As anticipated, the food in Penang was uniformly delicious. Again, we ate only at hawker centres and very cheap local restaurants, where foreigners were a rarity. Doubtless, there is magical eating to be had in Penang if you pay a bit more – IF you know where to go. We didn’t, so we chased up local recommendations, with invariably excellent outcomes.
Well aware of Penang’s reputation as Malaysia’s centre of food par excellence, we wasted no time beginning our research, interrogating the taxi driver en route to our hotel. He recommended the Line Clear, a 24 hour Indian eatery favoured by locals, tucked away in an alley off Jl Penang, Georgetown’s main shopping street. Needless to say, we lunched there next day.
Line Clear, off Jl Penang (near Lebuh Chulia, from memory):
We took a punt on Roti John Ayam, which turned out to be halved baguette, crisp fried in beaten egg and served with curried chicken – disappointing on first sight, since we were expecting a variety of Indian roti, but our disquiet gave way to approving mmms from the first bite. Fresh lime juice was a perfect accompaniment, and much needed…Penang was up a few degrees on sweaty KL, and the Line Clear is not air conditioned.
Price: 6RM in total (a bit over $1 AUD each)
We slipped next door for desert to the less than friendly Yasmeen Restoran in Jl Penang. Their roti pisang (banana roti) was terrific (1.50RM, or around 65c AUD), and I had a wonderful fresh mango lassi for 2.50RM (90c AUD) to finish.
Hawker centre in Lg Baru, just off MacAlister Street:
This was a 2 minute walk from our hotel (The Sunway – highly recommended), and is reputedly one of Penang’s best hawker centres – that’s saying plenty! There’s a wiry old Chinese guy whose stall is on the corner of Baru and MacAlister, who works his wok like a navvy all night, and turns out magnificent Kway Teo Kak (flat noodles with fried glutinous cubes of rice, egg, and optionally, seafood). Worth travelling to this centre, just for this.
Price: about 3.50RM per serve ($1.25AUD)
The next stall along serves Eis Kacang, a favourite Malaysian desert featuring the unlikely match-up of shaved ice, coconut cream, sweet corn, rose syrup, red beans…you get the idea. Looked pretty, but we were glad we chose to share one, rather than ordering separately. Even for Westerners like us, embracing of Asian flavours and open to gastronomic exotica, this little number was, shall we say, atonal in its anomalous combo of ingredients.
Rubbing shoulders with the eis kacang stall was a coffee and tea hawker, a young bloke whose teh tarik making was an entertainment in itself. Teh tarik is basically sweetened tea, like Indian chai, but without the spices, and served hot, rather than warm. It is made by pouring boiling water through tea dust in the bottom of a large conical strainer of very fine gauge into a smaller open container, and adding both sweetened and unsweetened condensed milk. The tea is then “stretched” – that is, poured back and forth between containers held high and low by the tea maker, which oxygenates the brew, developing the flavour and producing a frothy head. The procedure is quite spectacular to watch if you haven’t seen it before. Teh tarik became a daily fix for us. Great after banana rotis for breakfast.
Nice duck rice at 4.5RM from a stall further down the road on the opposite side.
Surprisingly disappointing satay across the way; the meat, barbecued over hot coals, was as you’d expect, but the sauce was far too oily and lacked the usual zing and bite – and even the peanut exuberance – that is at the pleasure centre of any good satay. This was one of two disappointments during our stay in Penang.
The other was a pretty ordinary chicken biriyani and roti at Restoran Sup Hameed in Jl Penang – the first Lonely Planet restaurant recommendation that we followed up, and the last.
Finally, no serious food investigation of Penang is complete without sampling the famous local assam laksa which, in its chilli-fired combination of sourness and sweetness amidst an aromatic blend of spices and herbs, speaks of Penang’s proximity to Thailand. We got chatting to a charming Chinese lady, Cynthia, who runs a jewellery shop in the lobby of the Sunway Hotel, and on learning of our laksa quest, she very kindly dropped us off at a hawker stall in the small town of Air Itam, a few Kms out of Georgetown, that she recommended as serving “the best assam laksa in Penang” – ask the locals, and ye shall receive!
Air Itam market:
Cynthia had cautioned us against having the soup on an empty stomach due to its sourness (“assam” means sour). Dutifully, we ingested a very yummy pisang goreng (small, sweet banana battered and deep fried) and you tiao (fried dough) from a local hawker before fluking a couple of seats at one of a very few small tables next to the crowded stall Cynthia had pointed out as THE ONE.
We ordered a bowl of assam laksa each. They came filled to the brim with a thick soupy mix of fat round rice noodles, finely flaked fish, sprigs of fresh green herbs (mostly Vietnamese mint, I think), garlic, lemon grass and a symphony of spices, tamarind providing the signature sourness. And this baby packed a chilli wallop that had us – seasoned chilli heads – dripping sweat and gasping for cold liquid relief. It was the hottest chilli hit we had anywhere in Malaysia.
Price: assam laksa – 2.4RM per bowl (85c AUD); pisang goreng, you tiao – 1.2RM for both (about 25c AUD each).
Good though it was, I have to confess that assam laksa is not to my taste. I prefer the Melaka and Singapore varieties of laksa with which I am more familiar, still aromatic with spices and herbs and chilli hot, but smoothed out with coconut milk. Perhaps, though, I am merely another couple of bowls away from acquiring a taste for assam laksa – this hypothesis I hope to be testing on another Penang food safari not too many moons from now.
This endearing island is worthy of repeated visits for its food alone. If there is better value for food of this quality and diversity anywhere, I haven’t been there.