Penang worried me. Eating was becoming the main pastime and I finished each meal already contemplating the next. I had even taken photos of some of my meals and had almost delved to the lowest depths of travel blogging desperation by posting them. This is what I tried to avoid while travelling, an obsession and fascination with food that overshadows everything else on offer. The purpose of eating is to not be hungry anymore so you can continue on with the rest of your life. It’s not meant to be treated as art or leisure.
But it was clear that eating was the activity of choice in Penang. When I arrived I was given a map of George Town with its 119 best food outlets listed and some various food awards Penang had rated highly in. Still I resisted becoming a food tourist and set about to visit the island’s other features. The beach at Batu Feringgi was average and was way too much effort to get to, and even worse to get home from when the bus driver kicked me off for not having the correct change. Penang Hill, even though it was a great view, wasn’t worth the hours spent surrounded by screaming children and Chinese tourists hocking up spit. Fort Cornwallis was nice for about ten minutes. I conceded food was the main attraction in Penang and began to study the map.
As with all of Southeast Asia there were Indians in Penang, and where there are Indians there is Indian food. I’m always a little cautious of Indian restaurants that have a buffet style service and it’s always a nervous wait to find out if it’s still hot. The mango chicken was not. I thought it was mango chicken I ordered but it came out a dark pink colour and was sweeter than what you’d put on breakfast cereal. The green chili was sweat-running-down-your-arsecrack-hot and sent my nose gushing. It was a bad idea in a restaurant without napkins and made me wonder why the hottest climates serve the hottest foods. That night, still hungry, I bought chicken from a street vendor. He had a grill on his cart so I thought it may get heated but instead he put it in a bag and handed it over. I know from experience that late night street chicken comes with a free side of gastro-anxiety and it was a nervous night’s sleep.
Penang was for over 150 years a British colony and an important trading post of the empire. The spice economy encouraged Chinese immigration and when the population boomed in the 19th century Indian convicts were brought in as labourers. When the British left in the 1950s they fortunately took their cuisine with them, leaving Penang with a mix of Chinese, Indian, Malay and Thai ethnicities and the food that comes with them.
The famous street food of Penang lives up to its name as it is literally eaten on the street. The hawker food stalls of Lebuh Chulia and Chee Cheong Chok have tables and chairs laid out on the road as buses and motorbikes cruise past, exhaust fumes mixing with the aromatic flavours coming from the stove top. The humble mee goreng, the simple fried noodles that put my own instant noodle home cooking to shame, was a treat eaten in the dark, each bite a new surprise as I tried to figure out what each mouthful contained. The Vegetarian I was with ordered vegetarian fried rice with no egg which came served with egg and chicken so I received two meals for the price of one while The Vegetarian tweaked his ordering routine.
The large seafood food court would have been impossible to dine in by oneself. The ordering process involved going to your preferred business of which there were many, ordering your meal and telling them which table you’re sitting at. The dining area was a mass of occupied plastic tables and chairs with hopeful customers circling like seagulls waiting for a space to open up. I luckily found a couple of people to join me and ordered the Thai garlic prawns quickly before my seat went missing. When they came they made me consider bulimia so I could fit more in. The Vegetarian watched from his plate of white rice and vegetable soup as I writhed in ecstasy. The meal should have been served in a private room so the public isn’t subjected to a gourmet orgasm. Normally prawns have to be carefully divided and parts left over, but these handfuls of goodness could be devoured whole without fear of any gum punctures or throat injury. I toyed with the idea of licking the empty plate clean but with other dinner guests around me and in busy surroundings I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead I subtly mopped up the mix of garlic, oyster sauce of prawn flavour with my fingers. If it was possible to marry a meal this may have been it; I would even have settled for a civil union.
On a hot day after an exhausting walk I found a line of people stretching down an alleyway to a food cart and figured it must be worthwhile so blindly lined up. Eventually a bowl was put in front of me and some money asked for. It was a chendul, a frozen dessert eaten at daytime as a respite from Penang’s midday heat and one of the more curious creations I encountered. It was a bowl of crushed ice with a brown sauce, some round brown things on top and some stringy green things on the side. The brown things looked like kidney beans but I hoped they were chocolate. They turned out to be kidney beans, served cold with ice and chocolate and coconut flavoured syrups. The stringy green things were a type of noodle made with a green herb. I marvelled at the way noodles can be worked into just about any Asian meal. For a while it bordered on enjoyable but in the end failed and became difficult. I placed the bowl on the ground next to the cart and hurried away so as to avoid the embarrassment of an unfinished meal, grateful for the knowledge that kidney beans should not be used as a dessert.
The Penang Laksa was apparently the ‘famous dish that launched Malaysia into stardom in the world of food’ and ranked 7th in CNN’s ‘World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods of 2011.’ A noodle soup with a fish-based broth didn’t sound enticing but the reviews had me ordering one nevertheless. A minute later I was wondering who wrote these reviews. It tasted like the mop bucket of a busy fish market with some old lettuce and chili garnish. I thought the cook was playing a practical joke on me until I saw him dishing up the practical joke to others. As I grimaced from a second mouthful the lady sitting next to me watched and smiled.
‘You like,’ she said with optimistic eyes.
I swallowed and managed to say ‘Mmm’ with watery eyes. I tried to get as much chili as possible in each spoonful to mask the hideous flavour, a burning mouth was preferable to vomit, but even that wasn’t enough to kill my tastebuds and once the chili was finished and I had fished out all the suicidal noodles I was left with a bowl of sadness that I couldn’t face consuming. My only assumption of the Penang Laksa’s popularity was that it was invented during some major food shortage of the past.
I did survive, however, and this left me feeling adventurous enough to tackle whatever else this hawker centre could throw at me. Forget hang-gliding, this was my new adventure sport. The fried oyster omelette sounded interesting and when it arrived at my table it also looked interesting. It looked the same going into my mouth as I what I imagined it might look coming out. My guide map described it as crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. This was slimy on the outside and chewy on the inside. The oysters were edible, the egg was fine, I just didn’t recognise the jelly-like substance mixed between it that reminded me of the jelly-like substance found in cheap tins of pet food. Looking around I saw other foreigners picking around the jelly and did the same myself.
Walking the streets of Penang is an entrée heaven where just about anything you can imagine can be found on a stick and deep-fried. Mushroom balls, crabs claws, hotdogs, dumplings, different meats, different vegetables and other fish products and a number of other rolled up concoctions that will forever remain a mystery to me are all available. One could wander for hours, cash in hand and grubby finger pointing towards another culinary adventure.
Back at the hostel I was looking at my immediate travel plans and researching the best restaurants and local cuisines when I overheard two other guests talking about food.
‘The food’s great here, isn’t it!’
‘Oh, it’s amazing. Where are you from?’
‘I’m from Chicago.’
‘Oh, you’re from Chicago? I love Chicago, really good food there!’
‘I know, it’s great! Where are you from?’
‘Vancouver! I love Vancouver! Such great food there!’
The conversation reminded me that Penang was just a phase and I would never become a foodie.