Penang (used to refer both to the island of the northwest coast of Malaysia and its capital), or George Town, as it is also known, is hot, crowded and almost disorienting in its concentration of sights, smells and sounds.
There are dozens of places of worship, ranging from the most modest sidewalk shrine to gilded temple complexes and spanning the city’s three major faiths: Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam (the last with separate Indian and Malay strands). Pedicab drivers tout for business, and there are far too many mopeds and motorcycles. The architecture encompasses British colonial relics, like the E&O Hotel and St George’s Church, touches of Art Deco and mid-century modern, and street after street of brightly-coloured, closely-packed shophouses (a building style popular across much of Southeast Asia, these were built in the nineteenth century as combined commercial and residential spaces.) The streets smell of joss sticks and cooking food. Much of the city looks a bit tumble-down and in need of a coat of paint; yet more and more buildings are being beautifully and painstakingly restored as shops, small hotels or homes.
Photographers, those with a yen for a history, or an interest in religious practices, all find plenty to satisfy in Penang. As for those who really like to eat: the quality, variety and sheer scale of what’s on offer is simply astonishing. It says something about how a city chooses to present itself to the world that maps of locations, days and times where several dozen iconic dishes can be eaten are prominently displayed at the airport. And even in a city which is changing rapidly, it’s striking that many of the best and most popular eating venues are ones which have survived the decades virtually unaltered.
With only three days available for our visit, we were almost always full but very rarely disappointed. To recount even the highlights is still a daunting task. A few stand-outs, in no particular order:
Steamed pomfret “Teo chew style” at Tek Sen, an open-fronted Chinatown cafe which has been serving Peranakan (also known as Nyonya or Straits Chinese, after the Chinese immigrants who married local women) dishes for the last 45 years. The mixture of pieces of tomato, black mushrooms, sour plums and some other unidentifiable items yielded a brothy sauce that was clean, sharp and phenomenally complex. The only place with a menu, much less an English-language one, the recent facelift has, according to those in the know, not changed the quality of food.
Mee goreng at Shahul Hamid. By far the most popular dish served in the rather dingy food court next to the seaside esplanade and eighteenth century Fort Cornwallis, the fried noodles cooked up by the stall’s owner are made to his father’s World War II-era recipe. My tin plate came piled with work-charred egg noodles, bits of peanuts, chives and squid fried with lots of chilli paste. In what was probably a quiet 20 minutes, no fewer than 2 dozen portions were cooked to order.
Assam laksa (sour noodle soup) at an unnamed cafe near the city’s business district. The broth balanced chilli heat with a strong punch tamarind, the fish was similar to sardines, meaty with a shredded texture, and the entirety was lifted with small chunks of sweet, acidic pineapple and fresh mint leaves. We could have easily finished several more of these small, orange bowls.