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The exotic tastes of island life
The exotic tastes of island life

Eating is a national pastime in Malaysia and nowhere is the menu more diverse than in Penang, where Chinese, Indian, Malay and Peranakan cuisine all qualify as local.

The island is said to have the best street food in Asia and some of the dishes served up in the old spice-trading centre definitely have a bit of a kick.

I thought my aversion to seafood would leave me hungry, since island cuisines tend to be heavy on the fish but the range of ingredients is wide, from noodles, rice and locally grown vegetables to peculiar fruits, pork, lamb, beef and tofu, not to mention the sugar-heavy desserts.

I did have to abstain from two local favourites; hokkien mee, a spicy prawn and pork rib soup of vermicelli, prawns, bean sprouts and watercress as well as Penang laksa, the tamarind- based sweet and spicy noodle dish which is loaded with chunks of mackerel.

Good street food can be found almost anywhere on the island. One local told me that bad hawkers don't last very long and on Gurney Drive some of the stalls that stretch for hundreds of metres along the waterfront have been in the same family for years.

Preparation can verge on performance art. Take the popular teh tarik, for instance. This sugary, milky tea concoction is tossed into a froth as the maker draws it from glass to glass. Midair, it thickens to a grey slurry before finally settling brown in the glass.

The roti makers are similarly demonstrative, whipping the dripping yellow batter on to a hot oily pan and then flipping it as it feathers on the heat. Roti originates on the subcontinent but Malaysia has made the light, fluffy bread its own. It can be enjoyed filled or plain and is delicious at any time of the day or night for George Town is a city that never stops eating. In the early hours of the morning the stalls along Chulia Street and Upper Penang Road do a roaring trade as backpackers and revellers spill out of the pubs and clubs.

The process of pigging out Penang-style has been streamlined at the New World Park Food Court where diners move between stalls, ordering with a table number and then paying for each dish as it is delivered.

But watching the food being cooked is just as much fun as eating it with at least 30 stalls selling Penangi staples such as char kway teow - a pork fat stir-fry of flat rice noodles, bean sprouts, prawn, cockles, chicken and egg, and curry mee - a congealed pork blood soup of noodles, coconut milk, prawns, clam and cockles.

At one shop, triangular banana leaf parcels of rice, pork, salted egg, chestnut and mushroom called bah chay hang from a rack like fruit on a tree while nearby a man thumps and stretches roti on a hotplate.

Some recipes require more subtlety. I cross the food court to watch a cook move along a line of clay pots simmering on individual gas rings. To each he adds soy sauce and on subsequent laps, noodles, egg and then, finally, prawn. Then the piping-hot pots are delivered to the table.

Between us, my driver Wong and I compile a big lunch of char kway teow, chicken satay and roti canai for about $3. Full up, I decline a spring roll from the roaming vendor and stay well away from the pig blood soup.

But judging by the queue at Lee New World, a stall heaving with bananas, melon and durian, no one is leaving without dessert. Penang's sweets are interesting, to say the least. Earlier in my visit I tried cap sam, a sesame-topped pastry with a pork floss filling. Another popular choice is rojak, a mix of fruit or vegetables such as pineapple, melon or cucumber smeared in a prawn and chilli paste while ais kacang is a shaved ice, fruit syrup, red bean, palm seed and condensed milk concoction all Malays seem to love.

I stay conservative and order a pancake filled with fried banana and peanut butter.

The English have been enjoying high tea, the cool and the view at the top of Penang Hill for well over a century but the 830m climb through thick jungle was difficult until a funicular railway was completed in 1906.

That track was upgraded again last year and new cars drag passengers up Bukit Bendera, as the locals call it, every half-hour.

The best views of the city are at David Brown's Restaurant & Tea Terraces. Named for an early Scottish spice grower, the restaurant is tucked among the heliconia and orchid gardens and has a koi-filled lily pond and a population of black and white butterflies the size of small birds. The menu is more Pennines than Penang but totally in keeping with the first of the British hill stations.

The signature dish is beef Wellington (RM80/$25.60) and there are English standards such as oxtail stew and dumplings (RM67/$21.40) or vegetarian bubble and squeak (RM48/$15.35) followed by bread and butter pudding (RM24/$7.70) and fresh fruit crumble (RM32/$10.25) and washed down with tea and a selection of spirits.

Back down at sea level, the Hai Nan Town restaurant serves Peranakan cuisine at the Tanjong City Marina. It's rich, spicy food that draws influence from all over the Straits and Indonesia. Many of the dishes are seafood curries but it also does a beef rendang (RM34/$10.90).

I finish my meal with another of Penang's sweet/savoury desserts - bee koh moy - glutinous black rice with a salty bean paste. It's a lot nicer than it sounds.

I absolutely adore Indian food and seek it out wherever I travel.

While some travellers have a club sandwich scale or a mojito measure, comparing the local version each place they go, I have a biryani barometer, which obliges me to eat the tasty rice dish on every trip.

Penang's big Indian community are mostly Tamil so the food tends to be southern Indian, spicy and served more with rice rather than bread. And this is the tradition that's followed at popular George Town restaurant Sri Ananda Bhawan.

On a Sunday afternoon, the place is packed with extended families; grandparents, parents and kids, huddled over food- covered banana leaves pinching rice and curry together with their right hands. A wave of the left summons a bucket-bearing waiter to dispense more pappadums or rice.

The banana leaf is said to accentuate the taste of the curry, of which there is a fantastic range very cheaply priced. I count eight mutton dishes from rogan josh to Punjabi style, each about $3; five prawn curries and beef, chicken, fish and vegetarian dishes; 11 types of roti and combinations that come with naan, a samosa or a spring roll.

My chicken biryani arrives on a serving plate, which for the sake of my shirt is probably for the best. The chicken leg is encased in a ball of rice and there's a boiled egg, some deliciously spicy gravy and, to moderate this, a portion of yoghurt with cucumber. Mixed together, with the chaser of yoghurt between mouthfuls, it is one of the best biryanis I've eaten, the rice is light and fluffy and thoroughly spiced. The price is easy to swallow, too, ringing in at less than $3.

I add a side of similarly priced palak paneer - cubes of cheese in a spinach, green chilli and onion sauce - and find it just as good. Perhaps I need to develop a spinach scale.

·Niall McIlroy visited George Town as a guest of Tourism Malaysia, Malaysia Airlines and G Hotel Penang.

  • fact file *

·For more on Penang, go to tourismmalaysia.com.au.

·Malaysia Airlines has 10 flights a week from Perth to Penang through Kuala Lumpur. The daily afternoon service will have passengers in Penang after midnight while each Monday, Friday and Sunday the early-morning flight gives travellers the option to arrive mid-morning. Until June 26, return economy-class fares between Perth and Penang are from $710 and business class with 40kg luggage allowance from $3535, for travel July 2 to November 30. travel agents and malaysiaairlines.com.

·New World Park Food Court is at Lorong Swatow.

·David Brown's Restaurant & Tea Terraces is at Strawberry Hill, Bukit Bendera. <a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.penanghillco.com.my">www.penanghillco.com.my </a>.

·Hai Nan Town restaurant is at the end of Lebuh Light next to Penang Jetty.

·Sri Ananda Bhawan is at 55 Penang Street. srianandabahwan.com.

·G Hotel on Gurney Drive is a good base from which to explore George Town. Until December 31, standard rooms start from RM410 ($130) or RM460 ($146) with breakfast. Both prices are plus 16 per cent tax. ghotel.com.my

Good street food can be found almost anywhere on the island. One local told me that bad hawkers don't last very long . . .