We were starving when we arrived at Penang’s Butterworth railway station. The journey through Thailand had been comfortable, the scenery superb, but the food disappointing. The train had crossed into Malaysia after breakfast but the border-crossing brought no food—only a new crew and a load of short-distance passengers who, having identified us as Indian, launched into an animated discussion about Shah Rukh Khan. As the train emptied out, Nizam, the conductor, settled into a seat across from us. He was a Penangite, he said, and two days were not enough to sample all that his city offered. Nonetheless he decided to tell us what to eat. “Write it down,” Nizam ordered, “you will not remember: nasi kandar—not nasi lemak. In Penang it’s different. Pasembur, otok otok, cendol.”
“Laksa?” I asked.
“Penang laksa,” Nizam said. “It is not the same as laksa in KL or anywhere else.” With Nizam’s descriptions of what awaited us across the water still fresh, we hopped on the ferry for the half-hour ride across the Penang Straits from Butterworth to Pulau Pinang, or Penang island. Helping the half hour slip away were the curry puffs—flaky crusts and perfectly spiced curried chicken filling—that we bought at the small counter on the passenger deck.
Penang sits at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca, on the quickest route between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Until Francis Light, a master of an East India Company ship, acquired Penang from the Sultan of Kedah for the British in 1786, it was covered by jungle and home to a few small communities of fishermen. Passing ships stopped only to replenish their supplies of fresh water.
Light made the island a free port to draw traders from Dutch Malacca and, the story goes, encouraged settlers by offering them all the land they could clear. In less than 50 years Penang, with George Town as its capital, was a thriving port with a small fort, government buildings and spice estates. Its population, according to a census in 1828, included “Malays, Achinees, Batkas, Chinese, Chulias [Tamil Muslims], Bengalis, Burmese, Siamese, Arabs, Armenians, Parsees, Native Christian, Caffrees [Africans]”, connections now remembered in street names and embedded in the flavours of its food.
Somewhat restored by the curry puffs, we arrived at our small hotel in the historic heart of George Town, a maze of streets lined with two-storey shophouses in a dozen different styles. Shophouses, with stores on the ground floor and residences above, are found across Southeast Asia. Along with the iced tea and a key to our room, the friendly receptionist handed us a food map. “Just to start you off,” he said.
So, where to lunch? We quickly discovered that even the most food obsessed cities have a slow time. In Penang it’s the late afternoon. Most restaurants have finished lunch service and hawkers are either done for the morning or haven’t yet set up for the evening. Don’t worry, you can still eat, said our hospitable host—either a banana leaf (a Tamil thali on a banana leaf) or at a stall selling nasi kandar, near the Kapitan Keling Mosque.
In days of yore, Tamil hawkers carried their pots of rice (nasi in Malay) and curry in baskets hung from a shoulder pole (kandar), selling their wares to Indian labourers. now nasi kandar is a staple of small eateries and cafés, which offer a choice of curries, a few vegetables, and other side dishes, to choose from.
We headed for the mosque, the oldest in Penang, built by Tamil merchants in the early 1800s, catching glimpses of its elegant copper domes in the sudden gaps between the shophouses as we walked towards it. A sign next to the mosque announced, “Beratur Nasi Kandar”, and in somewhat smaller letters, “Restoran Liaquat Ali”. Beratur means queue in Malay: the line that forms outside the small restaurant after 10 p.m. is as famous as its food. On the wide pavement in front of the mosque, we ate squid curry, curried fish eggs, and fried chicken with kapitan gravy.
Sated, we wandered through the streets of George Town, discovering for ourselves its layered history of British rule and the Indian Ocean trade, where shops are called kedai, a word from Tamil. Green mung payasam was bubur kacang and loaves of crusty white bread not unlike the Goan pão are roti Bengali (no one could tell us why). Streets called Cintra, China, Chulia, Armenian and Acheh recalled settlers, traders and passing connections.
Light Street (named after Francis Light), was lined with elegant, rather than imposing, colonial government buildings. On Pantai (Beach) Street, European banks and business houses, as well as Indian and Chinese, marked their presence in a variety of architectural styles, but on a human scale. By the mid-1800s, Penang had been superseded in importance by Singapore. It remained an active port and place of business, tractable rather than grand.
We found our way to the Chinese clan jetties—long wooden piers stretching west towards the mainland. Small houses on stilts line both sides of the piers, home to descendants of Chinese immigrants who arrived here in the 19th century, with no means to acquire land. On the jetty of the Tan clan, houses gave way to an open pier. There, our feet dangling above the water, we watched the sun go down.
Dinner, we agreed, had to be Pernankan. In Penang as elsewhere along the straits of Malacca, Pernankan refers to a community that grew out of Chinese-Malay intermarriages in the 19th century. Pernankan cuisine (often called Nyonya, the word for Pernankan women) combines the best of both cooking cultures—and then some. In the kitchen of the former home of an old-time merchant named Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee’s, now the Pinang Pernankan Museum, the cooking implements included large granite grinding stones, mechanical coconut scrapers, moulds, vast woks and steamers.
