Promising our posts are not designed to mimic “food blogs” and knowing I’m not talented or patient enough to be one of those so-called “experts” that spends their lives visiting every food court, coffee shop and restaurant on the island, we’ve nonetheless begun to amass a small collection of “favorite” places after living here for ten weeks. Not claiming expertise in any subject, I’m simply sharing some thoughts on delicious experiences at relatively economical prices in Pilau Pinang. Nothing more. Having set that, let’s jump right in. Here’s some of our favorites in four different categories.
Possibly my favorite dish in Malaysia and also known as Bami Goreng, Mee Goreng is a spicy fried noodle dish commonly found in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Basically, its core ingredients include yellow noodles fried in cooking oil, garlic, shallots, Chinese cabbage, tomatoes, egg and other vegetables. Sounding simple enough, it’s interesting how many variations on the dish are found, depending on who’s doing the cooking. Searching various real food blogs, one finds many Top 10 Mee Goreng Lists along with all the other popular food but hardly any of them look alike. Depending on your preference, you can find it spicy, milder, with or without different proteins and most importantly (for me, anyway), differences in color. Preferring mine as tomatoey delicious as possible, ony mildly spicy and with lots of sotong, there’s really only one choice. If you’re like me and find the picture below mimicking what you belive a plate of mee goreng should be then your first choice should be Seng Lee Cafe.
Conveniently located in Pilau Tikas, they serve this version in a small coffee shop on the corner of Lorang Bangkok and Jalan Burma and it’s expertly cooked by an Indian guy that’s been doing it since he was old enough to hold a spatula. Served with lots of squid by default, it’s possible to order it other ways but why bother? For me, the perfect combination of tomatoes, chilis and spices makes this my favorite lunchtime spot when we’re heading to Gureny Plaza. Walking distance for those rare expats (like us) that actually use feet instead of gas petals, it took us three tries to figure out when they’re open despite what Google, the internet or food bloggers claim. In Penang, anything cooked at a portable stand is subject to the whims of the cooker despite the “hours”. I should mention the other stands at this place are also awesome and include hokkien mee and one of tastiest Koay Teow soups we’ve had (at least that’s what we think it was; they speak very little English and didn’t understand Diane’s Cantonese). Highly recommended if you’re a fan.
Cantonese Chinese at a Food Court
Having read all of your comments regarding Cantonese Chinese food in a place that’s dominated by Hokkien style cooking which lacks the flavors and sauces we’re accustomed to, we stumbled on this place because it seems to be closed every time we walk past it. For the record, we did try Dragon-I in Gurney Plaza and it did live up to basic Cantonese style but came in at over 100 ringgit for lunch and that’s a bit rich for us. We’ve also simply asked many of them to “cook Cantonese” as suggested by some of you and had no success whatsoever so when we find something resembling what we know as Cantonese, you know we’ll be repeat customers. Set right in the middle of Batu Ferrenghi’s I Love You food court is Waterworld Seafood. One of the only places we’ve seen with a fish menu that includes “Hong Kong Style Steamed Fish”, they served us this beautiful red snapper in a deliciously light but flavorful soy based sauce dripping with carrots, spring onions and ginger.
Stumbling into them by accident, we were out and about on the Merdeka Long Weekend so lots of folks were milling about, albeit nothing like Hari Raya. Interestingly, this holiday appears to attract mostly Malays which means the Chinese gravitate to the best Chinese places in large numbers. Unlike most food courts, the tables set up around Waterworld are all family style, suitable for large parties and families with 8 or 10 people. Reading into this, that means it’s intended for Chinese folks that often dine with the entire family and order hundreds of dollars worth of food (good sign). Next thing of note: No written signs anywhere around the cooking area and menus are carefully hidden. (Diane and I had to find someone willing to dig out a menu). Subtly hiding menus and pictures from non-Chinese patrons is always a good sign and the tanks with lobsters was the first one we’ve seen. Listed as “market price”, they only served it as lobster thermidor, a sign that they’re not true Cantonese but instead probably learned that European butchery of a great food from an expat that explained how much money the dish commands. We saw one come out at the next table and it was huge but we only like lobster two ways: Real Chinese style (see above but substitute lobster) or with butter and lemon at a white (Guay Lo) seafood restaurant.
After finally getting a young employee to admit they had menus, we scanned through an extensive 15 pages and found lots of fresh fish (but mostly fried) and more veggie dishes than most Hokkien places have as well as a whole page of venison which I’ve never seen anywhere in North American Chinese restaurants (We passed on the game). Featuring six or seven bean curd dishes, we ordered from the grouchy woman taking orders but she said they only had “house version” despite the “menu” (another classic Chinese tactic). Turning out to be delicious and also cooked in a Cantonese style sauce that appeared to have corn starch (a key ingredient that somehow never reached the Hokkien), the bean curd were crunchy outside and soft inside as well as being served piping hot. Finishing the meal, we decided on sambal squid.
Being Malaysia, they still need to feature local styles like sambal but this version was a more ketchupy and not a very spicy version but filled with perfectly cooked big squids that looked more like North American style calamari. Another great point is the full juice bar that’s part of the food court they occupy and unlike most, you can order a huge size that doesn’t disappear before the meal comes. Searching them out on Foursquare or other sites, you’ll find only mixed reviews but this might be due to a mostly Hokkien population that doesn’t appreciate Cantonese anything except the TV shows where they learn to speak the language. For us, it was 7 out of 10 anywhere besides Penang but 9.5 on the Penang Cantonese scale. Coming in a very reasonable 66 ringgit for the entire meal, we recommend this place if you happen to be dying for Cantonese food the way you know it should be and you live in Penang.
