36hrs (or so) of eating / Food Travel Asia

3 days (of eating and drinking) in Penang.

Penang wasn’t originally on the itinerary when I booked my South East Asia adventure, but as I did research for the trip, I started to wonder why it wasn’t. When I talked to friends about Penang, it seemed that it was well suited to my food focused travel desires. People told me I’d be missing out if I went to Malaysia and didn’t include Penang in my itinerary. There was so much enthusiasm towards Penang, I knew I had to adjust my plans to include it on this trip.

Arriving from Singapore to Penang, we weren’t sure what the Uber/Grab situation was from the airport so we hopped in a taxi to take us to George Town, the capital city of Penang. It was a cab ride that reminded me of why I hate cab rides… Dirty, stinky with an unfriendly driver. I resolved to use my ride share apps exclusively in Malaysia when I needed a car from there on in.

After my unpleasant ride into George Town, I was happy to be dropped off at the beautiful Seven Terraces Hotel.  I’ve stayed in hundreds of hotels in my lifetime and the Seven Terraces sits within “the tops” of refinement, service and architecture.

While I could have just kicked my shoes off and revelled in the beauty of the hotel, I had a George Town list that I needed to tackle. First up, was to start checking out the diverse street art, but I needed a pick me up first.

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Down a non-descript street beside my hotel, inside an older looking building was The Alley, a funky little coffee shop.

The Alley Penang coffee

It was hot, so I chose a cold brew. “Drink twice a day to combat annoying colleagues” – I thought I needed to bring a caseload home.

The Alley Penang churros

I’d read their churros were amazing, and while they weren’t that, these were a good sugar fix.

A short walk around George Town and it struck me why I was so drawn to it. In so many ways, it reminded me of Oaxaca 10 years ago. A great food city, a Unesco heritage site, amazing street art, and a feeling like it was on the cusp of becoming a truly hip city, (much to the chagrin of traditionalists).

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An afternoon nap, the best respite from the heat, I was ready to explore again. I’d heard there was a good view bar on top of the Bayview hotel nearby and wanted to check out Penang from above.

Bayview Hotel Penang

Lychee elderflower martini in a short glass. Looking east towards the Malaysian mainland at sunset.

While the 360 degree view bar was a nice way to orient myself to Penang from above, the actual cocktail itself left a bit to be desired. Our next stop was Mish Mash, which had gotten good write-ups about their drinks.

Mish Mash mezcal margarita

Mish Mash had all the potential of being an amazing place to grab a cocktail. Unfortunately for all of their try, the hot climate means ice melts quickly and a long shake resulted in a watery drink.  Despite that, having a mezcal margarita in Penang was trippy enough for me for it to be a fun experience.

When my boss, who’s from Penang, found out I was making this trip, she made me a map of eating with recommendations for the dishes I needed to try and the places I should try them. The list was so long, too many suggestions for a trip so short, but it was a fantastic resource. So when I decided that I waned to satiate my craving for Indian food, I just turned to my list and found the recommendation of Hameediyah restaurant.

Hameediyah Georgetown

While I eat very good Indian at home, I rarely veer outside my favorites, which I know are probably like the sweet and sour pork and lemon chicken of “Chinese” cuisine. The Indian food at home is also mostly Punjabi, so I was curious to try the more Southern-based Indian food they had in Malaysia.

Hameediyah is an Indian-Muslim restaurant that is one of the best places in Penang to enjoy authentic Nasi Kandar, which consists of a plate of rice surrounded by various curries and side dishes.

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Vats of delicious looking proteins in sauces. There were so many choices, we didn’t know where to start, so we let them choose for us.

Hameediyah nasi kandar biryani

Instead of plain white rice, I went for the more flavourful biryani. The proteins were deeply flavoured and less rich than what I have at home. This is a place that I’d love to have returned to. If only I had more time.

Just as in Singapore, I knew the best way to beat the heat was by heading out early to see the sights. But getting up early means needing a quick jolt of caffeine to get me started. Lucky for me, I could grab some from my hotel and scarf back a cup while taking in the beautiful surroundings.

Seven terraces coffee

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Checking out the jetties. The most recommended Chew jetty turned out to be a huge tourist area.

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Solitude and beauty on the peaceful Tan jetty.

After the walk, it was time to get focused on eating again. My list directed me to the morning  Chowrasta market, which  yielded some amazing papaya and jackfruit, but I was hungry for something more substantial. Lucky for me, another recommendation was just around the corner.

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Transfer Road penang roti

Roti canai at Transfer Road turned out out to be a roadside stand which serves roti along with different meats with curry. I wasn’t hungry for a leg of chicken or piece of meat, so I asked for just a roti.

Transfer road roti

A light and fluffy roti served with an egg inside dipped in a rich curry sauce, was just my kind of savory breakfast.

