Eating in Penang. In pics.



I love this image for what it captures of my memory of the food streets in Georgetown. The fresh food being cooked, tourists and locals mingling to sample the local fare or just get their evening meal and all that simmering action. I clicked this picture in the minute I could tear myself away from hogging with a couple of local friends.

This is a post on a bingeing trip in Penang, from over a year ago.  By the time I settled in, I was eating everything I could lay my hands on. Typical to me in my moments of greed, I didn’t often get around to doing the sensible thing and writing down the names of what I was eating even though I asked for them, discussed techniques and ingredients and sometimes lingered around just to watch the fascinating action. I do however remember so much of the atmosphere, the flavours, the educational experience that eating Penang was. So here’s the post I wrote but never did publish..  Writing this and wading through the hundreds of other pics of Penang that I clicked, has left me with a craving for unfamiliar, exciting food. A longing for the inimitable experience of being a in a truly unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar flavours, smells, sounds and sights. I’m going to have to travel soon, I can see.

Trying to eat all of what Penang can offer you is a ridiculous goal. Unfortunately I only realised this by the end of the trip. Back in Mumbai about 4 KG heavier, a bit high on the cholesterol scale but oh so so inspired, excited, and totally blown away; I can honestly say that was the most educational experience for me from a food perspective. Ever.

Penang (that I first wrote about here) opened my eyes to a lot about me, my relationship with food and helped pushed my boundaries and very importantly – admit that I do have some. I will be honest with you… to start with, I was rather intimidated by the smells of the food in Penang. And then the fact that I was intimidated ended up intimidating me much more. That cocky self image I had, of being a food adventurer, was all shook up. Thankfully, the cooking classes (that I wrote of here) I had signed up for proved to be an eye-opening experience and a fantastic induction me into the world of Malaysian food. Touching, cooking transforming food made it easier for me to understand, approach and then interact with what Penang had to offer to a cook . By then end of it, I knew what ingredients were offending my nose and why.  And once I learned that a lot of what I was finding difficult to handle were herbs, not fermented meaty miscellaneous parts of un-named animals as was my unfounded conviction, I found I could tentatively venture into the enormous world of food that Penang offers.

It’s probably true that in Penang, one could live for a whole year on street food without repeating a single dish. So large is the variety of dishes on offer. But the biggest lesson that Malaysia offers, is the true beauty of fusion. In a world that is increasingly intolerant, where we are fast moving towards mono culture while losing the beauty that only diversity can engender, this learning has special significance. From the lovely spicy tamarind based noodles to the curries and the apoms; Penang taught me that when approached with honesty and sensitivity, a whole new range of possibilities can emerge through the blending of cultures and food. What’s more, unlike in many other countries where you need to visit with a local to truly appreciate local cuisine, here, this mouth-watering heritage is available to all who visit. Warm, open, accessible, this is truly a culture of food that is open, welcoming and breeds a genuine exuberance and love for food in all that partake.


Char Kuay Kak. If I remember right, this what they call carrot cake in Penang! Rather different from what comes to my mind when I say Carrot cake but an interesting and almost healthy snack that is infact radish blended with rice flour, steamed, broken up and then fried up (in what is possibly pork fat) before being served with bean sprouts and seasoning.


Ah! barbecued Eel.. one of my most favourite things ever. Here, on sushi. Not very Malaysian but I couldn’t resist getting this for one of the few dinners I had at the hotel I was staying in.


Char Kuay Kak in the making


Yong tau foo – Tofu and Vegetables filled with fish paste. How creative is that!


I used to love this breakfast of rice porridge or Konji. Though I have to say that this was a version with pig intestines (apparently a major delicacy) was really not my thing at all.


Fish ball Bee Hoon (Rice vermicelli) soup. Yum!


Char Kuay Theow. This was the most delicious thing I thought I ate in Penang. Silky rice noodles, fried in pork lard, tossed with beaten egg, green onions, chillies, shallots, garlic, fish sauce, soy, cockles, sausages and juicy sweet prawns and topped with the crunchy sweet bean sprouts. Apparently a gazillion calories but so worth it!


The infamous Durian in ice-cream format. They say that people either LOVE or HATE durian and I unfortunately am in the second category. For me the flavour is reminiscent of Jackfruit (that I love) in a peppery, not so pleasant way. In Penang, this seasonal fruit which is much the rage among its lovers is available in every sweet format imaginable..ripe, fresh to ice-cream, drinks, candies, baked and other desserts and even chocolate. And check out the flavour next to it! Nutmeg!!



This I believe is Ton Sui. A chinese dessert soup!! with white fungus, longan, lily bulb. Interesting, light, refreshing but not so much my idea of a dessert. But then, after a calorie rich meal of street food in Penang, this maybe the right kind of dessert for you.


Rojak, a fruit salad like dish with cucumber, pineapple, benkoang (jicama), bean sprouts, taupok (puffy, deep-fried tofu) and youtiao (cut-up Chinese-style fritters), guava, squid fritters and topped with a dressing of water, belacan (shrimp paste), sugar, chili, and lime juice. Ingredients vary among vendors with some also using hae ko prawn/shrimp paste, tamarind or black bean paste in the mix. Talk about unusual!


