Normally avoiding Sundays like the plague, being retired means never having to go anywhere when the rest of the population is enjoying their day off. Applying even more in the developing world where six-day work weeks are the norm, Diane and I rarely shop, eat out, visit major attractions or engage in any “working world” weekend morning activities like breakfast at popular eateries. But sometimes time sneaks up on you so the other day we broke tradition after a visit to our local supermarket reminded us of some inevitable merchandising realities in Malaysia. With public holidays occurring at the rate of one per week through the next 17 days, expats who cook a lot should take heed and get to the store while there’s still any supplies. Possessing possibly the world’s worst supply chain, Penang literally gets everything delivered by truck from Kuala Lumpur. Although that’s only a four-hour drive on a modern four lane superhighway, it often feels like living on a remote Pacific island with no airport that gets deliveries via passing cargo ships every three months or so.
Studying supply patterns of everyday products like veggies, pasta sauce and canned tuna leads to a frustrating conclusion that Malaysian store supermarket managers don’t understand anything about merchandising. Every time you find an imported product you like, it’s almost guaranteed to be gone the next time you visit and not replaced for at least a few months. Or not at all if it’s something you really like. Constantly bombarded by mostly foreign expats that buy up all the European, American and Australian products before most island residents even know they’re in the store, if you blink and change aisles, it’s gone. Perpetually stocking items that are already nearing their expiry dates, the other thing they love to do is order products nobody buys and then put them on “promosi” (sale) at ridiculously low prices. While this seems like a good thing, I’d rather not buy something that came out of the factory in 2014 for 2 ringgit (50 cents) because it arrives in Penang just shy of its second anniversary date. Buying fresh food is a different animal altogether with stores sometimes going months between certain cuts of meat or lamb and beef that varies in price from inexpensive to insane.
Visiting the better of the Cold Storage stores at the island’s most popular mall (Gurney Plaza) last Friday, we realized they stocked the shelves fuller than we’d ever seen before. Having gone three weeks after the Hari Raya holidays before stores were fully stocked again, we realized this means they’d anticipated a shutdown of the Malaysian supply chain next week. Adhering to some very strange policies, we’re told they often ban trucks from the freeways during holiday periods in favor of extra cars flocking to places like Penang. Apparently, eight lanes isn’t enough to accommodate trucks supplying the nation’s goods and passenger vehicles filled with people dying to visit the not-so-nice beaches of Northern Malaysia. Interestingly, the food courts somehow remain fully stocked while expats choosing not to eat out every day are stuck with store shelves that look like they’ve been cleaned out for an upcoming typhoon.
Leading back to the topic at hand, August 31st is Merdeka. Celebrating the end of colonial British rule of Malaya, it’s not the same as Malaysia Day which falls two weeks later on September 16th and commemorates the day they founded The Federation of Malaysia with the joining of North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore and Malaya. (Singapore split into its own nation two years later in 1965). Making things even more hectic, this year the Muslim holiday of Hari Raya Haji falls rights smack in the middle on September 11th and 12th. Also known as Eid al-Adha, it’s an Islāmic festival to commemorate the willingness of Ibrahim (also known as Abraham) to follow Allah’s (God’s) command to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Muslims around the world observe this event and the swath of holidays in a two-week ensures skeleton work crews around Malaysia, massive traffic jams and of course, quickly deteriorating inventory in Tesco, Cold Storage and other major markets.
Easily able to know the date by the noise level on Saturday night in Batu Ferrenghi, this past Saturday night seemed like the weekend before Thanksgiving or the week after New Year’s when tourism is lower, restaurants are not as busy and people spend less money. Normally shying away from our local food courts which are mostly tourist rip offs, we didn’t have much to cook because we decided to brave Sunday morning crowds the next day and stock up on supplies. So we ventured down the street to Long Beach Cafe. Our British expat friends joined us but typical of many European expats, they don’t really eat anything local and while we love their friendship and generosity towards us, we fail to understand why anyone would live in Asia and not taste all the local food.
Easily the town’s most popular food court, we thought Long Beach was great when we first arrived but now that we know the difference between watered down and flavorless soups and real local food, we stay away from the touristy versions of Hokkien Mee and Laksa. Not wanting boring Hokkien Chinese, average tasting Indian, small satay stands or a handful of stuff nobody ever eats, we settled on the only three things worth eating at Long Beach. Selling for 4 ringgit each, the handmade spring rolls are worth your time and may even remind you of some a good North Americanized Chinese restaurant except for the vegetarian filling.
Another item worth eating at Long Beach is the “Special Chicken Wings“. While there’s nothing special about them other than the moderately high price for a food court, they do glaze them with honey bar-b-q sauce and although the style isn’t really Malaysian we like them enough to come here now and then.
Needing one more source of protein, Diane always chooses the Lamb Biryani Claypot. Piping hot, the meat is kind of fatty and we don’t like the rice they use so we’re not huge fans of Indian food in Penang. But our American expat friend Cimeron writes an excellent blog titled Oh My Exapt Life and she loves Penang style Indian food, In fact, she loves almost all Penang’s food and as a working expat that’s also a writer, I find it funny how her and I see eye to eye on so many Malaysian things like dirty toilets but disagree so much on food. Everyone’s tastes are different and that’s why I try to avoid duplicating foodie blogs. As working expats, she’s not an MM2H holder and her perspective is a bit different from mine so please give her a blog look if you’re interested in Penang.
