Alex and I spent a while deliberating what to do with our spare week, before meeting his mum, Anita, in the Philippines. After weighing up all our options we decided to head back to Malaysia, believing that the short time we spent in Kuala Lumpur wasn’t representative of the country as a whole.
With this in mind, we settled on Georgetown in Penang. Georgetown has a rich, cultural history, is renowned for its street art scene and is a backpackers stalwart. Aside from all of this, it provided ample opportunity for us to do what we do best: Eat!
The great range of food available in Georgetown can be accounted for through its varied population; European, Chinese, Indian, Thai and of course Malay influences can be seen in the cuisine and architecture.
Ceded to British traders in 1786 by the Sultan of Kedah in exchange for protection from the Burmese and Siamese armies, Penang was ‘founded’ by Captain Francis Light, and was the first area in British control in South East Asia. Unfortunately, Light had told a little white lie about having approval from the East India Company for their agreement, which led to various scuffles over the following years. Controlled by the Japanese during WWII, it was eventually reclaimed by the British until Malaysian independence in 1957.
Georgetown was named after King George III, who was Britain’s ruler at the time of colonisation, and is the capital of the state of Penang and the second largest city in Malaysia. During its time as a primary trading port for the British, Georgetown received a mass of arrivals from across the world, and this is clearly on display when walking down the streets, with colonial and Asian-influenced buildings completely interchangeable. We heard grizzly stories of turf wars between Chinese gangs and those who encroached on their territory (think heads being found down wells). Thankfully, all that remains of those times are beautiful Chinese family buildings, and the City today is a wonderfully peaceful and accepting community.
Considered both a financial and medical tourism hub, Georgetown spearheaded Malaysia’s rapid development, and housed the first English language school in South East Asia. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, the state capital is a medley of cultures, religions and eras amicably jostling in just 47 square miles.
Dubbed the Food Capital of Malaysia, Penang is a smorgasbord of the best the country has to offer, along with a few dishes unique to the state capital itself. We were spoilt for choice with an abundance of hawker centres, street food stalls and highly acclaimed restaurants (among the backpacking population, at the very least). Food is a source of pride and joy to the locals, and each has a recommendation of where to eat next.
We’ve taken a very small sample of the fares we tried over our 5 day visit to share with you, along with a couple of recommendations of where to eat if you find yourselves in Georgetown. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did.
Fresh spring rolls containing a variation of finely grated, steamed or stir-fried turnips, jicama, bean sprouts, French beans, carrots, lettuce leaves, tofu, chopped peanuts, fried shallots and shredded omelet. The inside skin of the crepe is painted with a blend of sweet bean sauce, soy, hoisin sauce, shrimp paste and chili sauce before the filling is delicately rolled in.
We tried popiah from a street vendor on New Lane, and what was immediately apparent was the freshness of the delicious fillings inside. The bean sprouts, carrots and shallots were clearly definable in each bite, and the crunchy peanuts were the perfect compliment to the soft omelet. The sweet and sticky sauce sets the whole ensemble off, and we would have happily devoured two or three portions, were there not so much else to sample.
Chee Cheong Fun
Steamed noodle rolls, sometimes wrapping shrimp or char siu slices. Served with chilli sauce, sesame seeds and a unique sauce made from the lesser used hae ko shrimp paste.
Unexpectedly chewy, the noodles when doused with the sauces made a surprisingly filling snack. The ones we had didn’t come with meat inside, but the spicy, then sweet, then salty sauces kept our palettes guessing, and again the sesame seeds provided a delicate crunch which the soft texture of the noodles would have been missing otherwise. While the food no doubt spoke for itself a special mention has to be given to the chef in the hawker off of Jalan Macalister, who was so passionate and keen to share his amazing food he piled a hefty portion of every sauce onto our plate, so we could try everything there was to offer.
Of Malay and Indonesian origin, Satay has spread from culture to culture and become a dish enjoyed worldwide. Seasoned, skewered or grilled meat, served with a sauce.
Simple and incredibly easily accessible in Georgetown, there was a Satay vendor on almost every corner, each with their own slightly altered take on this internationally renowned dish. We found them great for a quick snack on the go, and generally the found the meat to be moist and perfectly cooked. A must when in Malaysia.
A prime example of the Indian influence on cuisine in Malaysia, roti canai is a flatbread using ghee, clarified butter, for the dough. Traditionally served with lentil curry (dhal), it’s versatility has caused the dish to evolve into countless options, both sweet and savoury.
