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A hawker's eye on Penang food

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Joanne Poh on 08 May 2015

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Joanne Poh feasts at the favourite food haunts of her friend who owns a food stall on the Malaysian island

 

NICHOLAS, my Malaysian hawker friend who owns a zi char (Chinese dishes cooked to order) stall in Penang, declares that street fare in Malaysia is still the real deal.

 

According to him, rampant outsourcing to cooks who are unfamiliar with the region’s unique flavours has taken a toll on Singapore’s hawker fare.

 

Of course, Nicholas — who worked previously in various restaurants and hotels in Singapore — may be a little biased.

 

All the same, when I asked him and his wife to recommend some good eats in Penang — widely acknowledged by Malaysians as the country’s food capital — they shook their heads and gravely informed me that my weekend trip would not give me enough time to even scratch the surface.

 

So to save time, I hopped on the back of a moped and hit the streets in search of the best food on the island of Penang.
 

A feast fit for a king
 

Our first stop was the famed CF Food Court at Weld Quay. It may not have the stage presence of the much more famous Gurney Drive, but locals swear the quality of the food wins hand down.

 

In fact, Nicholas and his wife have sampled dishes from virtually every stall at CF Food Court and report that a good 70 per cent of the offerings are excellent.

 

Wishing I had a more capacious belly, I sampled the claypot chicken rice, wonton mee and noodle soup with fried fish. The flavours were more intense than those of their Singapore counterparts, the consistency perfect each time.

 

Just around the corner from CF Food Court is historical Lebuh Armenian, the lifeblood of the Unesco World Heritage Zone. This area is famous for its street art, which basks in the sun on the walls of stately shophouses in the area.

 

“If you get lost, look for the big cat,” my friends said, gesturing to the larger-than-life feline spray-painted on a concrete partition by the side of the road.

 

The area is best explored on a bicycle, and most bicycle rental stands will furnish you with a map marking the locations of the better-known examples of street art.

 

Walking east on Jalan Muntri and past the delightfully intricate Hainan Temple is Tai Buan Porridge, an unassuming little eatery that serves up classic Teochew porridge and is always jammed with queues during lunchtime.

 

Walk a little farther and you will find yourself gaping in wonder at the musty, exotic shop of Master Wong, a resident fortune-teller, fronted by a mysterious altar that is shrouded in dust.

 

After meeting two British tourists who had just had their cards read and were beaming at the outcome, I paid Master Wong a visit myself. He told me to stop worrying and taste life’s various flavours.

 

And that was exactly what I did.

 

Just desserts
 

In the midst of an animated discussion about chendol, Nicholas insisted I make a trek to the famous stalls on the corner of Jalan Penang and Lebuh Keng Kwee.

 

The two vendors, who have been selling their desserts from pushcarts for decades, have achieved cult-like status for making what some say is the best chendol and ice kacang in town.

 

“I estimate they must sell about three to four thousand bowls a day,” said Nicholas.
He added that, while one of the stalls has longer queues since it received more publicity on TV, he had personally taste-tested the offerings of both and declared them to be of the same standard.

 

The chendol was so delightful that two bowls later, I was struggling to balance on my bicycle as I pedalled away.

 

Wobbling past Lebuh Chulia, Georgetown’s bustling backpacker area, I took in the heady scent of incense at the Guan Yin Temple and donned a purple robe to explore the serene grounds of the Kapitan Keling Mosque.
 

Final taste test

 

Early the next morning, I hopped on the back of Nicholas’ moped so he could give me a lift to Kek Lok Si Temple on his way to work.

 

The temple complex, built on the mountainous slopes of Air Itam and offering sweeping views over the city, is a heady combination of religion, kitsch and commercialism.

 

But it was the hawker stalls we hit after the visit that were the highlight of this trip to the centre of Penang Island.

 

Pasar Air Itam Laksa serves Penang laksa in its purest form just beside the Air Itam Market at the foot of the mountain.

 

It wasn’t the only place worth a visit. Nicholas gave so many of the stalls at the market his seal of approval, I concluded it would be folly not to immediately start planning another trip.

 

My stomach would accept nothing less.
 

GETTING THERE
 

I flew from Singapore to Penang on Tiger Airways. From Penang International Airport, I took Rapid bus 104 to my hotel in Tanjung Bungah.
 

TRAVELLER’S TIPS
 

-Budget accommodation can be found in the area in and around Lebuh Chulia, Lorong Love and Chinatown. Luxurious beachside resorts are concentrated in the Tanjung Bungah and Batu Ferringhi areas.
 

-Malay and Mandarin are widely spoken in Penang. Most younger people also speak basic English.

 

Source: SG Travellers © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

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