I’m writing this from Penang, an island off the coast of Malaysia. Penang’s cuisine is legendary in foodie circles, especially the street food. Prepared at simple roadside stalls or in outdoor food courts, it’s an incredible mix of Indian, Malay and Chinese cuisines. I decided to come to Penang after watching Anthony Bourdain’s episode on the island, and I was not disappointed in the slightest. I guess there’s more to do than eat here (there’s cool street art, crumbling colonial architecture and a pretty decent beach) but for me, the highlight was definitely the food. Some of the best dishes I tried were the following:
WOW! Trying Asam Laksa for the first time was akin to having a religious experience. It’s a strong, flavorful dish and definitely not for everyone, but I loved it. It’s been described as “noodles in spicy stuff,” and while that’s true, it doesn’t begin to cover the complexity of the broth. The broth is fish-based, which gives it a salty flavor, but the highlight is the use of tamarind, which gives the meal a sour and tangy taste.
Look at this dish. Thick egg noodles, wontons, pork and a bit of bok choi! Not nearly as spicy as the laksa, but a great breakfast or lunch dish. I’ve actually had it twice since I’ve been here!
-Hainanese Chicken Rice
Deceptively simple. Yes, it’s white chicken over rice. But the way the chicken is prepared is what makes it special, as well as the delicious sweet chili sauce that’s poured on top. It’s succulent and flavorful. I consumed it in about three bites.
The national dish of Malaysia, Nasi Lemak is rice cooked in coconut milk and then wrapped in a banana leaf with spices, egg, chicken and other ingredients. It’s a breakfast dish, and the coconut milk makes the rice so sweet, which contrasts really nicely with the (of course) spicy additional elements.
-Yam Ice Cream:
Yes, I said “yam” as in sweet potatoes. Also, it’s bright purple. What’s not to love?
Before I came to Malaysia, I tried as hard as I could to find some Penang-style food, or even just Malaysian food, back in the US. I looked in DC when I lived there, and Chicago once I moved back. Aside from a recently-closed restaurant called “Penang” in Arlington Heights, I found nothing. I’m surprised that Malaysian food hasn’t caught on the same way in the US as say, Thai food or Vietnamese food have. They share similar elements (spices, fresh ingredients), but for whatever reason I won’t be able to enjoy laksa once I’m back. Which is really too bad. And that means the only way you’ll get to try this stuff is to come here yourself!
I’m sure you’re now saying something like “Okay, Lily. You’ve sold me. The food in Penang looks amazing. But it’s kind of a long way to go just to eat some good food. Is there anything else to do there?” Well, first of all, I am so glad you asked. Second of all, yes!
The city of George Town, the capital of Penang, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Filled with colorful buildings dating back a century, it’s a great place to get lost for a day. There’s also a thriving street art culture, which is always fun to look for.
The island is 50% Malay/Muslim, 30% Chinese/Buddhist, and 20% Indian/Hindu. As a result, there are all sorts of interesting religious sights to see. On one corner, you’ll see Hindus burning incense, and on the next, there is a small Buddhist shrine. Women in hot-pink hijabs wander the streets. I can’t think of many places that I’ve been with such a thriving mix of religions and backgrounds to experience.
Finally, I’d recommend exploring the jetties along the coast. Chinese workers have traditionally lived in these houses on stilts near the waterfront. I enjoyed walking along the piers, trying to balance on rickety planks. Thankfully, I didn’t fall in! I did manage to get into the water at the beach, which I think isn’t one of the better beaches in Southeast Asia but is perfectly adequate. I even got a little color! Okay, that color is red, not tan, but it’s better than the translucent pallor I’ve been sporting the past few years.
And with that, week one of my trip is over. I’m headed to Kuala Lumpur on Sunday via bus, where I will be until Thursday. I’ve decided to change my itinerary a bit and fly to Indonesia earlier than originally planned. There’s just so much I want to do there!