Penang is undeniably the hawker food Mecca in Malaysia.
This tiny island on the west coast of Malaysia is mostly populated by Hokkien-speaking Chinese, Indians and a small number of Malays. Hence, Malay food is not so popular in this part of town, but good, delicious Indian and Chinese cuisines are aplenty at every street corner. Penangians are spoilt for choice; they don’t want laksa, they want the best laksa, Char Kuey Teow is not Char Kuey Teow unless is cooked by the fat lady who wears goggles at such and such street. And Malaysians have the nose for good food and we will hunt them down, whatever it takes.
The first Malaysian dish made famous in Penang that we are going to taste is of course, the Assam Laksa.
Assam Laksa at Pasar Air Itam
You’ll find that there is actually quite a few different variety of Laksas from different regions around Malaysia and they are all very different from each other. I must admit I actually haven’t tried all of them but I do think Penang assam laksa is possibly the most unique among them all, it is not your typical rich coconut cream base curry laksa, but instead a light, fishy, spicy fish stock with an intense screwy-face sourness that is strangely addictive.
You can find assam laksa almost at every corner of the street in Penang, but the most popular spot for a bowl of delicious assam laksa (not necessarily the best) has to be the one at Pasar Air Itam, just around the corner on the way to the Kek Lok Si temple.
This laksa stall by the road side is an institution for the locals and tourists, it has been in business for god knows how long. It has been at the same spot, runs by the same family through many generations. I still can remember I visited this exact same stall, sat on plastic stool and slurping the noodles away when I was probably only 8 years old.
And I still can remember when this laksa stall made the headline in the newspaper back in 80s, being accused by using shredded tissue and newspaper in the fish stock to cut cost from using real mackerel fish. True or not, we never know, nevertheless the business is still thriving and busier as ever, packed with customers who are craving for a bowl of sourness satisfaction.
It is so good that even Anthony Bourdain enjoyed a bowl of assam laksa here and featured in his latest season of “No reservation” show in Penang. Who is laughing to the bank now?
If you have never had Assam Laksa before then it can be rather confronting when you try it for the first time. It is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially if you do not like the strong fishy taste in food. What makes a good assam laksa is definitely the fishy stock, which can take overnight or days to make.
Typically for any style of noodle soups will have the noodles blanched separately in hot water first then tip into a bowl before filling with the broth or soup. But here at the Pasar Air Itam stall, all thick round rice noodle (lai fun) are cooked by ladling hot fish stock straight over the noodles in the bowl, drain and repeat for a numerous time. Tiny fish flakes will get caught between noodles, and finally top with the assam broth before garnishing it with onion, lettuce, mint, chillies, cucumber, ginger flower and of course a good drizzle of pungent “har go” shrimp paste.
The laksa tastes much better than its appearance. It is a hot dish, both in temperature and spiciness wise, but don’t fight it. You will sweat, you will pant, but you will have one hell of a good time slurping the slippery noodle and sipping the spicy hot broth by the spoonfuls until the last drop.
Your only saviour to beat the heat is the iced soy milk drink or sugar cane juice that offer a temporary comfort while your tongue and lips are still tingling from numbness. It is a sweat and tears torturous guilty pleasure.
Pasar Air Itam assam laksa Pasar Road (beside the Air Itam Market), 11500 Air Itam, Penang, Malaysia Open 7 days 11am-8pm
“Oh look, durian!”
The laksa broth hasn’t even settled and still gurgling in our stomachs, but our eyes are already fixated on the spiky fruits dangling seductively on a trolley cart just across the road. We’ve got to have one, or two.
Malaysia durians are the best even if I say so myself. You’ll find durians from Thailand are usually wetter and the flavour is subtle whereas durians in Malaysia are dryer with a firm fibrous flesh and the smell and flavour are definitely stronger. There is a wide range of durians available in the market and whether you like it or not, many of them are actually genetically modified (GM) for a better tasting durian, model “D24″ for instance.
And guess what, some of the best durians in Malaysia are actually come from the south hilly region in Penang and the range of durians available in Penang are mind blogging. Here we try two different type of durians, Hor Loh (Water gourd durian) and a D600.
Hor Loh is typically a smaller durian in the family, once cut open will reveal tiny slender durian flesh with pointy tips inside that shaped of water gourd, hence the name. The flesh is dry and firm, and it has a bitter taste, almost like coffee. It is not everyone cup of tea, I rather enjoy the intense flavour whereas the others prefer the sweeter, fattier and somewhat wetter, D600 which has an alcoholic aftertaste.
If you see people sniffing their fingers after eating durians, yep they are truly durian fans and I am guilty as charge!
Kek Lok Si Temple
Do you know durian has high fat content and very heaty? Best to eat in small doses and drink lots and lots of water afterwards. We decide to burn off all the calories we just consumed and hiked up to Kek Lok Si temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia.
Kek Lok Si is a must visit for any tourists who come to Penang. You will be able to spot the pagoda of 10,000 buddhas high on the hill from Penang downtown. You can climb all the way up to the top of the tower and will be rewarded with an unobtrusive panoramic view of the city skyline.
Temples, statues, shrines and towers were gradually built and added to the complex that sprawls across 10 acres of land. The latest addition in the complex is the giant bronze statue of the Goddess of Mercy which towers 30.2meters in height.
…and then we jump!
… and jump some more! (We miss you, Minh!)
