Nasi Lemak, Mee Goreng, Assam Laksa, otak-otak, just whisper their names and try not to conjure up visions of South East Asia, hot days, hot nights, thunder storms, humidity, incense, spices and mysterious cafes full of mysterious people.
We’ve been in Penang on and off for the last five or six weeks, soaking up the atmosphere and getting into the local food scene, some of it we have found to be good, some of it not so good, and some of it great.
We had a pact when we arrived, to eat like the locals would, any place that’s empty we skip, any place that has dumbed down western classics we try and avoid. In this quest to eat like the locals we’ve tried, as much as we could, to stick to local Kopitiam joints, the local cafes for local people, we find at first this is a little confronting for us, with lots of pointing and arm waving, misunderstood orders and confusion, pretty soon though we started to relax and act like the locals, a sniff, a smile, a nod, we take a seat and order.
After a while we found a few favorite hole in the wall places, local corner shops that we returned to enough times to get tired of and then moved on. The kind of places that have been dishing up their specialties for generations, family run businesses with long term customers. Places like Tek Sen, Jooi Hoo Cafe, Corner Cafe Kopitiam, and Kafe Shen Fu, all of them regularly full of locals and each offering their own takes and variations on the classic street foods of Malaysia, and you can see and taste the history right there in front of you, on the plate, many of their dishes, oyster omelet, iced kagang, and the heady mix of mackerel and pineapple in an Assam Laksa, could only be found after generation of cooks have worked their magic day in and day out step by step, sampling, adjusting and adapting towards street food perfection.
It’s a well known story, this story of Penang, settlers arriving on the island from all points of the compass, chasing work, women and freedom all the usual things, fast forward several hundred years and before you know it, you have a steaming hot-pot of styles and flavors that make Penang one of the most unique cultural mixes anywhere. Religious tolerance and racial harmony seem, on the surface, to be in balance. The burka and the t-shirt are both welcome on the bus.
In a recent online news poll listing the top ten street food cities in the world George Town came in at number three, behind both Singapore and Bangkok, as an outsider you would think that’s pretty good, a small dedicated community coming in close behind two of the worlds acknowledged foodie destinations, but no,outrage followed in the local online world, how could they be serious! Lengthy, heated and in-depth discussion clogged the bandwidth, Singapore they snorted, that recent upstart rating above Penang…Never!
But could it be true after all?, could it be right?, could it be, like the parent blind to the foibles of their child, that perhaps, after all, the traffic, the open drains, the indoor smoking, maybe it does undermine the eating experience after all.
So the verdict?.
First off, we were taken aback with the amount of sweetness in a lot of the dishes, they’re sweet, like really really sweet, a lot we find to be almost inedible with sweetness, we put this down to cultural differences and keep eating, it may be a taste that needs time to come to terms with, or just our preference for the tart and sour that we need to be aware of, but pretty soon we’re sure our blood sugar levels have hit all time highs. We soon take to ordering, as a drink, fresh lime juice without any sugar syrup as a way to balance out the sweetness a bit.
Secondly, and this was a real surpise, there’s a real lack of herb and spice hits, we had arrived with a vague idea that Malaysian food would be similar to it’s neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, some of the dishes we found to have a nod to the region, a smidge of chilli here, a small dash of fish sauce there if you’re lucky, maybe some lemongrass, or a small sprinkle of coriander, and some places, if you order carefully, you can get a nice mix up of spice and heat, thinking of you Tek Sen and your wonderful salt and pepper calamari, but generally it’s the sweetness and sugar that come through to flavor most things, and that, mainly, from dark sweet sauces, the only spicy dish in the past month that springs to mind, and it’s not representative of Malaysian eating at all, is a Thai salad we tried on the west coast, see our post on the West Coast.
Lastly we found the lack of anything really light and fresh a bit of a struggle. After the third or fourth week we started to feel a bit lethargic, a bit heavy around the waist, a bit bloated and unhealthy, the idea of another noodle soup not so enticing after all. Another stir fried starch with some kind of sugar syrup, “do I have to”, can I just have a nice fresh salad with a piece of poached chicken, sure, but only if we do it at home ourselves.
And so we did, we started cooking at home, one meal a day, first we made friends with a few of the nearby market stall holders and bought fresh, light, salad ingredients. Next, making the decision to stay in for a change, we started with a piece of salmon, pan fried with served with a salad, beautiful, just what we wanted, light, fresh, no sugar, additives, starch or salt. If only for a bottle of affordable white wine. That led to a week or so of night time “stay at home oldies”, some poached chicken or an Italian style olive, tomato and leek stew, great, but not why we decided to travel.
So, pretty soon, the street called us back, back to all the old favorites, firstly to our number one favorite, the wonderful old ladies serving up Dim Sum at De Tai Tong restaurant, beautiful and friendly, not pushy and serving a mix of steamed and fried wonders, or our second all time favorite, Tek Sen, for some roast pork or their special beetroot and pork knuckle soup, then we move on to an Assam laksa at Jooi Hoo, or just a simple chicken and rice at any old corner shop.
Some of which have been sublime, and none of which we can do at home, and that’s the point, the Assam laksa, justifiably famous as a world class street food, it’s pungent, with a fishy, salty and sweet lingering aftertaste, all those deep flavors and aromas, we can’t do that at home, it may not be that healthy, but it’s worth eating. Some of our best food memories have been around the hunt for the perfect laksa. Sadly we’ve seen a few of the stall holders using prepackaged laksa paste as their stock base, hopefully not a sign of the times.
So to answer the question, is it any good?. Yes, very good, in short doses, a real food and eating destination, worthy of being recognized as one of the best in the world, number three?, well who can say, other than to say number three is pretty good for a little place like Penang, we can’t and wont compare it to other cities, but there are some genuine classic street flavors to be found just about on every corner in the old city. The drawback, however, it’s not good for you, it’s loaded full of preservatives, carb heavy, full of E numbers, salt and sugar, heavy on the fake colors, probably spoonfuls of MSG and glistening with saturated fat.
And so here’s a snapshot of just a few of the dishes we’ve had over the past few weeks, not in any particular order, some we didn’t like, some we loved. Soem we’d travel across the globe for.