Eating: Penang

Congee breakfast in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Breakfast of champions: congee with stewed pork, duck, tofu, and mustard greens.

George Town is the capital city of Penang.  Penang is the food capital of Malaysia.  So we had our expectations set REALLY high for this city.  Recipe for failure? Um, no.  More like recipe for the best Indian/Malay/Chinese food we’ve had since we arrived in Malaysia!

Before we even arrived in George Town, I emailed my friend Andrea who was just here with her husband six months earlier.  We both follow this excellent food blog called EatingAsia.  Andrea had contacted the talented blogger and received an email containing a couple of resources – most notably an amazing self-guided food tour that she published in the Wall Street Journal.

Coconut tarts in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Coconut tarts at Leong Chee Kee, a hidden little bakery at the back of a parking lot off of  Lebuh Cintra

During our twelve-day stay in George Town, we blocked off a full day to do the food tour.  We made sure we woke up early and hungry and slowly ate our way through the city.  The tour had us zigzaggin’ all over the colonial core of George Town – which was fine by us because we needed all that walking to burn off all the food we were consuming.  The walking tour took us past places like Chowrasta Market – the largest wet market in George Town…

Chowrasta Market in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Chowrasta Market – the largest wet market in George Town

Chowrasta Market in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

“Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads…”

…to the Dim Sum institution, Aik Hoe – where elderly men socialize all morning over pots of hot tea and baskets of har gow (shrimp dumplings)…

Aik Hoe (George Town, Malaysia)

Dim Sum at 8 in the morning – busiest time of the day

Aik Hoe (George Town, Malaysia)

Locals catching up on daily news and gossip over dim sum

..to little inconspicuous shops that specialized in making only one thing like Henry Yap’s yu char kwai (Chinese fritter) shop…

Henry Yap's fritter shop (George Town, Malaysia)

Henry Yap’s fritter shop

Henry Yap's fritter shop (George Town, Malaysia)

Deep frying the sticks of fluffy dough

…to the sweets-laden shelves and flower-lined stalls of little India…

Little India in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Stacks of sweets outside a shop in little India

Little India in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Garlands of plastic flowers line the stalls in little India

…to the longest-standing fort in Malaysia, Fort Cornwallis.  Just to name a few.  And that’s all in one day.

Cannons at Fort Cornwallis (George Town, Malaysia)

Cannons at Fort Cornwallis

The food tour isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of stomach – and the trick to surviving the day was to graze (not gorge) at each stop.  Otherwise, you won’t be able to make it even halfway through the tour.  The intense heat doesn’t help either, so make sure to stay cool and hydrated.

Cool & Sweet

Luckily, there are a lot of places that serve cool delightful bowls of sweets.  They might look a little strange but they are so tasty and refreshing in the 40ºC heat.

Cendol

This sweet, refreshing dessert gets its name from the green, chewy noodle that’s featured in this dish.  It’s made from rice flour and coloured using a local herb called “pandan“.   The bowl is filled with shaved ice, topped with red beans, cendol noodles, and drowned in coconut milk and gula (palm sugar syrup).

Cendol (George Town, Malaysia)

A cool and refreshing bowl of Cendol

Ice Kacang

Another refreshing dessert option is Ice Kacang – a colourful mix of sweet corn, grass jelly, red beans over shaved ice and drenched in palm sugar syrup, rose syrup and evaporated milk.  This little bowl packs a huge explosion of flavours that work surprisingly well together.  Between Cendol or Ice Kacang, I personally enjoyed the latter more.

