Realizing the expat experience isn’t complete until you immerse yourself into the local shopping scene away from the tourists, Diane and I made our first trip to the night market in Tanjung Bungah. Already regularly frequenting the morning market weekly for eggs and fruit, someone told us they run a night market on Tuesdays so we checked it out. More extensive and crowded, the local wet market is one place where expats really learn to immerse with the local community and our experience was no different. Lacking tourists due to its ideal location in between the island’s major attractions, we arrived early and found it was already crowded by 7 PM. Unlike the morning market, there’s lots of merchandise and an endless chain of food stands that stretched around two corners and featured food items we hadn’t yet seen and some we never heard of.
Jumping right in, we immediately purchased a pork bun and rounded the corner where the food jumped out at us. Approaching a stand serving a beverage called Lo Han Kuo, I decided I had to try some just because it looked like iced tea and would seemingly be refreshing on a hot evening. Attempting to ask about it proved fruitless because as I’ve mentioned, Hokkien Chinese is completely foreign to Diane and although they often talk to her in Chinese, she can’t understand one word. Still friendly but not as patient as hawkers in touristy areas, the vendor mouthed something about cough and we determined it meant “an herbal remedy for sore throats”. Tasting slightly sweet, there was a fruit in the bottom that looked like a small plum but I couldn’t really name it. Satisfied, we moved on and didn’t realize how many food vendors were at night markets, including almost every type of Malaysian, Indian, Indonesian, Thai, Chinese and even some strange-looking version of Western food. (I have yet to taste anything from the “western food” stands, figuring McDonalds, KFC and Dominos Pizza can fill my craving when that time arrives).
Harkening back to my childhood days of New York Chinese food, (otherwise known as “lo-fan food” meaning it’s an Americanized fake dish like orange chicken or chop suey), we saw a stand making fresh prawn crackers. Almost always stale in any restaurant I’ve ever been in, these golden fried pieces of deliciousness rock when they first come out of the deep fryer and these were so big, we took a picture of one next to Diane’s foot to illustrate the point. Although pricey for what they are, we still bought a bag and enjoyed them later that night.
Right next to the prawn cracker guy there was a stand claiming to sell shark fin soup, a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. Surprised to see that, I was cynical about authenticity since this soup runs upwards of $25 in a good Cantonese restaurant but I tried it anyway because it looked like hot and sour soup. Severely missing Cantonese food, both Diane and I are desperately searching for whatever Cantonese influence we can find after we leaned that Hokkien Chinese style has some similarities but lacks the favors and rich sauces we love like black bean sauce, lots of garlic and most of all, sauces that aren’t dripping wet. Granted there’s no Hokkien Mee in Cantonese but we’re both surprised to learn of a Chinese cooking style completely different from both Cantonese and Szechuan. As expected, the soup was relatively flavorless and we knew the vendor was lying when he pointed at pieces of fish and claimed it was abalone (another very expensive specialty).
Jackfruit is quite popular in Malaysia but I haven’t found it to be as sweet as when we had it in Thailand. I also don’t understand how it grows so damn big.
Moving two steps across the way, we found an Indian stand selling assorted balls of meat, fish and veggies. Not really very flavorful to either of us, they are inexpensive so we tried a few anyway.
Still searching for the perfect Char Kwoy Teow, we thought an authentic night market might do it for us. Having already tried a few places recommended by food bloggers, somehow we both think we’re missing the best ones because I remember it tasting great in Singapore yet it’s Penang’s most celebrated and famous dish. This version was inexpensive but nothing special.
Back in colonial times, Penang was one once famous for its exportation of nutmeg. Eventually the business shifted to other places in the world but they retained a small local industry in Penang which explains the jars of nutmeg juice for sale all over the island. On an unrelated note, there was one very odd thing happening all over the market. Small little megaphones were chanting a phrase over and over in Chinese like a Communist nation’s propaganda from the Cold War Days. Thinking she kind of recognized one word that sounded like Cantonese, Diane thinks they may have said “come, come, come” as if to drill it in people’s heads. No clue what that’s all about.
