For the longest time I had been hearing of the amazing cuisine found in Penang, the "Pearl of the Orient". Hearing that Penang was the food capital of Malaysia, you can imagine my excitement, this kind of hype had me salivating at the mere thought of visiting. Already obsessed with the food in Singapore and more recently Kuala Lumpur, could the food in Penang really be better? It wasn't long before I booked a trip to find out for myself.
I was first introduced to Malaysian (Malaysian/Singaporean) food over 10 years ago. Travelling with a close friend to Singapore, I had the honour of staying with his family. I still remember getting off the plane, being whisked to a street that had been shut down to serve hawker food at night. Sitting on milk crates and cardboard we feasted on an array of foods, I vividly remember the grilled sting ray lathered in chilli paste, served on a banana leaf. His family took us around different hawker markets everyday, this was my first exposure to outdoor food stalls, I fast fell in love with the experience and the array of foods that hadn't yet made their way to Australia. One food stood out from the rest, Roti Prata, sadly It was many years before I could find my beloved Roti Prata in Sydney. In Malaysia Roti Prata is called Roti Canai.
Top 5 foods to try in Penang;
1. Char Kway Teow
2. Assam Laksa
3. Roti Canai
4. Kaya Toast
Teh tarik (hot pulled milk tea) and teh halia (ginger milk tea) are my go to beverages whilst enjoying Malaysian food. I am always torn whether to order them "hot" or "iced" typically you'll add the word "peng" after the name to specify you'd like it iced "teh tarik peng". I have been known to order a teh tarik with a side order of Ice, half way through I'll pour the Ice in, who said you can't have the best of both worlds? There is nothing quite like a glass of teh tarik to compliment some roti canai.
"Boy on a Bike" Mural. Ah Quee Street, Georgetown
Another reason I was interested in visiting Penang was to see the famous Street Murals painted by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic in 2012. I had stumbled across a mural of Ernest's in New York, I was fascinated with his use of paint and Installations, this particular mural depicted a New York city kid in the late 70's holding a boom box. I was en-route to Avant Garden in the Lower East Side where I stumbled across it not far from the restaurant. I later researched the mural only to realise it was the same artist that had painted the murals in Penang, at this moment I decided Penang was next on my list.
"Boy on a Bike" in particular was the mural I most wanted to see, this piece had resonated with me from the first time I'd seen it in photographs. The ability and ease in which Ernest blends the 2 dimensional mural with the 3 dimensional bike is what draws me to it, along with the fact I proudly own a Harley Davidson. The murals are scattered around Georgetown, searching the streets looking for the different scenes painted is an adventure in itself.
Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera) photo credit: @Irenebaby88
Early in my trip I was blessed to have met fellow Instagrammer Irene (@irenebaby88), her husband Kelvin, and son Ryan. They treated me like family, took me to some of the best locations for hawker food, places i'd never have visited without them. This evening they had taken me to Penang Hill, which with great anticipation was to conclude at a local hawker area. The truth is Penang Hill was just the amuse bouche, in my head the main course would be the finale, the hawker centre, the shared plates, with newly forged friendships, and a hell of a lot of Malaysian food.
I visited Penang Hill in the hopes of capturing a great sunset, and or a photo of the bridge from Penang Island back to the mainland. Firstly let me say that the sun sets on the other side of the island, therefore by my dream of a gorgeous sunset photo was shattered quickly, thats ok I had plan B, or did I? The evening sky was hazy, and visibility was no where near what I needed to capture the image I had pictured in my head.
My dreams of getting a phenomenal photo were dashed, but what an adventure. Taking the funicular railway up the hill was in itself an experience, and the views were already beginning to impress. The temperature atop the hill is on average 5 degrees cooler, this can be a welcomed relief from the hot weather in town. I was keeping an eye out for macaques (monkeys), I hear they are often seen at Penang Hill although I did not see any this visit.
The lookout boast views of both the Island and the mainland, even on this hazy day the panorama was still impressive. What I have not yet mentioned is that although it was hazy, and the sun was not setting where i had hoped it would, the sky put on the most gorgeous display of pinks and purples unlike anything I have ever seen. The skyline was like an impressionists canvas, illuminating colours, with the clouds creating different shades, I could have stayed up there forever.
The only down side to Penang Hill is the wait to get the railway back down, be prepared to wait with the crowds of people to get a seat back down the Hill.
Whilst waiting with the masses to finally board the railway back down the hill, I was lamenting on not having managed to get a single photo during this excursion. Irene looks at me with a wry smile whilst handing me her phone, there it is; a photo she has taken of me (intensely trying to capture the vista) with the gorgeous night sky in the background.
My first ever Assam Laksa, a new favourite to add to the ever growing list of Malaysian foods i'm addicted to. Assam laksa is so far removed from the Thai style laksa's (Curry Laksa) I've had in Sydney. A sour soup made with fish, commonly mackerel in Penang, flavoured with tamarind, lemongrass, galangal, and chilli. What really excited me is the little pieces of pineapple hidden within the dark sauce and noodles, not usually a fan of pineapple in savoury food but here it cuts through the sour soup creating the perfect balance.
