What to eat, where to eat, what are the local culinary interests plague the minds of travelers eager to get a glimpse, or taste of the local flavors.
I am compiling a short list to help guide some of the adventurous taste buds to the local flavors of Penang; the island off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia.
Besides the title Pearl of the Orient which Penang holds so proudly all the while, Penang wears another feather in her cap as the state is also well known as a food paradise.
It is not a surprising fact to the locals, or even most Malaysians for that fact, for within the little island holds many exotic flavors unique only to the local tastes thus making them sought after and craved by most travelers even after they have long left the island.
Even Malaysians from other states could not help but lust after these local delights that it is not surprising to see the narrow roads in Penang crowded with cars and motorists; mostly from other states during long weekends or public holidays to enjoy a short break on the island.
So, what are they truly looking for, and being a resident of the island, what do we recommend most to the first-time travelers or those who seek to know more about the food in Penang?
Let me begin with this list which I hope can help to provide a quick insight to the eating guide in Penang.
No one walks away from the island without tasting this weirdly fragrant yet exotic sour fish-based soup which is a potpourri of tamarind and the locals' favorite; shrimp paste as the vital ingredient.
The smooth rice noodles cooked in the broth proves to be nothing more than a snack for the locals; who usually enjoy this in between meals and rarely is this treated as a main course due to its sourish taste which tends to whet one's appetite or makes one hungry within a short period.
Be warned, this may not be the type of taste that most can stomach; and flagged as one for the adventurous.
Chee Cheong Fun
Another dish using the shrimp paste as its accompanying gravy, this simple dish of steamed flat rice noodles
Simple enough; one can choose to have either the flat rice noodles or fun, as it is usually known to the locals, in its flat shape (above) or cut in rolls (below).
One can also choose the accompanying gravy; either the shrimp paste sauce (which can emit a rather exotic scent or odor, to some who cannot take it), or even a sweet fermented bean sauce, or plain soy sauce along with chili paste.
If you are adventurous enough, you can just opt to mix all the sauces. Don't forget the sesame seeds and fried shallots to garnish and add flavor to this plain dish and enjoy the taste of this simple dish!
Char Koay Teow
Flat rice noodles fried with light soy sauce, eggs, spring onions and juicy bean sprouts along with cockles, prawns and dried Chinese sausage (lap cheong)
The key to the perfection of this dish lies in the wok hei, a Chinese saying to describe the way the chef controls the stir-frying in the wok; which makes the food taste exceptionally well not to mention aromatic.
The Char Koay teow would taste even better, as most locals recommend when it is cooked over charcoal and served with banana leaf; a practice which is slowly dying in the present.
One of the spicy favorites of the locals for breakfast or throughout the day is this aromatic bowl of yellow noodles and rice vermicelli (mee hoon) cooked with a broth of prawns and its shells. The locals like it even more spicy and add in that extra spoonful of chili paste which usually comes along with that consuming spoon when served. Immersed in the fragrant broth of prawns, the noodles give that aromatic speck when consumed along with the bean sprouts, water convulvus (kangkung), pork/chicken slices, shrimps, hard boiled eggs and shallots to garnish the noodles.
This is also known as Prawn Mee in the southern region of Malaysia; or particularly in the Kuala Lumpur city.
Another version of the noodles which is almost similar to the Hokkien mee, but the non-spicy version is the Lor Mee; which is cooked in an exceptionally thick starch of a broth and soy sauce sans the chili paste or the prawn broth. This may be a less popular bowl of noodles but does not make it any less better than the rest of the list, and is an option for those who are not fond of spicy food.
As the name suggests, the broth is of curry flavor to soak the yellow noodles and rice vermicelli (this seems to be a popular combination for the local delights of noodles). There are many versions of this; with some of the vendors getting creative and cooking their curry using the Peranakan style to give it that more aromatic flavor. There are also some which uses the internal pork organs as some of its main ingredients as enjoyed by some of the more adventurous locals.
Koay Teow Th'ng
This is a simpler bowl of soup noodles using flat rice noodles; or Koay Teow, as the locals call it and served with fishballs, meatballs and sliced chicken. Like the previous Curry mee, this simple delight is also sometimes served with an addition of internal pork organs; mainly pork liver as a condiment and upon the customer's request.
Stir-fried yellow noodles and rice vermicelli (mee hoon) in light soy sauce, this is another dish which depends on the 'wok hei' of the cooking process which distinguishes it among the many different versions served all over the places and determines the best version of them all. It can be quite hard to find a good plate of noodles fried the Hokkien (a type of Chinese clan) style.
Yee Foo Noodles
Using a type of slightly fried beforehand noodles, this is also a little similar to the Hokkien char and is one of the favorite local delight among the locals which they vary with the Hokkien Char.
Light broth of yellow noodles served with rice vermicelli sometimes and a range of condiments which could be in the form of shrimps, fishballs, and sliced pork.
Though this can be found almost anywhere in the whole of Malaysia and even in most Chinese-populated places, somehow this plate of egg noodles boiled and mixed with light soy sauce then served with the fragrant pieces of roast pork and green vegetables still make its way to the list of one of the local favorites.
Hope this list could help to guide those who are new to Penang, or are wondering what to eat when on this island nicknamed as the Pearl of the Orient.
You are welcome to send me any query; I will try my best to help ;-)
To be continued with more Penang goodies...