Ice Kacang (George Town, Malaysia)

A delicious and colourful bowl of Ice Kacang

Kopi

Kopi (coffee) is everywhere in George Town.  That’s because kopitiams (traditional coffee shops) are to Malaysia as Tim Hortons are to Canada.  Locals love to sit for hours over a kopi and catch up over the day’s news and gossip.  One of the better coffee shops we visited was Toon Leong (corner of Jalan Transfer and Jalan Argyll).  We ordered the perfect glass of kopi peng (iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk)

Kopi Peng (George Town, Malaysia)

An ice-cold glass of coffee with condensed milk

Fruit Shakes

Malaysia offers a huge variety of fresh local fruit (mango, watermelon,guava, rambutan, star fruit, etc), so it’s no surprise that the fruit shakes and fruit juices are amazing.  Fresh, sweet, and thirst-quenching – they’re available everywhere.  My personal favourite was the lime juice from the juice stand at the corner of Love Lane and Lebuh Chulia,

Fruit shakes (George Town, Malaysia)

A huge glass of fresh watermelon juice

Besides the food tour articles, the map in the picture below was absolutely indispensable during our stay in George Town.  It contains pictures and descriptions of all the signature Malaysian dishes. along with locations of restaurants/stalls/stands that serve them.  They’re available in almost all hostels and guesthouses so make sure to pick one up.

Penang Street Food map (George Town, Malaysia)

Penang’s food map: don’t leave home without it

With this in your back pocket, you’ll be able to create your own food tour.  Malaysians really know what they’re doing when it comes to food – especially in Penang, where the food choices are seemingly unending.  Drawing from Indian, Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, Thai, and Arabian influences, Malaysian cuisine is a melting pot of drool-worthy flavours. (Hmmm..’melting pot’ and ‘drool’ should not be used in the same sentence.)

Indian-influence

I think one of the best things about visiting Malaysia is that it feels like you’re also visiting India.  The Indian food in Penang was amazing.  We found that we had Indian food more often than we had anticipated – only because it was so amazingly delicious.  We craved it every single day.

Roti Canai

My personal favourite was Roti Canai – flatbread that’s pulled really thin, folded, and then grilled in oil.  The perfect version is flat, crispy and flaky on the outside but fluffy on the inside.

Roti Canai (George Town, Malaysia)

Roti Canai – fluffy, chewy, and crispy all at the same time

My favourite version is found on Jalan Penang at a outdoor food stand called Sup Hameed.  Order it with the fish curry for only RM1.00 ($0.33 CDN).  We probably had it half a dozen times at .  Simply phenomenal.

Roti Canai and fish curry (George Town, Malaysia)

Roti Canai and fish curry for RM1.00 at Sup Hameed

Curry and Naan

Another simple meal was various curries and dahl (a type of lentil stew) served with garlic naan (an oven-baked flatbread).  So good and deceptively filling.

Curry and naan (George Town, Malaysia)

Garlic naan and curries

Thosai

We stumbled upon the restaurant Veloo Villas in little India and tried their amazing Thosai, a crispy fermented crepe or pancake.  It served a variety a savoury tomato curry, coconut-based chutney, and dahl –  which you scrape up with crispy pieces of Thosai.  Little did we know, Veloo Villas was also listed on the self-guided food tour I mentioned above, so we happily sampled it again on our food tour day.

Thosai (George Town, Malaysia)

Thosai with a savoury tomato curry, coconut-based chutney, and dahl

Banana leaf set at Veloo Villas (George Town, Malaysia)

Mutton curry with rice on a banana leaf

Thali

Thali is the ultimate meal for indecisive eaters.  You know the ones who hum and haw at a menu for 20 minutes before they finally decide on what they’ll have as their appetizer?  Thali is basically a platter of various dishes served in small metal bowls.  You can choose various combinations but I think Jason and I must have both ordered the super-sized version – 11 dishes!  It was really fun to eat as every dish was a surprise.  I recognized maybe one or two of the dishes (dahl and a chutney) but everything else was completely foreign.  Dishes ranged from curries, pickles, yogurt, dahl, vegetables, chutney, rice, roti and a dessert.  We were set for the rest of the day after this meal.

Thali (George Town, Malaysia)

The super-sized Thali sampler set that I was definitely unable to finish.

