Warning: this post is completely about us stuffing our faces with absolutely delicious local foods.
For those of you who think all we do on our travels is eat food, in this case, it’s true! Penang is one of the top food locations in the world according to many articles, so it’s no surprise that we found a lot to like. Add to that the fact that the cuisine is a liberal mix of Indian, Chinese, and Malay influences, and the variety is staggering. Simply, this means we had to eat out all the time in order to even sample a small portion of what was on offer!
Here we have a bit of a throwback to the beginning of our travels. Reminiscent of our time in Delhi and Nepal, this Thali set was a delicious reintroduction to Indian food after having sworn it off for several months after our disastrous bout of food poisoning. This particular thali consisted of a large helping of rice with a mix of curries, sour/spicy yogurt, and various veggie sides. It was great value for dollar, something we’d find to be the case everywhere we ate over the next week.
This was also our first taste of the Malaysian version of iced coffee, which is rather sweeter than the Thai. We’ve really grown to love it though, and look forward to our cup every day. We’ve also become fond of the hot version, which my dad would hate. Tons of sugar, and a generous portion of condensed milk to make it truly “white coffee”.
Char Koay Teow
This is basically the Malay equivalent of Pad Thai; a lowest common denominator street food, available everywhere and absolutely delicious. Translated as “fried wide flat noodles”, that’s basically what we have here. Extremely rich, Char Koay Teow is noodles fried in a wok well oiled with pork lard, to which various seafood (shrimps, cockles) are added, along with the typical asian seasonings. As it’s so rich, I only want to eat it every few days.
Chee Cheong Fun
This dish is long tubes of rolled up rice flour dough, that is then cut into bite size morsels. It is topped with a sauce of shrimp paste and chili paste, along with a red sweet sauce and sesame seeds. Our food guide described a strong fishy flavour without the aftertaste, but we didn’t experience this. Rather, it was almost a desert food flavour, quite sweet, but not overpoweringly so.
I would describe Hokkien Mee as a sort of prototypical Malaysian-Chinese noodle soup dish. It has all the usuals: Vermicelli rice noodles, chilli, prawns, pork, egg, fried shallots, etc. Everything is mixed together in a thick broth that has a lovely taste, a mix of fishy/prawny and sweet. Alina got the basic version, but you can add all sorts of extras if you want (fish balls, pork ribs, entrails, and more).
Penang Assam Laksa
This is it. Penang Assam Laksa. The famous dish ranked as the 7th most delicious food in the world by CNN in 2011. It’s a noodle dish served in a fish-based broth made from stewed mackerel, lemongrass, and chillies. Unlike nearly all other local dishes, this one is sour (assam), made so by the addition of tamarind. Lots more spices and veggies are added for more flavours, as well as thick, dark prawn paste, which I got on a separate spoon and had to mix in myself. I wasn’t sure I’d like a sour dish, but it was really very good, and a refreshing departure from the usual.
Here’s our first example of an odd Malaysian desert. You wouldn’t think that green chewy noodles, red beans, and shaved ice all lumped in a soup of cocounut milk and palm sugar syrup would necessarily be good, but it really is! The noodles and beans provide interesting textures and tastes, and the iced and sweetened coconut milk is the perfect cure for the equatorial midday heat.
Wan Tan Mee
Another Chinese noodle dish, but this time a bit healthier. We got the “dry” version, where the wan tans (pork dumplings) are served on the side in a tasty broth. The main dish consists of egg noodles with a springy, rubbery texture that makes for an interesting chew. It comes with pork slices, spring onions, and a delicious thick soy sauce. It sits really well in the stomach and has become one of Alina’s favorites.
Wow, what weird deserts people come up with around here! Ais Kacang “Ice Bean”, is, once again, what it sounds like. First, you make a base of shaved ice. Then you pile on red beans and sweet corn. To this, you add rose syrup, condensed milk, jellies, and palm sugar. Sometimes peanuts and raisins are added, but ours sadly had none. We did add two scoops of homemade durian ice cream to the top, which added a nice finishing touch.
Mmmmm, roti canai, our new favorite breakfast! An Indian flatbread, it’s made from a soft, buttery dough that is thrown like a pizza and folded over, and thrown again. It’s then fried in lots of oil or butter until the outside starts to get crispy. Can you tell why we like it? Roti canai is usually served with a semi-spicy dhal curry sauce that complements it very well. However, we’ve also tried roti stuffed with egg, and seen lots of other options on menus, including desert roti covered in jam, peanut butter, or fruits, that we just might have to try before we leave Malaysia.
Served wrapped in a banana leaf packet, you typically just grab as many helpings of Nasi Lemak as you want from the pile sitting in the middle of breakfast tables at cafes. It’s a pile of rice steamed in coconut milk and then topped with a red curry and dried anchovies, as well as part of a hard boiled egg. Alina and I both found it tasty, but we’re more of sweet breakfast people rather than fishy, spicy food.
I affectionately referred to Poh Piah as Chinese burritos, based on a picture on a street vendor’s cart. Actually, they are much smaller, but have the same idea. They’re stuffed with boiled turnips, deep fried egg flakes, fried shallots, and other assorted veggies.
Ais Tingkap (Window Sherbet)
This drink is a specialty of a single shop in a little alley in Chinatown. Also known as “Window Sherbet”, since you used to buy it through a shop window, it’s now sold from a street stand. It’s a crazy mix of shaved ice, rose syrup, coconut juice, and a special secret sauce, along with some sort of fruit seed that expands to look like frog eggs when it gets wet.
So there you have it. A small sampling of the many diverse foods that Penang offers. We’ll continue to explore Malaysia’s culinary offerings as we work our way south, hopefully finding some new favorites, as well as seeing what differences regional variety brings to the dishes we’ve already tried.