I misled you. Shame on me.
We’ve never been to Penang even though we’ll be moving there in 2015. I’d be remiss if I described 12 reasons that I’ve not yet experienced. However, we have eaten some of the food on our exploratory trip to Borneo and Singapore. Penang is world-renowned as the premier gastronomic food destination in Southeast Asia. Anthony Bourdain raves about it so who am I to argue?
Can all the best reasons to live somewhere be related to the local cuisine? Probably not. But eating ranks up there as a top contender. I therefore offer up 12 dishes that look fascinating. Once we arrive my goal is to try all 12 within the first two weeks. I’ll then share my thoughts in greater detail. I’ve arranged the items in an order of familiarity to me which certainly doesn’t say a lot.
1) Char Kway Teow
The most ubiquitous hawker food in Penang, I’ve had many Americanized versions of this awesome noodle dish and even a few Canadian entries. There are many variations across Malaysia and Singapore but I’m told Penang has the best version. It’s a Chinese creation made from bean spouts, cockles, Chinese sausage, fresh prawns, chives, eggs, soy sauce and of course, noodles.
2) Mee Goreng
I’m told the hawkers (street vendors) use some special secret sauce in Penang that differentiates it from Kuala Lumpur’s version. Cooked with yellow egg noodles, it has a sweet, sour and tangy taste. They ladle the sauce in while stir frying and then squeeze lime over the noodles to accentuate its flavors. Penang’s version is supposedly reddish but not soaked in gravy. Ingredients include cubed boiled potatoes, fritters made of fried flour and green onions, cuttlefish, soybean curd and bean sprouts. Eggs are optional.
Apparently you can ask the vendors to add additional items that are laid out beforehand including “paru” (deep-fried cow’s lung pictured here -I’ve never had it). I’ve had this in Singapore but it didn’t look like this. They may have skipped the lungs.
3) Nasi Kandar
Originally from the British colonial period, this dish translates literally “rice carried on shoulder with stick”, referring to the Indian-Muslim vendors who balanced two heavy containers on each end of a stick. I’ve read this is a national favorite of Malaysians but can’t verify that from Walnut Creek, California. Apparently one of the more confusing dishes to define, the ingredients depend on the restaurant but can include giant tiger prawns in spices, beef simmered in thick soy sauce, marinated quail, stewed crab with spicy masala curry, fish head curry, squid curry or chicken coated in aromatic spices. I’m guessing what I tasted at the opulent Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore probably had one of these ingredients but I can’t really remember.
4) Hokkien Mee
Introduced by immigrants from the Southeastern province of Fujian in China and unique to Penang is this noodle dish. Holding the secret to the recipe, soup stock is made from prawn shells and pork bones then boiled for hours resulting in a reddish-brown mildly spicy broth. It’s then garnished with rice vermicelli, yellow egg noodles, bean sprouts, shelled shrimp , thinly sliced pork and a hard-boiled egg. For the finishing touch, it’s topped with crispy deep-fried shallots and served with chili paste. All for about one dollar (3 RM). Since I’ve never been to Penang I’ve never had this version although it’s served in North American Malaysian restaurants, probably much faster.
5) Curry Mee
You may know this dish as Curry Laksa and it can certainly be found in various forms throughout America. Penang has a unique version, lighter than its cousins. The broth is soupier and not as rich. It’s a Chinese dish at heart. Ingredients vary but usually include bean sprouts, long beans, soybean puffs, shelled prawns, cockles, cubed coagulated pig’s blood (yum) and cuttlefish. Garnished with mint leaves and chili paste, locals order it with half yellow egg noodles and half rice vermicelli. I love laksa and the spicier the better so bring it on !!
6) Char Kway Kak
Hokkien for stir-fried radish cake, the key ingredient is made from white radish and rice flour. Designed to ruin my entire 18 month layoff/semi-retirement exercise regiment, it’s then stir fried in lard and includes eggs, bean sprouts and preserved vegetables with black soy sauce and chili paste. It’s supposed to have a smoky taste which derived from the “wok hei” (the breath of the wok). Looks good but perhaps I’ll limit the lard infested dishes.
Many Asians are probably familiar with this shaved ice dessert which is perfect for the hot humid days of the tropics. The green wormy stuff is actually a jade green gelatinous noodle made from green pea flour. Topped with shaved ice, coconut mil and palm sugar, it usually has a milky brown color.
Fortunately for my waistline, I am not a fan no matter where I’ve eaten this slop. I’ll save my calories for the ice cream shops as seen below Ha ha. (Asians will get the joke).
Penang’s version of Del Monte Canned Fruit Salad consists of bite sized crunchy cucumber slices, pineapple, green mango, Java Apple (“Jambu Air), bean sprouts, soybean puffs and fried dough fritters. Basically it’s an Asian version of that dessert everyone loves at a state fair. The dressing is a sweet and spicy mix of sugar, lime juice and a dark brown pungent prawn paste. Blending all ingredients, the fruits are then coated with the glossy brown dressing and topped with peanuts. The jury is out on this one; I’ve never had it and I may skip the dessert foods altogether.
Penang’s version of a spring roll, the name means thin water derives from the skin, a crêpe made of wheat flour. The skin is thin but strong enough to hold the ingredients and sauce without ripping. Filling includes soybean curd, eggs and vegetable stew made from jicama or white fleshed root vegetable known as a yambean.
The sauce is sweet chili sauce similar to North American versions. I’ve never had them but I love spring rolls and this is one the healthier options making it a good choice.
I am totally unfamiliar with the last three items but willing to try almost anything; it’s part if the fun. I ate bugs in Thailand; crunchy and not much flavor.
10) Kway Teow Thing
There’s something strange about a food item named “thing”, no? This dish is Hokkien for broad flat rice noodle in soup. Why not call it Broad Flat Rice Noodle Soup? It’s one of the few non spicy dishes on the hawker menu, perhaps good for our inevitable stomach revolt. Ingredients are fish balls, fish cake and steamed chicken in a flavorful chicken or pork stock. Almost boring by comparison, it’s served with chili padi in soy sauce, ensuring that even non spicy foods are served with a spiced up option. Sounds like Chinese Pho to me.
11) Assam Laksa
Peranakan Chinese are the descendants of 15th to 17th century Chinese immigrants to Malaysia and this is their signature dish. The Penang version of Laksa is spicy and sour. Made from a fish broth of poached and deboned mackerel and flavored with tamarind, lemongrass, chillies and shrimp paste, this one sounds like a winner for me. Authentic Assam Laksa is a thick soup and the noodle is rice vermicelli thicker than most, similar to an udon noodle. Other ingredients include cucumber, red onion, torch ginger, chillies,, chopped pineapple and shredded lettuce. Served with a dollop of brown paste made from shrimp paste, it’s also considered to be a healthier option because the noodles are not fried. It may become one of my favorites.
12) Oh Chien
Rounding out the bunch is a Chinese oyster omelette with tapioca flour, making it sound like a gooey mixture of delicious. Oysters are stir fried with garlic, chili paste and shallots before being added to the mixture. Naturally, it’s served with a dollop of minced garlic to give it a kick. Another dish often fried in lard, it sounds better to visit the local market and cook some eggs at home.
And there you have it ! Twelve great reasons why Penang is a great place to live. Stay tuned to this channel for further details of the Stomach Reaction Report once we arrive. Toilet paper will no doubt be high on the shopping list in the beginning as will Pepto Bismal.