Among the many foods available in Penang, we love Korean for its freshness and health benefits. Using mostly fresh veggies and rarely deep-fried, nothing tastes better after a long walk through Penang’s Botanical Gardens than a fresh lunch and since we usually walk back to the bus stop that takes us home, we’re always hungry. One of the busiest streets in Penang, Jalan Gottlieb is where we accidentally found Sa Rang Chae, an excellent choice for Korean with an extensive menu featuring grilled meats, soups and sides of all kinds. Normally not wanting to pay dinner time prices for lunch, we stuck to our favorite two dishes which happen to always be cheaper than main dishes anyway. Bimbeebap is a bowl of warm white rice topped with sautéed and seasoned veggies, chili pepper paste or salty soybean paste and topped with a fried egg and sliced beef. It’s stirred together before serving. Priced at around RM 28, it came out fresh and hot. Our other favorite Korean lunch dish is Japche, made from sweet potato noodles stir fried in sesame oil and served with carrots, onion, spinach and mushroom. Garnished with beef and a bit of sugar, it was also one of the best ones we’ve ever had. They also serve a huge potion of Japanese side dishes and allow you to refill each one once. While main dishes are a bit pricey, I’m sure they’re awesome and we will no doubt visit for dinner one time. It makes great lunch stop if you find yourself in the area. (I couldn’t find the picture of the Japche so instead I’ve shown the Kim Chee Soup which I had on my second visit).
Japanese Charcoal Bar-b-q
Suggested by our neighbors after our trip to the back side of Penang, this style was totally new to Diane and me. Combining Japanese and a bit of Korea, each table comes with a small charcoal wok. KNK – Kan NIchi Kan Japanese Charcoal in Tanjung Bungah is similar to hibachi style or hot-pot but much better due to the extensive choices besides the bar-b-q items. The menu was too complicated and half in Japanese so we let Idy (our neighbor) order. Apparently they were having a special on the meats that came with beef tongue (took me back to my childhood in the Jewish deli), Korean style ribeye (very tender), pork wrapped in mushrooms (yum) and the tastiest squid I’ve had so far (due to the bar-b-q flavors maybe). Bringing out generous sized portions along with some Japanese sides, they also bring a dipping sauce and fresh garlic as well as lemon for the beef tongue (strange but very good).
The onion blossom looking dish above came with the meal and nobody knew what it was but we ate it anyway. Thinking we might need more food (we didn’t), I wanted to try some soup and asked the guy if it was a small portion for one person and he said yes. Naturally, the piping hot bowl of spicy ribeye and Kim-Chee soup was almost enough for dinner and just to be sure, Idy ordered a cold soup that was one of the best things I’ve ever had. With noodles, eggs, cabbage, cucumbers and watermelon, I’d never heard of a whole page of cold soups but then again I’ve not yet been to Japan so what do I know? The entire meal came to just over 200 ringgit and we paid since they chauffeured us around the island all day. GIven the phenomenal USD to MYR advantage, this brought the total to under $12 each for all this food making it perhaps the best value for the money we’ve seen in ten weeks. Catering to a clientele of all Japanese and Koreans (and maybe some Chinese; it’s hard to tell sometimes), it’s another example of how to choose an ethnic restaurant; look for crowds and no white people. Highly recommended and I’d bring visitors here in a heartbeat.
Use your Groupons !!
Finally, a word about Groupon. For the unfamiliar, Groupon was once the Darling of Wall Street and had the greatest and fastest growing business in the USA. Fading quickly due to a host of copycats that immediately lowered the bar, the company faded into a bunch of crappy offers from dying restaurants like the episode of Seinfeld with Babu and his failed Pakistani food. Fortunately (for the CEO), the idea spread to other countries and should be used in Malaysia as a new way of exploring restaurants that might actually be worth something. Diane spotted this one for Oh Sushi restaurant, an upscale looking restaurant that suffers from lack of customers like almost all businesses at the beautiful but ridiculously underused shopping and entertainment complex known as Straits Quay. Usually offering a specified amount of food for a discounted cost, this place gave a choice of three different set lunch menus. Translating into $5.46 USD each, they surprised us by bringing out two enormous meals. Proving you never know what you may get, mine had grilled beef, sashimi, salmon, miso soup, green salad, shrimp tempura and something resembling egg drop soup (a New York Chinese food invention). Not to be outdone, Diane’s had sushi, tonkatsu and a strange but flavorful soup with intestinal meat of some sort and cabbage. Use those groupons !!
Mosh-moshed among my 2,639 IPhone photos are a host of other delicious food pictures, usually all with a story but as promised, our story is about two people attempting early retirement in a place they never visited thanks to an unexpected layoff and this is not a foodie blog. Making no money and not interested in advertising, I write for fun and hope these places benefit you if you live here or inspire you to come visit if not. Now that our MM2H Visa is complete, it was time to stop wasting $114 USD a month on the storage locker so our 2 cubic meters worth of personal stuff supposedly arrives in Penang on October 24th. Most importantly, the computer is on that shipment and eventually I can finally go back to posting like a normal human being without the never ending hassle of using an IPad for everything in lide. Stay tuned in the upcoming weeks and thanks for following along!!
Know any great Foodie finds in Penang ? Please share