One of the great mysteries of eating in Penang is the economics of the hawker center. A group of vendors cluster around a kedai kopi, a cafe serving drinks and work almost independently of the cafe. Some pay rent, others are owned by the cafe, some seem to have agglomerated at a single point in an organic manner like a coral reef of wok burners accumulating on a restaurant atoll. The cafe often provides electricity and an awning to make monsoonal downpours tolerable for the vendors. Each cluster of vendors seems to be in competition, but there is value in assuring that the competing stalls all perform good business, thus attracting overflowing customers to your stall. The proper etiquette seems to be to order at the vendor at the front, then at least buy a single drink from the roaming waiter so that the kedai kopi owner gets their piece of the action.
Two hawker centres loom large. The Lorong Selamat center (above), with its reputation for serving the best char kway teow in Penang (and by inference, the world) and the ramshackle collection of hawkers on Swatow Lane (for ABC Special and Ice Kacang), just off Jalan Burma.
I’m apprehensive about the approach to anything as hyped and as personal as this char kway teow (above). I tend to place more value on the nubs of deep-fried pork fat, prawns and cockles that go into the dish (and the smoky wok hei flavour), than I value the core element: noodles. The noodles here are creamy and soak up charcoal smoke aplenty, a real lardy highlight. The only valid criticism is price. At RM7.50, the dish is roughly double the price of the average plate of char kway teow on Penang, a point that locals tend to debate and then eat on Lorong Selamat anyhow. It is too good not to eat there and the price serves as a talking point rather than deterrent.
We finished with a plate of lor bak, marinated lean pork wrapped in bean curd skin then deep-fried, served with a starchy bowl of broth thickened with egg and another bowl of chilli sauce. In this case, it was plated on top of an array of other deep fried delights and a local sausage.
After much tinkering over the New Year break, maps are go! See where I eat from space, as provided by Google. I’ll be updating posts with map coordinates where possible.
Gurney Drive’s Hawker Center is a roughly triangular lot encircled (entriangled?) by the most diverse set of street food vendors that you’ll find anywhere in Malaysia, alongside the mudflat-facing promenade. The road was named after Sir Henry Gurney, Malaya’s High Commissioner whose brief reign ended in 1951 when he was entriangled by Communist guerillas during the Malayan Emergency, and shot, allegedly sacrificing himself to draw fire away from his wife and driver. Unlike the sludgy foreshore, the hawker center does him no disrespect.
It smells of fried goods, dried squid, hae ko paste, laksa leftovers, and tourists. Despite being at the more commercial end of hawker spectrum, it is worth a visit just for the sheer variety available in a single, crowded venue. It is a place to begin trying to define what constitutes Malaysian street food in its infinite forms or just to establish a baseline, the culinary denominator for future Penang hawker meals.
At first, I started with a plan of moving from savory dishes to sweet-savory to sweets, with a palate-cleansing dried squid somewhere in between.
Within minutes this plan had fallen apart.
Popiah (above) has its origins in Fujian cuisine, with the Straits Chinese version made from a thin wheat flour pancake wrapping sliced jicama, bean curd, prawn and crab meat. This one was a little light on the crab…
…but the vendor had a perfect economy of movement in making them. There is value in eating food that is as entertaining to watch being constructed as it is to consume.
I passed on this dried squid, being too huge.
By all rights, muar chee (above) should not be as delicious as it looks. The vendor pulls a gelatinous blob of glutinous rice flour dough from a warmer, a blob which reminded me a little of the game pods from David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ.
She then proceeded to toss them into a perspex case filled with sugar, crushed peanuts and sesame seeds; dicing the blob whilst mixing and coating with the sweet/savory powder. The topping of dry-fried onions adds a crispy counterpoint to the chewiness of the rice flour.
This seafood curry mee has all the right elements: juicy prawns, a few blood cockles, opaque slices of pickled squid, congealed chunks of blood, and luscious chunks of fried tofu soaking up the curry broth. But it didn’t come together. The broth lacked the richness to carry the rest of the ingredients.
