Where in the world do you find the most food crazed population? My pick is Penang, an island off the peninsula of Malaysia. The people of Penang love to eat food, think about food, talk about food, plan around food and argue about food. They will go great distances and queue up for lengthy durations to get the best food. The priority is always the taste. They are happy to forego air-conditioned comfort, sit on plastic stools with rickety tables if it means getting the tastiest dishes. It is a culture that hospitality, generosity and affection are all demonstrated with food.
In my opinion, there are three factors that make the food of Penang so amazing. Simplistically, it boils down to diversity, specialisation and passion.
Firstly, Malaysia is a country where different races live side by side. The three most populous races are the Malays, the Chinese and the Indian people. There are many other smaller minority groups as well. Another group which are represented in Penang are the Peranakan Chinese, Baba-Nyonya or Straits Chinese. These are descendants from the Chinese immigrants that came to Malaysia many generations ago, as early as the 16th century. Due to their many generations of living in close proximity with the other races in Malaysia, Nyonya cuisine incorporates elements from the other cultures to form a cuisine which has a rich heritage, a distinctive combination of ingredients, delicious dishes and pungent flavours. More on Nyonya cuisine later in another post. The diversity of cultures in Penang leads to large diversity of great dishes.
Secondly, street food is huge in Penang. On every street corner, you will find hawker stands. Each hawker stand usually sells one kind of food or variations on the one kind of food. For example, a hawker may specialise in selling Hokkein Mee, a noodle soup dish with a prawn based broth. The hawker may have variations where you can choose to have more toppings on your noodles but it is still at its core, the same dish. Having to concentrate on one dish for income means that the hawkers are incentivised to improve and focus on making the best version of that dish as possible. This specialisation leads to immense deliciousness and for the best hawkers, queues of people waiting to buy their food and the ability to raise their prices due to the high demand.
Thirdly, the passion for tasty and delicious food by the people, drives improvements in taste and quality in the food scene. The people of Penang are a discerning bunch and they are always exchanging hot tips for the best food location. Before a meal is finished, discussion has usually already turned to the next meal and there would have been lengthy discourse during the meal about the merits of the dishes being eaten. I doubt that any shop selling bad food would survive for long in this kind of environment.
The result of all this food crazed madness is an island famed for amazing food. You can eat solidly for a week and not have to consume the same thing twice!
Let’s have a look at the delicacies I consumed when I visited Penang. I’ve broken it down into 2 categories, snack and meals.
Snacks are very popular in Penang. The culture is not to turn up empty-handed when visiting so visits by relatives and friends are usually accompanied with delicious goodies!
These tasty pancakes are called Ban Chang Kueh. They are pancakes which are usually filled with sweetened ground peanuts. For extra deliciousness, creamed corn can also be spooned into the centre. The result is an amazing textural and tasty bite with their crispy edges, soft and fluffy interior, a nutty, sweet filling as well as the creamy, slightly salty taste from the creamed corn. Bliss!!
This is another pancake snack. These are called Apom and are made from a batter which contains some coconut milk. Unlike Ban Chang Kueh, these are usually eaten without a filling. When these are fresh, they are flakey on the edges whilst being soft and fluffy in the centre.
These rather unattractive blobs are Tao Chang. They are part of a family of glutinous rice dumplings known as Chang in Malaysia. In China, they are known as Zongzi. They are wrapped in bamboo leaves usually in a pyramid shape where they are boiled. These are laborious to make, tricky to wrap and secured with string. Wrapping the Chang neatly and tightly is essential or else they will not survive the boiling process well. It is a bit of a dying skill. There are savoury Chang filled with marinated pork, mushroom, Chinese sausage, salted egg and/or bean as well as sweet Chang which are to be eaten with a sweet, fragrant, dark sugar syrup. Whilst these are addictively delicious, glutinous rice tends to sit in your stomach like a brick and greedy over-consumption will lead to a very uncomfortable few hours to follow!!
Onwards to two snacks which originated in India. Firstly, these delicious deep-fried morsels are called Vadai. These are a savoury, spicy, deep-fried snacks which originated in South India. Then we have Putu Mayong, a slightly salted, soft, vermicelli like snack which is eaten with desiccated coconut and brown sugar. The “strings” are made with rice flour and extruded on an overturned basket and then steamed.
