Saturday, October 13, 2007

Penang Food Trails

Now, it may appear a little odd that I am posting entries on Penang in this blog about Katong. But to me there are many linkages. Penang is about family, food and Straits Chinese heritage, which is really what I associate Katong with too. Of course here in Katong the Eurasian factor comes in as well. Anyway, that is why these posts about Penang are on this blog.

Assam laksa, Penang Kway Teow, Chendol, Lor Bak! We visited Penang with a clear and serious intent: to eat our way through as many delectable hawker goodies as possible! Well, we can say that we have visited a number of good stalls but alas, there are so many places we did not manage to get to.

When eating in Penang, it is essential to have a clear goal and strategy in mind:
  • First, work out which stalls you wish to visit and plan your route accordingly.

  • Second, remember it is about sampling. No point stuffing yourself at the first place. Order a small helping, preferrably to share. Don't gorge even if it is good. There will be more good stuff later on too.

  • Third, don't worry about introducing variety. Remember, it is also about comparison purposes. You'll never know if you had the *best* Penang laksa if you haven't tried a few stalls.

  • Fourth, share drinks. The coffeeshops require you to buy a drink from them. So you could get filled up on all that liquid.

  • Fifth, take notes. What will you do if you forget where they are by the next time you get to Penang?
Here is my food tally:

Bee Hooi Coffee Shop at Kimberly Road - Penang Kway Teow, Yong Tau Fu. The YTF was just so that we could have something wet to go with our kway teow. We did not realise until we checked the old review that we had actually selected a well-known kway teow stall. But I certainly appreciated the large and fresh prawns which accompanied the dish. The kway teow was tasty too, perhaps a tad wetter than the Singapore rendition of Penang Kway Teow. BTW, this photo was taken on my mobile phone rather than my camera. Note the size of that prawn!

Guerney Drive - 2 samples of assam laksa, kueh pie tee, some lok lok, 1 sample of Penang kway teow. The kway teow (although it was also supposed to be famous) was not really up to par. The laksa from the first stall we tried had well-flavoured stock, and I noticed then that the noodles tend to be much softer (cooked for a little longer?) than the al dente version served in Singapore. I thought also that the blend of condiments was just right, with the ginger flower adding just the right twang to the dish. I was however a little surprised with the pie tee as there was no little shrimp on top and the chilli was not fresh chilli but some sauce.

Malay Street (at the corner of Malay and Carnavaron)- The best Lor Bak we had. Juicy, succulent meat in the crispy wrap.

Penang Road - Lor Bak and Prawn Fritters from a famous hawker, cooked with style and panache. Here he is at his wok. Further down the road, at Lebuh Keng Kwee, we ate yet another serving of assam laksa (rank 2 of the 3 samples we had) and truly yummy chendol.

Apparently, the green worms in Chendol are not just made of flour coloured green the way it is done in Singapore. It is made of a special herb which gives the jelly that green colour. The Penang variety of chendol is made with the gula melaka syrup poured over the crushed ice, before the diluted coconut milk, green jelly worms and kidney/red beans are poured on top. This particular hawker was famous! Every time we asked for directions to Lebuh Keng Kwee, we had problems. We asked for "the chendol stall" and everyone knew where it was. We found out upon coming back to Singapore that he has branches across Malaysia, including Johor Bahru.

Lorong Chulia - We also had one meal at a small local Hainanese restaurant, pork chop, itek tim (duck soup with preserved vegetables), lor bak and mixed vegetables. The shop has many regular local clients and the jovial proprietor clearly knew them all. Wearing a neatly tied apron, and with a little hat on his head, he discussed their orders rather than just took them. There is no menu in any case. You have to talk to him or his mother (?) to work out what is available. It was a hearty, homecooked meal.

Penang is where you regret that you have only one stomach. I must admit that I've probably had enough laksa, kway teow to last for a few weeks but very soon I'll be BACK at the penang food stall in Marine Parade...!

Return to Penang

It has been many years since I was last in Penang. I was there in 2001 (on work), and some 4-5 years before that, I was there for my great-grandmother's 100th birthday. That was indeed a memorable family visit. I went with my father's brothers and sister, and we spent a most enjoyable 3 days there. We did not go sightseeing around Penang (my relatives had seen it all before). Rather, the fabled hawker food of Penang was the main object of our stay.

I remember especially how some 6 of us piled into my father's cousin's car, and how he took us out of the city centre and drove us into the surrounding hills and countryside of Penang, looking for durians (didn't find any) and the best Penang Char Kway Teow, chendol and laksa (ate lots of these). Then that evening we went to a beachside restaurant for the birthday dinner - dish after dish of fresh seafood and extremely tasty food. My favourite was the steamed fish served with bee hoon that had completely absorbed the flavour of the gravy....

