Having lived through the last four winters in California, I assumed moving to the tropics would surely eliminate the problem of drought. Unfortunately, my timing was horrible and here we are stuck in the middle of another severe day spell. Ironically, while California’s been blanketed with multiple large storms and received desperately needed rain this year, the strongest El Niño since 1997-98 is turning the rainforest into a dry forest. Although January through March normally marks the warmest time of year in Penang, it’s been over eight weeks without any rain and it’s blazing hot. Regularly climbing into the mid 30’s every day (mid 90’s Fahrenheit), high levels of humidity go with the heat making every day uncomfortable and way too hot to do very much of anything. According to Expat.go, it’s been the hottest winter since 1998 and schools are considering closing next week in parts of Malaysia.
Expat life without a car in a tropical heat wave means lots of excess dehydration for “type A” restless personalities like me that refuse to sit in he condo from sunrise to sundown. (Luckily for Diane, she’s perfectly fine relaxing with a good book all day on our breeze filled balcony). Even the locals agree it’s way too hot and anxiously await the return of cloud filled skies and afternoon thunderstorms. Without much else to do, we find ourselves hitting the air-conditioned mall quite often which gave us an opportunity to try the hottest new restaurant in Penang. Waiting to queue is something Diane and I rarely do and certainly not in Southeast Asia where abundant food choices makes it seem ridiculous to stand in line. Achieving Michelin star status, the famed Taiwanese restaurant Din Tai Fung opened a few months ago with daily lines that snaked half way around the mall. With Chinese New Year festivities finally over and everyone back in school, we decided to give it a try now that the excitement wore down a bit.
Rated as one the world’s top ten restaurants in the world by The New York Times, the restaurant traces its roots to a Chinese born man named Bingyi Yang who began making steamed dumplings in 1972 and it soon took off through word of mouth. Served on the first class cabins of Eva Air, they franchised the restaurant’s Taiwanese name and now operate in Singapore, Thailand, Australia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, and the USA. Famous for its signature xiao long baos (steamed pork dumplings) and steamed chicken soup, we’re both surprised they chose Penang, a place normally known for its inexpensive hawker foods and casual fare blend of Malaysian, Indian and Hokkien Chinese style foods. Not usually a mecca of efficient service, Penang isn’t someplace you visit expecting five-star service but the chain prides itself on its impeccable friendly staff and prompt service so we went in with eyes wide open.
Seating us quickly, the well dressed staff gave a good first impression, quickly placing silverware, plates and napkins on the bigger than average sized table. Reading the website, it sounds like the Singapore locations are tastefully decorated with eclectic furnishings, an open kitchen concept, plush booth seating interior decorations and ambient light. Learning quickly that Penang branches of well-known restaurants rarely imitate the more luxurious experiences you’d find in Kuala Lumpur, we admit they did a relatively good job of presenting an atmosphere better than average but falling way short of the world-class cities. Unusually well dressed and speaking better English than almost all Chinese wait staff we’ve come across, they took our order fairly quickly and repeated it back to make there were no mistakes.
With a large 14 page menu, choosing what to order depends on personal taste and took us awhile. Arranged in typical Chinese fashion, they group the menu by dim sum related items, soups, buns, noodles, appetizers, proteins like chicken and fish, vegetable dishes and desserts. Deciding on a Xiao Long Bao with crab roe and pork, the signature dish arrived first. Describing them as tasty but not very large, they’re conveniently small enough to fit into your mouth in one bite, allowing the hot wet juices to explode inside your mouth. Similar to Shanghai dumplings, that’s the idea so make sure you eat them first while they’re still hot. Flavored with real crab roe, a tasty combination of pork and spices filled the dumpling and was very good but pricey by Malaysian standards at about 25 Ringgit for six small dumplings.
As any Asian expat knows, days without noodle soup for one of your meals feels incomplete, although as a white boy, I eat more soup than Diane and she comes from Chinese roots. Always longing for a good beef noodle soup, the choices in Penang are severely limited since the style is not usually Cantonese and cost is an issue when it comes to putting protein in many Hokkien style soups. Happily surprised, I was simply blown away by the braised beef noodle soup that was clearly not made with bullion cubes. Featuring a broth that tastes like the fat from the large chunks of chuck not usually found in Penang soups, it’s dark, rich and delicious and the homemade noodles added to the enjoyment. Diane prefers chicken or pork based soups and the dumplings were tasty but the broth needed more salt, seasonings and flavor.
