Penang on Five Senses a Day

September 22, 2008

In a frenetic quest for Malaysia’s most dynamic cuisine, author Christine Richard and photographer John Kernick dive into vibrant scenes at every turn, take a ride out to the unknown and discover the island where it eats.

At a food pushcart in front of a buddhist temple, I order a plate of char kway teow, the scraping sound of the spatula like a dinner bell to my stomach. From the cart’s glass display case, I select a doughy pau, or bread, the one stuffed with red bean paste. I sit at one of several plastic tables beneath an enormous ficus tree, which seems to sprout out of the simple carved teakwood temple. A couple of locals lift bowls of porridge to their mouths. A few sip sludge coffees. Others look like they fell asleep while they were in the middle of a task, victims of the equatorial heat: A man with his hair evidently selfbarbered slumbers with a hand-rolled smoke hanging from his mouth.

Here on the populated Malaysian island of Penang, a patter of a Hokkien dialect melts in the air. This time-warping, circa-mid-19th-century waterfront corner, the anachronistic neighborhood that’s known as Weld Quay, has eight jetties reaching out over the Strait of Malacca. Each of the jetties has a village of houses and walkways built on stilts that’s home to a different clan from Chinese provinces. The one I’m in now, Chew Jetty, is known for its homemade- style Chinese food.


“We call this fast food,” says Xavier, my Indian driver and translator, who sits alongside me and gestures toward my plate of char kway teow. “It’s made fast. You have to eat it fast. It’s no good after it sits for a while.” I look over at a nearby man snoozing with a plate of food in front of him. OK.

“So what’s ‘slow food’ here?” I ask as I take another bite, talking through a mouthful of bean sprouts, prawns and seasoned, wok-charred rice noodles. I’m trying to eat it at the proper pace.

“Foods where the sauces taste better over time. They take time to prepare, like Indian food or … nyonya.”


When he utters the word “nyonya,” my heart beats faster. It’s like hearing the name of a romantic crush.

A style of cooking that Penang is well-known for, nyonya is a combination of traditional Chinese and Malay techniques and spices, such as galangal, lemon grass and sambal, a spicy condiment. The nyonya seafood, meat and other entrees were and still are cooked by women of the Peranakan culture, known as nyonyas. (The men are called babas.)

Nyonya is my Excalibur. I mean, how often in the States do you see an offering of true nyonya? To taste the real thing, it’s a good idea to head to Southeast Asia, specifically Malaysia (between Thailand and Singapore), and even more specifically, Penang. This is where the best nyonya is supposed to be, although surely Malacca would debate it; that city to the south is where the Peranakan community was supposedly first established when a Malay sultan married a Chinese princess. Speaking of which, how many cuisines are created from a royal marriage? Eating nyonya is the foodies’ version of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, although a lot less healthy.


“We’ve gotta find slow food, too,” I say. “Maybe for lunch?”

Xavier looks at his watch. 11 a.m.

“What?” I ask. “This,” I explain slowly, “is breakfast.”


“OK,” Xavier acquiesces, understanding my plan.

He knew now that I just wanted to eat, not see the usual tour stops — you know, like the funicular that carries visitors more than 2,400 feet up to Penang Hill; the over-hyped Snake Temple with its pit vipers; or the star-shaped Fort Cornwallis, built by the British captain Sir Francis Light in 1786.

Yet while I really was after nyonya, I didn’t want to rush to it in my four days on Penang. If nyonya is considered a combination of Chinese and Malay food, I want to truly experience those cultures — and maybe a little Indian “slow food” — here in this island melting pot. With those fl avors fresh for me, then I’ll be ready for nyonya.

All this explains why we started in Penang’s main city, George Town, at Chew Jetty, about an hour outside the airport (Xavier, sensing my hunger, had probably driven it faster). He had gunned down streets that changed scenery from glassy electronics compounds — a tropical, damp version of Silicon Valley, home to Asia offi ces of Intel and Dell with cows grazing nearby — to wooden structures with corrugated tin roofs and roaming peafowl. In George Town, trishaws and motorbikes crowd narrow avenues lined by crumbling 1800s-era buildings with grimy, chipped-plaster facades called “Chinese shophouses.” A few are so overtaken by the jungle that the houses seem to serve more as expensive planters. The jetty itself is a bit calmer, here on the stilts in the channel between the island and mainland Malaysia.

Eager to work off the char kway teow, I walk to the end of the jetty, where sampans float in the water, tied to posts. Burmese and Chinese boatmen laze the late morning away near the jetty temple. Joss sticks burn alongside peacock feathers “for good luck fishing,” a fisherman tells me. The “Chew” in this jetty’s name refers to the surnames of the Fukien people who first settled here to earn a living from fishing. Now full of prawn-strewn noodles, I feel like I’ve somehow helped this ancient fishing process.

