Eggs, Penang

Eggs, Penang

The logistics of food is endlessly interesting when you step outside the reach of the robotic hands of supermarket distribution. Along with the produce, transport is what adds a degree of regional variation to most markets. One of my most enduring memories of one market in Cambodia is seeing a Toyota Camry, whose backseat had been hastily waterproofed with plastic tarpaulins, filled to the ceiling with live snakehead fish.

There are certainly more preferable ways to transport food, but there is no perfect means to transport food, which is why the humble cargo bike (below) can continue to compete with every other vehicle on Penang to transport eggs.

Egg Bike, Penang

Whenever I see a bike like that, I just want to follow it.

Tek Sen, Penang

tek sen chicken and mayonnaise

This is deep-fried pieces of boneless chicken coated in a crispy shell of batter, covered in mayonnaise straight from the jar. It’s a dish that the world’s food writers conveniently overlook when they heap well-deserved praise on restaurant Tek Sen in Penang because it doesn’t fit the clean narrative of tradition or authenticity that drives the de facto view of Malaysia through the lens of food magazines. There is no clear tradition of mayonnaise in Malay-Chinese cuisine but quite clearly, there should be. Tek Sen is licensed to drive that trend.

I didn’t eat at Tek Sen the last time that I was in because it was too expensive. In hindsight that looks crazy, but four years ago, I was travelling around Asia on a budget of roughly $20 a day for two including transport and accommodation. It seems like a longer time ago. Spending $10 on a single meal was a tough decision when I could graze through several bowls of laksa a day for the same price. Now I spend more than $10 a day keeping myself sufficiently caffeinated. I eat at restaurants where $10 isn’t even an appropriate tip per person. The old me is probably horrified at the new me.

Maybe that is the only sign of being a moderately functioning adult.

Eggplant with fermented bean paste

Four years on and the island is looking busier, more gentrified. The traffic is heavier and more Chinese shophouses are fenced off for renovation. The now World Heritage-listed core of Georgetown feels like it is beginning to take a similar path to Luang Prabang, where the centre of the city begins to hollow out for the needs of tourists, taking with it the atmosphere that tourists came for in the first place. There’s more buildings preserved as boutique hotels and the word “artisan” now attached to batik or carvings or basketry. It is still the greatest place on earth to eat on a fistful of dollars.

Mapo tofu
Mapo tofu has a relatively light touch of the numbing Szechuan mala sauce which lets the smoke from the wok work its way through.

Externally, Tek Sen remains much the same, a collection of reflective stainless tables encircled by battered metal stools within an airy, tiled shophouse. The menus smell like graphic design and are clearly translated into English, a small nod to gentrification.

siew yuk - tek sen double cooked pork belly

Penang’s a different place when you’re meaningfully employed. I ate Tek Sen’s double-cooked pork on multiple occasions. The best $4 you’ll ever spend. The double-cooked pork – siew yuk – is sticky and sweet batons of pork belly, stirfried to add a dose of smoke. This is the only pork dish I’ve eaten where I’m keen to lick the thin slick of pork fat from the bottom of the plate. As much as this is the dish that drives people to Tek Sen rather than their liberal ideas about deep-frying and egg emulsions, Tek Sen has a menu where you can’t make mistakes.

tek sen pea sprouts
Pea shoots with dried, salted fish. It’s umami-salty and satisfying.

Eat everything. The small plates mean that even a party of two can easily work through five dishes. Four people could eat almost half the menu.

Location: 18-20 Carnarvon Street, Georgetown, Penang

The Wok Hei Economy

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.

Lorong Selamat Hawker Centre

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.

Char Kway Teow

I’m apprehensive about the approach to anything as hyped and as personal as this (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.

Lor Bak

We finished with a plate of , 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.

Location: 84 Lorong Selamat, ,

Triangulating Gurney Drive

Satay, Gurney Drive
Searing satay at Gurney Drive Hawker Center.

Gurney Drive’s Hawker Center is a roughly triangular lot encircled (entriangled?) by the most diverse set of 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…

Popiah Vendor

…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.

Dried Squid

I passed on this dried squid, being too huge.

Muar Chee

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.

Seafod curry mee, Penang

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.

Penang Chee Cheong Fun: Division of Labour Penang Chee Cheong Fun: Division of Labour
Chee cheong fun division of labor

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.

Penang Chee Cheong Fun

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.

Penang Rojak

No amount of eating can prepare you for the surprise of Penang . 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

Assam Laksa: The power of sour

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, Penang

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.

Assam Laksa from laksa air itam, Penang

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 .

Three feet high and rising

Cook me a roti three feet high then slather it in honey and condensed milk.

No, really.

roti tisu

The above roti tisu (occasionally, “roti tissue”) is both the silliest and tallest thing that I’ve ever attempted to eat and succeeded. It came from the roti grill of Kayu Nasi Kandar, my favorite roti chefs on the island of Penang. It is also a great example of the triumph of form over function.

roti tisu 2

My guess is that the “tissue” comes from either needing a tissue to hold the piping hot roti upright while it sets into a gigantic, freestanding cone of sweet, crispy bread or that it refers to the thinness of the bread itself.

Location: Kayu Nasi Kandar, 216 Penang Rd, Georgetown,