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Published: April 2nd 2014
We arrived in George Town
at 12.30pm. The drive from Kuala Kangsar was reasonably smooth, although typing in the minibus proved a little difficult, as the suspension was over–compensating for the road. It was a surreal experience driving over the long bridge linking mainland Malaysia with the island of Penang. We navigated the complex streets of outer George Town until we finally arrived at the Banana Boutique Hotel in Chulia Street.
We checked in, unpacked and found my ring (it was in my pocket all along). We rang the home–stay and let them know it had turned up. I felt terrible, because they had been searching for the last few hours since we left. We headed straight out to lunch at Hameediyah Tandoori House, which was only one street over from our hotel. When we arrived at 1pm, the restaurant was manic! It was Sunday, and it seemed the entire population of George Town was eating out. We waited until a table was available and then took it by force. The atmosphere and surrounds were fantastic (including the fake brick wallpaper), and you could hardly hear yourself think. We ordered mutton curry, chicken curry, fish head curry, biryani
(rice cooked with spices), garlic naan and dhal. Alcohol was not served, so I opted for a teh tarik
(pulled sweet milky tea). The food was incredible, and there was barely enough room on our table to fit all the dishes on.
After lunch we walked a few more blocks to the Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol Stall for some cendol
(shaved ice, fresh coconut milk, smoky palm sugar syrup and short green pandan noodles). When we arrived the queue was about 20 deep, so we lined up and waited. This popular street stall sets up on the side of the road every day, and people and cars line up to order this addictive and refreshing cold laksa
(soup). The guy running the stall was a machine – he could churn out of bowl of cendol
(with help from his three assistants) in about 3 to 5 seconds. When we eventually got to the front of the queue, we realised there was no time for procrastination – he had no time to lose. Luckily, he only sold one dish – you either had it with red beans or without!
was fantastic and very refreshing. We stood
on the roadside and slurped it out of small plastic bowls with large plastic spoons. As I was eating I felt something splash across the back of my ankles. I thought someone may have been washing dishes on the pavement (as most stall holders do), but as I turned around to look I realised it was not washing up water – it was an old man blowing his nose with his hand. I only just managed to avoid the expulsion from the second nostril!
We gave our plastic bowls and spoons back to the stall holder and wandered back to the hotel. It was good to be back in the world of wifi, as we hadn’t had access to the internet for the past two days. After a quick shower we headed out into the heat of the late afternoon sun for a heritage tour of George Town. We left the hotel at 4pm and walked the streets for the next three hours. The tour was fast, furious and frustrating. We sped past mosques, temples and kongsis
(Chinese association /clan houses), as our guide was on a mission to cram as much of George Town as she possibly could
into three sweltering hours. The late afternoon sun was draining, and we were finding it hard to keep up with our guide’s look–but–don’t–experience
There were, however, some great moments. The street art was a highlight, but not so much the art itself, but the zany poses struck by tourists wanting to be photographed alongside the art. Take for instance, the old woman and her daughter at the famous ‘children on a bicycle’. The old woman stood beside the bike for an interminable amount of time while her daughter photographed her, and all the while about 100 tourists were waiting impatiently to take their own staged photo of this fascinating piece of art. We kept running into this mother and daughter, and every time we would have to wait for them to finish their overly staged portraiture! It was entertaining (to say the least), and after a while we didn’t mind waiting at all. Another highlight was the Chew Jetty on George Town’s waterfront. This offered a fascinating insight into life on a jetty, and whenever I travel I always like to stand where the land meets the sea.
We made our way back to the hotel past
the Cenotaph, Town Hall, City Hall, St George’s Church and other places of interest to our guide. We were well and truly exhausted, so we picked up some cold drinks and retreated to our air–conditioned room. It was 7pm. We showered (again) and headed out to dinner at 8pm. This time we didn’t stray far from our hotel. We wandered down Chulia Street and sat down on small plastic chairs on the pavement behind a small street stall that only sold two dishes – wan tan mee
(noodles with pork dumplings) and sui kau
(wanton soup). We ordered both, plus char kway teow
(flat wide rice noodles, prawns, Chinese sausage, egg, crispy sprouts, and chilli) and a local fishy assam laksa
(white rice noodles in a tamarind and chilli fish soup) from another stall. The food was incredible, and the old couple running the wan tan stall in front of us were working furiously. I ordered a sour plum juice to accompany the meal, and it was fantastic.