Chinese-influence

I personally LOVED the Chinese-influenced dishes in Penang.  I may be biased since it’s the food of my people, but the Malaysian twist in Chinese dishes was awesome.

Wan Tan Mee

This dish made it onto my ‘Top 5 Dishes from our Travels’ list.  The humble Wan Tan Mee (pork or shrimp dumplings & noodles).  This dish is comfort food for me since I grew up eating it.  But I’ve only ever had the soup version.  We tried the dry version in George Town at a little hawker stall on Lebuh Chulia (they start setting up right in front of the furniture store in the evenings).

Hawker food stalls in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Hawker food stalls on Lebuh Chulia

And this dish changed my life.  Well, at least when it comes to food.  I now refer to time as “Before WanTan Mee” and “After Wan Tan Mee“.  The yellow noodles are perfectly springy and chewy and are served in a dark soy sauce/sesame oil dressing.  Simple but so mind-blowingly good.

You don’t have to take my word for it though, just check out the long lines that form in front of the stall every night.  The husband and wife team move so quickly and efficiently that it’s hard not to be in awe.

Wan Tan Mee stall (George Town, Malaysia)

The best Wan Tan Mee stall in George Town (Lebuh Chulia in front of the furniture store)

We must’ve have come back to the stall at least half a dozen times throughout our stay in George Town.  We even came back one night when it was raining so hard that the streets started flooding.  We were pretty certain the stand would be closed – but we wanted to check anyway.  We were absolutely delighted to see it was still open.  Only the hard-core Wan Tan Mee-lovers were out:  the two of us and another pair that sat across from us, huddled under the sheet-metal roof of the closest building.

Wan Tan Mee in the rain (George Town, Malaysia)

Die-hard fans brave torrential rain to enjoy a hearty plate of Wan Tan Mee

And considering how many times we had this amazing dish, I surprisingly don’t have a single good photo of it.  Although, I think the photo below explains it well – I always scarfed it down before I remembered to stop and take a picture.

Wan Tan Mee (George Town, Malaysia)

Enjoying my first plate (of many) of Wan Tan Mee

Dim Sum

Another favourite of ours – we ended making repeat visits to Aik Hoe (6 Lebuh Carnarvon) for a cheap and tasty breakfast.  I’ve had a lot of Dim Sum in my life and I can definitely understand why this place is now an institution in George Town.

Dim Sum at Aik Hoe (George Town, Malaysia)

Delicious little plates of Dim Sum

The Dim Sum was so fresh since the restaurant was always packed – they were constantly churning out new batches.  The har gow (shrimp dumplings) was made perfectly.  And make sure to also try the made-to-order xiao long bau (soup-filled dumplings)

Dim Sum at Aik Hoe (George Town, Malaysia)

Giant steamer baskets of Dim Sum

Hot Pot

I’m already a huge fan of Hot Pot at home.  There’s nothing more satisfying than cooking up your own food and dipping it into the perfect bowl of DIY sauce.  We passed by this hot pot stall (near Lebuh Chulia and Love Lane) a couple of times before we decided to give it a go.

Hot Pot food stall in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Hot Pot food stall (Pay-as-you-eat)

Personally, I think it’s a little gimmicky but it’s still fun.  And great for a quick snack!  You just grab a couple of skewers of meat/vegetables/seafood, cook them up in one of the vats of broth, and dip them into various sauces that you spoon onto your plate.

Hot Pot food stall (George Town, Malaysia)

Deciding between all the different skewers for Hot Pot

Southern Chinese

We tried to look for turkey on Canadian Thanksgiving day but we had to settle for braised duck instead.  We visited the popular Tek Sen (18 & 20 Lebuh Carnarvon) – beloved by locals and tourists alike.  Having been around for almost half a century, it’s built a solid reputation and a strong local following.  Serving mainly Southern Chinese food (Teochew, Hakka, Hokkien, Cantonese, Sichuan), you’ll likely be able to find something that will suit any palate.