It was to another old house, now a restaurant crammed with Pernankan memorabilia, that we went for dinner. Perut Rumah (literally, “stomach home”) promised Nyonya food the old-fashioned way. Fortunately it also offered the option of small servings allowing us to eat our way through rather more of its menu than two people ordinarily might do. Of our laden table, what I remember best are the asam pedas pomfret, a soupy hot and tangy fish curry, stinky bean (petai) sambal, otak otak, a fragrant, melt-in-your-mouth steamed fish mousse and nasi ulam, a herby rice salad with dried shrimps.
When we threw open our windows in the morning, we found the street below already busy, tables had been set up and customers were bent over steaming bowls of noodle soup. A few doors away at the Chinese Tho Yuen Bakery, famous for its screw pine-flavoured coconut moon cakes, patrons were tucking into tea and dim sum.
We were too late for either, so we breakfasted on Penang Hokkien-Chinese staples at the weekly Chowrasta food market. There was chee chung fun, the Penang version of the Chinese rice noodle rolls, sliced up and topped with a sweet shrimp sauce, chilli sauce and sesame seeds, and char koay teo, a comforting spicy stir-fried noodle dish with cockles, shrimps, bean sprouts and spring onions.
Later, at the Penang state museum on Farquhar Road, housed in a building that was formerly the Penang Free School, we got a lesson in the amazing cultural diversity of the island. The museum is small, but its collection of old photographs, paintings and domestic artefacts and documents are beautifully presented, celebrating Penang’s transformation from a tropical jungle to a spice island and a colonial entrepôt and finally into its polyglot present.
The afternoon disappeared in bowls of laksa and cendol. Laksa, asam or otherwise, everyone said, had to be eaten on Penang Street, where the fishy, tamarind-tart, steaming laksa seemed to be ordered in pairs with the cold, sweet coconuty cendol from a stall next door. Ordering was simple and the asam laksa was emptied all too quickly. The cendol, a concoction of slippery green noodles, coconut, jaggery and shaved ice, went down rather slower.
It was good luck that as we trundled back to the hotel we passed the Shong Hor Hin Medicated Tea Stall with its giant steel samovars facing the street. The kindly elderly owner suggested a concoction that she said would aid digestion. Perched on small stools we slowly drank it down and promised ourselves no food until dinner.
To get away from it all we headed for Penang Hills, where the views of George Town and the straits were said to spectacular. Everything was as promised, but the bonus was the funicular ride up—a highspeed climb up a steep rise, with constantly changing scenery.
Back at sea-level, I succumbed to a plate of pasembur, described in some guidebooks as a salad but more akin to chaat—potatoes, fried tofu, a variety of sliced fritters, hard-boiled eggs, shredded cucumber and yam topped with a spicy sweet tamarind sauce. After this, a small dinner was all we could manage, so it was bowls of curry mee on Chulia Street. The wizened hawker seemed not to pause for a minute as he assembled bowl after bowl for a gathering crowd—noodles, fish balls, cockles, cuttlefish, tofu, blood jelly, pale golden aromatic coconut milk, and sambal in a spoon, to give you the choice of hot or not.
On our final morning in Penang, we set out early to see what we could find. On Dicken’s Street (named after a colonial magistrate), we found Naz, who was standing over a hot flat skillet making roti jala, a pancake that looks like a fine mesh. Her customers were office-goers, many from the police building across the road. Like them, we made a breakfast off roti jala and very five-spicy chicken curry, but unlike them we had our tea black without condensed milk. Then we took a long route back stopping off to buy a block of belacan (the Malaysian version of fermented shrimp paste), a box of coconut moon cakes at Tho Yuen Bakery and a bag of nutmeg candy. And, reluctantly we made our way to the airport on the other side of the island.
Appeared in the December 2012 issue as “Confluence Cuisine”.
Penang is a very small state on the northwestern peninsula of Malaysia. It is divided into two parts—Sebarang Penang on the mainland, and Pulau Pinang, an island in the Straits of Malacca. George Town, on the island is Penang’s capital, while Butterworth is the gateway on the mainland. Penang lies around 320 km north of Kuala Lumpur.
To get to Penang from India travellers must fly to Kuala Lumpur (about 5 hours). There are frequent flights from Kuala Lumpur to Penang (1 hour), which can also be booked at the airport. Alternatively, travellers can board a train or bus from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth; both take around 6 hours.
Indian travellers to Malaysia require a visa. A VTR (visa without reference) costs ₹1,305 and requires a confirmed air ticket. The processing time is 24 hours in Mumbai, 3-5 working days in Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata, and Chennai.