Waking up on Sunday morning, we walked down the hill to the bus stop and it didn’t take long to remember why expats prefer weekdays. Passing right by our bus stop there was a cycling event happening that totally prevented us from crossing the street. Unusual enough to see any locals exercising in Asia, this wasn’t just a small group of riders but numbered easily in the hundreds. Armed with long biking pants and long sleeve biking shirts, their sponsor appeared to be a group arguing for a bike lane along the winding twisty-turny and often dangerous two lane road that connects Batu Ferrenghi to the rest of Penang. Eventually, we darted out in front in few slower bikers and waited for the bus to arrive, Meandering down the road slowly to avoid hitting any of them, the bus driver slowed to a halt and we paid our fare but the bus simply couldn’t pull out because unlike the west, they never close any roads in Malaysia unless a dignitary is passing through. Showing no regard for the bus, the cyclists occupied the entire lane and showed no sign of slowing or yielding.
Turning narrow and windy as soon as you leave our condo, the road gets more dangerous and it’s bad enough the motorbikes drive like madmen and pass everyone including buses at top speed around blind curves. Cyclists have absolutely no room and the occasional Sunday biker we’ve seen usually rides slowly and carefully. But this enormous protest ride was obviously meant to send a message so they all pumped up the hills in groups of three or four and side by side ensuring that no vehicular traffic could pass without creating an extreme hazard. Being Malaysia, the Malay bus driver didn’t really care and simply crept behind at 5 MPH turning our 15 minute ride into a 60 minute trudge. Once we finally reached Tanjung Bungah, it was almost time for an early lunch but we decided to check our favorite breakfast spot anyway.
Almost anyone writing about breakfast and lunch spots in Penang praises two Western style restaurants not far from our town. Sandwiched between Georgetown (the hub of Penang and main tourist draw) and Batu Ferrenghi (the beach community) is Tanjung Bungah. Mostly a working class Chinese neighborhood, the main drag of Jalan Sungai Kellan is home to Gusto’s Cafe and The Hillside Cafe as well as a host of other small restaurants, a few food courts and even the island’s only Mexican joint. Oh, a word on that. Unapologetically, two ex- Californians will not pay for Mexican food in the Eastern Hemisphere. We did venture into a place in Chiang Mai that everyone seemed to love and thought it sucked. With all due respect, only California’s Mexicans know how to make authentic Mexican food despite what you’ve heard about Chipotle’s.
Anyway, the reviews for Gusto’s are spot on and they make a delicious western style breakfast including bagels, eggs, smoked salmon, omelettes and one of the best lattes I’ve had on the island. But go on a weekday or face wrath of a 30 minute wait or longer. By 10 AM on Sunday, almost every expat is there and we asked about an early lunch the friendly owner told us they’re so backed up for breakfast he asked us to come back. Good food but slow service. Less crowded on Sunday mornings but apparently more popular with Brits, The Hillside Cafe serves decent sized western lunches including beef or pork burgers with real bacon. We hate that crap known as “streaky bacon” as much as we hate baked beans and “proper English breakfasts” so we settled on two burgers but as for serenity, it was also “bring your dog to Sunday brunch day” and cute cuddly canines occupied the larger tables along with their owners. Creating a barking serenade, the dog owners all wore shirts from an animal rescue organization but paid no attention to their pets.
Almost every Chinese homeowner in Penang owns a dog and they all bark when you pass their houses. Although we’re friendly with several dogs in our condo complex’s stand alone houses, you rarely see the owners playing petting, playing with or walking their dogs. Mostly owned for security reasons, we’re not sure why they need protection since there’s hardly any robberies and theft in Penang. Seemingly quite lonely, they’re almost all outdoor dogs that sit in a small gated area all day and the heat can’t be comfortable for big hairy dogs like golden retrievers and labs. But my biggest pet peeve is the owner’s paranoia. With a few exceptions, all Penang Chinese people grab their dogs defensively if you so much as smile at them. Approaching to pet them is out of the question. Coming from dog friendly California where dog owners always share their pooch’s affection with other dog lovers, we find this ridiculous and rude. Why own pets if you pay them no attention and never let them get friendly with others? Maybe it’s a cultural thing but we’d sure love to teach them how to be better pet owners.
Finally arriving at Cold Storage, I thought we’d still be able to cap on the overstocked shelves we saw only three days earlier. But sure enough, as I approached the first product I like here’s what Is saw:
Naturally, the one product I wanted was gone despite the full supply of other cream cheeses. Then I hit the frozen veggies for the only brand they import that tastes remotely OK (yes, we try to eat fresh veggies but I don’t go to the wet market every day). Guess what happened.
As expected, there was nothing but empty space in the place reserved for Wattie’s mixed vegetables from New Zealand. Batting zero so far, I approached the Halal section where we buy our pork products including chops, loin cuts, lunch meat and sausage and this is what greeted me:
Yeah ! A broken freezer yields the obvious question; Where is all the product? Of course nobody knew the answer. The Hokkien Chinese employees just nodded, the Malays can’t comment because they’re prohibited from even looking at the pork section and asking the Indian store manager in Penang is about as productive as asking Penang pet owners why they own dogs that they bring to a restaurant and then scold when they bark for attention.
Clearly we’ll never understand Malaysian supermarket buyers and although I actually got them to change a policy that was ripping off expats paying with credit by defaulting the charge to their bank’s crappy exchange rate, we’re not going to turn them into Whole Foods or Costco. Discouraged but not surprised, we struck gold on one item. There’s a few Kraft Thousand Island Dressings that have literally lived on the same shelf since about March. Having memorized the September 2nd, 2016 expiration date months ago, we’ve been waiting for the magic day that this once a year item gets marked down and sure enough they reduced it from 13.77 Ringgit to 2.99. Since we all know preservatives keep western products alive long after the inventory control date we bought it and considered the day a roving success. But I think we’ll leave Sundays for the locals next time.