Tek Sen menu (George Town, Malaysia)

Delicious southern Chinese meal at Tek Sen

We ended ordering a mini-feast: braised duck, stir-fried pea shoots, and braised tofu.  Thanksgiving: Malaysian-style!

Tek Sen meal (George Town, Malaysia)

Our Canadian Thanksgiving meal – Malaysian style.

Duck Kuay Teow Th’ng

Kuay Teow Th’ng (Flat rice noodles in soup) is divine.  My favourite version is the duck meat.  It’s hearty and comforting, yet light and delicate at the same time.

Hawker food stalls in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Hawker food stalls

Kuay Teow Th'ng (George Town, Malaysia)

My favourite version was the duck. Pictured here is another delicious option: pork and fish balls!

Silky smooth rice noodles. thin slices of seasoned duck meat, and finely-chopped scallions come together perfectly in a delicately-flavoured consomme.

Kuay Teow Th'ng (George Town, Malaysia)

No time to stop for picture-taking

Hainanese Chicken Rice

This dish sounds very simple but every aspect of it needs to be prepared perfectly for the whole dish to work.  The chicken: delicately flavoured, the skin is thin and crispy, and the meat is juicy and tender.  The rice: seasoned and lightly dressed with oil.  The extras: thin slices of cucumber to soak up the grease, slices of green onion for flavour, and a bowl of light chicken broth to wash it down.  The crowning touch: the perfect house-made hot sauce.  My favourite version is found at Wen Chang Hainan Chicken Rice (63 Lebuh Cintra)

Hainanese chicken rice (George Town, Malaysia)

How does a concept as simple as chicken and rice be so delicious and complex in flavour?

Hokkien Mee

It took us a long time to discover this delicious dish.  I think it was on Day 11 of our 12-days in George Town that we stumbled upon this excellent version in the massive group of food stalls right outside Gurney Plaza.  When you finally decide to rent a car or bike to get out of the downtown core, make sure to drop by for a bowl of hearty, spicy goodness.  A thick, fragrant prawn and pork-based broth surrounds the springy yellow noodles and rice vermicelli.  It packs just enough heat and the strong prawn-flavour is rounded out by a slight sweetness.  I didn’t expect this dish to be this delicious and really regretted discovering it so late in our stay in George Town.

Hokkien Mee (George Town, Malaysia)

The blue spoon really looks good with the spicy red bowl of Hokkien Mee.

Malay-influence

Mee Goreng

You’ll likely see Mee Goreng available all over George Town.  It’s a popular dish in Penang.  But if you want to try a special version, head to Hameed’s food court stall (one of a handful of food stalls that are still open in the sad-looking food court next to Fort Cornwallis) and try the Mee Goreng Sotong.  The super-spicy sambal sotong sauce that’s spooned on top of the yellow noodles might bring tears to your eyes (it’s up to you whether they’re tears of joy or tears of pain).  Chewy strands of squid, cubes of potato, chopped green onions and a squirt of lime round out this fiery plate of noodles.

Mee Goreng Sotong (George Town, Malaysia)

Fiery plate of Mee Goreng Sotong

Satay

Seasoned, skewered, and grilled meats over hot coals or wood fire.  Everything tastes good on a stick!  Especially when it’s served with an amazing chili sauce, crunchy cucumber slices and pieces of sweet onion.

Satay (George Town, Malaysia)

Satay served with fresh cucumbers and sweet onion

Nasi Kandar

This simple meal originates from Penang and quite simply consists of steamed rice and various curries, meats, and vegetables.  As part of our self-guided food tour, we tried the version served at Toon Leong coffee shop.  The term nasi kandar originates from  Malaysian street hawkers who used to carry around their food by balancing two large containers of nasi (rice) and curry that hung from either ends of a long kandar (pole).

