Old World Food in Penang

Paula Tan roams the streets of her hometown to locate the best, most authentic hawker food to be found in Penang.

You are walking down a narrow street and, from a small shop illuminated by a shaky fluorescent light, a scent of rich, meaty gravy beckons you in. This is Penang; a crucible of culture and flavour, where delicious treats are to be found in tiny eateries on every other street corner. Hardly anyone knows what these tiny places are called – there are few signboards – but everyone knows where they are. These are the old kopitiams and street stalls of Penang, where families have gone for generations in search of soul-food, and the place to go for a true taste of the island.

Sweet ‘n Sticky Pork

The first on a long list of places to eat is Chulia Street’s Sky Hotel charsiew rice. Serving nothing but charsiew rice next to the once famous hotel, this establishment has survived three generations and continues to pull in the crowd during the four hours it is open each day. Hand-roasted over a spit, the charsiew pork develops a tasty crackling over the sticky, sweet meat and comes served with rice and a flavoursome broth. This is a dish that makes all other charsiew offerings pale in comparison, although you’ll have to wait your turn in a queue that starts building by 10.30am. Make sure you address the vendor as “taukeh (boss)” or run the risk of being ignored.

Oodles of Noodles

On Bangkok Lane (off Burmah Road), the Seng Lee Cafe on the corner whips up fragrant Indian mee rebus and mee goreng, both of which are noisily stir-fried by the vendor. Packed with thin slices of tofu, potato, lettuce and the tastiest ever “mouse” fritters (not really mouse, rest assured), these fat yellow noodles served in tomato gravy are a tasty treat at any time. Open for both lunch and dinner, this coffee shop, which also features hokkien mee, curry mee and economy rice, is a firm favourite among the Pulau Tikus crowd. Come nurse your kopi o (strong coffee with sugar) and indulge in a plateful of heaven.

Market Eating

For the minimalists among us, the wantan mee dished out at Pulau Tikus Market in the evenings is a joy. Thin wheat noodles are tossed in soy sauce and served with charsiew pork slices, chai sim(Chinese cabbage), and crispy fried wantans, and the dish is sold by a second generation hawker who has been located from Bagan Jermal’s “Glutton’s Square” that thrived during the 70s. Mouthwatering in their simplicity, the noodles are accompanied by a small bowl of wantan soup containing boiled dumplings and best enjoyed with pickled green chillies.    

In an ode to cultural diversity, dessert at Pulau Tikus market comes in the form of putu piring; a springy Indian pancake made of flour, coconut, and luscious brown sugar. Similar in flavor is putu mayam, which takes a net-like form. The putu piring stall is run by an elderly Indian couple who have been making this traditional treat for decades, which explains the lusciously silky quality of each serving. Delivered with shredded coconut and extra brown sugar on the side, this dessert qualifies as true hawker-style decadence.

Don’t Miss

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A firm favourite on the Penang hawker food circuit is the ubiquitous nasi kandar. On the island for just 24 hours? This has got to be on your “Top Five” list of food to try.

Standing out in a sea of mamak shops, this local staple gets a reboot at Yasmeen Nasi Kandar along Penang Road. Located near the 80s-built Odeon Cinema building, Yasmeen Nasi Kandar delivers its finest fare at lunchtime daily. Piping hot and fragrant, its nasi briyani is best enjoyed with a generous dollop of steaming Indian-style fish curry gravy and okra. Particularly outstanding is the restaurant’s chicken served in thick, sweet soy sauce, and the tastebud-teasing Indian curries are all worth a try. To round off your diet-busting meal, order an icy cold mango lassi or teh tarik, the latter of which is tea served with lashings of evaporated milk.

A worthy adversary of Yasmeen, and ironically located in the back-lane directly next to its compatriot, is the famous Line Clear Nasi Kandar. Having been in existence for over forty six years, Line Clear plays host to a long line of customers who brave the noonday sun for the aromatic treats that include dishes ranging from chicken and beef, to curried prawns and squid’s egg served with fragrant biryani. There can be no question as to why Line Clear has stood the test of time.

Taste of the Past         

Over the years, many Penang kopitiams have adopted a home-style slant. On Cintra Street, the Sun Yoon Kee and Sin Sun Vood shops still serve old-world comfort food like chu char dishes, completing the traditional feel with a caged bird by the window and an ancient cash register. Favorite childhood dishes make a comeback alongside plates of hot rice placed on cracked marble tables. Savour crispy plum sauce chicken and claypots laden with tofu, pork, mushrooms, and an assortment of vegetables. Particularly delicious is the Nyonya style fish head curry that is tangy with tomatoes and enriched by meaty fish. A basic dish of poh chai, spinach stir-fried with minced garlic, has a simple charm. To unite the variety, order a clear soup and, basic as it may appear, this steaming offering packs a taste that will leave you in a blissful haze.    

On Penang’s streets, a living heritage continues to thrive yet is made new each day. Experience these timeless tastes for yourself and do your bit to ensure that Penang’s legacy of fine food lives on. 
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Charsiew rice at Chulia St: Corner kopitiam next to Sky Hotel, Chulia Street.

Mee goreng at Bangkok Lane: Seng Lee Coffee Shop, 270 Jalan Burma (on corner of junction of Bangkok Lane and Burma Road). Open daily 8am-6.30pm, closed on Mondays. Tel: 016.4857 859.

Wantan Mee @ Pulau Tikus Market: 7pm-10.30pm.

Putu Piring @ Pulau Tikus Market: 7pm-10.30pm.

Nasi Kandar Yasmeen: 177 Penang Road, open daily 7am-11pm and closed on alternate Wednesdays. Tel : 04.261 0654.

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Line Clear Nasi Kandar: 178 Penang Road, open 24hours excluding Fridays 1pm-2pm and closed on alternate Tuesdays. Tel: 04.261 4440. 

Chu char @ Cintra Street: Sun Yoon Kee and Sin Sun Vood kopitiams, 35 Cintra Street. Open 11am-9.30pm. Tel: 04.2613 987.

This article was written by Paula Tan for Penang International.
Source: Penang International August-September 2012

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