Penang food: When too much still isn’t enough
Spoilt for choice
We may travel the world and even settle down elsewhere, but there's always a longing for the island that can never be quelled. As a self-confessed glutton, I attribute the cause for much of my hankering to the food. Sure, there is the filial pull towards my parents, and to the familiar sights and smells of my island hometown, but if I were to be brutally honest, it's the Pavlovian response each time I think of my beloved Hokkien mee or char kway teow that invokes the deepest longing. And because time is always my enemy when I visit, I've learned to cram four days worth of eating into a marathon 24-hour visit. Now you too can bypass the merely mediocre and head directly for the truly superlative next time you're in Penang. After all, dear readers, time is money, and money is time:
Not to be confused with the fat, gloopy (and vastly inferior) KL version, Penang Hokkien mee with steaming hot noodles in a voluptuous prawn broth is the dish I lost my hawker cherry to as a little kid, and its siren's call cannot and will not be denied. If I can, it will be to Swee Kong (317E Jalan Burmah, opposite the Pulau Tikus Police Station, +604-423 3650, closed Thursdays) I head, because that's the first Hokkien mee I ever had and, like mother's milk, nothing else tastes quite as good. The father who started the stall is long gone but the brother and sister team—older and greyer each time I go, but still as effective—continue to hold the fort, although it's clear that once they retire, so too will my favourite stall go gently into the good night.
Fried kway teow
The second (or first, if I'm driving from KL) hawker I obediently visit each time is my indomitable fried kway teow couple (on Jalan Ayer Itam opposite CIMB bank, just before the roundabout leading to the Penang Hill funicular railway station, closed Thursdays and Fridays). Husband, with standing fan blasting his face, fries each plate of noodles individually, and the unerringly precise portioning of two mammoth prawns and handful of noodles per plate is strangely comforting in its familiarity. Subtle but always exquisitely memorable, one plate, I assure you, won't suffice.
Kway teow th'ng
A burgeoning passion for kway teow th'ng has threatened to encroach upon my devotion to Hokkien mee and char kway teow, and because it's nigh impossible to find an adequately meritorious version in KL, a kway teow th'ng session is absolutely mandatory when in Penang, even if it eats up what precious little time I have. Soon Yuen (Chowrasta market, look out for the faded sign; it's easily missed in the maelstrom of market stalls) is my favourite, even if the wait is prohibitive, and that's because their homemade wolf herring fish balls are sweet, acquiescent pillows of heaven, while the broth naturally derives its rich umami flavours from the duck, chicken and pork bones that have been patiently boiled for hours. Order a bowl of balls to go with your noodles. Trust me, you'll be glad you did.
If you've managed to book yourself a massage (I like Alfa Reflexology in Jalan Burmah) for the afternoon, then you'd be wise to partake in some serious carbo-loading before, if only to ensure you have a good sleep while getting a rubdown. Merlin (Lebuh Union, +604-264 2826, 11.30am-6.30pm) is hugely popular with locals, and peak mealtimes are hellishly hot. Try the hard-boiled egg curry. It's unctuously sweet and the perfect foil for the substantially more fiery fish, chicken and beef curries, but don't eschew the vegetables, because they work as an effective palate cleanser between mouthfuls of curry-doused rice. Cheap, frantic and extremely cheerful, nasi kandar here will ensure you leave the island with a big, oily grin on your face. Just remember to wear forgiving clothing.