Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Penang Food: Fun, Fantastic and Sometimes Far-Out

One of the benefits of living in Penang is the wide variety of local food. As you may know, Malaysia is comprised of 3 major ethnic groups, Malays, Chinese and Indians. Each of these groups has its own style of cuisine. Penang is renowned to have the best of these cuisines to be found in Malaysia or even Asia. Either as a visitor here or an expat living here, people have the opportunity to sample a wide variety of cooking styles and adopt one or two as favorites.

As I have mentioned on previous posts there are many places to eat around Penang, some of which are open 24 hours. There are Coffee Shops, Food Courts, Hawker Stands, small family owned restaurants, restaurant chains, modern Western style restaurants and simple eateries comprised of a small table and an umbrella or food carts. There is never an excuse for not finding something to eat. Since I have lived here I have developed my likes and dislikes. My favorite food of all is Thai food, of which there is a great deal here, as Penang is rather close to Thailand. I have found that the best Thai food is found not in the big, fancy and pricey restaurants, but in the food courts and coffee shops. Other than Thai food I prefer Chinese food or Malay food. I basically live on Century Egg Porridge for my lunch and I also love Curry Mee (curry noodles), but unfortunately it can pack the pounds on.  I enjoy going to a Chinese eatery with a few friends and order a variety of dishes to share. Rarely a big meal will cost over RM30 ($10USD).
Some of my other favorites are prawn mee, seafood fried noodles, plum chicken and probably hundreds of other dishes.

When I eat Malay food I love the Nasi Kandar, but I also tend to overeat because I don't know when to stop choosing dishes. Nasi Kandar is a plate of steamed rice with side dishes of different curries, fish, beef, chicken and vegetables. I also love Nasi Lemak, which is coconut rice, dried anchovies, peanuts and sambal, a very spicy chili paste, all served in a banana leaf, usually.

                                                   Nasi Kandar
                                                  Nasi Lemak
These two dishes are extremely cheap, costing only a few USD at the most, depending where you buy them. If you buy the Nasi Lemak at a roadside stall it usually is no more than RM1.50 or $.50USD.

I love Indian food and usually get the banana leaf when we visit an Indian restaurant. I must admit that I can never remember the names of most of the dishes, but my favorite is Chicken Butter Masala, which is really rich and full of calories. When eating the banana leaf, the leaf is used as a plate and the food is just placed on the leaf. Indians eat with their hands, but I haven't managed to eat rice with my fingers yet, so I still use a fork and spoon.

Penang does Chinese, Malay and Indian food fantastically, but when it comes to Western food,  they just can't do it. You will see food stalls in the food courts or even larger restaurants selling Western food. This type of food is by far not my favorite. It is the farthest thing from Western food that you can imagine. They all serve something called a "chicken chop", which is nothing more than a de-boned chicken drumstick flattened and deep fried. It is then served with "black pepper sauce", which can be found in every single place selling any type of Western food. There are dishes called "Maryland Chicken" and "Hawaiian Chicken" which I have never seen in the US and I am sure do not exist. These Western food outlets also sell Italian style food , which I find disgusting. Most food courts serve a type of pizza, which normally is a crust with BBQ sauce for pizza sauce and some cheese, meat and pineapple. Not great, but edible.

There are a number of quite pricey Western style restaurants selling almost authentic European and American style food. I have found that these places still insist upon selling chicken chops with black pepper sauce. For some reason restaurants in Penang have an aversion to selling chicken breast, in any style of cooking. These restaurants also fail at their attempt to offer real barbecued meats. Many of them advertise BBQ, but in reality they are just serving grilled or deep fried meat covered with bottled BBQ sauce, probably Kraft. I went to a new restaurant the other day in Precinct 10, which offered BBQ and beer pairings. I ordered Buffalo Wings, but got cold deep fried wings covered with Kraft BBQ sauce. The rest of the meal was just as bad. I find that the Italian restaurants have terrible Italian food. It is very difficult getting a good Italian meal or even pizza. There are a couple of fairly good German and Bulgarian restaurants here, but forget Greek, French, Spanish or Mexican restaurants. I have found a restaurant that serves good Tex-Mex and Cajun food, which I frequent when I can. I think the locals should stick to what they know best, the local food, and leave the Western food to larger Western restaurant chains and forget trying to cook it.

When I crave food from back home I usually go to TGIF Fridays for authentic  barbecued ribs and Buffalo wings. The food is a little more expensive there, but the quality and service is excellent. I also enjoy the barbecued pork ribs at Chicago Ribs in Gurney Plazawatch the locals attempt to eat the ribs, chicken wings and hamburgers with a knife and fork. For some reason they think it is more proper to eat this way, rather than using their fingers. It must be a throwback to colonial times. 

There are also a few food oddities which are not found in the Western world, but are a delicacy here. One famous dish is the fish head curry. There are some restaurants that specialize in this and only serve this dish. Apparently only certain types of fish are used in this dish and the meat of the head is supposedly very delicious. I have yet to try this national treasure, but I am looking forward to the day I do. Many food courts
serve chicken wings and chicken legs. One of the best places in Penang for wings is the Song River Food Court on Gurney Drive. Besides chicken wings, their specialty is "Chicken Ass", or as others may call it "the Parsons or Bishops nose" or the "part that went over the fence last". I have a friend that loves these and would rather have them than wings. I have tried them, but they just seem like a big piece of fat to me.  At every Dim Sum you can have chicken feet or duck feet, which I really like, as long as the sauce is really good. And of course there are a large variety of internal organs served. These include intestines, stomach, brains, testicles, kidneys and an assortment of other body parts. I try my very best to stay as far away from these as possible. Probably the most famous or infamous food, depending on how your taste buds react, is the King of Fruit, the Durian . Personally I love it, but it is extremely fattening.

There are so many different types of Chinese, Malay and Indian foods here, that I would have to write a book to include them all.  They are all great to me and my increase in weight since moving here can attest to that. As far as the Western food is concerned, if I find I am craving it I can make it myself or as I have said before I can go to TGIF Fridays or some other chain to get my fix. There is so much great local food here, that there is really no need for a wider array of European or American style restaurants. I am still puzzled though by the number of narrow minded expats who live here and don't even try the local food. It's their loss. I can't remember the names of the many dishes I eat, so I am just including some random photos of what I have enjoyed. I wish you could enjoy them one day too. Penang, definitely is a must for world travelers who love to eat.

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