I had a friend email me every few weeks to receive status updates on the amount and quality of chee cheong fun that I was consuming. Hello, Vin. The version of the dish that I’m more familiar with comes via Hong Kong with translucent sheets of noodle covering minced pork and prawns, topped with a light soy sauce.
The Penang chee cheong fun is even simpler. Sheets of noodle are rolled and sliced, then topped with local prawn paste hae ko, sesame seeds, and depending on your preference for heat, chili sauce.
No amount of eating can prepare you for the surprise of Penang rojak. What lies beneath the glossy, piquant and pungent shrimp sauce? Fruit? Seafood? In this case, both. The fruits of the sea came in the form of pickled squid; fruits from a tree in the form of green mango, papaya, starfruit and rose apple. The pineapple comes from a bromeliad which marks the outer edge of my botanical knowledge.
Rojak is a dish that shouldn’t fit together. There are too many elements, all of which vie for your attention: the diametrically opposed texture of squid and rose apple; sourness from green mango and lime juice (?); the trenchant odor of shrimp. But it works.
Location:Gurney Drive, Penang
While I’ve been saying for what seems like years that Sihanoukville is the new Luanda, in one of its final posts of the year, Epicurious has announced that for 2008, Cambodian food will supplant Thai food.
A triangulation between Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai cooking, Cambodian’s emphasis on noodle dishes, curries, stir fries and prahok, the strong-flavored fish paste, will grow in popularity. Cambodian food has stronger flavors than Vietnamese, slightly more subtle that Thai and is not as heavy as Chinese.
Also, cheers to everyone who donated to Menu For Hope. Over US$90,000 was raised. Prize draw to come.
A few years in Southeast Asia has me captivated by sour. I literally can’t get enough tamarind paste. In Cambodia, I’d buy it by the kilo block from the Russian Market and suck the piquant pulp straight from the seeds whenever I felt like an overwhelming sour kick. Lunch without a sour Khmer soup was not lunch.
Sour as a flavour profile on its own completes the full complement of a meal. It piques the tastebuds for food and always leaves you wanting more. It was also the prime attraction for me in Penang; the flavour around which I would centre eating the island. The one dish that I was after was assam laksa; Penang-style sour noodle soup. The broth is rich with mackerel, lemongrass, shallots and turmeric. Chilli, onion and chopped herbs (Vietnamese and common mint) are added to the bowl, raw; slippery white noodles and half a hard-boiled egg are mandatory. Thin slices of the bitter and peppery torchbud ginger flower top the dish along with an extra slug of hae ko, a local sweet shrimp paste. The souring comes courtesy of tamarind and semi-dried slices of the local fruit
assam keping buah keping. Assam keping is dried slices of the fruit.
Laksa Air Itam, a roadside stall that sits alongside the Air Itam market has the reputation as the best laksa in Penang, something which I’m in no real position to assess because it was the first assam laksa stall that I hit. The stall has been in place for almost 50 years, passed patrilineally from father to son. A constant stream of laksa lovers laid a tactical assault on the stall. It was 3:00PM and streaming torrential rain (not a prime noodle soup hour) but buses disgorged a constant stream of patrons. Locals double-parked their BMWs to duck under the awning and pick up a clear plastic bag of the soup to take-away or hurriedly scarf down a bowl, rigidly huddled over the chromed tables on a flimsy metal stool.
The sour element is not as forward as I’d had before but the stock is complex and almost paste-like, thick with shreds of mackerel and the sticky hae ko paste. Despite the heartiness, a second bowl beckons: the true power of sour.
Location: Opposite the Air Itam market, near the junction of Jalan Air Itam and Jalan Pasar. Between Kek Lok Si temple and Bukit Bandara (Penang Hill) for anyone interested in tourism that doesn’t involve eating.
Price: RM2.50 (USD$0.75)
Also: I’m taking a break from writing for Christmas. See you in 2008 for more from Malaysia.