Apologizing for the delay between posts, Diane and I are waking up to our first morning in the new condo. Actually, only one of us is awake which brings me to one of my first points that’s very different from our old life. Nobody in Malaysia gets up early, everything starts agent 8 AM and only the unfortunate souls forced to work in the ungodly morning hours are up. Starbucks doesn’t open until 8 which means I am the first customer in the door and I even found one location that brews actual “brewed coffee” albeit if I wait about 10 minutes since they’d never brew a pot unless some crazy American somehow requests coffee that’s not an espresso based drink. Of course the whole milk option is sure more flavorful than creamer and they usually pour me a little cup on the side as they slowly get used to the white boy who stands at the door waiting for his Morning cup of java. Actually, the incredibly great Starbucks that just opened here in Batu Ferringhi is about a mile walk from the condo so now I’ll be drinking Nescafé and enjoying faster WiFi speeds as I enjoy the view and update the blog.
Making the process of moving even simpler than we thought it could be, our incredible property agent showed up right in time, drove us to the condo and we met the owner, a feisty Chinese woman who came all the way from Johor in the southern part of Malaysia just to meet us. Having already read the relatively simple tenancy agreement or TA as they call it, we spot checked a few amendments, signed three copies which then have to head over to be “stamped” by the official powers that be, and they quickly ran through the semantics like the two car parks (that we don’t need since we have no vehicle), how to pay the rent (simply set up the landlord in as payee and do automatic debits from the checking account) and showed us where the management office and pool area are. Spending about another hour chatting, our new landlord seemed eager for us to stay as long as possible and asked if we’d stay forever. Laughing, we said we have ten years on the MM2H but we’d have to see how things progress. An hour later, the WiFi installer came by after calling us two days ahead of his appointment, asking if he could come now and spent less time than it takes for an American “service person” to even walk in the door to complete the entire process. (The topic of efficiency in Malaysia is for another post; from what we’ve seen, they counter everything we read about slowness, laziness and actually remind me of America in my childhood when customer service was not an oxymoron). The package comes with broadband service at 8 Mb and 17 free channels of useless TV for about $45 USD, not really unreasonable but one of the only expenses priced closer to western standards.
Complete with a sectional sofa, kitchen table, island bar with stools, three beds, a microwave, new TV and DVD player and washer/dryer, the condo is well enough equipped but not really liveable until we make a few shopping trips so we said goodbye, walked down the steep road about 500 feet and waited at the perfectly placed bus stop that’s right in front of the condos. After about five minutes, one of the island’s modern and freezing cold air-conditioned buses showed up and we flashed our seven-day bus pass (MYR 30 for unlimited rides). Constantly telling us how “inconvenient” it is to live so far away from shopping and the big city, we think it’s easy as pie and takes only about 17 minutes to arrive at Tesco, the island’s largest department store. While not as luxurious as anything at Gurney Plaza or the even swankier new Paragon Mall, Tesco has a lot of basic goods to help furnish a condo and we quickly filled up the cart with sheets, bedding, kitchen stuff and toiletries. Leaving the nicer stuff for separate trip later today in the “big city”‘ we called Uber and loaded all the stuff into the friendly drivers’ truck. At a cost of MYR 17, or about four bucks, you can get a glean modern car service style ride all the way back to the “boon docks” without the hassle of a crowded bus. Yes, folks, Uber really works in places where it’s not abused, misused and ruined (usually North America).
Oh yeah, and then there’s the food. And I can’t even begin to say how it’s been worth waiting 50 years to enjoy the cuisine in this country. Without further ado, here’s a small sampling of some of the stuff we’ve chowed down on since arriving in Penang. Most of it is from hawker stands but some is at malls or even restaurants. There is a GST that just started in April, much to the dismay of al out the entire citizenry, but nobody charges it at food stands. Making it even worse, there’s supposed to be a 10% “service charge” imposed on restaurant food that brings the prices of affordable meals up by 16% and puts it out of reach for many locals but enforcement is spotty and places that do charge it make it very clear on the menu. Some places entice customers by blatantly defying it and promoting no service fee so we don’t know if any food cops from the government’s capital center bother traveling to Penang for enforcement. Mostly we avoid those places but sometimes the food is worth the fees and even with it, all meals come out 50 to 70% less than comparable meals in the USA and Canada.