The many sauces and fillings that come with a roti mean that you can’t really go wrong, ‘there’s a roti for everyone’ as the Malaysians say (… they don’t). We went for a cheese roti and a plain roti from Pelita Samudra Pertama on Jalan Macalister, and they were served in all their crispy but fluffy splendour with a selection of undefined sauces. It was light yet filling, flavourful yet understated and a delicious alternative to the sometimes rice or noodle heavy dishes we had become accustomed to in Asia.
Char Kway Teow
Translated literally as “stir-fried flat rice noodle strips”, the noodles are stir-fried alongside shrimp, cockles, eggs, bean sprouts, chives and Chinese dried sausage (lap cheong), liberally mixed in with soy sauce.
Quite a hearty dish, which leads with soy over spice and a generous meat portion. Our handy pamphlet told us that this dish lures diners with a fragrant, charred aroma emitted from the well-seasoned Chinese wok. This was unfortunately lost in a sea of smells in a hawker centre, so we can neither confirm nor deny these allegations. What we can tell you is that while it may not be a ground-breaking, pioneering foray into the depths of the culinary unknown, we did end up with a clean plate in a short time, which speaks volumes!
A Penang speciality, thick rice vermicelli is garnished with a rich medley of flavours and textures including sliced onions, cucumber, red chilies, lettuce, pineapple, mint and the bud of the torch ginger flower (bunga kantan locally). Hot tamarind and flaked fish meat is poured into the vermicelli, sometimes along with prawn paste and coconut milk.
We tried this when escaping the torrential rain during a trip to Batu Feringgi, venturing into one of the many food markets hidden behind the streetside stalls. It was quite spicy and the broth took centre stage, with the spices dominating the pallet. The coconut milk balanced the concoction nicely, and while there was a pleasant tingling sensation on the tongue it never became uncomfortably hot. The vendor which we selected left us wanting more in terms of meat content and other fillings, but we couldn’t argue with the flavour.
A traditional Nasi Lemak is comprised of several elements, with ‘rich rice’ being the literal translation. Coconut infused rice with pandan leaves is encircled by deep-fried fish or chicken wings, grilled fish paste (otah), fried local anchovies (ikan bilis), peanuts, eggs and cucumber slices. Atop the rice another Malaysian classic, sambal , a spicy chilli paste is applied to taste.
Widely considered the national dish of Malaysia, Alex actually gave this a go on an airplane flying out of KL (side note: we’ve noticed that plane food has massively improved in the last few years, and much of it can actually be classed as ‘edible’ now). Having nicked a couple of bites for myself, I can confirm it was very tasty, and the variety of ingredients complimented each other massively, and the selection on the plate means each bite tastes slightly different.
This is actually one of the few dishes we weren’t blown away by when trying it in Penang. Following our tour guides recommendation we went to ‘My Nyonya’ restaurant and ordered a Nasi Lemak each. Admittedly, we were a little bit prudish and bemused when an entire fish and three staring prawns arrived on our plate, with rice and not a whole lot else. I’ve developed an equally prudish and lazy theory over the last few weeks that once food is on a plate, the hard work should be done. We gingerly picked our way through the fish bones to scrape together a couple of mouthfuls of meat, but presentation and flavour left a little something to be desired. In fairness, this was part of a meal deal which cost absolute peanuts, so I’d put it down to the wrong choice of restaurant, rather than the wrong choice of dish, and would be keen to give it another go in the future.
Despite the above evidence to the contrary, we managed to take time out of our busy eating schedule to see the other treat Georgetown had in store for us. After being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the government applied for pitches worldwide for ways to uniquely brand the City in 2009. The winning idea consisted of steel-rod caricatures depicting stories of the streets and the people, in their own voice. Dotted all over Georgetown, these sculptures are sometimes tongue in cheek but always educational, and were in our opinion a brilliant way to allow the city’s personality to shine through.
Georgetown’s street art scene doesn’t stop there by any stretch of the imagination. It’s impossible to walk down a street without seeing some form of artful grafiti, and it seems to be encouraged in a unique manner here. For the 2012 George Town Festival, Lithuanian Ernest Zacharevic was commisioned to produce murals across the city, which have included an interactive element which has drawn in tourists from across the world.
The artwork across the city continues to blossom and develop, and no two visits to Georgetown will be the same.
Every outing we noticed something new and when combined with the stunning architecture and delicious food, Georgetown is undoubtedly worthy of it’s nickname; ‘The Pearl of the Orient’.