The fishermen credit their catches to the man who continues to make these joss sticks. I find him, Mr. Lee, on a back alleyway. He is no wallflower. He points out minutes after I’ve met him that (a) he is the only one left who knows how to make joss sticks and (b) he makes these sticks in his underwear. The reason, he says, is that the dust from the three ingredients he uses — sandalwood, sawdust and a “sticky powder” made from the teja tree — sticks to his clothes.

I buy a bag of joss sticks and then walk down a zigzag of alleyways that eventually open to what seems a misplaced treasure, the Khoo Kongsi temple. It’s an elaborate Chinese structure rebuilt in 1906 after a fire, with gilded every- thing: walls, arches, lion statues. You name it, chances are good it’ll be gold. It’s so quiet back here that I can hear the creak of the lanterns on the building’s porch swaying in the slight breeze. As I walk into the large main temple, I notice the details. I could spend months here trying to learn what it all means, from the intricate roof decorations made of pottery to the stone murals so intricate that the modern homeowner should be embarrassed taking an entire weekend to hang plain wallpaper.

The temple is so mesmerizing, I almost forget about food. Almost. Exiting, I retrace the zigzags and take a 10-minute drive with Xavier to Cecil Street Market — a wet-and-dry bazaar offering household items, clothes, live chickens and just-caught fish as well as local food: a one-stop shop. I scour the area, eventually finding kuihs, or “little bites.” These tiny cakes and cookies are part of a nyonya home, kept on hand for special occasions such as lunar festivities and often given to visitors.

I bite into kuih bingka ubi, a tapioca cake with a coconut-cream taste. Then I find a satisfying, end-of-the-day, jet- laggy pancakelike treat: apam balik. Batter is ladled on a stovetop, filled with peanuts, sugar and butter, and folded over like a crepe. The dough is thin and crispy, the filling peanut-butter buttery. It’s absolutely amazing, just the cuisine I want it to be, but it’s only a kuih, after all: It’s like making it to the foot of the nyonya mountain I want to scale.

The next morning, Xavier picks me up at my hotel, the famous 16-room Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, also known as the Blue Mansion. It’s a romantic affair built in the 1880s, painted an especially vibrant blue and framed by intricate iron- work, with large, airy rooms, wood floors, louvered windows and a history of concubines. The architecture is a blend of wealthy Chinese merchant and British colonialism — distinctly Peranakan.

We head to George Town’s Little India. On my foodie to-do list for Penang, I have the Indian Muslim dish called nasi kandar. After a roadside coffee, we enter the neighborhood, which is more caffeinated than the gritty joe I’m drinking. Music thumps out of speakers; several stores appear to be in competition for the sound waves. I don’t know whether to block it out or dance to it. We wander in and out of stores where goods like hanging silk lanterns, leather wallets and faux-diamond hairpins are sold to the beat of — is that Cyndi Lauper from 1983? Food vendors lift lids to unleash spicy smells of dals and bubbling curries.

Xavier is swift in this neighborhood, a pro. He glides across the streets undisturbed by the noise, the chaos, the astrologers, the moneychangers. We turn down a deserted street. It’s like putting on a pair of noise-canceling head- phones. There we find a traditional coffee roaster. I can barely see the man through the smoke billowing from his roasting machine. He introduces himself as Mr. Ong and tells me his coffee beans are cooked with sugar cane and sesame seeds — I think. Xavier’s translation is vague. Still, I buy a bag.

As we next head to a tiny Indian restaurant called Restoran Tajuddin Hussain for one of the best nasi kendar, according to Xavier, a call for prayer bellows out from loud speakers from a nearby mosque. Men with songkok hats hustle to their religious obligations. The women I see wear al-amira, scarves that cover the hair but are not as conservative as the burka.

At the restaurant, we take a seat at one of the stainless-steel tables, and Xavier orders. First comes the nasi, the rice, and then a dark reddish sauce, very rich, with strong hints of turmeric and curry. Following Xavier’s lead, I ladle a spoonful on my rice. Flood the rice with sauces, he advises. The diners around us are up to their elbows in rice, eating with their fingers. Xavier offers the reason: “We think utensils change the flavor of the food.” I’d never even considered that.

After lunch, we drive to the city’s Hindu temple of Arulmighu Kamakshi Amman Devasthanam. We take off our shoes at the door and enter a festive chamber dizzyingly beautiful with brightly colored statues and walls. It feels good to be here. Happy and full.

I’m still trying to build up to nyonya by diving into the Chinese and Malay experience first, with India fitting in there somewhere, but I’m realizing it’s not so simple. Malay food itself isn’t so easily defined. Is it everything that’s not Indian or Chinese? Or are the Chinese and Indian foods prepared in Malaysia technically Malay? And if so, then what is nyonya?

To give me a primer in Malay, Xavier drives me in the evening to the famous hawker stalls of Gurney Drive. Albeit well known and crowded, this site is not to be missed because it is a temple of food. Plus you can eat like a privileged nyonya or baba here for under $10. I leave the car and cross into the chaos of Gurney, the whirlwind of flavors and scents belting my senses.

