My dad is my travel buddy, and we’ve been traveling together since I was very young. As I’m getting into my career, I have less time to travel with him. So, I would try to travel with him whenever I can, even for a short trip. Dad hasn’t been to Penang for more than a decade, and whenever somebody mentioned anything about the island of Penang, he would reminiscence about the tasty foods such as Asam Laksa, Char-kuay-teow, etc.
During my trip to Malaysia this March, I had a free schedule weekend and we thought of driving to Penang from Kuala Lumpur (about a 5 hour journey including stopovers) on Saturday and return the next day. But, would we have enough time to enjoy all the delicacies in such a short time? We thought about it. Seriously, how much one could eat and really enjoy the trip in such a tight time-frame? Hey, remember The Layovers show hosted by Anthony Bourdain? He had 24-48 hours to enjoy local food. With that in mind, we decided to do a 36 hour Penang Gourmet tour, and hopefully we wouldn’t bust our digestive tracts.
It is not an ordinary coconut juice. This one has pandan (Southeast Asian version of vanilla) after taste. After drinking the juice, we would pass the coconut to the vendor and he would slice a slit on the coconut’s skin so we could pull it out, and use it a spoon to scoop up the meat inside. How cool is that? Without any plastic spoons.. very environmental friendly.
As we were driving looking for a full meal to satisfied our grumpy senior buddies, we found an elderly man making tiny fluffy-custard-pancakes called Apong on the side of Burmah street. He is Mr. Guan, who received many good food reviews. Perhaps, you can find many more articles on him if you search in Google. Mr. Guan had so many orders on his limited 9 molded hot-pan, he would write down the order and give an estimated time for pick-up. Each customer would wait on line for their order. If they changed their mind and wanted to add additional pieces, then they would have to take a new number and wait for the next round. I waited in line for more than 30 minutes for less than 10 pieces, but it was so worth it because they tasted so good.
Our full meal lunch was Char-Kuey-Teow/Char-Kway-Teow (stir-fried broad rice noodle noodle in soy sauce and high heat). We found a restaurant on a street name Lorong Abu Siti. The store had framed reviews that it received from newspapers and magazines similar to the Zagat reviews in the USA. It was indeed worthy, serving a very good Char-Kuey-Teow that satisfied not only the senior buddies, but had the younger ones nodding their heads too.
Like many dessert lovers would say, “dessert is stored in a separate stomach”, so there’s always extra room to eat them. We headed to a dessert place where even Jimmy Choo had been to (I saw his picture with the owner hanging at the cart). It is the Cendol at Penang Road. I think this is one of the best Cendol I ever had. The coconut milk poured in the shaved ice was creamy, the local dark brown palm sugar that tasted like a local “caramel syrup”, the green mung bean strips had good chewy texture and lots of red-beans. No wonder Jimmy Choo gave such a huge smile in that picture.
It seemed like we had stuffed our stomachs with quite a lot of food by the afternoon, so we took a break and returned to the 1926 Heritage Hotel Penang hotel to get some rest. However, with a desire to try out most of the famous food of Penang, the younger buddies started to surf the web for any interesting local food events available, in hopes we could accomplish eating even more in the remaining hours in Penang. After a few hours of rest and much-needed food digestion, we started our gastronomy journey again. This time, it was to the famous hawker food destination – Gurney Drive. We had Asam Laksa from two different vendors, Ikan Bakar (barbeque fish) and Pasembu (fried fritter, shredded turnip and cucumber with spicy nut dressing). We also had Prawn noodle (noodles serves in spicy prawn broth) on our way returning to the hotel.
Asam Laksa (noodle serves in hot and spicy, sweet and sour, tangy mackerel broth) is one of the best know foods in Penang. Recently, I found an article saying it was among the 50 most delicious foods in the world by CNN in 2011. That said, our mission was to taste as many Asam Laksa as we could! We ordered from 2 vendors at Gurney drive. One had a clearer broth and on the salty side, and the other had thicker broth, sweeter in taste. We also had the noodle in Air Itam near the largest Buddhist temple – Kek Lok Si – where Anthony Bourdain had his wicked spicy Asam Laksa. I totally agreed with him because this place will be on my must-eat list whenever I visit Penang again. Along with the noodle we had freshly squeezed sugar cane. The natural sweetness in the sugar cane juice acted as the perfect antidote to that hot and spicy mackerel broth.
As you can imagine, we had so much food in just 24 hours, and we were not done yet. On our way returning to Kuala Lumpur, we once again took a brief stop at the highway/express way rest area and ate more durians. We really enjoyed the entire trip, having a fantastic time tasting all those foods in such a limited time and enjoying great conversations and jokes with my travel buddies along the way. I also found my own “must-eat” items in Penang – Asam Laksa and Cendol.