Starting with the more adventuresome, I noticed the stand selling frog porridge at Kafe Viva, one of the island’s better hawker centers with less tourists due to its mid island location. More adventuresome than Diane when it comes to crazy sounding food, I immediately ordered a bowl and found it to taste like a juicier version of quail. Draped in a thick and somewhat gooey dark soy based sauce, it’s been one of my favorite things I tried so far.
Even before we lived here in Batu Ferringhi, we discovered the best and most popular hawker center in town, Kafe Long Beach. One stand serves nothing but hand rolled fresh spring rolls and they taste even better than they look. Easily the best ones we’ve both ever eaten, they’re crispy, not greasy, filled with hand-made ingredients and cost MYR , making them about $1.06 each at today’s amazing conversion rate of 3.76 (The USD is hovering at all time highs versus the Malaysian Ringgit so we recently converted almost about a year’s worth of living expenses. Don’t miss these if you visit.
Probably my version of the world’s most perfect food, a bowl of laksa is worth traveling around the globe for. A spicy noodle soup served in several countries, It generally consists of vermicelli rice noodles, with chicken, prawns or fish served in a spicy soup and there are dozens of types. Penang makes its own variation and it’s listed as number 26 on the world’s tastiest foods compiled by CNN in 2011. A variation of Asam laksa, the sourness comes from a type of dried mangosteens and its main ingredients are shredded fish, (usually small mackerel), finely chopped cucumbers, onions red chilies , pineapple, lettuce, mint and bunga katan (torch ginger). Usually topped with fresh thick sweet prawns, it’s my choice for the best food ever and it’s pictured below. We also ate this at Kafe Long Beach and the other dish shown is an oyster omelette, known as Or Chein. Also delicious but nothing like my prized laksa. Both dishes are amazingly inexpensive at about five ringgit.
Another night we returned to Kafe Long Beach and hit the fresh fish stand. Although the priciest dishes in the hawker court, the prawns in Southeast Asia are to die for and taste sweet and delicious. For about 30 MYR, you get the huge plate shown below that comes with at least 10 prawns. The other dish is exactly it looks like; incredibly delicious little chicken wings grilled in some amazingly sweet and delicious glaze. Tiger beer goes well with everything but unfortunately, heavy beer drinkers need to bring extra cash or head next door to Thailand where taxes are not added on due to the Muslim based government .
One night before we had the condo, we met someone from one of the local forums that picked us up and drove us back to their favorite food spot which of course was Kafe Long Beach. This time we had beef satay sticks and a fried red snapper from the same stand shown above. Fresh fish is abundant and well worth the few extra bucks. The last item was one that looked too carby for us but someone else ordered it so we sampled it. Unclear exactly what the name is, it’s baked seafood cooked in a pineapple and draped with melted cheese.
Possibly the best discovery we made so far, this little gem is Putu Mayam. Sold only on weekends by a guy in an unofficial cart outside the hawker center who toots a little Marx Brothers horn to garner attention, it’s a Tamil dish from Southern India. Consisting of rice flour dipped in water and coconut milk and pressing the dough through a sieve to make vermicelli like noodles, it’s then steamed and served with grated coconut and brown sugar on the side as a dip. One of the only Indian dishes found with noodles, it’s somehow one of the world’s best tasting little treats and at about $0.70 U.S. might be the cheapest.
Like Anthony Bourdain, a bowl of noodle soup is the ultimate comfort food for me. Another Malaysian specialty is Hokkien Mee, a soup consisting of egg noodles and rice noodles served with eggs and either slices of pork or prawns, vegetables and garnished with sambal sauce and lime which gives it the distinctive flavor that nobody in North America can replicate. This bowl was one of the best I’ve had.