Kek Lok Si Near Jalan Balik Pulau, 11500 Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia Open 7 days 9am-6pm Free entry - a small fee applies to enter the Pagoda
Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul
Stairs climbing and photos jumping makes us thirsty. Next stop is to hunt down one of the most famous chendul stand in Penang. Well, on Penang Road of course. Before food trucks, we have food motorbikes, roaming the busy streets of Malaysia, park at lane ways and locals will know exactly when and where to find them. A few of these food carts have secured their usual spots in this lane way and turned Penang Road into a little street food corner.
The chendul stand is busy as ever, crowded with locals and tourists alike for a quick refreshing Chendul fix. A team of 3 staffs work like a well-oiled machine, one takes the order; one shaves the ice and scoops into bowl, another staff will quickly add a dollop of red bean paste, a lash of sweet sticky palm sugar syrup before pouring a ladleful of coconut milk that is filled with squiggly green pandan jelly.
Drinking an icy cold sweet drink under the scorching Malaysia heat, you can’t help but letting out a sigh of relief.
Oh look! There is an old kopitiam how conveniently located just around the corner. More food?
Joo Hooi Cafe
No hurt for some snack before lunch, right? This kopitiam (cafe) is a favourite local haunt, has been established for decades and still standing strong. It is tiny, pokey and dark inside; not a place where you want to linger for long, but best to just order the food, eat and leave. While the assam laksa here is one of the attractions, but we simply can’t resist the luring aroma of Char Kueh Teow wafting through the air and order ourselves a plate to share.
The Char Kueh Teow arrives in a plate, serves on banana leaf that slowly infuses for extra aroma. The flat rice noodle is a little thinner than I am used to, even though a little of the greasy side but the caramelised noodle is a good sign of ‘wok hei’. Plump fresh prawns are juicy while the bean sprouts give the dish a nice crunch. A great way to open up our appetites and we want more food!
Joo Hooi Kopitiam 475 Jalan Penang, Georgetown, 10000 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Tek Sen Restaurant
We hit up Tek Sen Restaurant for lunch. I’ve heard many rave reviews about this famous restaurant in Penang that specialises in Teochew cuisine, especially their signature dish, the candied pork lardon. We order a few dishes recommended by the waiter and share over bowls of steamed rice.
The assam curry fish here is famous for the right reason. The fish of choice in this curry is skate or more commonly known as stingray, the white sweet delicate meat is soaking up the hot and sour tamarind curry sauce, it is not that difficult to start breaking a sweat devouring this beautiful dish.
A simply classic Teowchew dish, the stir fried bitter gourd with salted duck egg offers a refreshing relief from the fiery curry fish. The gourd does have an acquired bitter taste, but you know what they say, anything taste bitter is good for you.
The stir fried belacan kangkung has always been a favourite of mine and they definitely fried up a mean version of it here at Tek Sen. It is not that difficult to understand why we named this dish “The scenery of Malaya” in Malaysia. The aroma and taste of this dish truly reflects the beauty of Malaysia.
Then, there is the most talked about dish, the candied pork lardon, or here they simply called it “Siew Yuk” (roast pork). It is a new interpretation of a dish traditionally made with leftover roast pork, cut into thin strips and fried with dark soy and sugar until it is caramelised and sticky sweet. It is a tad too sweet for my liking as I still prefer the Hokkien version where I can drizzle the dark soy sauce over steamed rice.
Tek Sen Restaurant Ground Floor of No.18 & 20. Carnarvon Street 10100 Georgetown, Penang
Durian Hunt at Balik Pulau
You seriously didn’t think our durian eating journey in Penang will stop at two, did you? If the durians don’t come to us, we go hunt them down! An hour drive to Balik Pulau along the windy road, you will find yourself in the midst of the hilly west side of Penang, where durian plantations aplenty.
A few plantations are open to public that offers durian tasting, but if you are pressing for time like us, then simply pull the car over on the side of the road, and join in the durian feasting at the many roadside stalls.
Not really sure what durians are on offer, we simply let the stall holder to pick a few and let us try. Opening a durian without the right tool can be challenging, and extremely dangerous.
But when there is a will, there is a way….
The durian splits open at tail end effortlessly.
The first durian we tried is Ang Sim, means “red heart” in Chinese. The name derives from its dark yellow flesh inside the durian, it is a highly sought after variety with very sweet flavour and soft creamy flesh. We demolish the first one within seconds and order some more.
The next two durians are sadly rather disappointing. These D600 are not quite ripe as the flesh inside is still a little firm and inedible. Nevertheless, we pick out all the soft part and still having a great time sucking on the stones. For the three durians we ate, the cost comes to a total whopping of RM120, which is around AUD40.00, is not cheap that for sure, especially two out of three were duds.
share a durian and let’s get stinky together.
Buddhist Temple Visits
By now you probably really think all that we did in Penang was eating, eating and eating; which is… well… 99% true. While we were not stuffing ourselves silly with food, we actually spend some quality time exploring a few of the many Buddhist temples around Penang.
Until next time, byeeeee!
Malaysia Culinary Tour Craving Malaysian food after reading this post? Join Billy Law in Malaysia and he will show you all the best spots in Malaysia for good food. But you have to hurry, only 2 spots left and the tour travels in November 2012. Date: 31 Oct - 8 Nov 2012 Cost: $2299 ($100 OFF to book before 15 September) For more info, please visit: http://www.uniqueculinarytours.com