On the way back to the hotel we detoured into a long narrow laneway and settled at the Monkey Fruit Juice and Coffee Stall. We ordered ais kacang
(shaved ice topped
with sweetened red beans, creamed sweet corn, palm sugar, rose syrup and ice cream). It was incredibly sweet, and appeared to be a derivative of cendol
. I ordered a watermelon juice and Ren ordered a mango juice. I’m not sure if it was the sweetness of the ais kacang
, but the fruit juices were bland and watery.
The day had been long, so we decided to head back to the hotel at 10pm. We showered, settled in with a cup of tea and caught up on our travel notes. With the luxury of wifi, we even managed to post a blog before we crashed at 12.30am.
We woke at 6am, met our cooking guide Nazlina and walked to Leong Kee Tim Sum Restaurant for breakfast at 7.30am. This thriving dim sum institution serves an incredible selection of dim sum, and I was so busy eating I can barely remember the dishes that appeared in front of me. There were egg tarts, dumplings of every description, steamed buns, Chinese sausages, curry puffs – the food kept arriving and I kept eating it. I’ve never eaten so much for breakfast. We rolled out of the restaurant at 8.30am and watched
takeaway breakfast meals being prepared in small street stalls. One stall was selling takeaway char kway teow
in newspaper cones lined with banana leaf.
As we made our way into the back street markets, I found myself face to face with a live cobra in a wire cage. Malaysian street markets can be quite confronting. The market stalls were selling all kinds of paraphernalia, from hair–rejuvenation DVDs to nutmeg balm. Uncle Lim’s rice paper stall was a standout. Uncle Lim is quite a character, making up to 2,000 sheets of rice paper every day on two large hot plates sitting side by side on the road in the front of his house. We stood in awe watching him (along with a bevy of other tourists), and I heard someone mention that Rick Stein had visited his stall.
We then walked to the Chowrasta Market to get ingredients for our afternoon cooking class. This was another confronting experience, especially in terms of the smell. Fish were being gutted; carcasses were being butchered; chickens were being slaughtered. We gathered ingredients for char kway teow
and nasi lemak
(pandan flavoured rice cooked in coconut milk, served with sambal, fried peanuts, anchovies
and a boiled egg), jumped into a minibus and began the one hour journey to our cooking class. We meandered our way along Penang’s eastern coastline before starting the steep and winding ascent towards Balik Palau.
We arrived at 10.30am and headed straight to Nazlina’s. I was surprised the cooking class was being held in her house, but she was very welcoming and the atmosphere was comfortable (apart from her overly zealous and slightly annoying partner). Nazlina is well regarded in Penang, so we were looking forward to the afternoon. Her house was enormous and not very Malay in design – it wouldn’t look out of place in an affluent Australian suburb. We donned aprons and began preparing ingredients for our two dishes. We chopped, crushed, ground, julienned, mixed and tasted for about an hour.
Then it was time to cook the char kway teow
. We each took turns wok frying this fantastic dish. Mine was nowhere near as good as the ones we’d tried over the past few days, and it was nothing on the char kway teow
from Chatterbox in North Hobart. However, it was a great experience to cook one of my favourite Asian dishes,
and Nazlina was a fantastic instructor. We then constructed a nasi lemak
each (having prepared all the ingredients earlier in the afternoon). Mine fell apart in construction, but Nazlina saved it (just in the nick of time) and it ended up tasting OK.
We finished our cooking class abruptly at 1.30pm, as a minibus arrived to transfer us to Greens Acres Orchard, which was further up in the hills of Balik Palau. The last section of road was too steep for the minibus, so we had to be shuttled up by four wheel drive. We wandered through the orchard, picking and tasting fruit straight from trees and vines while taking in the breathtaking scenery. The orchid was full of organically maintained fruit trees, including lime, ginger, mangosteen, nutmeg, durian, clove and rambutan. For me, the passionfruit was an absolute standout. We were followed everywhere by Sally the beagle, who had assumed the role of orchard mascot. The green and organic focus of this place was both heartening and refreshing.
The orchard included an ‘eco farmstay’ house built into the hillside, with trees growing through the framework and forming an integral part of its structure. This place was a
haven, and I could easily stay here for a week or so. There were no windows and very few walls, and it had an incredible open viewing deck with dipping pool and fish pond. As we arrived, we were greeted with a glass of ice cold nutmeg juice and a platter of fresh pineapple, paw paw, star fruit, ciku (local kiwi–like fruit) and bananas. We wandered around the house and viewing deck in stunned silence until we had to leave at 3pm. We were shuttled back down the steep section of road to the minibus, which took us back to George Town. We eventually arrived back at our hotel at 4.30pm.