Char kway teow
Char kway teow "stir fried rice cake strips", a dish I am very familiar with from multiple culinary trips to Singapore. Stir fried over a high heat with pork fat, consisting of rice cake strips, prawns, bean sprouts, chilli, and little gems of crisp pork lard. Fresher ingredients, and cleaner flavours made for an easy decision. Penang's versions of CKT are far superior to anywhere else I have eaten.
Sri Ananda Bahwan
This was my first meal in Penang, I enjoyed it that much I had it again as my last meal. Fresh naan bread, tandoor chicken, curry, biryani, okra, papadums, and teh tarik. Sri Ananda Bahwan was recommended as the best Indian food in Penang, i can see why. I ordered as many dishes as i could without looking like a complete glutton, all in the name of research of course.
Rabbit soft serve & Matcha Bar: strawberry & vanilla soft serve
If you follow my Instagram account you'll know that my favourite way to combat heat and humidity is often Ice Cream. In Malaysia that can only mean one place "Rabbit Soft serve & Matcha Bar", located in 1st Avenue Mall. Their soft creamy texture, creative flavours, and ever changing menu make it hard not to visit almost on a daily basis. I also really enjoyed their Uji Matcha cold brew, I lost count how many different flavoured soft serves, and bottles of matcha cold brew I consumed on this trip.
left to right: matcha soft serve; uji matcha cold brew; black sesame soft serve
Suffolk House Restaurant
Built in the early 1800's, this Anglo-Indian garden house is Malaysia's only surviving Georgian Mansion. Beautifully restored to perfection, I was impressed walking through the house and out onto the balcony, what would the food be like?
Opting to dine at Suffolk House for dinner as the evening menu seemed more to my liking, I also chose to dine on the balcony as the sun slowly set. Eating inside was a hard decision to pass up, air conditioned, white table clothes, with a regal ambiance to it. Alas I wanted to get some good food photos, and it was a glorious evening for dining outside, no regrets.
top to bottom: cheddar & vandouvan spice stuffed chicken thigh, braised mixed grains and lentils, and beetroot and Caramelised onion tartlet.
Sitting on the balcony of this old Georgian Mansion, sun setting, eating a delicious meal prepared by Chef Mathijs Nanne. Life couldn't have gotten much better at this point, the temperature had dropped to something more pleasant, and the old-world ambiance was calming.
The food beautifully presented, tasted equally as good as it looked. My favourites being the shiitake mushroom croquettes, stuffed chicken and the beetroot tart, and of course the orange & white chocolate gateaux.
left to right: duck and shiitake mushroom croquettes; cauliflower soup, and leaves of the day, and duck & shiitake mushroom croquettes; orange and white chocolate gateaux with "red curry" of strawberry
The Dining Room, Macalister Mansion
Macalister Mansion, built in the early 1900's it boasts different rooms styled similar to which you might find in an old English mansion. The Living room, the Dining room, the Den, and the Cellar, each perfectly executed, I could have lounged around the Den and the Cellar for hours. Transported back to Old England, I felt the need to lite a cigar, kick back in a leather chair near a fire place, whilst sipping gin. Alas this was a dream for another time, I had a date with an eagerly anticipated degustation in the Dining Room.
Locally grown Organic Salad of Vegetables, with smoked fish
8 course degustation? Yes please. I had not expected such high level fine dining from Penang, in fact I had prepared myself for an insane amount of hawker food. My only wish was that I had better lighting so I could show you the delicate works of art created by Chef Johnson Wong, all of which tasted as good if not better than they looked.
The stand out dishes to me were the white asparagus, with snow crab and yuzu cream (pictured above), the fois gras cappuccino, and the wild forest which consisted of chocolate soil, truffle ice cream, and berries. Chef Wong's ability to balance subtle flavours was on point, too often chefs make the mistake of being heavy handed with flavours like truffle, not in this kitchen.
left to right: canapé's of pickled cucumber, duck rillette tart, and potato puff; mansion at night; white asparagus
durian, and durian soft serve
I was lucky enough to visit Penang during Durian season, the streets were littered with vendors selling durian, the smell (unlike some durians I've had the displeasure in smelling) was sweet and alluring. Whilst chasing street art around Georgetown, I found myself outside a shop selling Ice cream. Not just any Ice cream, they were selling durian soft serve, I could not pass up an opportunity like this. If you stumble across such a shop on your travels it was every ringgit.
I found myself a secluded Jetty (Tan Jetty), and yet another gorgeous coloured Penang Sky. I didn't know which direction to look. Towards the Island the sun was setting creating a golden lining around the city scape. looking out to sea was a parade of clouds highlighted in pinks, blues, and purples putting on one last show for me. The gorgeous coloured sky won my attention this evening, a memory I will never forget. It will not be the last time I visit Penang, To all those that helped make this a memorable trip, from the bottom of my heart thank you.
* The food, people, and culture are like a magnetic pulse. I have many more places I want to visit, yet I find myself wanting to re visit Penang.
Not so positives:
* Not having local knowledge and a car to drive to certain locations is a slight disadvantage