This plate of yummy deep-fried titbits for dipping include Lor Bak, fried tofu and prawn fritters. Lor Bak is five spiced pork wrapped in thin beancurd sheets and deep-fried till golden brown. These are quite a Nyonya food delicacy and worth trying if you see it on the menu.
Ok, enough with the snacks. Let’s move on to the big hitters of the Penang hawker meals, starting with Penang Char Koay Teow.
Penang Char Koay Teow, is one of my most favourite dishes in the world. Char Koay Teow or Fried Koay Teow is a dish of flat rice noodles usually stir fried with bean sprouts, chilli, cockles, Chinese sausage and prawns. There are many versions of Char Koay Teow depending on the location but by far, the very best is the Penang Char Koay Teow. It’s more spicy, not too sweet and it has a smoky flavour imparted by the use of an extremely hot wok. Char Koay Teow is best fried in small portions. If you mention this dish to anyone in Penang, you will probably start a verbal stoush over the best source of this famous and much-loved dish. It’s not great for your waistline as traditionally pork lard is used for extra flavour but I think this dish is definitely worth those extra calories.
Another dish which is the pride of Penang is the famous Penang Assam Laksa. This is a Nyonya dish and is different from the coconut based curry Laksa that is more common. This has a tamarind and mackerel based broth. Together with the fragrant mint, crunchy cucumber, sweet/sour pineapple pieces and spicy chilli, you have a balanced, heady bowl of heaven.
So if a Laksa in Penang is has a tamarind broth, what if you want a bowl of the creamy, coconut curry type Laksa? Well in Penang, you have to order Curry Mee. This usually comes with “tau pok”, cuttlefish and coagulated blood. The best part of this dish is the “tau pok” which are tofu puffs. These absorb the delicious curry gravy like a sponge and then floods your mouth with this flavourful gravy as you bite into them.
Another popular dish is Penang Hokkein Mee. This is a noodle soup dish which combines yellow egg noodles and thin rice noodles with a spicy prawn broth. It is served with all kinds of toppings including prawns, pork and eggs. In this version I have pictured, it was topped with curls of pig skin. The hero of this dish is the broth which needs to be full flavoured and spicy.
If you don’t feel like a noodle soup dish, you could eat Chee Cheong Fun. This is a Cantonese dish and consists of steamed flat noodle rice rolls. Versions of this dish can be found at dim sum restaurants usually with a prawn or BBQ pork filling. In Penang, Chee Cheong Fun is eaten without filling but coated with a pungent concoction of sweet sauce, prawn paste and chilli sauce. Whilst this is nice, I prefer Chee Cheong Fun in the Cantonese style with a filling of prawns and a much lighter sauce.
When you’ve had too much greasy hawker food and need to give your digestion a break, rice porridge makes for a lovely lunch. Rice porridge is eaten across Asia with various toppings as a meal or as food specifically for young children, the elderly or the unwell. It’s simple to make and easy to digest because it is not greasy and can be eaten plain and unseasoned. For this meal, my creamy,rice porridge was topped with pieces of deep-fried dough, salted egg, century egg and spring onions. For me, this is very comforting food and feels therapeutic to eat when I’m unwell.
Now, on to the most shocking thing I ate whilst in Penang! I ate a bowl of soupy thin rice noodles and offal. This bowl contained pigs brains, liver, intestine, stomach and kidney. Oh, and also a few pork meatballs! It was quite good. The brains were still quite creamy!
I like that in every culture there are recipes and dishes which include all parts of the animal. Once upon a time, it was critical to eat everything to avoid wastage and possibly even starvation. Eating all parts is also very healthy, for example liver has very high iron content. We have become distant from the eating of offal these days. There are many offal based dishes from many different cultures and they are part of our food history. It would be tragic if they were lost due to some squemishness and a lack of a willingness to try.
Well, this was only some of the food that I enjoyed whilst in Penang. I will write another post about Nyonya cuisine shortly. I think that Penang has the most diverse, interesting and delicious street food scene in the world. Put on your elasticised shorts, visit Penang and eat! It’s a foodie heaven!