When we visited Penang back in August, we were blown away by the vibrancy of the place, particularly the food! If you remember, we ate our way through most of the places mentioned in a blog called EatingAsia. Well, this year, my ambitions were the same – to my mind, Penang has the best food in Malaysia. However, we had a problem.
If you remember, back in February I developed gastritis which has since curtailed my gastronomic activity. Sadly, the things that make Malaysian food so scrummy are the very foods that the wise nutritionist I called on to help told me to avoid – chilli, fresh garlic and fresh ginger, among other things. Six weeks ago, the only foods that did not hurt my tum were bananas, white rice and porridge.
Last weekend, in Penang again, I managed to go to restaurants, drink wine and beer and discover a new favourite food – nutmeg!
Cecilia, a great Swedish friend, fellow writer, and now my nutritionist, came to my aid and I soon learned that there were more things to local ingredients than I had thought. Drumroll please, for the coconut. Coconut oil replaced my olive oil, coconut milk replaced my cream and with fresh turmeric available, herbs grown in the Genting Highlands and lemon grass costing pennies a bunch, I was soon inventing delicious recipes that made me happy to cook and eat.
Ian has a new toy – an SLR camera – and this time we decided to stay in the centre of Georgetown, which is a UNESCO heritage site. Instead of a modern skyscraper hotel we opted for a converted Chinese shophouse. Ours was called Seven Terraces and has just 18 rooms created round a large central courtyard and made out of a row of shophouses . Apparently, there are over 4,000 such buildings left in Penang and the law forbids any change to their facades (apart from street art, it appears). As a result, the city gets more breathtakingly beautiful every time we visit.
The week before we left I was telling my friend Lucy about the trip. “You have to eat at the Seven Terraces,” she said. “Be sure to book but it is the best food in town.”
And so we booked.
On the way over to Penang I received a text from my friend, Beryl. “Don’t eat at the Seven Terraces,” she wrote. “My friend is from Penang and she says you eat better food outside.”
Oh well, now we’d booked and we weren’t going to unbook.
Lucy was right. The food was outstanding and unusual too. Who cares whether it had been modified for tourist palates, if it had, I didn’t notice. What I do know is that I’d never eaten betel leaf stuffed with roe and crabmeat before but now long to do so again. My passionfruit and coconut panacotta was heavenly and I couldn’t swear to the fact that Ping had not made almost exactly that dessert when she won UK Masterchef last year. With a residential pianist and violinist to entertain us, I could have eaten there every night.
But the purpose of this trip was not simply food. We wanted to take photographs and wander, visit a few sites and really get to know a place that had already enveigled its way under my skin.
Walking anywhere in Georgetown is slow. Sure, it’s darn hot, but the main reason for the slowness is not the heat, it’s the fact that, as Ian said, “there is a photo opportunity every five paces.” With street art in unexpected places, trendy cafés, shutters and facades spruced up and painted in the most luscious Farrow and Ball colours I would eat the buildings too if I could.
The Blue Mansion, owned by the so-called Rockefeller of the East, Cheong Fatt Tze, is bluer and tastier than that disgusting tasting Smurf-raspberry ice cream they persist on selling in the Netherlands.
It was built on the principles of Feng Shui, facing the sea and has five courtyards allowing wind to circulate and water to flow from the sky into pools and out through a kind of gutter called a ‘moneyhole’. Blue is not usually considered an auspicious colour to the Chinese, being the colour of death, but Cheong Fatt Tze’s astrologer advised him to use it, so he did to dramatic effect. Bang in the centre of the house, in the middle of the main courtyard the chi is said to be strongest. I stood there. I felt it. It was as if someone were stretching my cheeks. Ian said he felt a flow of warmth.
Whether you believe in this or not, no one can deny that, even with seven wives, Rockefeller must’ve made an impressive income. The mansion is now also open as an hotel and is part of the Samadhi group. It is also, incidentally, the second most beautiful mansion in the world, according to a traveller survey.
Inspired by a recent TV programme, in which cookery writer and presenter, Rachel Khoo, visited Khoo Kongsi, her family’s clan house and temple, we headed on over there too only to discover that this intricate and ornate building is apparently the best to be found outside China.
Picking what else to do in the three nights and four days we had available was tough. I reckon there must be 100 things to do there and that we need to return repeatedly to what has been voted the seventh most liveable city in the world by Employment Conditions Abroad.
In short, this trip, we opted for a drive round the island, for a beer in front of the sunset,
a trip to the seven storey pagoda Kek Lok Si, which means Temple of Supreme Bliss and is said to be the largest in South East Asia.
a trip to another mansion, this time a green one, and home to the Peranakan museum. Peranakan is the name given to the descendents of the Chinese immigrants, who came here in the 15th to 17th centuries and is also known as Straits Chinese
ate a delicious lunch in another award-winning converted shophouse, where, keen to be considerate to my tum, I ordered something I had never heard of – nutmeg juice.
It was spicy and sweet and sour all at the same time and reminded us very strongly of the Chapman’s Sodas we used to enjoy in Dubai, made from soda, angostura and lime.
I already knew nutmeg was good for the digestion and was delighted with my discovery. Later, we found a Chinese healthfood store and discovered you can buy it in red and white varieties, candied, made into sour sweets, dried and as an oil you can rub on your tum to get rid of excess wind.
A few steps later and I saw the fruits fresh and sold by the boxload. Apparently Penang is the centre of the nutmeg industry so a visit to the farm is definitly going on our next trip list. Just look at these nutmegs. The red lace of mace wrapping the nut like the cawl that envelops a newborn. The outer fruit, bursting like ripe conker shells is where the juice is extracted. That evening, on our last night in the city we decided to try a cocktail in the hotel bar. The Georgetown Cooler was made from, guess what? Nutmeg, lime, grenadine, soda and gin! What could be more perfect?