Rounding out our lunch, we chose Prawns with Mayonnaise and stir fry spinach with pork. Possibly sounding odd to North Americans, mayonnaise makes a strangely delicious accompaniment for fried prawns and Diane and I often enjoy them in Edmonton when we visit her parents and eat dim sum. Also offering prawns with salted egg, sweet and sour chicken (not exactly a Michelin standard dish), Shanghai style honey fish, tofu with mushrooms and spinach, and golden pumpkin with salted egg, we assumed the main dishes are not supposed to be the standouts but the prawns were crispy, large and flavorful with a light sesame coated batter that didn’t overpower the dish. Always longing for vegetables which are sorely lacking in Hokkien style Chinese food, we jumped at the chance to eat any dish with spinach and with a full serving of pork wrapped inside, vegetarians can enjoy a large enough selection.
Rendering a verdict on the entire lunch, I’d clearly say it’s one of Penang’s best choices for dumplings, dim sum, and beef noodle soup but I simply don’t see it as a Michelin rated experience, at least not the Penang location. Clocking in at 132 Ringgit (about $32 USD) for the meal I’ve described here, it’s not necessarily a budget beaker but it is an expensive lunch as far as Penang standards go and I think retired expats on fixed incomes would enjoy eating here but perhaps not more than every so often. As a disclaimer, we prefer Cantonese style Chinese food so we can’t really claim a lot of experience with Taiwanese or Shanghainese style and you should probably refer to a food blog for a better description. But it was an afternoon spent in a cool ground level mall so I’d absolutely recommend it to expats, visitors and tourists. Just remember to leave the five-star expectations in Singapore where they belong.
Postscript on the last posts
While not intending to convert our expat experience blog into a political format, I’d like to answer some comments I received following my last few posts and the American presidential election. Respectfully disagreeing with those that suggested it’s “off topic” and that I should start a separate political blog, this is my take. Unlike many nations, America remains the world’s only democratic superpower and arguably asserts more political, financial and social influence to the world than any other nation. Claiming that expats are somehow unaffected by the prospect of a maniacal demagogue taking charge of an 18 trillion-dollar economy simply misses the point.
Those who know me understand that while I benefit from élite Republican Party policies that allowed me to work in the financial services industry and get us early retirement at age 50 mostly by living below our means, I’m also very passionate about my homeland. Genuinely believing that basic tolerance and dignity of all religions, races and ethnicities is what America should represent, I’ve cited several reasons why expats around the world including non-Americans should take a stand against an America offering up a government so close to Fascism that it threatens the financial, military and social stability of the entire world. “Trumpism” is not going away and it’s too late to stop the nomination.
Understanding that many readers from various nations might be unfamiliar with how serious this is, my last two posts offered open-minded readers around the world a glimpse at what next the next four years might look like with a president threatening to revoke major trade agreements, build 2,000 mile walls to keep people out, start currency wars with China (the world’s second largest economy), encourage isolationist polices that alienate all our allies, and most importantly fuel the fire of the entire Muslim world by invoking violence and publicly stating obviously ignorant rhetoric to world leaders. Comments like “Islam hates us” being muttered by the world’s most important leader are shameful yet the sheep don’t care.
We have no kids but I’m imploring those who do to take a good hard look at what the latter half of the 21st century will look like if we fuel the flame in an already tumultuous world by allowing a misogynist racist supported by every major hate group in America to destroy 175 years of progress. Trump Insanely suggested modifying the first amendment so that nobody can either exercise free speech if it’s critical of him, engage in peaceful protests as part of the democratic process or allow media outlets from questioning his policies. How can any rational and sane person not see this as one step away from a white supremacy dictatorship destined to change our children for generators to come?
Offering no apologies for my comments or topics, I think readers of expat blogs are intelligent and liberal enough to understand that hatred wrecks nations, encourages fundamentalism and brings us back to times most of us would like to forget. Standing behind every Muslim as well as every other person in Malaysia, Diane and I are living proof of the falsities being sold to an angry and ignorant American citizenry that’s decided to choose hatred, xenophobia and violence over diplomacy, common sense and dignity of all people. As for the reasons how and why America is at this stage despite having an economy that’s actually not in the shitter (i.e. all of Europe), I agree that this blog is an inappropriate forum for sociology and political science. For anyone interested, I did outline a ten step alternative the American political system which is clearly failing on my personal Facebook page. Not surprisingly, I received only four likes from over 120 friends but I’d be urge anyone who can help share the message to please email or contact me.
Finally, thanks to the rash of recent new followers. Unsure if it’s related to recent comments, the real topic of the blog or just a coincidence, I appreciate anyone taking time out of their day to read our stories. In four weeks we’re heading to Myanmar for a combination work exchange and tourism trip. Having finished our first work exchange assignment in Australia this past January, we’d like to try one more before deciding if they’re really for us. Visiting Yangon, working at an eco-lodge near the famous Golden Rock and then heading to Kalaw and Inle Lake, we’re looking forward to sharing more stories. Meanwhile, it’s back to the air-conditioned bedroom.
Cheers and thanks for reading.