Hundreds of food carts are collected together, bookended by the high-rise condos of George Town. Fronting the North Channel, Gurney is a beehive of culinary action: Steam rises from grills, spatulas scrape woks, oysters nestle in baskets, shrimp paste sizzles in pans, dough spins on a griddle. Chinese letters spill over signs, and little lights on black cords outline the stalls. The scent of burnt sugar mingles in the tropical air. Signs advertise what’s to eat: asam laksa, dry meat bread, fresh cockle, century egg, Hokkien prawn mee, rojak, shark-fin soup, ikan bakar, cuttlefish with convolvulus. I don’t know what a lot of it means, but the convolvulus definitely sounds inedible.

As I walk through the Gurney food stalls, I feel like I’m wandering in a history museum. The food is the link to the past. These hawkers aren’t just cooks; they are preservationists. I note the Chinese speed-eating with chopsticks and the Indians dining slowly with their fingers. Food and the way a culture prepares and eats it is as unique as a finger- print. But where are the Malays? And how am I to recognize them? Gurney seems like my best chance to find all the flavors of Penang, including nyonya.

Just then, a dark-haired boy wheels by with an orange cafeteria tray. He lowers it so I can see his baskets of some- thing rolled in banana leaf and tucked in newspaper. “Nasi lemak,” he says, hoping I’ll buy one. It’s a Malay — some say nyonya — specialty. I hand him 3 ringgits, which amount to less than a dollar. I’m excited about an authentic taste, even if, as I examine it, I see it’s made of eggs, anchovies and sambal. I take a bite — then discreetly turn my head to dispose of the nasi lemak into my napkin. Xavier notes my disappointment, and he assures me that the Malay food from a restaurant is different than this. I hope so.

The next day, I decide to do some shopping a few blocks from my hotel. Turning down a small side street, I bump into a tall, blond American. “Pardon,” he says, and confidently glides across the street as if he lives here. As he wanders out of view, I curse myself for not having started a conversation. An American who obviously has been here for a while could be a treasure of food information.

That’s when I realize I truly am lost. The streets are completely deserted. The lettering is in Chinese. I start to cross the street, almost to be hit by a banged-up white compact. It’s the blond. He sticks his head out the window. “Are you lost?”

I walk over and start that conversation, which eventually leads to food and how I’m after a proper sit-down nyonya meal. He looks at his watch. “I’m supposed to meet some friends, but I have time. I can bring you to nyonya.” He introduces himself as Paul. “Hop in.”

Risking everything for the promise of my sought-after dinner, I get into this stranger’s car. We zoom off down a busy highway out of George Town. Soon we’re at an elegant restaurant called Hot Wok. Antiques, carved wood panels and delicate lanterns make it seem like a real dining room, like I’ve been invited into someone’s home. A woman in a kebaya blouse and sarong comes to take our order.

Paul leaves it to me, and I don’t hold back, soon weighing down the table with nyonya dishes: otak-otak, curry capitan, kangkong with sambal, poh pia, kerabu squid and assam prawns.

They seem to come out of the kitchen at a pace that belies the way they are cooked. Their arrival at our table, mostly at once, makes it seem like Thanksgiving. It’s a feast of all different colors and shapes, from dark-green banana leaves to orangey-pink sauces and wiggly things.

Paul passes the poh piah, a nyonyastyle spring roll. I take my first sit-down bite of nyonya in a restaurant that, despite its popularity, is mostly empty on this weekday. I’m sitting quietly; no spatulas clang, no deals are being made, no calls to prayer. The poh piah is a chile-garlic extravaganza, perhaps with a touch of coriander. It’s good, but what really makes my night is the otak-otak, a dish wrapped in a banana leaf. Its description might not sound so appetizing: Imagine a fish pudding with coconut and galangal and other aromatic, foreign spices fresh out of someone’s garden that have been simmered until all these different elements get along. I unpeel a second otak-otak, mindful, of course, that I still have the kangkong with sambal as a side, and kerabu squid and assam shrimp as main courses.

Paul and I take on the demeanor of a long-married couple. We don’t talk, barely even look at each other, as we help ourselves to seconds with no politeness.

The kangkong is an exotic water spinach that looks like dandelion stems, made rich with a glazing of spicy, velvety sauce. It’s also known as convolvulus, solving the mystery at the Gurney hawker stall. The kerabu squid hits on all flavors: sour, sweet, spicy. Tamarind, shrimp paste, lemon grass, coriander, coconut, chiles, lime leaves, screwpine leaves — so many seemingly not-matching parts blend into rich gravies that crash upon my taste buds.

I feel like I’m eating up the streets of Penang and its myriad cultures in food form. Nyonya tames all the different parts into something delicious, making me feel like I’m tasting every part of my journey here at this one table. It may be quiet around me finally, but the food creates its own crescendo.


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