Otak Otak – A soft melting cake of fish paste with spices steamed in a banana leaf. I loved the melting texture and the look reminded me a lot of the Bengali paturi.


pork fat being rendered so it can be used for frying up other yummies.. the two did look remarkably similar. I remember walking up to a hawker and asking what that tasty looking stuff was, only to have my jaw dropped when she said is was pork FAT being melted! Ouch!


I absolutely adore these little parcels of Pulut Inti (Glutinous Rice with Sweet Coconut Topping). The sweet sticky rice with the perfect amount of dark sweet jaggery flavoured chewy coconut topping reminded me so much of Kerala! And while I feel disloyal to say it, these were better.


Deep fried glutinous rice balls coated with sesame and filled with all sorts of things. I think this one had coconut in the middle. Whats not to love!


Hokkien Mee – The prawn noodle soup. So so delicious with the fantastic unique flavour of prawns coming through abundantly in the rich spicy soup. the topping of boiled egg made a stellar dish even more fun.


I love the Japanese Mochi ice cream – a small, round dessert ball consisting of a soft, pounded sticky rice cake (mochi) on the outside and an ice cream filling on the inside. It is then dusted with corn starch. Of course I had to gobble these up when I found them in one of the malls in Penang.


Tea eggs – a popular savoury snack that I thought looked pretty but never got around to trying. For some reason they remind me of Jurassic park!


Spikey shell fish that I ate by pulling the meat out with the toothpick and dipping in the accompanying sauce. Unfortunately, I found this to be rather rubbery and flavourless. Not a fan. Though I was so tempted to get the shells back. SO pretty!


Mee goreng – the Indian inspired noodle dish with prawns and served with a lovely fragrant lime. Didn’t think I would like this, but I dd.

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oooh! Another favourite – Apom Balik. I loved these lacy pancakes topped with peanut, palm sugar and coconut and folded over so much that when in Singapore, I went on a food hunt all over town just to find them and see if they matched up to the Penang variety. I like the Penang version more (As in most things). So yummy, they reminded me of waffle cones, pancakes and appams, all at once.


This dessert snack made of powdered peanut and sugar that I found in a an ancient looking shop in the bylanes of georgetown were brilliant. I am not sure how they arrive at the stunning melt in your mouth texture but these were reminiscent of son papdi because of the way they melted on the tongue and almost crumbled on touch. Wish we got these here.


One of my rice porridge breakfasts that were yummy. The baguette like things you see on top – tofu!!


Not unique to Penang but couldn’t resist clicking this. A cocoa tree…this is where chocolate comes from.


Another fantastic breakfast of an endless array of dimsums brought to you on a cart for you to pick from. The fillings were very versatile ranging from BBQ pork to lotus seed but I didn’t catch the name of anything cos I was far too busy stuffing my face. Oh and the people here were lovely. I had forgotten my wallet at my hotel and they were so sweet about trusting that I would come back with the money.


The dimsums cart going around with a fresh, new batch..


Cendol! The awesome awesome dessert that was reminiscent of falooda.The noodles made from rice flour with green food coloring (usually derived from the pandan leaf), topped with coconut milk, jelly, shaved ice, palm sugar, red beans, glutinous rice, grass jelly.. This was one of the highlights of my gluttony. And yes, gluten and dairy free!!


The HOT red bean bao or steamed buns filled with various pastes (my favourite being the red bean) that I many a times burned my impatient mouth on. So clever, how they use the pretty red dots to demarcate one filling from the other.


Not sure what these dumplings are called but ran into them while strolling the bustling weekly market. Crunchy and sweet.


A Nyonya cart with a wide range of dishes that are an unimitable fusion of Indian, Chinese and Malay food. From pickles to herbed rice salads and fish in mustard and chilli.. this was another lesson in how the Asian cultures have married to create a distinct, clever cuisine. Much like Penang itself.


Fragrant Nyonya herbed rice.


Murtabak – another popular Indian inspired dish of a maida ‘roti’ stuffed with spiced minced meat, served with what seemed rather like sambar on the side.


Roasting duck with fabulous caramalisation hanging at one of the food stalls. This is why one ends up overeating in Penang.


Malaysian coffee! So, I’m not a coffee drinker but ever since this visit to Malaysia, Atul is hooked.. I am now sent on ‘work’ trips to Singapore just so I can lug back a whole suitcase full of Malaysian coffee (I kid you not) and we flew to Japan via KL just so we could buy tons of these packets at the airport. Did I tell you he liked this coffee?


More pretty dumplings. Is not that lovely translucent skin mesmerising?


Durian, filled in chocolate!


Chocolate covered potato chips! Clicked this just so I could show Atul..and brag about how I was so ahead of my time when 5 years back I did the same at home, with the humble lays.


Roasting chestnuts! Yuuuuuuum


BBQ pork belly – I have no words to describe how luscious, silky, rich, deeply flavoured this meat was. Sigh!


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