Of course, it was also extremely awe-inspiring to meet my 100 year old great-grandmother again (not that she could really recognise me any more) and to see my cute little second cousins (or whatever they are called). And to visit our family home where I took this photograph of an amazing family photograph of 3 of my great-grandparents and my great-great-grandmother!

Now, my father's father's father married a Penang girl. They are the two seated on the left of her mother, the old matriarch in the middle of the photo. Then, their oldest son married his cousin. Her mother is seated third to the right of the matriarch. Theirs was a Penang peranakan family, as can be seen from the kebayas worn by the ladies. And perhaps by the little bow tie around my great-grandfather's neck. My grandparents are not in this photo, unfortunately, and I do not see my father either.

I do not have many memories of my great-grandparents. My great-grandfather died when I was 1 year old, his wife when I was 6. And my other great-grandmother lived in Penang. I remember her visiting us in Singapore when I was very young and us visiting her in Penang a few years later. Similarly, I did not see my other Penang relatives regularly, except for one who came down to Singapore every now and then.

Last weekend (5-7 Oct), I went to Penang with my cousin. She had not joined us on our happy holiday the last time round and was looking forward to a similar foodie experience. Whilst my great-grandmother passed away (I think at 102 years), my cousin still wanted to see our ancestral home. We felt a little diffident, however, at ringing up and saying "Hi! Guess who?", given that we had not seen our relatives for years.

We had booked ourselves a suite in the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, the Raffles of Penang. Now this may not seem like typical behaviour for either of us (pair of skinflints). But we thought we had a good deal with the hotel's "Return to Elegance" package. Indeed, when we checked in on Friday evening, we truly appreciated our beautiful suite with its high ceilings, comfy sofa and lovely bathroom (with its two separate sinks). When we opened our window we could hear the sound of waves pounding against the seawall.

The next day, we went on a walking trail around the old part of Penang. We walked down to the Padang area. One side of the Padang is bordered by the sea, and the Esplanade. On the other three sides are the State Assembly house, the Town Hall, the City Hall and Fort Cornwallis. Indeed, the British do build to a plan. The commercial street, Beach Road, leads off from the Padang and some banks still have their presence there today.

We walked down Beach Road through the small little roads - Market Street, or the "Little India" of Penang, Chulia Street, King Street, Lebuh Ah Quee (? not exactly a typical name for this area) down to Armenian Street and Cannon Street, down to Malay Street. We walked to our family home on Malay Street and stood in front. We had debated earlier whether to knock and go in but were advised that the house had been sold following my great-grandmother's death. So we just took a few photos, had a cup of coffee and some lor bak in the coffee shop across the road.

We then went back to Armenian Street and visited the recommended "vanishing trades" shop there, which sold Nonya beaded shoes or "manek manek". Now these shops are very common in Malacca. They are ready-to-wear, and there are many designs, many colours to choose from. This was the image in our mind when we walked down Armenian Street. We did not expect to find a small shop with two men sitting and chatting in it. It did not have any distinguishing features whatsoever, except for a small cabinet on the side of the room, which, upon closer inspection, did have a few pairs of beaded shoes in it. We were to learn that in Penang, the shoes are customised for each person. No ready-to-wear and with no immediate plans to return, no point ordering either.

As I walked through the streets of old Penang, the similarities and differences between Penang and Singapore struck me. The two cities must have been so similar in the 1920s and 30s. The street names, the shophouses with their very similar architecture, even the very layout of the city. But over the years, Singapore has undergone a process of urban rejuvenation. Many of the old buildings (too many, perhaps?) have fallen victim to the wrecker's ball and modern skyscrapers have replaced them. Whilst there are many old shophouses left, particularly in the Chinatown area, they are now completely different - filled with retail outlets. In Penang, this process of rejuvenation has yet to take place. Time has stood still and alas, the main feeling is one of decay. It is difficult to walk along the five foot way because they are used in many instances as a parking lot for motorcycles, just as cars park along the narrow streets. Except for Little India, the shops were not bustling - largely quiet and in some cases, the shopholders seemed surprised to see us peering in. Heritage markers have been erected here and there, pointing to an active tourist authority, but the hard work has yet to be done.

Of course, this was just in this particular part of Penang. Other areas, for example the Penang Road stretch, bear visible signs of being made over. New pavements, in one place a pedestrianised road with restaurants on each side. And of course, down Guerney Drive, the new hawker centre and Guerney Plaza, and the new "g" hotel, are indeed bringing in the crowds. (We came away from Guerney Plaza with tonnes of shopping!). So it will be interesting to see what changes are made the next time I get round to visiting Penang.

P.S. More Penang photos here!


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