook and preparer.    The exact formula, measured quantity and precise recipe does not work for such dishes.   The most tasty food in Penang result from years of experience, a secret technique or tip that makes the difference and the mood of the cook.   Look at whether your targeted stall holder is smiling or reasonably okay on the day you visit.  Are the helpers also in a reasonable mood?    

Servings can be smaller than what most Americans or Australians are used to.   Use this to your advantage, for you are only meant to sample this diversity of food.    Yes, beer can be relied upon to be available in the coffee shops. restaurants obviously offer wines and hard liquors.    Do try to match your drink with the food, whether the latter is plain, zesty, spicy or neutral.

The younger generation has taken over this well known southern Chinese roast meat outlet of Sin Nam Huat.

It is always on balance to engage street sellers with some conversation.  Penangites have the ability to speak in more languages than the average person.There are various dialects within the Chinese community and mandarin has been most popular for many years now.   Most of the Indians hail from the south of the sub-continent, with Tamil and Hindi conversations prominent.    English remains perhaps the Lingua Franca understood by all races, thanks to previous colonisation by the Brits.   Malay is the National Language in Malaysia.   

A visitor may soon observe the mix up of words from different languages in one sentence articulated by most Penangites.     There is often a soft accent, some times bordering to a sing song tone, especially noticeable to foreigners.    Do enjoy the difference and there is an air of informality about Penang, which adds to the enjoyment of trying out its various culinary offerings.

Fish curry sure to lift the appetite and aroma for diners.

For those who long for food outside the Malaysian demographic mould, there are also several outlets in Korean,  Japanese, Thai and Euro cooking traditions.    Walking around shopping centres like Queensbay, Gurney and Straits Quay, you can come across franchised and  boutique eating restaurants.   The Suffolk House offers fine dining, together with an experience of high tea, colonial style, in the restored and heritage home of Captain Francis Light.    

The culinary experience in Penang can be said to range from grassroots to cosmopolitan, from take away to relaxing, from sweating to warm ambiance, from gatherings of friends to business occasions.   For me, nothing is like sampling food prepared fresh in front of you, where you can speak to the preparer and watch the fascinating process of a dish coming out to be served in front of your eyes and other senses.

Lobster with Cantonese noodles is a festive dish at the CRC Restaurant.

Penang food may have risks of being a lost art, but it is the living culture reflected in them that underlies their value and experience.   Skills may not be passed on from the older generation, the young may not pound with the mortar and pestle anymore and talents may have moved on with significant emigration. 

Originators of food must not delegate the key cooking stage to others due to economics, cost of operating a business and sheer lack of labour.   UNESCO has blanketed a consciousness of heritage, tradition and continuity to many aspects of the George Town character, not least of all is the daily regime and life style of its residents.   The people of Penang must embrace this responsibility and passion from the past to propel to the future. 

Chicken pie as made by Hainanese cooks for the colonial era in the 20th century - this one is from Yeng Keng Hotel, Chulia Street.