Of course no night market in Penang is complete without a Hokkien Mee or Prawn Mee stand and I anxiously approached the woman scooping out delicious bowls of excellence. Experiencing my first and only time where I felt like an outsider, I waited until it seemed the orders in front of me were doled out but the vendor refused to look at me. Continuing go make more dishes, this time for take away, I politely asked then pointed and even tried the puppy dog white boy eyes thing but to no avail. Scores of Hokkien Chinese butted in front of me, obviously ordering more bowls, completely oblivious to the foreigner. Realizing I’d now been fully immersed by not speaking their language and therefore being unable to communicate, I shrugged it off and went to the next stand for a delicious bowl of laksa. Although that vendor spoke no English, she smiled and pointed to the prices and available options. In retrospect, I realized how lucky English-speaking expats are to live in Malaysia where communication issues are not really one of the main barriers when adjusting to a new life. As it turns out the laksa was one of the best ones I’ve had and came to less than 1 USD.
Meanwhile, while I ate laksa, Diane discovered another delicious Indian treat we’d never ever heard of before called Apom Telur. Basically some kind of incredibly delicious crêpe that’s crispy on the outside but soft on the inside, I watched the vendor create this intricate little dish after finishing my soup and headed over to a mutabak stand to try Penang’s version. Once again, I hate to say this but I remembered having this awesome Indian dish made from fried flatbread stuffed with onions and mutton in Singapore and loving it. Penang’s version had a slightly different name and they make it into a pancake and not a rectangular flatbread and it’s much less stuffed than what I remember. Still tasty, it was inexpensive like most food at the night market.
Stuffed but still able to squeeze down a little more, we found somebody making Putu Mayam, an Indian food so strangely delectable it’s hard to resist. Unsure if it’s breakfast, dessert or something else, it’s a Tamil dish from Southern India also popular in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. It’s made from rice flour with coconut milk and then pressing the dough to a sieve, creating a vermicelli like noodle. Served with palm sugar or date sugar and grated coconut, it’s simply irresistible (just like the song) and we saw it being sold on the street by a guy with a makeshift cart who said he’s there on weekends but we never saw him again. This time the sugar and coconut was on the side and we brought it home for later. For some reason it was right next to a spring roll vendor who looked like she’s hand rolled about three million of them in her young life.
Completely stuffed, it seemed silly not to make the rounds anyway and decide what next Tuesday night’s dinner would be. Clearly, the aroma of the curry fish ball hot-pot below will tempt me next time.
Having eaten our way through the hot foods, we ventured around the corner and found the most incredible display of dried fruits and nuts I’ve ever seen. Amazingly, you can sample all 100+ items that range from sweet, sweet and sour and sweet, sour and salty. After trying a few, they all kind of seemed the same to me and this is not one of my favorites things but Diane loves dried plums and found some to take home. Preferring pickled, the island has a chain of stores known as Jeruk Madu Pak Ali that sells mostly pickled fruits, most of which I’ve never seen or can’t figure out but I love them anyway. Right next door was a vendor selling hundreds of soup ingredients for those patient enough to create a real soup base.
Here’s some more images from the market including enormous bins of rambutans and mangosteens, easily the most popular fruit in Penang.
Thinking it was time to leave, we finally came to the last row of food and saw Thai food, bar-b-q pork and many other things that looked good but would have to wait until next week. Possibly the cheapest thing we’ve seen yet since being in Malaysia, on the way out we found a stall selling something called Sebiji. Another Indian sweet treat, it’s also a little crêpe thing with multiple sweet things inside like mangoes. The only thing I’ve seen being sold for less than one ringgit, at 70 sen, it’s about 18 cents USD and we couldn’t pass it up.
So now that we’ve been indoctrinated into Malaysia society through patronization of our local night market what’s next? Should I learn Malay? I’ve actually picked up a lot of words through street signs but don’t think I’ll ever be able to learn it because I’m basically too lazy. Giving up on ever understanding the Hokkien dialect, Diane might take up Mandarin which would certainly make a trip to China easier.
Unfortunately I also picked up a dry cough and what appears to be a head cold although it’s quite different from the symptoms I’m used to. Sucking up all my energy I think my lungs are having difficulty adapting to the poor air quality even though Malaysia is one of the better Southeast Asian countries when compared to others. After my one hour gym workout I started hacking away and my energy level went out the window so I’m trying to rest it out before our first visitor arrives next week. Hopefully my body will adapt and accept the pitfalls of smoky air. (Although they tell me there’s been no smoke from any Indonesian fires this year, the air smells like a forest fire at some point almost every day so someone is burning something).
Anyway, thanks for reading and following along.