It’s 25 years since Ian and I last came to Penang and our memories of this island off the west coast of Malaysia are scant. We do however remember eating satay on the promenade and the E & O Hotel where we stayed. That stay is particularly memorable because it was while lounging by their pool that I first started reading a book called Do What You Love and the Money Follows and began my quest for a portable career. That seminal moment is, I believe, the beginning of Career in Your Suitcase, now in its fourth edition. But like I said, I remembered the satay…
This time, instead of taking a long haul flight here we drove. In our own car. With our sons, now aged 21 and 23. The journey took four hours. This time we actually live in Malaysia and this time we were older and wiser about what we should do here. This is partly due to the fact that I did some research. I asked my friends for recommendations and studied the work of a food blogger living in Penang who writes a blog called EatingAsia. Thanks to Robyn we have walked down streets we would never otherwise have found and eaten some of the best food so far in Malaysia.
On our first evening it was hawker food we were after and for the first and only time did not rely on any recommendations before heading out. Instead we made for an area off Jalan Macalister where we could get the local rice noodle dish that has prawns, cockles, bean sprouts and eggs, called char kway teow, which means cooked rice strips. We arrived at about 8 pm and it was heaving with people, all sitting at tin or plastic tables on the pavements before selecting dishes from a variety of handcarts. I don’t think we found the best purveyor of the dish but it was tasty enough.
The following day we had learned our lesson and decided that we’d only eat in recommended places. Lunch was at the International Hotel towards the top of Jalan Transfer. Canteen style, it was definitely not the sort of place we’d ever have dared try without a recommendation despite the fact that it was packed with locals eating with their fingers and there was not a spare table in sight. We’d heard about the gado gado and the eggplant and pineapple curry and ventured inside. I ordered hot ginger tea and when it came it had the perfect kick and sweetness. Suddenly, everyone else wanted one. Josh went off to collect a few random dishes from the buffet for us to try and returned with a delicious tempeh and bean stew and deep fried fish stuffed with raw onion. Ian picked out some gado gado and I chose what looked liked runner bean and chilli. Sam got something with chicken. We hardly noticed when a man with a notepad stood beside us and made a note of all the items on our table and created our bill. It was £5 for the lot and utterly delicious, particularly the gado gado though that tempeh is something I love more with every dish.
We’d already read about Line Clear, the place Anthony Bourdain the chef and food presenter has visited each time he’s been in Penang and went to take a look at this busy buffet located in an alleyway at the top of Jalan Pinang. But we really weren’t hungry and decided to explore a rather good clothes shop next door called Sam’s instead. With the E & O a stone’s throw away we had to pop in for old times’ sake and a welcome blast of air conditioning. It was more beautiful than ever and I wished they’d not been full, frankly. I’d have loved to stay there again.
Later, it was time for my friend Marta’s recommendation of China House that run between Lebuh Victoria and Lebuh Pantai (aka Beach). Two Chinese shophouses, narrow as Dutch terraces and paneled with wood are linked by a tranquil courtyard and, on a Sunday, were filled with happy people eating cake. Their cake table is renowned for how it groans beneath 32 homemade concoctions filled with such delights as coconut and passionfruit, chocolate and walnut and all three tiers high. But I am a sucker for salty caramel and so the four of us squeezed round a table for two and dug into two cakes and an ice cream between us before exploring the art exhibitions upstairs and dropping in on a lecture by a Natonal Geographic photojournalist. This is a marvelously quirky venue, dripping with arty types of every nationality. Run by the Australian who owns supposedly the best restaurant on Langkawi, called Bon Ton, the food and the ambience here were fabulous.
We’d already had a hotel breakfast, that splendid lunch and cake but we were in Penang and when you are here you just have to eat, and so it was with no appetite that we spent a weary hour searching for one of Robyn’s recommendations for dinner.
Tek Sen, on Jalan Carnarvon. Boy, did we have difficulty finding it and it was 8.30 by the time it was our turn to join the queue that snaked into the street. This time a number of tables were filled with foreigners like us. We were the last lucky people that night as the closed sign was erected right behind us. Phew!
“How come you know about this place? Normally only local people know,” a guy in the queue asked me, so I told them about Eating Asia.
“What do you recommend we eat?” I asked.
“Anything,” he said.
They took our food order while we waited and it was there at our table by the time we sat down. The assam fish tumis was a triumph and this time Ian did get his aubergine dish, that had been cooked in a claypot with tiny delicious nuggets of minced pork. We also chose some kankung (morning glory) cooked with garlic as we have now learned that we don’t much like the fishiness of the local’s choice of belacan to spice it. Suddenly, our stomachs made space for the delights in front of us but magically, after we had eaten we did not feel bloated.
My tastebuds were still having a party from that fish tumis as they started to clear away the tables and stools. A man wearing a big smile and a grey apron appeared beside us. He looked satisfied with a job well done. He must have been the chef and so we thanked him for our meal and asked why it made us feel so good.
“All fresh ingredients,” he said. “No powder.”
“But what was in the fish tumis?” I asked, wishing I’d brought a notebook.
“Galangal, lemon grass, shallots, chilli, ginger, turmeric, ginger flower,” he said, searching his internal dictionary for more words. I think he may have tried to say tamarind.
Today, our eating fest continued, with a trip to the Tropical Spice Garden, recommended by my friend Jen. Now it was our turn to see all the spices we had so happily been eating in the ground, growing. Our guide, Choo, had learned so much about Chinese Traditional Medicine, the balancing of yin and yang and the medicinal properties of the 500 species on the lush slopes of the garden that our one hour two took two and a half, ending with a cup of hot cat’s whisker tea, supposedly reviving and good for high blood pressure. They have a rather good gift shop where we spent rather a lot of money on a range of irresistible items from cat’s whisker tea to cookbook that gave us a recipe for tumis.
Jen had said the Tree Monkey café there was very good too, so of course we stayed for lunch, which was an extremely good selection of Thai curries and pineapple rice. They were, inevitably, beautifully spiced. My nutmeg soda was yummy and refreshing with the hit of ginger, though I am assured it was made from nothing but sweet nutmeg juice and soda.
Back in George Town we had one more must-do on our list, courtesy of Robyn at EatingAsia again. This time it was to try cendol. Her instructions for finding the best in town involved finding the third cart on the left up Jalan Burma. Well, Jalan Burma is quite a long street and we had no idea at which end we needed to start. But today, opposite the Asia Camera Museum (which is actually very good by the way as we visited yesterday) we found a solitary cart selling this sweet gloopy dessert that I had often seen around and thought looked lurid, synthetic and unappetizing. But there beside her turquoise cart stood a ring of smiling locals, scooping sloppy stuff into their mouths. It had to be done.
“Best in town,” said one of the locals standing there clearly delighted that foreigners were braving this local delicacy. “She’s been here fifty years. Very good.”
It seemed we’d struck oil. Cendol is basically a mound of shaved ice, bright green worms of rice noodles, coconut milk, red beans and palm sugar. It looks pretty disgusting and eats a bit like minestrone soup, full of bits that slop back into the soup and splash your face. But Robyn was right, this one is butterscotchy and surprisingly delicious. And so, today, as I write this, we are breakfast, lunch and a snack into the day and soon to head out to dinner again. It’s our last night here and there is only one place to go – back to Tek Sen.