A very long overdue post – Food Trip to Penang (Part 1)

So, yes. It’s been a few many, many months since my last post. Things have been a little crazy with life at home while I learnt to cope with some food allergies. With all that craziness and a little bit of travel in December, blogging hasn’t been a priority. I’ve been cooking a lot but I just couldn’t bring myself to start blogging.

So, this post should provide you with sufficient evidence of what I’ve been up to, at least in terms of travelling and lots of eating. Last December, D (my hubby) and I revisited Penang and did a little detour to Ipoh before heading back home to Singapore. We both love Penang so much that we have been there thrice in 2 years! The authentic street food and unique culture are what draw us there. This and the next few blog posts would be devoted to the food & culture in Penang and Ipoh but in between, I’d also be posting some recipes I’ve tried.

Penang is a true foodie’s paradise. It’s arteries are copiously pumped with the decadent delights of hawker fare from different ethnic groups, namely the Chinese, Malay, Indian Muslim, Indian and Straits Chinese. So ubiquitous is food to this Malaysian island off the mainland’s west coast that you’ll find Penangites indulging in it at every hour of the day, come rain or shine! As a Singaporean, I’m quite familiar with this food obsession but in Penang, it takes on a whole different form. We’ve met many a foodie while waiting for my coffee and it doesn’t take long for him/her to strike up a conversation with us and very soon after, they wax lyrical about which Char Koay Teow is the best and where we should go to try this. For this, I love Penangites/Malaysians; they are very friendly and extremely passionate about the quality of food that Penang has to offer. So, from one such casual conversation on our first trip to Penang, we were told to sample this particular Char Koay Teow along Lorong Selamat.

Char Koay Teow is a Teochew and Hokkien hawker fare and is a MUST try dish if you’re in Penang. ‘Char’ means fried in Hokkien and koay teow is a type of flat rice noodles. Sharing similar ethnic groups, it’s no surprise that Char Koay Teow is also found in Singapore but the one in Penang has a generous number of ingredients- plenty of beansprouts, chinese chives, fried lard cubes (yum!), sliced Chinese sausages, cockles (hum in Hokkien) and prawns and has thinner rice noodles. On the contrary, most of the stalls in Singapore don’t add as much beansprouts and chives. Traditionally, duck egg is used for its creamier taste but these days, duck eggs are hard to find. This stall at Lorong Selamat at Kafe Heng Huat, is very popular and I can completely understand why- the texture of the prawns is perfection! Each portion is individually fried at a very high temperature for just under 3 minutes! The two sisters ,who are the cooks, are very skilled, given their age and experience . As I stood next to one of the cooks, I was completely mesmerized by how fast they both were in churning out plate after plate of sumptuous delights!

Anti-clockwise from top: dark soy sauce, chilli paste, fresh cockles(hum), sliced chinese sausages (lap cheong)
Lor Selamat's Char Koay Teow
Lor Selamat’s Char Koay Teow

Another stall which is extremely popular with the locals is this makeshift stall at the corner of Anson Road and Siam Road. We were introduced to this stall while we struck up a conversation with a lady from KL whom we shared a table with while waiting for our kopis (coffee in Malay). She insisted that this stall’s char koay teow was much better than the one at Lor Selamat (another example of how serious the locals are about their hawker fare!) so we just HAD TO try it. Unfortunately, when we finally managed to find the stall, it was very packed. There were already about 30 diners waiting and so we decided to return the next day. But luck was not on our side as the stall was closed and would not be open till after we had left. I was very,very disappointed. Sigh. Next time then. But, wait! Let me tell you why you’ve got to try this one. The 72 year-old man has had this stall for over 30 years and he has been frying his noodles the same way- over a very hot charcoal fire. He uses his left hand to fan the flames of the charcoal and his right to vigorously stir-fry the noodles one portion at a time! I didn’t manage to get  a photo of him in action but I managed to capture a short video of him and it’s on my Instagram (Dec 2013) http://instagram.com/p/iLhrw0NsU1/ . It’s almost as if he’s doing a ‘dance’ as he’s picking up the ingredients, throwing them into the wok, fanning the charcoal and swiftly swirling his ladle. The young man we were chatting with at the stall assured us that this is the best plate of char koay teow on the island as the ‘charcoal flavour’ gave it a unique charred taste that most stalls using gas flames don’t have.

Another Penang favourite of ours is the Hokkien Mee. The Penang version is a prawn and pork based soup served with fresh yellow wheat noodles or rice vermicelli,bean sprouts, kangkang (water convolvulous) and it’s finished off with a few lean pork slices, blanched prawns and crispy fried shallots. Finally, to add more pizazz, a fiery spoonful of chilli paste is served along with the dish. (I’m salivating while typing this!) The Singaporean one, also called Hokkien Mee, is, however, a semi-dry fried version with similar add-ons. This dish is a bowl of comfort as the broth is hearty and it makes for a perfect meal anytime. The Penang Hokkien Mee we like is quite spicy and it’s at Heng Kee Cafe along Presgrave Road.

IMG_3618The broth is very delicious and addictive- one slurp is never enough! It is made by boiling pork bones, fried prawn shells and heads and  chilli paste for at least a few hours. Like any good broth, slow cooking over a low flame is necessary to achieve a flavourful soup.

The dangerously delicious, fiery hot broth for the Hokkien Mee

Another highly recommended Hokkien Mee is the stall in Seng Lee Cafe along Bangkok Lane, just opposite the Pulau Tikus market area. The Indian Mee here is excellent but that’s for another post!

IMG_4172This version at Bangkok Lane is very popular among locals and it’s a more authentic version of Penang Hokkien Mee as it does not have a boiled egg added to it. Also, this broth was less spicy than the one at Presgrave Road. You should give both a try to pick your favourite.

In my next post, I’ll be writing about a dish which is iconic to Penang and some night food spots. I’ll also be sharing about a few heritage and cultural areas which I absolutely loved. Hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post!

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