The food scene in Penang counts as one of Malaysia’s best, if not all of Southeast Asia’s. It’s not easy for the beginner to follow, though. You’ll need an expert to help you decipher the ways of the kopitiam (coffee shop), figure out the difference between nasi lemak and nasi kandar, and decide which street corner dining stop (of which there are many in Penang) deserves your limited free time.
In short, having someone like Mark Ng on your side can be pretty handy when in Penang.
Mark is one of the co-founders of Simply Enak (www.simplyenak.com), a Malaysia-based travel service that takes hungry travelers on tours of Kuala Lumpur and Penang’s most flavor-filled food precincts. Having grown up in a shophouse near George Town’s Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street), Mark knows the local food haunts like the back of his hand – making him the ideal evangelist for the island’s massive culinary spread.
“This is what Penang is all about, not just the nice prewar buildings,” Mark tells us proudly, as we wait for our order of kway teow in a family-run kopitiam. “I want to share this trade, these people – this is how Penang is, not the newly refurbished cafés run by teenagers.”
The people Mark refers to are the tireless Penangite hawkers working all over the island, producing affordable, traditional Malaysian street food at all times of the day. Taste their products, Mark tells us, and you get plugged straight into Penang’s history and culture as well.
“What makes George Town is because of these people – how we have evolved, living together. Here the Chinese, Indian, Malay and all the other races chose to live in harmony, and you see the influence of food culture on each other.”
We make our first stop at Lam Ah, a nondescript kopitiam at the junction of Lebuh Chulia and Lebuh Pantai. Its humble appearance belies its reputation for serving some of the best oh chien (crispy oyster omelets) and kway teow (beef noodles) in Penang.
“Beach” Street (the original name of Lebuh Pantai, and its translation into English) used to demarcate the southeastern coastline of George Town, until reclamation works in the 1880s expanded the city to the present-day Weld Quay. Lam Ah sits across from Penang’s Central Fire Station (“Balai Bomba”), a three-storey structure built in 1908.
Thanks to the nearby landmark, most Penangites don’t call the kopitiam by its proper name, Mark tells me. “The place has been here for a while, a good 15, 20 years,” he says. “By name, people just don’t remember it. But if you tell anyone, ‘oh, the beef noodle across the fire station,’ everybody knows immediately!”
Mark’s personal ties to the kopitiam keep him coming back – the matron running the drinks stall welcomes him by name, and he tells me later that the lady is the mother of a good friend. “She’s the owner of the place,” Mark confides.
Their running the drinks stall is typical of the usual kopitiam setup: “The main tenant usually runs the drinks station, but they sublet out the stalls and every month they collect rent,” Mark explains. “Some places take a percentage of your earnings. That’s how it works.”
First on the agenda: a tall, frosty glass of nutmeg juice. Penang is one of the few places in the world to make a drink out of this popular spice, and the icy tartness of this milky-beige libation is perfect for the Penang heat. (The single seed floating in the drink is not nutmeg, though, it’s a garnish of sour plum.)
To accompany the juice, we get a platter of oh chien, a crisp rice-flour pancake impregnated with chives, egg, and oyster. A garlic-chili sambal dip is served alongside. Every bite yields a burst of flavor from the oysters, complemented by the zing of the sambal.
Lam Ah’s beef kway teow (not to be confused with char kway teow) is high on many Penangites’ lists of favorite foods. You’d expect more hawkers selling this stuff, but beefkway teow is surprisingly rare in these parts. That’s because many Penang Chinese venerate Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy; as her earthly father had been reincarnated as a cow, Kuan Yin devotees abstain from beef out of principle. (Source)
Lam Ah’s beef kway teow comes in large bowls filled with yellow noodles, pinkish and tender beef slices, white meatballs, and tripe, drowned in a murky but fragrant beef stock and topped with fried garlic bits and coriander.
You can even request additional innards, but Mark doesn’t think it contributes anything of value: “the stomach, veins, arteries, to be honest, it doesn’t really add anything, unless you like it chewy,” he explains. “The parts have already done their job, which is to go into the stock, that’s where you get the flavor.”
The dish has long been a family specialty, Mark tells me – the current proprietor’s father used to make and sell beef noodles near his grandmother’s place. When the hawkers sold the old place and moved, their loyal clientele moved with them.
“If your favorite vendors move, you find out where they go and you follow,” Mark tells me. “You’re connected to them! There’s a bonding right there that you just don’t want to disrespect by going to other vendors.”
Where to find Lam Ah Kopitiam: Junction of Lebuh Chulia and Lebuh Pantai (location on Google Maps)
Another day, another lunch adventure – Mark decides we should see the fusion of Chinese ingredients with Indian sensibilities first-hand. Off we drive to the junction of Jalan Burmah and Bangkok Lane, where Seng Lee Café serves its famous mee goreng.
The street names reflect the area’s history as settlements for immigrant Burmese and Thai in Penang. A reclining Buddha can be found on the next lane over, at the Wat Chaiyamangkalaram temple, but Bangkok Lane itself is worth a visit if only for the twin rows of pre-war semi-detached houses that span the length of the road.
As with Lam Ah’s second-generation kway teow hawkers, Seng Lee Café’s mee goreng makers represent the offspring of the original: Mahboob Zakaria took over the mee goreng business from his father, who started selling their Indian-flavored fried noodles over 80 years ago. With Mahboob’s son assisting the father, the mee goreng tradition looks set to continue into the foreseeable future.
“Mee” is the local word for noodles; “goreng” means fried (nasi goreng is fried rice). Mee goreng is traditionally Chinese, but Mahboob Zakaria’s mee goreng is about as “mamak”, or Indian-Muslim, as they come.
The mee’s bright red gravy is impregnated with uniquely Indian spices I can’t place by the flavor alone, enriched with vada, or Indian fritters; dried cuttlefish; bean sprouts; eggs; and potato. The noodles are served with a slice of lime on the side, which you’re supposed to squeeze over everything before you dig in.
Where to find Seng Lee Cafe: 270 Jalan Burma, Penang (location on Google Maps)
The “Seven Street District” in the south of George Town also contains within it one of the city’s largest hawker centers at Cecil Street Market; Mark steers us there in the afternoon, just as the stalls within the hawker center are hitting their stride.
The Cecil Street Market is a “wet” market – the stalls here sell freshly butchered meat, fresh vegetables, and newly-caught fish. For visitors looking for a more “local” shopping experience, the Cecil Street Market is a godsend: no fake DVDs or kitschy souvenirs here, just household items, exotic local produce, and plenty of comfort hawker food.
Our tummies are still preoccupied with digesting the noodles we’d just devoured earlier, so Mark orders up some lighter fare. First came a sesame-seed-sprinkled dough fritter, then a plate of orange and white pasembur – a salad made of julienned jicama, fried tofu bits, and a gravy made from liquefied squash. Its initial resemblance to noodles quickly dissipated as I took a bite – the crunchy jicama and the lightly spicy gravy quickly tell the eater that this is more of a salad than a savory.
Where to find Cecil Street Market: Junction of Cecil & McNair Streets (location on Google Maps)
For our evening meal, Mark decides to kick it up a notch: we move off the streets and into Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery, a restaurant specializing in Peranakan cuisine.
This cooking discipline – as with the rest of Peranakan culture, a harmonious melding of Chinese and Malay sensibilities – represents the historic intermarriage of ethnicities that could only have happened in Malaysia. After all, “this is the place where Peranakan was born,” Mark tells me.
The restaurant itself – located at the corner of Beach and Bishop streets, within the main Penang business district – takes care to evoke the “olden days” but only just. The interiors bear a hint of retro décor, with an old-style bike at the shop window, an intricately tiled floor, and marble-topped tables from another era.
It’s an ideal setting for the Peranakan home cooking dished out by Auntie Gaik Lean. First, Mark orders for us a platter of loh bak, or chicken wrapped in a beancurd skin before being fried. The skin is a byproduct of tofu processing – “when the bean ferments, the top layer creates a sheet, and that’s the one they take out and dry,” Mark explains to us.
Next comes poh pheah chee, Peranakan spring rolls containing “carrots, jicama, yam meat, French beans, tofu, egg, that’s it,” as Mark tells us. The dish comes with a side dip of chili sauce, only delicately spiced.
The Peranakan certainly didn’t invent nasi ulam, but they certainly perfected it. The phrase translates to “rice with raw vegetables” – the Malays first thought of combining rice with locally-grown greens, and the Peranakan made it their own by changing up the ingredients to suit their tastes.
Auntie Gaik Lean’s version of nasi ulam is a busy blend of rice and “different kinds of spices, leaves, herbs – kaffir lime leaf, shallots – and shrimp paste,” Mark explains to us. “You have turmeric [adding the] yellow color.”
Mark has attempted this in his own kitchen, and it’s not easy, with all these finely chopped, julienned, and shredded ingredients – “it’s hard work! I’ve tried making this so many times,” Mark says. “Not even all Peranakan restaurants serve this. I think this is one of the better ones.”
Where to find Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery: 1 Lebuh Bishop, George Town, Penang (location on Google Maps), open Monday to Saturday 11am to 2:30pm; 6pm to 9:30pm
We conclude the evening by ducking into ChinaHouse (chinahouse.com.my) on Lebuh Pantai, a one-stop shop for Penang visitors looking for a late-night tipple, a midnight coffee, and shots of contemporary Penang culture.
The ChinaHouse complex is the longest restaurant in all of Penang, comprising three heritage buildings leading out to a central courtyard, strung together for a total length of about 400 feet. The entrance at 155 Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street) starts you off at “Kopi-C”, the coffeehouse section; the entrance at 183B Lebuh Victoria starts you off at the Canteen, a hipster bar and live music space.
All combined, ChinaHouse contains 14 different spaces, including a bookshop, art gallery, several cafes, restaurants, and a bakery. It’s an ideal end to a whole day’s worth of exploring Penang’s variegated culinary scene: starting with traditional hawker fare on the streets, venturing onto the market and into the Peranakan kitchen, and finally laughing over wine in a contemporary Penang space that couldn’t get more “now” if you tried.
Where to find ChinaHouse: 155 Lebuh Pantai, Penang, Malaysia (location on Google Maps)