While the roti & accompanying curry sauce were delicious, it wasn’t quite enough to tide me over. From the recommendations I’d seen online of things “I must eat in Penang”, wan than mee kept coming up and Hong Kee seemed like the perfect way to end my morning out.

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Homemade bamboo pressed noodles in the making.

Hong Kee Wan Tun Mee Penang

The springy homemade noodles were delicious, but I couldn’t help but feel that this dish is something I’d be able to find just as good at home. Never a feeling I want to have when I’m trying to be adventurous in eating halfway around the world.

I realized I had too many things I wanted to try on my list and not enough time to try it all,  so I prioritized what I wanted and even then, I knew there was going to be a push to get it in.

A bowl of white curry mee was a must in my mind, so we fit it in as a mid-day snack.

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Hot Bowl white curry mee

White curry mee with “everything” but pigs blood. Served with the chili paste on the side so you could decide for yourself how hot you wanted it to be.

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The everything (else) included fried tofu, cockles, prawns, and cuttlefish with a mix of yellow noodles and rice vermicelli. Mixed with the chili sauce, this complex bowl was one of the best things I ate my whole trip. This photo isn’t great, but sometimes delicious isn’t pretty.

I was a week into my Asia trip and I hit the wall on Asian food. I needed a break and found the perfect place to satisfy my “western” craving. And who’s kidding whom? I was also craving a glass of red wine.

Georgetown WInes

Georgetown Wines, a great wine lounge with an Italian focused menu.

Georgetown wines clams

Clams with garlic and white wine

Georgetown Wines pasta

King prawn aglio oilo pasta

Bright and early the next morning, we hopped into a Grab and headed out to the Kek Lok Si temple, Southeast Asia’s largest Buddhist temple.

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My original thought was to eat lunch in Air Itam, where the temple was located. I knew of a few highly recommended bowls of noodles, but the heat had gotten to me and I wasn’t in the mood to continue on. We were able to easily get picked up from the temple and whisked back to George Town.

2 dishes I had yet to try were popiah and asam laksa and I knew my boss wouldn’t let me hear the end of it if I didn’t try them before I left (I knew I’d cut flack for not trying durian as well). I knew I could find both at the Joo Hooi Cafe. I was surprised when I entered Joo Hooi as it wasn’t really a cafe, but more a room of tables and chairs surrounded by different food stands. No matter, they still had what I was looking for.

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Asam laksa, seafood popiah and a plate of char kway teow

Joo Hooi asam laksa

Asam laksa was listed as “a must” on most people’s lists, but the fishy broth and sourness were too pungent a combination for me to love at first bite.

Joo hooi char kuey teow

Char kway teow is not a pretty thing to look at, but is a beautiful thing to eat.

On our last evening in Penang, I knew there was one more place I wanted to check out. The once abandoned Hin Bus Depot had been transformed into a permanent art collective, with rotating exhibitions and creative spaces. Unfortunately, we weren’t there for the Sunday pop-up market, but I enjoyed wandering through it nonetheless.

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As we wandered back toward the center of George Town, we stopped in at China House, a compound of 3 heritage buildings divided into different spaces for food, drink, galleries and shopping. It was a hipsters delight of a hang out, and while I am pretty far from being hip, it seemed like a nice place to sit for a drink.

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We’d passed by the Mews Cafe the previous night and its pretty terrace along with the interesting Peranakan menu made it the perfect choice for our last night in Penang.

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Muntri Mews margarita

Frozen lychee margarita – the best drink I had in Penang.

Muntri Mews salad roll

Vietnamese spring rolls with chicken because I was craving raw crunchy vegetables.

Muntri mews cafe nasi goreng fried chicken

Ayam perchick – sweet and spicy grilled chicken with peanuts

Muntri mews cafe ikan sambal

Ikan sambal – seabass steamed with sambal in a banana leaf served with blue rice. The sambal on this dish was a mind blowing taste experience in its simple complexity. This was a dish that reinforced why I love travelling, because without travelling I never would have been introduced to a sambal with such flavour. I will dream of eating a sambal like this again.

On the morning of departure, there was one last thing I needed to try. Nasi lemak is coconut rice topped with various toppings and wrapped up in a triangular bundle in a banana leaf. Ali Nasi Lemak, located down the street from my hotel had a fantastic version of this.

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Ali nasi lemak Penang

Topped with an egg, anchovies and sambal sauce, this bundle of joy would be my breakfast go to, if only we had it in Vancouver.

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These fried bananas looked too good to not order.

I was so happy to have visited Penang on this trip. I feel like if I’d waited I would have missed seeing it while it was still charming. I hope its Unesco designation keeps what is so alluring about Penang in tact, because the food was so good, I hope to visit again some day…

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