Food tripping in Penang

Text & Images: Cassandra C. Poculan

Malaysia undisputedly has a strong street food culture. On a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur, my friends and I got to try the local cuisine at the pilgrimage place for foodies, Jalan Alor. We could have stopped there but we couldn’t pass up the chance to visit Malaysia’s food capital either.

So off to Penang we went, to George Town in particular, and I must say the gourmet kaleidoscope of shophouses, mobile stalls, and hawker centers proved to be overwhelming even for gluttons like us as we were pressed for time and had only one stomach each.

No, we didn’t bother asking each stall if it was where Anthony Bourdain ate, but I can tell you that every one of them boasts expertly blended flavors and cooking styles that reflect the colorful ethnic mix found in the island. Here are some of the top items on my Malaysian must-eats:

1. Asam Laksa

This steaming bowl of sour fish-based soup has thick rice noodles, shredded fish, tamarind, onions and cucumber. Galangal, chili and lemongrass also contribute to its distinct herby and tart taste.

2. Char Kway Teow

Silky flat rice noodles are tossed with plump prawns, cockles, bean sprouts, and chives, all seasoned with soy sauce and a bit of shrimp paste. The characteristic flavor of Penang’s version is attributed to the wok hei or the essence imparted by the wok when stir-frying over high heat.

3. Lok Lok

This is similar to a steamboat or hotpot meal except the items are skewered so they don’t sink to the bottom or float around. There’s a wide variety of seafood, meat, and vegetables to choose from and there are sauces available for dipping as well. The different colors on the sticks represent the prices.

4. Mee Goreng

This fried noodle dish is made flavorful with soy sauce, shallots, garlic, vegetables, and seafood or meat. The yellow noodles are made fresh and are coated well with the sauce. A squeeze of lime completes the flavors that complement, not compete.

5. Oyster Omelette

Succulent oysters, rice flour and egg batter, spring onions and that sweet chili sauce all come together for that savory burst of flavors sloshing in and around one’s mouth. Watching it being cooked in front of you makes you look forward to your first bite even more.

6. Cendol

This odd but refreshing dessert reminds me of our own halo-halo. Shaved ice is topped with green rice jelly noodles, palm sugar syrup, coconut milk, red beans, and (sometimes) durian. The durian here has that ice-cream like texture and a less pungent smell so even the non-durian fan can thoroughly enjoy it.

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