Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Other Side of Penang

Early this month, my extended family went back again to Penang for our annual visit.  This year, we had our largest group yet - my Dad, my uncle and two aunties, and five of us from the next generation (including two spouses)!  We met up with my Dad's Penang cousins, and went for our normal, extended foodie experience.

The family house
This year, however, we did things a little differently.  i.e., not just the Penang hawker food binge.  For the first time, we went to "the mainland".  For the uninitiated, the State of Penang is not just one island (Pulau Pinang) but extends also to a small region on the mainland, historically known as "Province Wellesley" in the days of the British and now called Seberang Perai.

It turned out to be quite an interesting drive.  We took the new second link to the mainland - an impressive causeway which is much longer than the first link, and with much less traffic too.  It's always nice to get a feel of the place, driving through the country and seeing what there is to see - not just the normal palm oil plantations but also factories, reminding me that Penang is one of Malaysia's manufacturing hubs.

We had a clear mission for our visit to the mainland.  First, to see if we could visit the family home of my great grandmother (father's mother's mother) in the little town of Nibong Tebal.  At the same time, to eat durians - the elusive "Orh Chih" or "Black Thorn", which apparently was first grown in Nibong Tebal and where therefore the best of this variety is found.  Lastly, we were going to eat yummy seafood in one of the well known seafood restaurants in the area.

Well, at least we managed one out of three!  This year's durian season is a little late.  There was not enough rain and so the harvest is also small.  So there was no "Black Thorn" available.  As for the family home, it turns out that it is hidden behind a row of shophouses.  Access is through a gap in the shophouses but it has now been blocked by one of those shuttered grilles across the entrance.  As we had not called ahead or attempted to contact the residents earlier, we could only peek at it from between the grilles.  Fortunately, the house looked quite well preserved (at least from the outside).

So we were left with lunch.  Fortunately this did not let us down.  Law Cheang Kee is well known for its excellent seafood and as we were early (due to the lack of durian and lack of access to the house), had no problem getting a table.  The restaurant filled up whilst we were there and people were waiting.  This is really a small town so the patrons must have driven from the surrounding areas to get here on their lunch hour.  Our pomfret was beautifully fresh, steamed to perfection and the other seafood dishes were really tasty and flavourful.  Everything was well cooked and I have to say that it was worth the lengthy drive.

Removing the peanut skins
Neither did we walk away empty-handed.  Nibong Tebal is well known, it appears, for its traditional Teochew biscuit shop Chop Chuan Guan, where biscuits are still made by hand every day.     It is like a factory, with a row of biscuit makers sitting in a row in the main shop.  In the shop next door, a girl was removing the peanut skins from the roasted peanuts.  It was quite fascinating, watching her skilfully and efficiently toss the peanuts on a large flat basket, till the skins separated from the peanuts.

The shop is famous for its unique and rare "duck neck" biscuit, or "ark-am"!  This biscuit has a crunchy peanut core, with a soft outer layer, and covered with a layer of peanuts.  It is rolled up into a thin roll and cut into long pieces, hence the name.  Certainly, no ducks were harmed in the making of this biscuit :-)  It is really quite yummy so I can understand the brisk business - visitors were coming in whilst we were looking around it, just to get a package of their favourite tau sar piah or ark-am.   Which is what I did, too.  I should have bought another packet!  Ah well, hopefully there will be a next time.

The next day, we went to Balik Pulau.  Balik Pulau literally means "back of the island" or "go back to the island".  It's literally on the opposite side of the island from Georgetown and there's a totally different, laid back atmosphere here.  But things are changing, as new developments are encroaching on this little town.  There's even an international school, the "Prince of Wales Island International School" which boards students whose families are presumably working in the region.

"Laksa cham"
We came here to eat the famed Balik Pulau laksa at Kim Seng Kopitiam.  But I have to admit that I did not eat the traditional laksa.  Instead, I had Penang Assam Laksa mixed with the lemak curry laksa (which we get in Singapore).  Here, they call it "laksa cham" and you can ask for it in stalls which sell both laksa varieties.  I really like the way the lemak gravy is livened up by the tangy assam gravy.

I was expecting to eat in one of those small street stalls but it was in a rather modern coffee shop.  We went for another bowl at a nearby hawker centre, where we also drank ampala and ate pasembur (the Indian rojak of Penang).  It was similar to our Singapore hawker centres.  Not so "balik" after all!

Overall, I enjoyed our visits to Nibong Tebal and Balik Pulau.  It took us to a very different side of Penang, outside Georgetown and away from the beaches where the tourists congregate.  A sense of what Singapore used to be like, and indeed what the bigger cities in Malaysia used to be like.  Hopefully, even as Penang continues to grow and develop, these little towns will continue to retain some of their charm and unique little gems like Law Cheang Kee and Chop Chuan Guan.  Looking forward to going back to Nibong Tebal for more food treats and of course, to see my great-grandmother's home in all its glory...

More photos (including food shots) on my Penang album on Flickr.


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