You won’t notice it immediately on your first visit to Kuala Lumpur, but after a few days exploring the streets you’ll start to wonder why the signboards of so many street food stalls offer ‘Penang assam laksa’, ‘Penang char kway teow’, ‘Penang popiah’, ‘Penang wan-tan mee’, ‘Penang curry laksa’, ‘Penang nasi kandar’, ‘Penang mee goring’. Asking around, you’ll discover that it’s common for these hawkers to have only the most tenuous link to Penang, an island less than four hours’ drive from Kuala Lumpur. Suspecting (rightly) that you have been eating diluted, unauthentic versions of the real thing, you realize you have to go to Penang, the best place to eat street food in Malaysia.
The most pleasurable way to arrive in Penang is neither by air, nor by driving over the bridge, but on one of the double-decker ferries plying the narrow channel between the island and the peninsula. Cars and motorcycles pack the lower deck; commuters on foot head for the upper deck where they sit on wooden slatted benches. Warm sea wind salts their faces when the ferry starts moving, and on a bright, cloudless day the sea is a herbal green, scratched white in the wake of fishing trawlers.
The British took possession of Penang in 1786, and there are still signs of them in the road names and the Anglo-Indian style of architecture: The E&O Hotel on Northam Road; St George’s Church in Lebuh Farquhar; Weld Quay, Fort Cornwallis. But over the centuries the Chinese, Indians, Thais and Malays have made the island their home; bloodlines have been intermingled, recipes shared and modified. One of the most distinctive cuisines in the world comes from the Peranakan – a wide, loose term that includes the Straits Chinese living in Penang, as well as the descendants of Chinese immigrants who married into the local communities or adopted their way of life.
In Penang, everyone has his or her list of the best street stalls for any particular dish. ‘Mee goring? Of course Bangkok Lane-lah!’ ‘The Hokkien mee at the Pulau Tikus market, wah, damn shiok!’ ‘No, don’t eat at Fatty Lim’s laksa – she puts tissue paper in the soup! I promise you!’ These opinions support or contradict each other, but they are never wrong.
Penang people – Penangites – will invariably ask one particular question when they are eating, even before their bowls are emptied: What should they eat for their next meal? A debate will then start about where the best stall is, or the deficiencies of a particular hawker’s cooking. Despite their obsession with food, Penangites are slender and lean. They walk a lot, especially on the Gurney Drive promenade every morning and evening, and they hike up Penang Hill, but I suspect it’s due to the small sizes of the bowls and plates used by Penang hawkers. ‘We’re refined people,’ a Penangite once told me. ‘We eat out of bowls, not washbasins.’
Time moves unhurriedly in Penang. One of the reasons is the fact that the same food hawkers have been running their stalls for decades, often at the same location. Some of the hawkers today are the third, fourth or fifth generation in their family to continue the trade. There is no urge to expand, to open up another branch or to start a franchise. The hawkers have their regular customers – schoolchildren who ate there with their parents, who are now grown up and have their own families. They still come for their fix of Hokkien mee or char kway teow or banana-leaf rice every week, passing on to their children the lore of where to find the best street food on the island.
Years ago my aunt took me to her favourite char kway teow stall at the market near her home. It was early evening and the hawker was firing up his wok over a charcoal stove (another sign that the hawker is serious about his reputation: a gas stove just doesn’t infuse that smoky flavour into food). The hawker took my aunt’s order and splashed half a ladle of lard into his wok. He added some chopped garlic and slices of waxed pork sausages, and threw in a few cockles and prawns and cubes of crackling. My aunt chatted with him and his wife as he cooked, scraping the wok loudly with his metal spatula. At one point he cranked the handle of a manually operated fan bolted at the stove’s opening. The flames roared over the rim of the wok and I took a step back. Just before he added a fistful of flat rice noodles into the wok my aunt removed two eggs from a plastic box in her handbag and gave them to him. One by one he cracked the eggs into the wok, stirred the mixture, added the rice noodles, and browned them with a splash of thick soy sauce from a ceramic pot. A minute later he dished the char kway teow onto two squares of banana leaves. His wife folded each leaf tightly over the noodles, wrapped the plump green packets in a piece of newspaper and put them in a plastic bag for us.
‘His eggs not fresh?’ I asked my aunt as she drove us home in her BMW 5 series. The smell of the char kway teow made me wish she’d go faster.
‘He charges me fifty cents extra per egg,’ my aunt said. ‘He thinks I print money! So I always bring my own-lah!’
(A warning: bring your own eggs to a hawker stall only if you’ve been buying from him regularly for, oh, at least fifteen years. Otherwise the eggs will be thrown back into your face, accompanied by a few comments about your mother.)
Time moves slowly in Penang, but it moves. A few months ago a seventy-two year old Hokkien mee seller decided to call it a day after selling his prawn-and-pork-bones soup noodles for over half a century. His customers mourned, but found strength to organize a farewell party for him. Breaking tradition, his children had no interest in continuing the trade. Visiting Penang last year, I noticed how many hawker stalls were run by elderly people. The age of the hawker is a reliable way of gauging the quality of the food. Out at the Air Itam market, half an hour’s drive from the city centre, are the Famous Curry Mee sisters, one aged seventy-eight, the other eighty. Every morning for over sixty years, they have crouched on low wooden stools a few inches off the cement floor, tending their charcoal fire and ladling coconut curry soup from dented aluminium pots into bowls of egg noodles and prawns and cockles and tauhu-pok. I went out there early one morning to eat their noodles. Customers queued patiently, collected their bowls of curry mee and sat at the nearby tables. Tourists walked past the sisters, stopped and snapped photographs. One of the sisters glanced up, but didn’t smile. Watching the two old women stirring their pot, I recalled the first scene of Macbeth. A minute later the steam from their pot softened their lined faces, and for a second I saw them as they were once: young and straight-backed.
So you try most of the street food stalls suggested to you by Penangites and eat your fill of char kway teow, assam laksa, popiah, nasi kandar, rojak, char kueh kak. By the time you leave the island, you will notice that not one of those stalls have the word ‘Penang’ on their signboards.
Photograph by Yosomono