Malaysian Heritage on a Plate

Disclaimer: I am not a foodie, not in the truest sense of the word. I don’t really enjoy the process of creating meals. No sense of smell and a limited palate make it difficult for me to really reveal in all the sensory delights cuisines have to offer. I can cook, and I definitely enjoy eating, but what I enjoy even more is being fed. In Penang, I was fed.

Having sated my desire for Western foods in Kuala Lumpur I moved on to Penang because of its foodie culture. Situated 365 km from KL and listed as one of THE Islands to visit, explore and eat on before you die, I wanted to discover new and exciting dishes and taste new things. Malaysian food is a fusion of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian tastes and textures that are all new to me. I couldn’t find anything even remotely similar to my British experiences of these foods, and I really didn’t want to either. This was the real deal.

My first new discovery was breakfast. I set out on my first morning in search of a way to break my fast that didn’t involve airport food like the day before. Just up the jalan (street) from my hostel was a row of heritage shophouses, all kitted out as cafes. After a brief reccy and a moment’s hesitation, I chose the busiest one, which had some females eating in it. Cafés in Asia seem to be male dominated, a place to meet and set the world to rights (at least in Myanmar) and I didn’t want to blunder into an awkward situation. Of course, I was welcomed with open arms and invited to take a seat at a melamine-coated wooden table in the center of the long, thin room. The place had a faded air about it with old newspaper clippings on the wall, and scratched plastic seats, but it also felt homely. When I asked about breakfast I was told I could have toast, a boiled egg and tea or coffee. I marveled at how simple it sounded and plumped for tea. While my order was taken through to the kitchen out-back I was entertained by a gentleman on a nearby table who told me the ‘history’ of the ‘antique’ table I was seated at. Apparently a tycoon had wanted it and had bartered a price for it, only to die before he could own it. His young companion was laughing while the man told his story but I played along and we chatted for a while. It was only after he had left that I noticed one of the newspaper cuttings on the wall mentioned a tycoon in its headlines…

Another gentleman, possibly the owner, came and placed a plastic plate before me with four brown paper parcels on it. These parcels seemed to be on every table. ‘Try it’. He grunted. On further investigation I discovered that the package held a banana leaf containing a curried rice mixture and a small piece of fish. I was halfway through it when my original breakfast order arrived. Of course, it wasn’t as straightforward as I had imagined. My tea was made using condensed milk but I had gotten used to that in Myanmar. My toast was sweet, filled with butter and coconut jam, and my boiled egg was so runny it came in a cup! And it was all really nice. I added pepper and soy to the egg, dipped in my toast and managed to devour the whole lot very quickly. I didn’t quite manage to finish the nasi lemak, as I learnt to name it, and I was asked if it was too spicy. It wasn’t, but curry for breakfast, accompanied by more sweetness than I’d eaten in a month had become a bit much. I was given a quick lesson in Nasi Lemak varieties (there’s also prawn, chicken and lamb on each plate) and then I paid a whole 4RM for it (approx.. 70p or $1). Amazing!

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Breakfast.

My next experience was the Heritage on a Plate walking tour. I’d found this on TripAdvisor and booked to join a group to do a tour around the old-quarter, Georgetown, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I wish I could regale you with all the names of the different things we tried but I’m going to have to confess I couldn’t retain half of them, and my ability to grasp any ASEAN language is pretty poor. I find things really hard to pronounce, and therefore remember. But I know I enjoyed it! I certainly tried everything: mango lassi, ambarella (which is a sour and salty plum juice), Chinese fried foods including tofu, prawn, crab cakes and sausage, an Indian omelet thing (see what I mean about remembering names!) in both beef and chicken, a wonton noodle soup, pancakes and puthu. I even tried a century egg! (Eggs that are preserved in a clay/ash/quicklime coating for months until the yolk turns grey and the white becomes a sort of brown jelly. Yum!) The only thing I didn’t like was puthu. It is a dry rice pudding served with grated coconut and a special brown sugar that reminded me of molasses. Now, while I drink coconut water and eat coconut curries, since a child I have always hated it on its own. It may be a texture thing, but the whole combination was wrong! The rest of the experience however, was lovely, and gave me greater confidence to try street food and enter local eateries.

I haven’t done that so well in Myanmar. Mostly because many of the places don’t look clean and also because the food, which either seems fried or watery, looks unappetizing and beige. Additionally, on the few occasions when I have tried the traditional food, I have been very sick afterwards, while others that shared the meal with me remained perfectly well. It makes me think that there is an ingredient, maybe a spice or possibly the oil, that is habitually used, that doesn’t agree with me.

I had no such reservations in Penang though. The following day, I revisited the Tang Bistro, the starting point for the food tour and a heritage café/ hotel, to indulge my need for chocolate brownies (with ice-cream). Before that I had also had a curried lamb wrap that was simply superb and a calamansi freeze. Not so street or heritage, but very nice and an indication that anything goes regarding food here, as long as you enjoy it.

In the evening, I wandered until I found the hub of Chinatown’s street food. There, a nice vendor introduced me to the concept of choosing and cooking my own skewers of clams, tofu, chicken and mushrooms (and lots more besides) by dipping them in boiling water, then, when cooked, smothering them with satay and sweet or hot chili sauce. As a rule, I don’t generally mix sauces, if I have them at all (my limited palate means sauces make everything taste the same!) but I went with it and actually, I started to enjoy it! As an appetiser, it was good, and I devoured it on the street with relish. To pay, he counted the colour-coded sticks I handed to him and I handed over a ridiculously tiny sum for a plate full of seafood!

Moving on to another part of the street, I chose seafood fried noodles and sat at a table to wait for my meal. These are hawker stalls, meaning the table is owned by one person, who will supply you with a drink that you pay for on delivery. Then, your food will be delivered by a young hawker from whichever food stalls you’ve visited, and you’ll pay them on delivery too. The noodles were good, which I duly told the owner when he enquired! I looked for a pancake stall to finish, but was sadly unable to find one, so I walked home in the rain, full up, on about £2 worth of good food.

On another evening, I visited Little India and indulged in a chicken biryani claypot and lots of mango lassi. Delicious!

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My view while eating a tasty biryani.

On Penang Hill (really not worth a visit) I tried Char Koay Teow, which is an iconic dish of garlic, prawns, noodles, egg and cockles. It was whipped up before my eyes in a little food court at the top of the hill and was consumed just as quickly. The beauty of street food is, of course, watching the creation of your meal. Chefs have choreographed a rhythmic ballet of chopping, stirring, swirling and serving that creates art on many different levels before your eyes. It is beautiful, and mouth watering!

At Miami Beach, around Batu Ferringhi, at a tiny roadside stall, on a sliver of land between the road and the sea (there was no beach, the tide was in!), I was offered Laksa, a spicy soup with thick noodles that warmed me right up after getting drenched in an unexpected downpour in the nearby National Park.

In fact, wherever I went, a vast array of foods was available to me, and I really didn’t hold back. In fact, my only difficulty was in deciding what I wanted to eat each day. And, before you call me a pig, I should point out that portions are not large in Malaysia. Nothing is supersized here. There is enough to satisfy but not so much that you can’t walk on a little further and try something else if the fancy takes you.

It has been an education. I have been very well fed and had my enthusiasm for food renourished thanks to my Penang trip. My only regrets are not staying longer, and eating more!

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