Three of my closest friends' families are from Penang, so over the years, I have listened to many a rave about the food. Penang-ites always (I am sure that others will attest to this) insist that Penang has the best food in Malaysia. I was intrigued, but always remained skeptical, as is my nature. I had visited Penang once many years ago, but simply cannot recall anything about the trip. So I had to wait patiently until November 2011, when an opportunity (reason) to travel to Penang presented itself.
I always prefer being shown around a new place by a local (or at least someone who has lived there like a local). Unfortunately, none of my Penang-rooted friends were travelling with me on this trip, but luckily, J, who was, had been to Penang often enough to know her way around to some decent eats.
After the long drive from KL to Penang and a short stop at the Snake Temple, we went to Joo Hooi Cafe and ended up having (in retrospect) the best meal that we had in Penang.
Cendol: Excellent. Exactly the right combination of flavours and textures - green, pandan flavoured jelly noodles and sweet, soft, red beans covered with shaved ice, doused in mild, creamy coconut milk, and palm sugar syrup. Slurping mouthfuls of this delicious icy "dessert" in the cool, dark, old-fashioned kopitiam was the perfect relief from the sweltering tropical, midday heat.
Nasi Lemak: A very traditional preparation of a local favourite. These packets were left on the tables for people to help themselves - just the they were in the old days (and still are in this place!). Pretty good - especially the all-important sambal.
Char Kuay Teow: Delicious. Well charred. Nice smokey flavour. Lots of tasty chinese sausages, prawns and chunks of fried egg. Brilliant and oh-so-satisfying.
Asam Laksa: Best asam laksa. Ever. Never seen/had asam laksa with broth this thick with fish. Packed a helluva flavour punch. 'Piquant' must have been invented just to describe asam laksa. Words would not do this dish justice - it's just one of those things you have to taste.
457 Jalan Penang
S gave me a long list of things that I had to try in Penang, but alas there was just more food than I had the time or capacity to eat. Thus, I did not get to sample the two things that I was really looking foward to: nasi kandar and kuay chap (Wikipedia: "a Teochew dish of flat, broad rice sheets in a soup made with dark soy sauce, served with pig offal, braised duck meat, various kinds of beancurd, preserved salted vegetables, and braised hard-boiled eggs"). Next time.
Penang is also supposed to be known for its prawn noodles, which is my absolute favourite. Since I'd always been told that the prawn mee in Penang is outstanding, and that nothing in KL ever measured up, I was curious. How much better can it be? My family had been going to the same prawn noodle stall in Setapak since I was a child and I have never had better prawn noodles anywhere else. The broth was dark, rich, spicy and deliciously "prawny", the pork ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender and the prawns were large and meaty (albeit overcooked). I loved this place and had to get my fix whenever I was back home. Sadly, the stall was closed for the duration of my last two trips home, and I fear that something has happened to the old lady who ran the stall - who incidentally also reminded me very much of my grandmother.
So, of course I asked my Penang-ite friends to direct me to what they thought were the best prawn noodles places. One told me that (in Penang), "they are all good". I defied her and managed to find putrid, bland, watery, pathetic excuses for this dish at two different locations; once at the hawker centre near Holiday Inn at Batu Ferringhi, where the heads of the completely peeled, grainy, stale prawns were stuck back on for presentation, and once at Gurney Drive. I was peeved, to say the least, especially since my go-to prawn noodle place in KL for 20 years is no more and I don't know if I will ever have prawn noodles like that again.
The following day, we took our food quest to the market (near Joo Hooi Cafe). J's theory is that 'market food' is always the best, and I think she may be right. Pictured above (clockwise from the top left corner) are the very tasty chai tau kuay, blah curry noodle thing and surprisingly delicate and well flavoured chee cheong fun that we had (you may remember more refined versions of these dishes from my post about having dim sum in Hong Kong).
Pictured below is another of my favourite Malaysian goodies. The anglicised name for it these days is "butterfly" because it is often shaped in two strips and looks like a most inelegant butterfly. I call it 'beh huay zhee' because that's what my parents called it in Hokkien. For the uninitiated, it hails from the same 'fried dough' family as the 'yew cha kway' and they are often sold together. This 'beh huay zhee' was without a doubt the best that I'd ever tasted. Beautifully stiff, crisp, sweet, nutty flavoured exterior, with a nice, light, chewy centre. Also smelt almost as blissful as it tasted!
PS: On the drive back from Penang to KL, we paused at the rest stop at Sungai Perak that is apparently famous for fruits. Indeed, I'd never seen a rest stop with as many fruit stalls. I found my elusive perfect mango (another weakness of mine) at a random stall here. Perfect firmness, sweet and slightly sourish, just the way I like it. It was delicious and possibly worth the 3 hour drive from KL, if I could be assured that I would always get them like that. I ate a whole mango right in front of the stall (the nice lady peeled and sliced them for me) and bought another (maybe two...) for the road. They disappeared in about 10 minutes. Ah, mango amour...
R and R Sg Perak