Nasi Kandar (George Town, Malaysia)

Nasi Kandar: fall-off-the-bone chicken curry and rice version

Assam Laksa

Also referred to as Penang Laksa, this is the dish that catapulted Malaysia into A-list celebrity/Can’t-go-anywhere-without-being-by-hounded-by-paparazzi status.  It’s the only noodle dish in Penang that uses a fish-based broth.  The broth is a wonderful medley of  poached mackeral, lemongrass, chillies and assam (tamarind) – ingredients that give this dish its unique tangy and savoury flavour.  It’s served with thick  rice noodles and then topped with sliced cucumbers, lettuce, red chilies, and tons of fresh mint leaves!  It’s an amazing dish that’s different from all other types of laksa sold in Malaysia.  I haven’t been able to have it again since we’ve left – so make sure you get your fill before you leave Penang.

Assam Laksa (George Town, Malaysia)

Flavour explosion: Assam Laksa (Penang’s own version of Laksa)

So there you have it: a comprehensive run-down of our food adventure in Penang.  George Town was an exceptional city and is definitely one of the highlights of our travels in Southeast Asia so far.

We arrived with high expectations and left with huge smiles, full bellies, and tastebuds still tingling.

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: A Steamy Concrete Jungle

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The impressive Petronas Towers at night

The last few weeks in Korea and Japan felt like a vacation…yes, a vacation from our travels.  As weird as that sounds, it’s probably the best way to describe it.  Being with Jason’s family in Korea and then travelling with Jeanne and Dave in Japan felt like we were taking a bit of a break from our usual world of hostels, shared bathrooms, and eating at street stalls.

Don’t get me wrong, we love eating at street stalls, but we also love eating at good restaurants.  So after our “vacation” in Korea and Japan, we got back into “travel mode” after parting ways with Jeanne and Dave.

Up next in our travel adventures was Malaysia – specifically the bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur (known as KL by the cool people – and obviously we are cool *wink*).  We were really excited to visit this city and were looking forward to experiencing the mix of modern metropolis with old-world orient.

What we were NOT prepared for was the oppressive (to the point of almost unbearable) humidity and heat.  On a daily basis, the temperature hovered around 35°C, and with humidity it felt like 44°C!  That kind of heat is fine if you’re on a beach but not if you’re stuck in a concrete jungle.

Although KL boasts several modern transit systems that interconnect, we found this multi-transit system really confusing and difficult to navigate.  After a few weeks in Korea and Japan, we had become a little spoiled by their clean, fast, and efficient metro systems.  KL has monorail lines, commuter train lines, and skytrain lines that all tangled up into a jumbled mess.

Confusing pedestrian infrastructure (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

A confusing network of pedestrian walkways, tunnels, and bridges around the city. Notice the lack of sidewalks.

We decided to try our hand at exploring the city by foot.  But the pedestrian infrastructure also proved to be confusing and difficult to navigate.  Networks of pedestrian walkways, tunnels, and bridges that connect from building to building replaced normal pedestrian sidewalks.  Trying to get from point A to point B meant either scampering across a 6-lane highway or taking a 30-minute detour through underground tunnels and pedestrian bridges.

Confusing pedestrian infrastructure (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Bridges over random waterways. It’s liked they built all the buildings without any sort of plan of how they would get people from one building to another.

We spent our first day walking around our neighbouhood while trying to stay in the shade.  Jason had read about the indoor hawker stall food centre called Lot 10 Hutong.  Described as a “gourmet heritage village”, it pulls together a hand-picked lot of the best hawker stalls across Malaysia and places them in an clean, air-conditioned indoor food-court.  Normally, I prefer the grimier, authentic street food experience.  But in this ridiculous heat, “indoor” and ‘air-conditioning” were right up my alley.

Lot 10 Hutong (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Lot 10 Hutong: a gourmet heritage village

Jason and I both got Chinese-influenced dishes.  I ordered a delicious wine chicken & mushroom noodle soup and he got a claypot chicken rice dish.

