Diggin’ In-to Penang
Once into a prolonged period of ‘vacation,’ one’s sense of time is completely thrown to the wind. While my ever present watch always ensured I knew the hour, the concept of days of the week, or a day of the month was forgotten. And, for most of March and my time in Malaysia, I operated this way. The only way to mark days/time was to recount the meals that were had. Luckily, Maylasia (and particularly Penang) is a culinary dream come true. I had entered food heaven.
I arrived in Penang late, after several van trips that took me from Pak Bara pier in Satun Province, to Hat Yai, across the border, and finally back to the west coast, this time of Malaysia. It seemed wrong to impose on my couch surfing host at such an hour, so I found myself spending the night in the broom cupboard underneath the stairs at a rickety local guest house. With my dark brown hair now long and wild after a week or so at the beach and my thick rimmed glasses on to give my eyes a break from contacts, I felt like Harry Potter. The lights reflecting on black puddles framed in the brick pavement, the melancholy drizzle, and the dilapidated old trade houses of Georgetown’s China Town (and traveler’s road), covered in dirt and suit and besieged by vines, made up a neighborhood that was a real life version of Diagon Alley and I truly felt as if I was in a fictional place. Finding a can of Carlsberg Stout in the fridge at 7-11 and an amazing egg wrapped “special burger” prepared street-side on a griddle, covered in a spicy sauce and wrapped in a fluffy toasted bun didn’t help bring me back to reality. It had been a long time since I had such simple, cheap, fatty, delicious, western decadence. I went to bed.
Instead of any magical adventures, I spend the first half of the next day running errands- I had a brand new Sony Alpha 230 dslr that needed fixing and a new Thai visa to apply for. Which meant I would need plenty of energy, so breakfast was a must. Though I just headed across the street because it was easy, I had hit the jack-pot: all you can drink Turkish coffee and milk tea, muesli with yogurt and bananas, eggs, baked beans, two sausages, and toast. My errands were uneventful and the next thing of note was another meal. I didn’t yet realize yet that nearly every meal I had in Malaysia would be fantastic, so this seemed ridiculous. Next on the list- Indian.
On walking back from the Naval Cemetery, I found myself in little India. There was a corner that was bumpin with food stalls and full of people. While trying to peak at the food, I somehow found myself swept up by the crowd and thrown down in a chair and before I thought I had even ordered a Tandoori Chicken set, complete with naan, curries, and yogurt and an additional order of Mutton Marsala were in front of me. It was the best Indian food I have ever have (that being said, I haven’t had a whole lot. Neither Cleveland or St. Louis had huge Indian influences).
Later that afternoon, I finally met up with Sin Kok, my couch surfing host. Sin Kok has to be one of the best hosts out there. His “couch” is actually a queen size bed, with air con, in a private room, with a TV. Needless to say after a viewing of the masterful and forever underrated Steven Siegal classic “Under Seige,” I slept well. But, before getting the chance. I got to know Sin Kok and his friend over some dinner. The local corner, covered in hawker stalls, was street food central. A corner that could hold its own in downtown Bangkok. We got chicken wings, rice cakes, shrimp dumplings (Sui Kou), and grilled prawns (Ikan Bakka) to share and I was introduced to Curry Mee, a fantastic, mildly spicy soup. Turns out Sin Kok was an ideal host for more than just his diggs: he was very into photography (Nikon always around his neck), he spoke 4 languages and was studying Korean, he had stories from working at every company who’s electronic products have failed on me (Sony, Dell, etc.), he loved food (as his girth suggested), was ridiculously friendly and energetic, and had recently gotten a tour guide license. He knew everything about Penang and couldn’t wait to get started telling me about it.
The next two days with Sin Kok were a face paced race through Penang spent seeing and learning about all of it’s delights: the colonial influence, the many religious structures, the cultural neighborhoods, and historical stops. Luckily, it was also an Anthony Bourdain worthy tour of the island’s best eateries, as could only be provided by a local. One morning was traditional Cantonese Dim Sum that would have sent Dave Kocab to allah, another my introduction to Malaysia’s finest- Roti Cannai; a flat bread filled with any combination of egg, onion, and garlic, and covered with curry. For lunch, he took me to experience (again for the first time) a banana leaf lunch and mango lassi (basically a smoothie) worthy of Kerala. And, after learning that I loved seafood with the passion of a thousand Abelards, we headed down to the jetty to pick out dinner (with Sin Kok’s best friends) at a Chinese grill normally reserved for special occasions: we feasted on baked crabs, huge mantis prawns, steam egg and tofu, mixed vegetables, chiley (a tiny shell fish that looked inedible at first sight), kappar, er char kuay, and parpadum chips. Afterwords, the party went to sea side Persiaran Gurney (Georgetown’s most fashionable road) for desert- muah thi, a sugar covered dough, and rojak, Malaysia’s oddest and most loved desert, a bitter black sauce on fruit salad.
The three days were a culinary awakening with the Island’s best fixer. I assumed Malaysia would offer basically the same food as Thailand. Little did I know most of it, like Penang, would offer an amazing array of different cuisines: Chinese, Malay, Indian, Thai, and English. The food was so particularly delicious, that I couldn’t rationalize covering it in the posts about Penang’s places and people; it needed it’s own feature, even if it was nothing more than a catalog of the dishes for the record. I actually take comfort in the thought that there was no Flip to cover it, because I could never deliver the tour with as much success as god himself… er, I mean Anthony Bourdain.
- Bond, James Bond