Penang’s authen­tic and mul­ti­cul­tural food scene may just be the best in the world

Condé Nast Traveller Middle East - - Contents -

The best food scene in the world may just be in Penang

FOR YEARS, FOOD-OB­SESSED FRIENDS AND AC­QUAIN­TANCES I TRUST HAD BEEN sug­gest­ing I visit Ge­orge Town, on the Malaysian is­land of Penang, promis­ing glo­ri­ous Chi­nese and colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture, along with a poly­glot food scene they in­sisted was bet­ter than any other in Asia, per­haps even the world. “Bangkok is be­com­ing too sani­tised,” they’d say, or “China is long gone,” as­sur­ing me that some­thing vi­tal and authen­tic re­mained in Penang that didn’t feel at all ex­posed like Sin­ga­pore’s hawker cen­tres.

To say they were right is an un­der­state­ment. You could eat in Penang from morn­ing till night ev­ery day and never get bored, which, to be hon­est, is how you want to do it: Eat as much and as often as pos­si­ble. The city is a wild hotch­potch of res­tau­rants, mar­kets and street stalls; its cui­sine is a mix of Malay, In­dian, Thai and Chi­nese in­flu­ences (with a par­tic­u­lar lean­ing to­ward the Teochew, Hokkien and Can­tonese flavours of the Chi­nese south). Both the street food and the res­tau­rants tap into the mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism of this city bril­liantly and, un­like the flashier din­ing scenes that co­ex­ist with the street food of Sin­ga­pore and Bangkok, res­tau­rants here turn out dishes as sim­ple and hon­est as the ven­dors’.

Early in the morn­ing, Chowrasta ( Jalan Chowrasta), a lively out­door mar­ket with butch­ers, pro­duce sell­ers, cof­fee shops and food stands, does an in­cred­i­ble prawn cheung fun and kaya toast, made with a co­conut-egg jam, at a fold­away ta­ble ringed by plas­tic stools for break­fast – a ca­coph­ony of siz­zling woks and chat­ter. Deeper into town, Tong Hooi

( 0060-12-498 3962) is a typ­i­cal lo­cal cof­fee shop sur­rounded by in­di­vid­ual food stalls, in­clud­ing the leg­endary Ah Leng Char Koay Teow ( Jalan Dato Ker­amet) and its rice noo­dles tossed in a charred wok with shrimp, cock­les, beaten duck egg and bean sprouts. It’s hard to leave with­out sam­pling more: On a re­cent visit, I’d just fin­ished a plate­ful of noo­dles when an­other ven­dor plied me with Chi­nese bar­be­cued meats with a South­east Asian-style dip of lime juice, shal­lot and fresh red chilies. Across town, spend a Sun­day strolling Penang Road, where peo­ple queue up for the fa­mous Teochew chen­dul, a sweet snack of shaved ice with co­conut milk, red beans and slip­pery green pan­dan noo­dles, and As­sam laksa, a brew of rice noo­dles, mack­erel, ta­marind, pineap­ple, chili and mint.

Then there are the res­tau­rants. On the edge of Lit­tle In­dia, an en­er­getic en­clave that runs from the his­toric cen­tre to the coast – which you should visit as much for the shop­ping as for the food – Ramzan ( 0060-4-261 4967) is the place for lunch, specif­i­cally the duck curry with spiced rice and cu­cum­ber. A five-minute walk north, Aik Hoe ( 0060-16-472 0971) is an old-school tea­house where dim sum is dis­played in enor­mous steam­ers on a counter at the back and fam­i­lies gather ev­ery day for break­fast or lunch. The Tek Sen Restau­rant ( 006012-981 5117) of­fers a com­pletely dif­fer­ent vibe: Packed to the rafters with trendy young lo­cals, it serves elec­tri­fy­ingly tasty Malaysian-Chi­nese food, in­clud­ing caramelised dou­ble-roasted pig with chilies and homemade tofu with scal­lops and prawns.

You can­not leave Penang with­out try­ing the lo­cal Per­anakan food, a fu­sion of Chi­nese, Malay and Thai cook­ing known as ny­onya. The fam­ily-run Perut Rumah ( 0060-4-227 9917) does it best. Get the otak-otak: fish cus­tard perked up with kaf­fir lime and chili, all steamed in a ba­nana leaf. When you’re rav­ing about Penang food back home, you’ll spare no de­tail on this dish. It’s the one you’ll crave most of all.

“You can not leave P en ang with­out try­ing the lo­cal Per ana kan

food, a fu­sion of Chi­nese, Ma lay and

Thai cook­ing”

Clock­wise from far left: Steamed pom­fret and wing-bean salad at Tek Sen Restau­rant; out­side the Eastern & Ori­en­tal Ho­tel, off the water­front; evening din­ers at TekSen Restau­rant; an old rick­shaw out­side The Blue Man­sion; cook­ing at Chowrasta mar­ket

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