Lot 10 Hutong (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Wine Chicken & mushroom noodle soup

Lot 10 Hutong (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Claypot chicken rice

After cooling off and filling up, we were ready for round two of exploration.  However, we quickly found out that Kuala Lumpur doesn’t have many sights to take in – people mainly come here for two things: shopping and eating.

Shopping

Berjaya Times Square (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

The expansive amusement park inside one of the malls – puts West Edmonton Mall to shame!

The malls in Malaysia are insane!  Now normally, I love shopping and have no problem with spending hours in malls and markets perusing the sales racks.  However, backpacking for 6 months means you have to be really, really picky with what you pick up along the way.  “Do I really want to carry this around for the next few months?” is a question we ask ourselves a lot.  Sure, we can ship things home, but that would get really expensive really quickly and we were already on a tight budget.

Berjaya Times Square (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Jason trying to figure out how to exit the massive mall complex

So unfortunately, no shopping for this girl.  Jason, on the other hand, was ecstatic about our limited shopping opportunities.  But even though we weren’t planning to do much shopping in Kuala Lumpur, we still ended up visiting quite a few malls – mainly to escape the heat and take advantage of the air conditioning and relatively clean bathrooms…. and of course, the bowling alleys!

Berjaya Times Square (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

The 20-lane bowling alley inside the mall. Look at that picture-perfect form!

One of the few sights to see in the city is the iconic Petronas Towers.  It IS pretty impressive to see up close (from the outside) – especially when it’s all lit up at night.  Attached to the Petronas Towers is a massive high-end mall (of course!)

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Unflatteringly-angled selfie with the Petronas Towers.

Eating

Since shopping wasn’t really part of our plan, that just leaves eating on the agenda – which we both had no problems with.

An interesting area to visit in KL is Petaling Street/Chinatown.  Pirated CDs, fake Louis Vuitton purses, and street food stalls are crammed into the narrow and bustling pedestrian streets.

Petaling Street (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

The packed narrow streets of Chinatown

Jason snacked on a banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice dumpling, while I found an awesome little spicy beef rice noodle stand in a back alley

Spicy beef noodle soup at Petaling Street

Spicy beef noodle soup at Petaling Street

Malaysian culture is a fascinating mix of predominantly Indian, Chinese, Malay.  This ethnic mix, along with its geographic location, allows for many influences in Malaysian cuisine – Indian, Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, Thai, and Arabian.  All of that cultural diversity will naturally lead to a melting pot of unique flavours and dishes.

Gravy beef over rice

Gravy beef over rice

Mee Goreng (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Mee Goreng – a spicy and tasty fried noodle dish that is very popular in Malaysia

Mee Goreng (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Another version of Mee Goreng

Our eyes and tastebuds were delighted to find this amazing food street, Jalan Alor, almost right next to where we were staying.

Jalan Alor (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

The popular food street, Jalan Alor

We walked right past it during the day, barely giving it a second glance.  During the daylight hours, it’s pretty easy to miss – but when the sun sets, this street comes to life.  Hawker stalls jostle for space on the streets while restaurants set up plastic stools and tables that spill over the sidewalk right onto the street.

Skewered meat and seafood (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Everything tastes better on a stick, right?

Seafood stall on Jalan Alor

A seafood stall open for business

Jalan Alor (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Tables were packed with locals – the best sign of good food

We ordered a feast that night: soy-glazed chicken wings, deep fried frog legs, and curry noodles – with a few cold pints of beer to wash it all down.

Jalan Alor (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Jason just moments away from inhaling the bowl of curry noodles

Jalan Alor (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

A meal fit for (Malaysian) royalty

Yes, the food was delicious, but irritated with the frustrating pedestrian infrastructure and the oppressive heat, we decided to hightail it out of Kuala Lumpur after only 2.5 days – the shortest we’ve spent in any one place so far.  Off to the beach – the only place one should be in 44°C weather!