We promptly walked to the Komtar shopping centre to buy a cook book recommended by Nazlina – Nonya Flavours: A Complete Guide to Penang Straits Chinese Cuisine
. On the way back we stopped for cendol
at the Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol Stall. We got back to the hotel, organised our bus transfer to KL, picked up our laundry and headed out to Red Garden for dinner at 8pm. This place came with positive reviews, so I was looking forward to the experience. We wandered around the numerous
stalls trying to decide what to order. I opted for a char kway teow
(my second for the day), while Ren ordered chicken rice and vegetables. As we waited for our meals, a guy with a rack of keyboards started playing bad 80’s music (think Boney M) on a stage to the side of this huge undercover food hall. If things weren’t bad enough, another guy got up and started singing in front of old mate on the keyboards. The place was packed and you could hardly hear yourself think. The local guys at the table beside us were getting plastered on Johnny Walker (to the point where they could hardly stand and were literally falling off their seats). I could have coped with all of this, but my order of char kway teow
didn’t arrive, and we had to remind the food stall twice before it finally arrived. This tipped me over the edge. I can’t listen to bad 80’s music on an empty stomach. 😊
The char kway teow
was great, but I wasn’t a fan of Red Garden. If I have to listen to music while I eat, the genre and volume have to be appropriate.
We finished our meals and headed back to the hotel at 10pm.
We woke early to farewell a few travel friends over breakfast. The Banana Boutique Hotel breakfast was basic (to say the least). Juice, coffee, cornflakes and eggs on toast. It wasn’t very Malaysian, but it was OK. Besides, there was a man whose sole job was to stand beside the toaster and make your toast.
We farewelled our travel companions at 9.30am, packed our bags, checked out and headed to Campbell House, our hotel for the next two days. It was just around the corner from where we were, and what a fantastic hotel it was! We were greeted with fresh iced lemon tea as we walked in, and we sat down to a very insightful briefing of what to do and eat in George Town. The hotel had great touches, including a communal library and rooftop terrace. Our room wasn’t ready, so we jumped onto the city shuttle bus and retraced many of the steps we had made the day before on foot. After a complete city circuit (which lasted about an hour,) we wandered back to the hotel and checked in at 12.30pm.
After settling in, we headed out at 1.30pm on our own improvised street art tour. We were really drawn to the street art in George Town. Not so much the wrought iron caricatures with anecdotal descriptions of the streets they adorn, but the paintings of people and cats on street walls that often incorporate tangible objects as props. We sought out and found Minions
, Bruce Lee
, Boy on Motorcycle
, No Animal Discrimination Please
and Cats & Humans Happily Living Together
(noting the titles differ slightly, depending on what you read or who you ask). We also re–visited the Yap Kongsi, just along from Boy on Chair
We were fading fast in the searing afternoon sun, so we headed to Hameediyah Restaurant for lunch at 2.30pm. We ordered chicken murtabak
and vegetable murtabak
(flaky roti stuffed with fillings, cooked on a griddle and served with a curry dipping sauce), and we quenched our thirst with teh tarik
. The food, as always in this great restaurant, was fantastic. Feeling refreshed, we continued our street art tour, finding Trishaw Man[
and Kungfu Girl
. We almost missed Kungfu Girl
, as we were walking down the street in the wrong direction. I actually stood
underneath her taking a photo of a small kongsi
, completely unaware that she was on a wall a few metres away, towering over me.
We also wandered into Hainan Temple, where we were greeted by a friendly old man who wanted to tell us everything about the place (and I mean everything). I must have been the first tourist to show any interest that day, because he followed me everywhere, continually chatting at my shoulder. It was a very welcoming place, and I really enjoyed the chat. By this stage I was dripping with perspiration (which provided the old man no end of amusement), so it was time to retreat from the searing sun. We got back to the hotel at 4.30pm, cooled down with iced tea and cold beer and caught up on our travel notes for a few hours.
We headed out for dinner at 8pm and we were spoilt for choice. We opted for char kway teow
from a street stall at Sin Guat Keong (a large open eating area on the corner of two bustling streets). We sat at a small plastic table on the road, swathed in cooking smoke from the stalls surrounding
us. We sipped iced coffee as we watched our meal being freshly cooked. Good food, great atmosphere. The drinks waiter noticed my watch and asked if I was collecting Seiko Chronographs. He told me he had four. I told him I had two. He asked where I’d got mine. I said Fiji. He thought I said Beijing. As he walked away, he said he had the same watch as mine. I didn’t see him again, but I would have liked to ask him where he got his. Dad and I bought our watches together back in 1977 when we were on a family cruise in the pacific. I was 11 at the time.
We headed back to the hotel at 9pm, picking up an egg tart from a local bakery on the way. We made tea and coffee and set ourselves up in the library to catch up on our travel writing. Campbell House is an incredibly relaxing hotel. We eventually crashed at 12.30am.
We woke early at 6am, caught up on our travel notes and headed down to breakfast at 8.30am. The breakfast was never–ending – latte, fruit, bread, croissants, jam, honey pot yoghurt, natural muesli, poached
eggs on toast with smoked salmon and hollandaise sauce, carrot and ginger juice...it may have been completely non–Malaysian, but it was very welcome (especially the yoghurt and muesli). Feeling completely full, we headed out to wander George Town’s old core zone at 11am.
We wandered through Little India and checked out the Nagore Dargha Sheriff temple (which we had caught glimpses of over the past few days but had not really walked past). We also found some more street art, including Brother and Sister on a Swing
and Children Playing Basketball
. As we were jostling to take photos of the children on the swing, a wedding couple arrived for a photo shoot, and they were using the street art as a backdrop. We asked if they minded us taking a few photos, and they were happy for us to join in the fun. We got some fantastic shots. I can’t begin to imagine how they managed to stay in full wedding attire in George Town’s midday heat.
We walked past Love Me Like Your Fortune Cat
on our way to Khoo Kongsi, where we sheltered from the intense heat in the cool surrounds of the temple. We wandered
along Armenian and Acheh Streets before heading to the Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol Stall for assam laksa
(white rice noodles in a tamarind and chilli fish soup) at 2pm. This tiny non–descript shop is linked to the street stall we had visited a few days earlier, and it’s only 20 metres down the road. The taste of the laksa
was unbelievable. It was incredibly spicy, and the first spoonful almost took my head off. It was garnished with freshly sliced red and green chillies, but their heat paled into insignificance when compared to the spicy broth. This was not a coconut milk laksa
(commonly served in Australia), but a fish–based laksa
in a clear spicy broth. Funnily enough, it was very refreshing in the heat of the early afternoon. However, we were fading fast, so we retreated back to our hotel room at 2.30pm.
After our obligatory shower to recover from the heat, we relaxed in the hotel’s library (just outside our room) and caught up on our travel notes. We also wrote a few postcards and dropped them off at reception, which the hotel posted on our behalf. Campbell Hotel is a fantastic place to relax, and
we can’t recommend it highly enough.
We headed out to Line Clear for dinner at 7.30pm. We’d marked this place down to try after watching Anthony Bourdain’s episode on Penang. Line Clear specialises in nasi kandar
(rice served with a host of curries, meat, vegetables and side dishes). We lined up at the serving station and nervously said “whatever you recommend” to the guy who asked what we wanted. He slammed a few scoops of rice on two plastic plates (biryani on one and white rice on the other), smashed a fried chicken to pieces with a meat cleaver and threw parts of it on each plate, scooped a few spoonful’s of curried cabbage and a fried egg onto each plate and then “flooded” the rice with about five or six different curry sauces. The mountainous mess he thrust in front of me looked dreadful – this dish is synonymous with Penang and supposed to be one of island’s standout meals. I sat on a small plastic seat at a communal bench and looked at the pile of food on my plate. It didn’t look in the least bit appetising. I ordered a teh tarik
to take my mind
off things and then looked back at the plate. At its highest point, the rice mountain rose about 10cm. I tentatively scooped a spoonful of rice with some curry sauce and tasted it. Far out! This is my kind of food. It was sensational. I love the idea of flooding rice in curry sauce. It has to be one of the worst presented dishes I’ve ever seen, but as for taste, it was one of the best. This was the first time I’d not been able to finish a dish since I’d been in Malaysia.
We finished our meal at 8pm and wandered back to the hotel. We had a six hour bus trip to KL in the morning, so we packed our bags and relaxed in our room. We were checking out early, so the hotel staff had left a small breakfast in our room – ham and cheese sandwiches, yoghurt and fruit. After working on our travel notes, we retired at 11pm. SHE SAID...
What can I say about Penang
and George Town
? We came, we saw, we ate and we fell in love! Penang is the self–appointed food capital of Malaysia, and justifiably
so. It also has a very tangible old world romantic feel about it.
We left Kuala Kangsar and headed for our last stop on this 10 day Food Adventure trip – George Town, the capital of Penang State. Here the Chinese population outnumbers the ethnic Malays, and there’s also a rich Peranakan culture (mix of Hokkien Chinese and Malay). Penang is renowned for its cuisine and architecture…where amongst the modern skyscrapers, its charming colonial heritage really stands out.
In our post on Melaka I wrote about its history in order to explain the culture and food; I’ll do the same for Penang now. When the British India Company arrived in the 18th century, they signed an agreement with the Sultan to gain trading rights in Penang in exchange for helping to keep Siam’s army at bay. Unsurprisingly, they eventually took complete possession of Penang (along with Melaka and Singapore) as part of the Straits Settlements. There was already a large Chinese population on the island and settlers from many Asian countries continued to contribute to the rich cultural heritage of the area. Later it was a major player in the Chinese opium trade, and like other port cities
of its time, it was what the Bible would have called ‘a den of iniquity’. Then the Japanese took over the island during WWII, after which Penang became a state of Malaysia when the British ruled Straits Settlements dissolved. Penang’s ‘Pearl of the Orient’ status had probably long gone by then.
Penang is considered highly multicultural, even by Malaysian standards. Being an island (even though there’s an oft–forgotten strip of mainland that belongs to the state of Penang) seems to have contributed to the richer food and culture here. George Town locals take their food very seriously, and the fierce competition caused by an oversupply of hawker stalls and restaurants ensures that the food is very, very tasty. I fell in love with George Town immediately. It has everything I love – an abundance of eateries, beautiful old and new architecture, friendly people and a walkable historic city centre with narrow lanes and atmospheric streets.
George Town’s unique Peranakan ‘Straits Eclectic’ style houses and art deco architecture helped to gain the UNESCO World Heritage site status in 2008. The exotic blend of cultures and the fascinating blend of religious places of worship were very interesting. They seem to
have taken the best bits of the invading and immigrant cultures, and made them even better.
I love old Asian architecture, and George Town has plenty of it. Like in Melaka, most of the mansions and shop houses are old, crumbling and water stained, but still very much used. The renovated buildings painted in pastel or bright colours with white trim are beautiful in a different way. They give the old parts of town a different feel, especially because they usually house gorgeously put together galleries, museums or trendy cafes.
The two hour minibus ride from Kuala Kangsar was quick and painless. We arrived at our hotel at 2:30pm after looking at acres and acres of palm oil plantations again. The Banana Boutique Hotel is on Chulia Street. It’s set in a huge restored mansion and looks impressive from the outside; although I have to admit the interior design was more kitsch than boutique. It’s of the school of design that more is better, and bigger is even better than more. Nevertheless our room was large and comfortable, and I loved the central location of the hotel. We were within walking distance of the heritage quarter.
dropped off laundry at the ‘dobi’ across the road and walked to Campbell Street for a rice and fish head curry meal at the renowned Restoran Hameediyah Tandoori House (the new air–conditioned branch of the old Hameediyah restaurant). We ordered biryani
, chicken curry, mutton curry, fish head curry, and garlic naans. The curries were all really tasty. However, because the restaurant was packed beyond capacity, we were all crammed onto a small round table which made eating a bit hard.
We had tried cendol
in KL, but the cendol street cart that Aldrin took us to on Keng Kwee Street was heavenly beyond words. The coconut milk was a lot lighter, and therefore more refreshing. You won’t miss the cart as there’s always a long line of people waiting patiently for a bowl of that fantastic cooling dessert, and his helpers wear uniforms (as there’s an imitation cendol
cart that has apparently popped up on the same street). The hardworking uncle works so fast that it was impossible to get a photo of him putting the cendol
together. He was also a little scary in how brusquely he served the customers – he yelled if you didn’t order quickly
enough, and Alice was a bit hesitant to ask for no red beans in her cendol
. We called him the cendol nazi, and I really really wanted him to say ‘no cendol for you’ to Alice; but he didn’t. 😊
We did a three hour walking tour of George Town, and while this gave us a feel for the Chinatown area, the independent guide leading the walk was either inexperienced or not very good at her job. It was still rather hot when we set off at 4pm, but she set a cracking pace and quite often would be quite a bit ahead of the whole group. I joked that we should have hidden from her. The walking got harder once we left the shade of the old town. We marvelled at the fact that anyone could make George Town sound boring, but she really managed to do it. I lost the will to live at the two hour mark.
However, Andrew and I redid the walk a few days later and one of the highlights was the Pitt Street (Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling) area, which offered a small reflection of the religions and culture of the town.
Starting at the imposing 19th century Indian–Muslim styled Kapitan Keling Mosque; we walked past Teochew Temple – an old Chinese clan house. We then passed stalls selling garlands of marigolds for the nearby Sri Mahamariamman Hindu temple. A bit further along, we stopped in the shade of a big beautiful fig tree to admire the oversized incense burners causing a haze of smoke at the entrance to the temple of Kuan Yin Teng, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Interestingly, there was a little Hindu Ganesh statue in the fig tree at this Buddhist temple, but I couldn’t quite get the reason behind it (I will look it up when we get home). Then turning into Farquhar Street, we stood facing the striking neo–classical St George’s Anglican Church, the oldest Anglican Church in South East Asia.
A visit to the 200+ year old Kongsi
Chinese clan or ‘Association’ houses was also very interesting. We visited a few that were still open to the public – my favourite was the Yap Kongsi, but the biggest and most impressive was the Khoo Kongsi. Originally built for the recruitment, education and financial welfare of the first Chinese immigrants, they later became the breeding
ground of overlords and factional wars. The rubber trade created great wealth, which was used by clans to build these ornate mansions with elaborate temples and swish opium dens in beautiful courtyards.
We walked as far as the Weld Quay Clan Jetties, and then through the financial and colonial districts. The wooden clan jetties perched on the backwaters of George Town are home to five main Chinese clans – Lim, Chew, Tan, Lee and Yeoh. We visited the Chew Jetty. The settlement numbers are apparently dwindling as families move away from the fishing/water lifestyle. Even though the majority of the houses that are still occupied have taken to tourism quite aggressively, the rickety jetties are a tangible reminder of the life led by the Chinese immigrants who came here more than a century ago.
That night we had dinner at the hawker stalls on Chulia Street. We shared a selection of assam laksa
, char kway teow
, wonton soup
, wonton mee
, and pork noodle soup. It was a 50% success rate, with the wonton mee
being the best dish. We stopped by a dessert stall on the way home and ordered ais kacang
. The corn was a bit odd
in it, but the rosewater syrup and grass noodles were quite nice. I definitely prefer cendol
. A few nights later we ate at the hawker stalls on Kimberley Street, and I think they are generally of a better quality that the ones on Chulia Street. We were back at the hotel at 10:30pm, but I stayed up until 12:30am as I was way behind in my writing.
The next day was a brilliant day! We were up by 6am as usual, and at 7:30am we started by meeting Nazlina who walked us to Kimberly Street for a dim sum
(yum cha to you Australians) breakfast. Most of the dim sum
we had wasn’t familiar to me, and the items card was in Chinese, so I couldn’t make sense of it either way. It worked very simply – the steamer cart or the baking cart would roll by, Nazlina would order and we would eat. I seriously loved this place, and even though it wasn’t far off the tourist streets, we were the only non–Chinese patrons there that morning.
We then walked to the Chowrasta Bazaar and wet markets. We had a cooking class with Nazlina in the afternoon,
so we bought vegetables, anchovies and noodles for our dishes. The wet market was as lively and gross as any Asian wet market is. However, we also walked through a part of the markets that very disturbingly sold snakes (for insecure men who look to these bizarre and cruel methods to build up their manhood). The cobra was very stressed, and it distressed me very much. We then walked into the herbal and ointment section, to a stall that sold nutmeg balm. Those of you who know my love of tiger balm won’t be surprised that I bought a small bottle. It works wonders on insect bites. Nutmeg is a much loved local product in Penang.
Quite confusingly, many people refer to George Town as Penang. However, there’s much more to Penang than just George Town. The island has a beautiful coastline and some gorgeous hillside landscapes, which we discovered on the drive to Nazlina’s house in Balik Pulau. The hills in Penang look to be quite fertile, and there were many fruit farms and spice garden signs. Nazlina was very welcoming of us at her house and before long the kitchen was filled with the sound of chopping,
slicing and crushing of ingredients for the two dishes we were cooking – char kway teow
and nasi lemak
. Refreshingly, we actually really enjoyed this class (after the debacle of Nancy’s cooking class in Melaka), and I would highly recommend it to anyone. However, I should include a disclaimer that if Nazlina’s partner decides to hang around, there will be loud conversations that distract from the cooking class. Her cat Armani, on the other hand, is all sorts of cuteness.
Even though we prepared all the ingredients for the pastes and sauces together as a group, we each wok–fried our own portions of char kway teow
and assembled our own banana leaf wrapped parcels or bunkus
(take away) of nasi lemak
. Unfortunately, the end of the class and eating our nasi lemak
was a bit rushed, as we had gone over time and the driver was already there to take us to the fruit farm.
We visited the gorgeous Green Acres Farm, an organic fruit farm that Eric and Kim have painstakingly developed over six years. They have built a traditional tree house and a beautiful three bedroom farmhouse using recycled wood and reclaimed materials. It had a
large open deck with panoramic views of the hills. They served us platters of fresh fruit from their farm – papaya, pineapple, ciku, star fruit, small bananas and possibly the most delicious passionfruit I have ever eaten. We also got to try fresh nutmeg jam and refreshing nutmeg juice. I loved this farm very much, and Eric and Kim seemed to be such fantastic people. However, it was Sally, the slightly nervous beagle who stole the show.
When we got back to George Town, instead of having an afternoon nap at the hotel as planned, Alice, Brian, Andrew and I walked to the bookshop at the Komtar Mall to buy a cookbook called Nonya Flavours
(a book we saw at Nazlina’s house). We walked back home via the cendol nazi’s stall. The queue wasn’t as long this time. Cendol
really hits that afternoon sugar craving spot!
Dinner that night at Red Garden (a bright red–neon and fluorescent food court) had been much anticipated. However, it was a bit of a letdown. Andrew’s char kway teow
(when he eventually got it) was tasty but had no smoky flavour at all, and my chicken rice was bordering on bland. However,
the evening’s entertainment then kicked in – a backup soundtrack, a few keyboards and a keyboardist singing country and western and a few 80s power ballads. A young pop star in–the–making then took over the singing, but even he couldn’t keep away us from our beds. We were back at the hotel by 10:30pm.
We woke at 6am again and packed our bags for a move to a new hotel. It was the last day of the 10 day Food Adventure Trip, and we said our goodbyes to everyone over breakfast. We’ve travelled with many people, but when we are genuinely sad to say goodbye to anyone, we know we have had a fantastic time with them. Brian was heading back to the US and Alice was travelling on to Borneo...and thanks to the power of facebook, we followed each other’s travels and have kept in touch.
We finished breakfast, checked out of the Banana Boutique Hotel and walked the short distance to Campbell Street to our new hotel for a few days. Campbell House Boutique Hotel is an old hotel building from 1903, which has been gorgeously restored into a small boutique hotel without losing its heritage
beauty. I love walking into a beautiful lobby and being excited about seeing our room. There’s a renowned Italian restaurant downstairs (we didn’t eat there); a communal library on the first floor filled with tasteful antique furniture; walls and hallways filled with beautiful art; and a gorgeous rooftop terrace. No shoes were allowed above the reception level, which keeps the hotel in the style of a traditional Malaysian home.
Our room had stunning traditional tiles in the bathroom and locally sourced organic Fair Trade bath products. We had a street frontage room, but layers of shutters, glass, blinds and curtains kept the street noise down. Everything was stylishly set out with beautiful attention to detail. The fridge was always stocked with jugs of water and fresh lime juice, and in the afternoon, we got a house–made sweet snack. Andrew loved the Nespresso machine in our room, as he had started missing his morning coffee fix. We also spent many happy hours on the couch in the library, drinking tea and writing travel notes.
I REALLY loved this hotel, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it very highly. However, there was one small fly in the ointment. We overheard
the expatriate owners openly dressing down the staff on two separate occasions, and it left a slightly bitter taste in our mouths. They seemed to have a happy face and voice for the guests, and another not so nice face and voice for the staff. This was a little sad to see since we were very impressed with the staff – especially Kumar, whose brilliant tips on where to eat and what sights we shouldn’t miss were very helpful.
The street art scene is very much alive, but not in the way we think of street art or graffiti in Australia. It’s a very controlled system, where artists are commissioned as a part of a festival or bigger rejuvenation plan by the Council. Two projects captured my imagination – the very popular Mirrors George Town, a collection of murals within the heritage quarter by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic (who was commissioned as part of the 2012 George Town Festival); and 101 Lost Kittens, by Artists for Stray Animals who help create awareness of re–homing stray animals (a project commissioned as part of the 2013 George Town Festival). Sadly, three of Zacharevic’s murals have already succumbed to the elements and
faded away, but we managed to do a treasure hunt of all his other pieces with the help of a trusty street art map published by the tourism office.
Incidentally, the streets with the art works were also my favourite streets to walk along. I thought Muntri Street had the prettiest and best–preserved facades of Straits Eclectic style houses, and it also houses the Hainan Temple – my favourite of all the temples we visited in Penang.
By street, here are the art works by Zacharevic... On Ah Quee Street, ‘boy on motorcycle’ (‘little boy with pet dinosaur’ has faded away); On Armenian Street, ‘children on bicycle’ (‘the old man’ has faded away); On Cannon Street, ‘boy on chair’; On Muntri Street, ‘kungfu girl’ mural is at the Penang Goldsmith Association...we had to double back to find this one, because depending on which direction you walk in, it’s easily missed; On Penang Road, ‘the trishaw man’; The Chew Jetty’s ‘children in a boat’ has also faded away.
Local deaf–mute artist Louis Gan has two murals in Zacharevic’s style – ‘brother and sister on a swing’ on the wall of a printing warehouse in an alleyway off Ghaut
Chulia Street, and ‘children playing basketball’ in another alleyway across the road.
George Town has a free Hop On bus (also called the CAT) that does a loop of the heritage area and surrounding main streets. It was a great way to get our bearings, especially as we had a map that detailed its route so we could follow where we were, and make note of where we wanted to come back to. There was no commentary, and as with most free transport in any city, the locals use it as well, so it gets quite crowded. But did I mention it was free?
One of the places we doubled back to was the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (on Leith Street). The circa 1880s mansion built by the merchant Cheong Fatt Tze is large and very blue. The mansion was bought from Cheong Fatt Tze’s descendants in 1989 by a group of local Penangnites in order to save it from development and possible demolition. It is now a private residence, and as part of the adaptive–reuse of an ongoing restoration project, it also operates as a bed and breakfast and museum.
We ate many outstanding meals in
George Town, but for me, there were three clear stand outs – murtabak
from Hameediyah Restoran on Campbell Street, assam laksa
from the street cart on Keng Kwee Street (associated with the cendol cart) and nasi kandar
from Line Clear (one of the places Anthony Bourdain ate at in the Penang episode of No Reservations). Murtabak
is flat bread/roti
stuffed with fillings, cooked on a griddle and served with a curry dipping sauce. It is a classic mamak
(Indian Muslim) dish. We had the vegetarian and chicken versions, and they were both outstanding. This restaurant has been in business since 1907 and was apparently visited by Rick Stein in his program Far Eastern Odyssey. Assam laksa
is one of Penang’s most loved dishes – thick, white, rounded noodles in a sour and spicy fish broth with tamarind, prawn paste, shredded fish and a good sprinkle of mint leaves, slivers of pineapple, cucumber and ginger flower. It was really, REALLY good! And thus began our lusty affair with assam laksa
Line Clear Restoran is a little hole in the wall in an alleyway off Penang Road (near Chulia Street) that has operated since the 1930s. In Malaysian street
talk, ‘line clear’ is apparently what was called out when moving through busy back lanes. It is a 24 hour place that specialises in nasi kandar
, another mamak
rice dish unique to Penang that is served with a fantastic fried chicken, vegetable curry and plenty of curry sauces to ‘flood’ the rice.
I know I raved about the Peranakan food in Melaka, but in all honesty I think my palate far prefers the Penang versions. Penang’s nonya food has cleaner and fresher flavours, generally more citrus and fresh chilli and less coconut milk. This could possibly be because there is more of a Thai influence in Penang and less of a European influence than in the south.
With so much going on food–wise and charming architecture–wise, I really don’t feel like we’ve had enough time in Penang. I can’t wait to come back again. Soon.
Next we travel back to Kuala Lumpur to begin our travels east!
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