Out exploring past Kafe Long Beach one night, we stumbled across Helena Cafe and met Mary Jane, the owner and one of the more interesting characters we’ve seen so far. Married into an Indian family, she spent fifteen minutes chatting with us and her spiel was so interesting, she convinced us to come in, assuring us her cooks can create anything from India. Handing us a small cookbook to scour through, she said we could have anything but we just decided on mutton mutaban, an Indian flatbread stuffed with meat, a fish curry that was so flavorful but not very spicy and some roti that tasted better than anyone I’ve ever had. Finishing the meal, she proceeded to tell us the story of the Jewish settlers that once lived in Penang and even blessed us in Yiddish with what sounded like perfectly spoken words. Promising I’d plug her on the blog, she also has a Facebook page and would love you to visit her little restaurant, located down the street from Kafe Long Beach and ironically, next door to the little café listed as number one in Batu Ferringhi on Trip Advisor ( we haven’t tried it yet so offer no reviews until later).
Trying not to replicate anything for at least a few months, another night we set out and ordered the dishes seen below, also from Kafe Long Beach (yeah, we love that place). The first dish is Bee Hoon, actually a Singaporean dish made from small thin fried vermicelli noodles and various vegetable and meat ingredients. The second dish is clay pot briayani with chicken and we’ve so far found clay pot to be one of the best dishes in Penang, served all over and varying from place to place. The third dish is too spicy for Diane but I love it. Known as Mee Udang, it’s one of ten or twelve variations of Mee (noodle soup) served in Penang and features a rich tomato based gravy with a deep smoky flavor.
Walking around a bit after dinner as we usually do, I wanted to samole one of the strangest offerings just to say I tried it. Rojak is a bizarre fruit and vegetable dish found in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia but served differently in each region. Penang Rojak is like fruit Rojak but adds Jambu air, guava, squid fritters and honey to the already strange mixture and emphasizes the use of tart fruits like raw mangoes and fried tofu puffs. The thick gooey dressing is almost like toffee and ingredients include shrimp paste, sugar, chili, lime juice and tamarind. Not something I’d eat again, I’m unclear why people decided to combine the basic ingredients of a good stir fry with fruit and attempt to make it dessert-like.
Turning back to our first few days in Kuala Lumpur, one day we asked a taxi driver to drop us at an authentic wet market where Chinese people shop and eat and we wound up here. Feasting on Chee Cheong Fun, a Cantonese specialty, we also ate the most delicious home-made Popiah we’ve had so far (a type of spring roll found in various Asian countries).
Exploring one day, we took the bus past Batu Ferringhi to the end of the line which is Penang National Park, where you can hike to Monkey Beach and view other various beautifully scenic attractions. We didn’t hike that day because it was too late in the day to hike comfortably but we did stop for lunch in the town of Teluk Bahang, a sleepy place patronized mostly by backpackers and tourists seeking activities. Cooking us an incredibly huge steamed fish in a broth they called Thai style but that was only slightly vinegary, we also ordered the “small” prawns and it still came with 8 giant-sized and deliciously meaty shrimp but the strange version of chow mien was too wet and we’re told that’s Hokkien style. Sadly, they didn’t master the art of Chinese cooking as the Cantonese have.
Finally (for now), I’m sharing one of my favorite treats, pastries with all kinds of fillings from sweet to sour and everything in between. The store called Bread History has stores all over and they wait ten deep at Gurney Mall where people take trays and bring them to the cashier, often buying a dozen or so which I assume they take home. The first one is Tom Yum Pizza and the second one is chicken sausage with chili sauce. Amazingly tasty little treats.
Yes I could go on and on but it’s time to go back to the mall to do some more shopping. Needing kitchen ware, some small electronics and good towels, we’ll no doubt make it a day and come back with some more great eating adventures so stay tuned.
We’ve already made contact with a new friend thanks to my last post. If you live here and want to get together, please contact us. But please do offer comments and advice even if you don’t