Wandering around the roads of Penang’s Chinatown, we found ourselves pooped out by mid-afternoon. Contemplating a message, or anything indoors, really, we encountered shop after shop advertising blind massages (yes, blind!), one shadier than the next. Nix that thought.
I secretly wanted to escape our exploring just to find a hot bowl of Laksa, despite the near 100-degree heat. Keeping my eyes and nose peeled for a hawker stand, I casually suggested finding a bite to eat, despite the odd 4:30pm hour. Luckily, the two boys agreed. Hooray! Foodie adventurer: 1. Tired boys: 0.
After ducking down some sidestreets, mostly empty (we found out the streets of Penang become raucous and lively just after dusk, after the sun goes down and the heat begins to evaporate from the black tar roads), we came across a couple of carts on the street selling thin lo mein noodles, pork jerky sandwiches, and thick rice noodles. Just down the street, I was happy to see a bustling garage of a food court.
Barrett and I became distracted by the carts that lined the street, with Barrett getting a Malaysian flat jerkey sandwich and me a paper-wrapped packet filled with thin fried spicy noodles. As we were bantering with the noodle man, whose mind was absolutely blown that the DiploMan could speak Chinese, our friend Gordon ran up to us like a little kid who just saw the tooth fairy. “They have a huge slab of fried bacon over there!” He pointed back behind us towards the food court.
I didn’t believe it. Bacon doesn’t really exist in Asia- at least, not in the capacity that it does in the states. Pork belly, certainly, is HUGE around these parts. But the curing/smoking/slicing of it doesn’t really happen.
My skepticism was partially defeated (I wish I could say it was fully defeated). Yes, there was a huge slab of bacon-looking meat that looked fried, hanging on a hook at a vendor cart. But it wasn’t quite the same as bacon- not cured or smoked or nearly as salty. But I was unable to resist the temptations of fatty port, so we ordered a couple orders over rice and an order of charsiu (traditional Chinese red-braised pork) over rice.
The orders took less than five minutes to come out. I watched as the “chef” behind the stand unhooked our slabs of meat and coarsely chopped them over a flimsy plastic plate prepped with a mound of rice. I realized this was less of a kitchen operation than it was a deli. Slicing meats and laying them over carbs- that’s a sandwich!
Our orders of meat and rice, along with our takeout packet of noodles purchased from down the street, were gobbled up in a snap. Seriously, probably eaten quicker than it’s taken you to read through this blog entry. Paired with a bottle of beer, it was the perfect 4:30pm snack on a hot Penang day.
I’ll take this over a blind massage, anyday.
Sometimes I miss a good coke float, a-la Johnny Rockets (yeah, I’m not afraid to say it).
In Penang we drank our fair share of pineapple juices, beer, fresh coconut, and a national soda/sport drink called ISO 100PLUS to keep our bodies hydrated (well, except for the beer) and most importantly, cool. While waiting for our squid fried mee to arrive, the DiploMan took a stroll around the court. He came back with something delicious looking.
He had found this delight next door, where all I could see was a pile of coconuts. But behind this distracting great wall of coconuts was a sign advertising ice cream, shakes, juices, and floats (sponsored by Nestle, apparently).
It seemed as if the Malaysians, too, needed something to cool themselves down on these hot summer (October) days.
The drink was a scoop of ice cream with fresh coconut poured on top. The drinks, as everything else in this hawker food court, were selling like hotcakes.
As refreshing as it sounded, the drink was a little strange to me. Upon first sip I felt like I was drinking the lunchtime experiment of a eight-year-old boy who had collected one too many school lunches. It was a strange collision of fresh coconut and super-artificial ice cream. The ice cream, moreover, was over-the-top sweet, too sweet even for my liking, although it definitely rounded out our piping hot, piquant and zesty plate of noodles. It was a tasty treat, I guess, but one that maybe looked more delicious than it tasted.
Plus, I was still left craving a coke float.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the selection of food in Malaysia, though vast and varied, is undeniably centered around two starches: Rice (nasi) and noodles (mee).
After exploring Fort Cornwallis, we very happily stumbled upon a huge outdoor hawker stand completely shaded by some sort massive scrap metal overhang. After cruising each small cart and their respective offerings, it was pretty obvious that we were going to go for what was the most popular and simultaneously the most visually appealing- a generous pile of piping hot noodles tossed in a blood red grav y.
Though it probably would have been best to find out what was in this juicy, savory looking blood red gravy, the smells and sights of the dish alone reeled us in. We went ahead and signaled three red saucy noodle dishes for our table- literally, signaled, as I frantically pointed to the dishes being served to other customers and held up three fingers and said, “mee” while enthusiastically nodding my head. Luckily there is more than one language that all foodies understand, and the man behind the stall understood the language I was using.
Waiting for our dish to arrive, I started to read the noticeably aged news clippings posted in the cart window, where I learned that we were about to eat a big pile of sweet-spicy-sour-savory cuttlefish noodles, made by a third generation Halal hawker.
Ahh, so that explained the odd phallic creature floating on the sign above the hawker stall.
We perched ourselves anxiously on a round formica table directly in front of the stall, and watched as streams of people filtered to and from the counter in a nonstop flow, requesting order after order of the same dish. The noodles were made in batches of 8 or 10 plates at a time, with one main chef at the helm of the open gas stove and two “sous” chefs garnishing plates, running orders, refilling the mise en place (if you will), and collecting money. There were no numbers given to customers, no names, no tickets- just a nod of acknowledgement after you placed your order and a quick shout to the head chef.
We watched as the chef vigorously chopped bunches of onions and greens for a quick saute in a huge wok that looked like had been used to make this dish for decades. He threw massive handfuls of noodles into the sizzling wok, cracked dozens of eggs taken from a tower of egg crates, and squirted and poured various sauces and oils like he was conducting a symphony. Chop, sizzle, Saute, saute, squirt, crack, saute, squirt, saute, squirt. Watching one…two….three batches of noodles go out to tables around us, I could not help but wonder how these men kept track of who ordered what. I must admit, I began to doubt that we kept our place in the noodle line, but I knew better than to approach these men who were endlessly making noodle dish after noodle dish.
But finally, we received our three orders of noodles piping hot- fresh out of the wok and delivered to us without any hesitation. Having waited for some time now, we too did not hesitate as we dug in to the steamy red pile of noodles in front of us. At first bite, I was a little taken aback by the fishiness of the squid that infiltrated the entire dish.
But after a couple more bites, the dish became better and better. Nuances of spiciness and sweetness and hints of sour and bites of cuttlefish seemed to become more and more distinct with each bite. Maybe we were hungry, maybe it really was great, maybe the anticipation took over or the cheap $1.30 price tag seemed to be true. But most likely, it was a combination of all of the above.
The streets of Georgetown, Penang truly struck a chord in me. We spent a morning plodding around with the sun shining VERY brightly on our heads, only to have our heat tolerance finally win over our desire for adventure. I don’t know how to describe my impressions of a city simultaneously abandoned but still lively, deteriorating and very much beautiful, with a seamless merging of an Old West to a New East (isn’t it typically the opposite??).
So, I will let a handful of pictures describe my thoughts: