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Posts from the ‘Penang’ Category

Kek Seng

As much as I love the malls of Asia and organized hawker centers, there is something to be said for the weak breezes of an electric fan while sitting on hard wooden booth in a well-worn shophouse. Cooling off with an ais kacang, of course.

Kek seng interior

Kek seng ais kacang

Kek Seng is perfect for a traditional Penang experience…like putting vegetables and legumes in desserts. This bed of shaved ice came smothered in creamed corn, rose syrup, red beans, a layered agar-agar jelly and best of all two scoops of durian ice cream.

Kek seng durian ice cream

The durian ice cream, which does have a distinct natural taste unlike some duller durian-flavored sweets, is optional. You shouldn't pass it up, though.

Kek seng ais kacang aftermath

The shockingly bright aftermath.

Kek seng exterior

Cooked food is available from the stands out front.

Kek Seng * 382-384 Penang Rd, Penang, Malaysia

New World Park

Having started with the Gurney Drive hawkers, then moving onto more modern Northam Beach Café, New World Park was the next logical step. Only a little over two years old, this complex is home to casual upscale restaurants like Shanghainese Rou Gu Cha King and Sri Batik Nyonya Café, as well as this tidy hawker center, all signage homogenized into one distinct style.

New world park stand

New world park popiah

The popiah stand was popular and I hadn't tried any on this vacation. I'm not sure if it's the nature of popiah or just this version, which were freshly made on the spot, but I found the rolls kind of bland. I think it was the jicama-heavy filling.

New world park roti canai

We ordered roti canai from the Indian Muslim stall. The sauce was redder than anything I've encountered in the US, and I think vegetarian. Then again, roti canai here isn't the same since most Malaysian restaurants are run by Chinese.

New world park shrimp fritter

And a shrimp fritter too.

New world park char kway teow

James ordered char kway teow because…he usually did in Penang.

New world park hawker center-1

New World Park * Burmah Rd., Penang, Malaysia

Kim Gary

Kim Gary serves Hong Kong-style cuisine in Malaysia and Singapore. Chinese with last-century Western touches like the cheese-baked rice dishes on many tables. So many layers, so completely un-American. We ate in the middle of a mall in Penang.

Kim gary interior

You are handed like five different laminated photo-filled menus. It’s overwhelming; the food is nonsensical as it is. I’m still not clear if the diner is supposed to mark off the items they want on the black and white order sheet or if the waitress is supposed to. We let her do it.

Kim gary borsh

“Borsch” comes with the combo meals. Bastardized Russian food, the product of mid-century émigrés, still lingers in Hong Kong. I don’t think a beet had come anywhere near this soup. This was tomato-based and had a few soft carrot coins floating around.

Kim gary shanghai ribs

Shanghai ribs were nothing special, tough meat in sweetish soy sauce atop rice with corn and broccoli.

Kim gary meat fries

Meat fries because why not?

Kim gary

Kim Gary * Gurney Plaza, Penang, Malaysia

Bali Hai Seafood

1/2 Our last night in Penang, I went back to Gurney Drive to try the pasembur that I missed the first time. Sadly, the stall wasn’t open and on this weeknight, only half the seating was out creating a madhouse, scrambling for tables effect. What else was nearby? We walked down to Bali Hai, a sprawling outdoor seafood restaurant with a flashy neon sign and a wall of choose-your-own-creature fish tanks.

Bali hai sign

Also, popular in Hong Kong and Singapore, I’d always shied away from this style of dining because quickly calculating grams to ounces while simultaneously doing currency conversions makes me nervous and I’m paranoid that I will end up with a massive bill. This did end up being our most expensive meal in Penang but even with three large sharable Calsbergs (the territorial aspect of SE Asian dining always throws me. When approached by the Indian woman dressed in a green miniskirt ensemble we asked for Tiger beer, but she was the Carlsberg server. You had to order from the Chinese Tiger beer girl if you wanted Tiger. Meanwhile, there was a rogue satay guy who didn’t seem to have any affiliation with the restaurant) it was under $50.

Bali hai interior

The covered open space, sticky despite fans blowing water, was filled with large round tables, many occupied by groups of men, coworkers, showing a Westerner, maybe a boss, maybe a peer, a good time. The primo spots were thatched hut booths in the front. We had a roomy picnic-type table on the outer perimeter.

Bali hai mantis prawns

Mantis prawns. I’ve always wanted to try these giant crustaceans, despite their creepy name and buggy, armored appearance. Not inexpensive, these were about $10 apiece. The impenetrable shells come scored, diners are brought scissors. I copied the guy at a table near ours and scraped out the meat with a spoon. It turned out to be a lot of work for not a lot of payoff, like blue crabs. The chili sauce was barely touched because I couldn’t wrangle any tidbits substantial enough for dipping.
Bali hai live mantis prawns & geoducks

Here are some live mantis prawns in action. As you can see, they also had quite a selection of geoduck. The prehistoric-looking animals are often touted as a Northwest delicacy but I never encountered them in Portland and have still yet to try them. I’m not sure how they are served in Malaysia.

Bali hai kang kong

Kang kong, a.k.a. water spinach, prepared with shrimp paste and chile is a typical Malaysian vegetable. Accents are very subtle. Our waiter, who had to be sent over to our table because he was the only fluent English-speaker, had no idea what I was asking for when I said kang like in kangaroo. A’s are softer like in almond; his pronunciation was more like kong kong, the A barely different from the O. My pronunciation of pandan was corrected on my last visit to Malaysia, so you think I would’ve remembered. Normally, I hate stems and try to avoid them raw. This style of water spinach is so savory and hearty that I forgot about being scared of the hollow stems.

Bali hai sea bass

I picked out a sea bass that would be good for two, like I said, grams don’t mean anything to me visually. This fish, fried to a crisp, was amazing and almost Thai in flavor. It was served with a very spicy green mango slaw and lots of shallots and mint leaves.

Despite a substantial amount of blog posts and having their own website, I have no idea what Bali Hai’s address might be of if they even have one. Such details seem superfluous in much of Southeast Asia.

Bali Hai Seafood * Gurney Dr., Penang, Malaysia

Sakae Sushi

Kaiten, a.k.a. conveyor belt sushi, was oddly popular in the malls of both Penang and Bangkok. The glory didn’t belong to a single chain either; competitors resided on the same floors or one above the other like Sushi King and Sakae Sushi in Gurney Plaza.

Sakae sushi exterior

We chose Sakae Sushi, a Singaporean chain, which I’m now seeing has/had (the URL is dead) a midtown and West Village location. I had no idea. I would not be surprised if this hyped in 2008 restaurant was already kaput because the food isn’t anything special once you get past the novelty.

But if I’m in a foreign country for at least five days, I feel ok with branching out into other cuisines than what’s native. We’d crammed in so much laksa, rojak, satay and char kway teow into our first few days in Penang that I was ready for something lighter, maybe Japanese. Inevitably we ended up with lots of ricey/fried dishes so my original intent was lost.

Sakae sushi conveyor belt

I was a little excited about the touch screens at each table so you could order with zero human interaction, but we got the loser space for two with a broken monitor. This was a strange aspect of Penang—we always got horrible seats. Others had huge booths for small groups while we got a cramped tiny table hidden in the back. Being the only Westerner in a place can go two ways—either you get uncomfortable, over-the-top service or the staff gets weirded out and tries not to interact with you. This was the latter.

You pay by the plate, which are color coded. On the low end a green plate of simple vegetarian sushi might cost 60 cents and a special black plate prawn concoction with kimchi and tomatoes might cost $3.75. Nothing is outrageously priced, which is why we were surprised that we managed to spend $45 (tax and 10% service charge included—to tip or not to tip always posed such a dilemma), our most expensive meal in Malaysia at that point. A couple Tiger beers were also involved.

Sakae sushi eel roll

Eel-wrapped something or another.

Sakae sushi roll

Some cheapo crab stick, omelet sushi.

Sakae sushi soft shell crab

Soft shell crab tempura with ponzu dipping sauce off the menu.

Sakae sushi sashimi

Sashimi, also off the menu. They go for practicality over presentation, leaving the icepack beneath the raw seafood.

Sakae sushi chicken

Fried chicken nuggets. I grabbed the plate because of the fish cake sails.

Sakae sushi mackerel

I just like the fried fish head popping out of the roll.

Sakae sushi tempura roll

Tempura’d sushi.

Sakae Sushi * Gurney Plaza 170-03-87/88/89, Penang, Malaysia

Line Clear Nasi Kandar

Unlike my first gluttonous foray into nasi kandar, point-and-pick Indian-Muslim food over rice, I showed restraint on my second visit to Penang. I might’ve ordered more this time too, but I go with the flow when I’m not completely familiar with a dining style.

Line clear nasi kandar serving

“White rice or biryani?” was the first question. Plain, trying to save calories (I kid…sort of). The New Yorker in me can’t bear holding up lines, so no time was wasted with the “What’s in that pan?” game. I identified chicken curry and settled on that. I would’ve liked something from the sea, maybe squid eggs, as well. My contemplative mood was ended by, “What vegetable?” Uh ok, green beans, then. “Cabbage?” That seemed like a requirement…so, yes. Then the guy manning the station ladles gravy from different dishes, not necessarily the ones you ordered, onto the rice. See? You don’t really need the biryani.

Line clear nasi kandar plate

Some people eat with their hands, some don’t. Everyone eats quickly and no one wastes a speck. Even though I didn’t load up with a zillion different items like at Kayu Nasi Kandar (now out of business), this was a lot of food. I wouldn’t normally eat all of this rice, but to leave food behind seemed very American and grotesque and I have a hard enough time throwing away food as it is.

Nasi kandar kitten

Clearly, there are scraps to be had. This tiny cat had a chicken bone to herself. 85% of the felines I’ve encountered in SE Asia are unusually small, angular-faced and have short tails, not like manxes but half the length or a typical US cat, with stubs on the end like they’ve been broken. This cat’s tail doesn’t extend behind the table leg, what’s pictured is the end of it. My cat weighs over 20 pounds even though I feed her as much as our normal-sized cat, so I am fascinated by these sylphs. I also wonder if you could possibly eat nasi kandar on a regular basis and not plump up.

Line clear nasi kandar entrance

A man at the table behind me wanted to chat because he had heard our American accents (I’ve always wondered if in SE Asia, for instance, they can distinguish among different English accents—there are definitely more Australians and Germans speaking English than Americans). He was in Penang taking his mother to a cardiologist even though he lived in Idaho where he runs a Chinese restaurant. I really wanted to ask what kind of food he serves—how could someone who probably enjoys char kway teow serve kung pao to his neighbors? Maybe he could answer this question I stumbled upon today in the Boise Weekly, “Why does most of the Chinese food in Idaho, well, suck?

Line Clear Nasi Kandar * Jalan Penang & Lebuh Chulia, Penang, Malaysia

Lorong Seratus Tahun

1/2 I try to be open minded about others’ food limitations. Even so, I will admit that while at a sushi lunch with a few workmates the other day, I was stunned to hear that crème brulee was something that one coworker’s new husband reluctantly tried for the first time on their recent Disneyworld honeymoon. “Um, that’s a delicious dessert, not something weird,” added the other luncher. Indeed.

While I don’t go in for the gross for the sake of being shocking antics, if a dish traditionally contains un unusual ingredient I definitely want to eat it the way it was intended, not toned down for delicate sensibilities. If it turns out to be loathsome? Lesson learned.

So, maybe I was being sneaky when I ordered two bowls of curry mee at Lorong Seratus Tahun, nodding yes to all of the mix-ins. I knew full well that James wasn’t going to be as enamored of pig’s blood as I.

“Should I even ask what this is?” he hesitated, poking at the jiggly crimson cubes. “Kidneys? Heart?” I had to break the bloody news, but countered that the texture isn’t much different than tofu. Oh, that’s right, he doesn’t like tofu either. I ended up with a double-dose of pig’s blood cubes.

Lorong seratus tahun curry mee

Anyway, I loved this soup. Even though Penang laksa had undeniable hot-sour charms, I always fall for the spicy-creamy coconut milk-based soups. As you can see from the color of the prawn-enriched broth, they use a light hand with the coconut milk. This isn’t lemak as the curry laksa that’s more common in Singapore.

The fried bean curd puff soak up the flavor, cockles, shrimp and squid (not sure if that’s common or not) add chewiness from the sea and the coagulated pig’s blood? Yes, that is unusual. I suppose Portuguese combine shellfish and pork in delicious ways. Just as I can’t even imagine how it was decided to combine cuttlefish, fruit and prawn paste in rojak, I don’t how the idea of putting pig’s blood into a seafood-based soup came about either. Definitely a Chinese influence, and far from wasteful. Two types of noodles are used, both fat yellow egg noodles and rice vermicelli. You can add as much sambal as you like for extra oily spice; containers are left on the table.

I have been thinking about this bowl of curry mee off and on for the past few weeks, usually at work when I try to calculate if I have enough time to hop up to Chinatown and back during lunch. I’m not even sure where to go downtown. Nonya? New Malaysia? Skyway? Malaysian food in NYC often seems like a facsimile in ways that are harder to pinpoint than with American Thai food. I think it just comes down to ingredients and lack of a strong Malaysian/Singaporean presence in the city to keep flavors on track. I’ve had positive experiences at Taste Good in Elmhurst but that takes more planning.

Lorong seratus tahun

As the check was brought at the close of my sushi lunch, a send-off plate of cantaloupe showed up instead of the usual orange slices. Payback time. After discussion of crème brulee and pig’s blood fears, I was faced with my own irrational won’t-touch-it dislike: melon.

Lorong Seratus Tahun  * 55 Lorong Seratus Tahun, Penang, Malaysia

Air Itam Laksa

“Laksa,” the taxi drivers hovering at the bottom of our hotel’s driveway in Penang started calling out when we’d walk past. “You like laksa! You want more laksa?” Embarrassed and a little proud, we’d have to turn then down, “No, we’re just walking.”

Penang is not a huge place, so after one of the men drove us out to Air Itam for laksa on our first day on the island, we became recognized as the laksa-lovers. I liked that about Penang, that locals were kind of amused but didn’t think it was particularly odd that the Westerners wanted to go on laksa excursions.

For contrast, in Bangkok, we used Saochingcha, the Giant Swing, as a landmark to direct taxis, not because we wanted to see the monument or the wat next to it, but Saochingcha was a word we could pronounce and that would be recognized and happened to be near a good eating neighborhood off the subway system, away from the hotel strips of Sukhumvit and Silom.

But when we asked our doorman at our first hotel to explain our destination to the cab driver (one of the most humbling aspects of traveling in a non-English or Spanish speaking country) he was discouraging and warned, “There’s nothing to do there.” Our “Oh, we’re going to eat” reassurance just baffled him further. Later in the vacation when we told the man directing cabs at MBK that we needed to get to Saochingcha he actually shook his head at another staffer and rolled his eyes.

Air itam laksa stand

Air Itam, a community that’s also home to Penang Hill (sadly, they closed the funicular just a week before we arrived—not that the rickety incline during a rainstorm didn’t jangle my nerves on our last visit) and Kek Lok Si temple, is just under four miles from the Gurney Drive area but feels much more isolated. I actually saw a man using a kandar, a long wooden pole atop his shoulder to carry plastic grocery bags, a modern nod, rather than balancing pots or baskets of yore. The entire area west of Air Itam on Google Maps is blank.

Air Itam is also known for its laksa. I had read that this corner stand is a tour bus stop and feared mobs, but when we arrived in the early afternoon no one else was seated at the few metal tables.

Air itam laksa

The first thing you’ll notice about this soup is that it’s much chunkier than what you typically find at stalls. They use a base that contains a larger proportion of flaked mackerel. Combined with the fat, round rice noodles just below the surface, even a smallish bowl (they have one standard size for RM3.00, which seemed to be the going rate for laksa in Penang, about 90 cents) is hearty. We were asked if we wanted chiles. Yes, and you should too. Malaysian food is spicy but rarely hot. The red chile rings meld with the sludgy topping of mint, onion, cucumber, bunga kantan (torch ginger bud—not that that means much of anything here either) and black prawn paste, and makes the whole hodgepodge taste like…well, laksa.

Easier said than done. I’ve never attempted to cook this asam style at home but my forays into laksa lemak and Sarawakian laksa (using a paste straight from the Malaysian state) fell flat. Something is lacking (don’t say love) and the flavors always end up dulled. Good enough for NYC but not great.

Air Itam Laksa * Jalan Pasar next to the Air Itam Market, Penang, Malaysia

Northam Beach Cafe

Northam Beach Café is a newer, more organized, I guess pricier, hawker center than Gurney Drive. I liked having a numbered table because who’s to say you’ll find a seat near where you ordered? The other benefit was a dedicated beer stand where you can get your large sized Tiger beer (we initially grabbed a bottle out of the cooler but the cashier gave us a colder one from behind the counter) and two iced mugs. Two fresh mugs each round. In Thailand they drank ice in their beer, a practice I didn’t encounter in Penang.

Northam beach cafe tables

And while there appeared to be fewer obvious tourists (I couldn’t identify a Singaporean or Kuala  Lumpur resident by sight) the stalls were more international, going well beyond Malaysian classics. What convinced me to try this center in the first place was the supposed presence of a Mexican food stand. That, I needed to see. Unfortunately, it wasn’t there.

Northam beach french stand

Consolation prize went to La France. I do still wonder about the advertised frisee salad with lardons.
Northam beach german stand

German sausages were a close second. 

Northam beach pork bbq & spaghetti

Northam beach filipino stand

My international maneuver was a mistake. I got excited when I saw the words ihawan and Filipino bbq because in the US that means sweet, smokey meat on sticks. I love it way more than satay. But they only had dinner combos and bbq pork ended up being a few fatty slices or meat drenched in a gooey sauce and served with spaghetti. If you’ve ever encountered sugary, wiener-laden Filipino spaghetti, you’ll know it’s an acquired taste. I’ll eat pig’s blood, shrimp paste and the like, but really do think you have to have to have grown up with this spaghetti it to love it.

Northam beach satay

Some of that perfectly pleasant satay. Chicken because they were out of mutton.

Northam beach pasembur

Gurney Drive has pick-a-mix pasembur where you can choose from plates and plates of fried beige things to be tossed with the sweet potato dressing. Here, you get what they give you. I like the idea of crunchy bits, seafood and vegetables tossed together but it’s bland compared to rojak.

Northam beach belacan fried chicken

James will almost always order fried chicken when it’s available and it was plentiful in both Malaysia and Thailand. I told him I saw a stand in the back corner. What I didn’t tell him was that it was belcan fried chicken. He thinks that he hates shrimp paste, though I really think he just hates the smell of the block I keep wrapped up in the crisper drawer of our refrigerator. It really isn’t that strong after it’s been cooked, I swear. The funny thing was that he didn’t notice the shrimp paste until the chicken cooled down to room temperature. The fishiness doesn’t hit you over the head, instead adding rich umami undertones.

Northam beach mua chee stand

Northam beach mua chee

Mua chee, as they call it, is mochi. Here, steamed glutinous rice blobs drizzled with a peanut sauce. Apparently, offering a variety of flavors is unusual. You can mix two and I had pandan and black sesame. The others were sweetcorn, original and green tea.  My only quibble was that the pretty colors don’t show up once peanut-coated and displayed under the night sky.

Northam Beach Café * Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, Penang, Malaysia

Gurney Drive Hawkers

When I first started reading user reviews of Penang's G Hotel, which is shoulder to shoulder (but not adjoining—that air conditioned, never-exposed-to-the-elements luxury is more Singaporean) with Gurney Plaza, they were almost evenly split East-West. I'm generalizing of course, but a typical Asian reviewer might say, "It's next to a mall—great location" while the Europeans (Americans barely make a dent) would be more, "It's next to a mall—ick."
Penang hotel & mall complex

Not ick because the hotel, which didn’t even exist on my last visit in 2005, is not just next to a mall, it's also across from the Gurney Drive hawkers, the best-known outdoor food court in the city. If you're a novelty-seeker like me, it doesn’t get much better than walking out of your room to beef ribs at the ground floor Chili's and rojak down the street.

Gurney drive rojak

Here would be said crazy salad of jicama, cucumber, pineapple, water apple (the fruit a cashew is harvested from. I know! Nuts from fruit?), cuttlefish, bean curd and Chinese crullers tossed in a thick, spicy prawn paste and topped with crushed peanuts. I am a fiend for the hot, fishy sweet. Shrimpy and fruity is likely to either disgust or charm you, no in-between.

Gurney drive rojak stand

You can buy the dressing at the stands here and probably elsewhere, too. I'm not sure what the difference is between the white-topped and red-topped jars. Perhaps one is pure prawn paste and the other has sugar and chiles added for a ready-to-use dressing.

Gurney drive laksa 

Gurney drive asam laksa

Penang laksa is a totally different beast than most Malaysian laksas. Coconut milk-free and lemongrassy, the asam style is soured with tamarind and enriched with flaked mackerel. Once again, the sweet and fishy combo. Toppings usually include cucumber, pineapple, mint and torch ginger bud. The dark condiment on the spoon is black prawn paste, same as in the rojak. I don't order this in NYC because my experiences have been more bad funky (at Singapore Café there were twigs floating around in the broth) than appetizing funky.

Gurney drive fried things

James picked up some chicken and a few other unidentified fried tidbits served with sticks at a stall wonderfully named McTucky Fried Chicken.

Gurney drive char kway teow 

Gurney drive char koay teow stall

We only made one attempt to seek out exemplary char kway teow on this visit. Loh Eng Hoo Coffee Shop, my first choice, was closed. Honestly, I'm not enough of a connoisseur to find fault with this version.

Gurney drive sarsi & sugar cane juice

Sarsi is a sarsaparilla soda. I thought it tasted a little like Dr. Pepper. I was told to order a sugar cane juice with lime so I did. Some proprietors can be pushy, not rude more this is our specialty. If I'm correct the beverage-sellers have territories, so if you sit in their section you have to order from them.  I'll say yes to practically anything because the food is cheap even when tourist-priced. For reference, the laska above was RM3.00 (approximately 90 cents).

Gurney drive hawker center

Gurney Drive Hawkers * North end of Gurney Dr., Penang, Malaysia