When you think of Penang food, you think of the usual
such as assam laksa, char koay teow or fondly
known as CKT and cendol. Stop for a moment, there’s more to Penang
food than just what’s on its streets, which are dishes peddled by hawkers that
hold earthy, somewhat inelegant but no less vibrant flavours. There’s more to
quick stir-fries and addictive deep-fried offering in Penang.
Actually, there’s a host of delicate, enticing tastes that dance on your palate memorably. That’s not all, these cuisines also reflect a chunk of Penang’s history and the culture of the people who prepare them as well as the economy and geography from which those people originated. If you haven’t encountered them, let us make the introductions.
As you’d guess by now, there are quite a few Chinese styles when it comes to Chinese food. It all depends on which part of China from which they had migrated. The Nyonya flavours are a step up and they are birthed from the collision of Chinese and Malay cultures. The result is a dilution of both original flavours into something quite unique that marries rich robust spices with the faint opulence of slow cooking. The dishes such as pork in cincalok, ponteh chicken, assam fish and otak-otak exude unpretentious yet dignified flavours with a long finish on the palate.
Where to try: Mama’s on Lorong Abu Siti, Perut Rumah on Jalan Bawasah and My Nyonya Favourites on Lebuh Penang in George Town.
Curries in No Hurry
The Indians, whether of Muslim or Hindu faith, had given Penang its most famous and sought after cuisine – the nasi kandar. People have been known to travel from all over just to score a plate of rice utterly drenched in at least two types of lively-flavoured curries accompanied by fried chicken, fish, mutton or seafood and myriad vegetables. What started as peddling rice and curry from hand carried carriers to port workers in Penang, nasi kandar has certainly come a long way since then. It’s no surprise since the Indians came from a land of spices from which they expertly grind into various curry pastes that produce robust and colourful curries and marinade.
Where to try: Hameediyah restaurant on Lebuh Campbell, Line Clear on Jalan Penang and Nasi Beratur on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling in George Town, as well as a couple of nasi kandar restaurants on Jalan Todak 4 in Seberang Perai.
Miscellaneous Old Flavours
Besides the stated categories of Penang’s time-honoured cuisine, there are some individual dishes that are worth a mention too. There’s the roti jala which is a delicate web of flour and water mix spread out onto a hot flat pan to produce a roti and to be dipped in curry. You can try this at Little India in George Town and at a shack under a big tree, across from the Teluk Bahang roundabout. On a sweet note, try the ting-ting candy sold at Lebuh Kimberley during its night hawker food session. What it is, is a handmade rock-hard sugar candy that is hammered in pieces and sold then. This candy is reminiscent of how sweets were sold in Penang way back when. The rendang, which the Malays are known for, was created from lack of refrigeration and tender, high grade meat. This dish takes a long time to cook since low-fire simmering of meat in spice-rich curry is vital. You can try some during lunch at Umi’s Nasi Campur stall on Jalan Sungai Emas in Batu Ferringhi and a makeshift eating shack up an inclined road across from the floating mosque in Tangjung Bungah.
Image credits: Jawi Peranakan House, Su Aziz and Penang Global Tourism.