Char Kway Teow and Popiah, Lebuh Keng Kwee
She looks older than my 80-year-old grandmother, bent over a wickedly black wok. This is Lebuh Keng Kwee street’s hawker centre, and the granny is on loop: Toss flat rice noodles into the smoky wok; throw in some deshelled cockles, plump prawns, Chinese chives, and chilli. Pop an egg or two, drizzle soy sauce until satisfied. Flip some pork lard until a resentful hiss emanates from the wok. Her hands are a blur, controlling the wood fire, stirring and clanging the wok with one hand, adding bean sprouts with another.
Later, I will remember her char kway teow every time I sit at a chipped formica-topped table of any hawker centre in George Town. But I don’t remember eating three full plates of this Hokkien dish wordlessly, oblivious to the presence of my friend, G. He senses my priorities and dutifully finishes all six pieces of popiah: papery rice-skin rolls bursting with turnip, crispy bean sprouts, and sweet and spicy chilli sauce. He nods at the oyster omelette I insisted on before I met my char kway teow. You eat it, I tell him with a large heart and a full stomach. It was he who suggested we spend five days eating our way through Southeast Asia’s food capital, so he damn well deserves the last shred of skin of that popiah.
There as many reasons to love Penang’s capital city as there are ways to get lost in its squiggly alleys. The old town of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its streets are a museum of shophouses, the colours of a tiered cake. Their facades are window displays of George Town’s Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese colonial histories. Flavours from George Town’s erstwhile trade with Malay, Indian, and Chinese merchants still peppers the meals here. If it drizzles on a hot May afternoon and you take shelter under a roof, chances are that it is a street stall with steam rising from a wok. George Town asks for nothing but an interested eye and your loosest pants.
Chendul, Lebuh Keng Kwee
We emerge from the hawker centre and look around to see where we could walk off our heavy meal. To our left is a wide main street that will take us anywhere. To our right is a stall that reads “Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul and Ice Kacang. Since 1936.” We go right.
The nine people in queue and I look at the guy making the Indonesian dessert commonly found in Malaysia, Singapore, and the rest of Southeast Asia. He presses shaved ice into a mound in a bowl, and tosses trembly green, pandan-flavoured noodles immersed in coconut milk on one side. Then comes a ladle-full of boiled kidney beans and gula melaka (palm sugar) syrup. I take a while to get used to having rajma for dessert, but after the third bite, I warm up to this unusual concoction. G smiles dazedly, which is something because he’s grown up eating chendul in Singapore and never thought he’d love another.
Roti Jala and Sirap Bandung, Little India
A few hours later, we fish out our city maps and tentatively tap on Little India. Back in Singapore, Little India is a slice of home for my friend, but not quite. It still has a distinctly Singaporean feel, he maintains, and wonders what George Town’s Little India is like. As we stand under the gopuram of a temple near stalls frying golden medu vada, I see G is feeling at home, saying we could be anywhere in Chennai, or even at Matunga in Mumbai. At a corner, near a roti canai stall, we stumble upon a hawker pouring pale yellow batter on his griddle, in the shape of a web. We plonk our bags on the table and order a plate of roti jala (jala means “net” in Tamil, which explains its net-like appearance) like the two Tamilian men beside us. They tell us how roti jala is made from flour mixed with egg, milk and turmeric. It is light and fluffy, and served with a plate of spicy chicken curry. The stall owner catches me eyeing the tall fat glasses of sirap bandung (rose-flavoured milk) on my neighbour’s table, and brings us some. It strangely takes me home too: Chilled rose-milk is my nani’s antidote to all wordly troubles, from homesickness and boredom, to anxieties that would beset me and my sister if lunch was many hours away.
Wan Tan Mee and Lor Bak, Lebuh Chulia
Over my five days in George Town, I stroll streets depending on their backstories: almost every lane has a steel-rod sculpture that depicts its origin, or other cultural trivia. The city has about 50 such sculptures in all; the one in Muntri Street, for instance, marks the place where Jimmy Choo started his apprenticeship; another one in Soo Hong Lane tells the story of how it is the narrowest, five-foot lane in Penang.
Unsurprisingly, many sculptures are related to food, and the one at China Street about tok-tok mee—a noodle dish named so because its hawkers would strike a tok-tok sound to signal their presence—piques my curiosity. It is actually the story of what is commonly called wan tan mee, which I then trace to Lebuh Chulia, a famous backpackers’ haunt. At night, this street lined with antique stores and rattan furniture shops transforms into a theatre of wobbly plastic stools and tables. Our faces are slick with sweat on this balmy night, but heaping springy noodles onto our spoon, orchestrating slurps as we drink brown broth, and dividing the crisp wontons and pieces of barbecued pork makes us smile like greedy little children. It is said that Anthony Bourdain loved it as much as anybody else. It costs very little, and pickled green chillies and warmth thrown are in for free.
Lebuh Chulia is also famous for its lok lok (“dip dip” in Chinese). A few metres away from the wan tan mee stall, beyond the street that turns into Love Lane, we spot a stall selling every kind of meat neatly skewered and arranged around a large pot of boiling water. People point at sticks and pick them like candy: fish balls, prawns, meatballs, squid, shrimp, and tofu. The 20-something girl dunks their loot into the water. “Lor bak,” says G instead, eyeing some pork pieces and I wonder why we aren’t experimenting more. But when he adds that the meat is marinated in the Chinese five-spice powder (Sichuan pepper, star anise, clove, fennel seeds and cinnamon) and wrapped snug in beancurd (soy) sheet, ready to be fried gold, I am sold.
Nasi Kandar, Lebuh Campbell
Another sculpture at Ah Quee Street depicts a mundu-clad Tamil-Muslim immigrant hawking home-cooked dishes and rice (nasi in Malay) from containers slung on both ends of a kandar (wooden stick).
In the late 1800s, Nalla Kader was one of them, and in 1907, he set up Hameediyah, which has the reputation of selling the best nasikandar in town. When we enter, a cook is pouring ladlefuls of oil around the murtabaks (bread bursting with chicken, beef, mutton and vegetables) sizzling on a thaal-sized pan. Inside lie giant vats of dishes with little pockets of oil glistening in them: Indonesian beef rendang cooked in coconut milk and spices, roasted cuttlefish curry, grilled quail, and fried chicken. We ask for nasi kandar: a mound of biryani each and a portion of every dish.
Pat Poh, Esplanade promenade
Like all waterfront cities, George Town’s nucleus is the sea, and the Esplanade promenade embraces everyone: flocks of teenagers looking to up their selfie game, deathly still men with fishing rods, and the children bouncing and bursting iridescent soap bubbles blown by a hawker. Like every nook of George Town, the Esplanade too has a food court of its own but this one is extra special because it has demarcated Chinese and halal food sections. Scoring a seat by the water, we ask our server for suggestions for a local drink. He grins toothlessly and says he knows just the “herbal concoction”. Before we can protest, he returns with tall glasses of the cola-coloured drink, pat poh. Think calamansi lime juice shaken with an eight-herb mix which includes liquorice root, mandarin orange peel, honey, cinnamon, and mulberry leaves. A hit of sweet, tart, and spice in a glass full of ice is what pat poh is all about.
China House café, Beach Street
On our last night in George Town, G and I stick to our daily ritual of winding down at China House café at Beach Street. In a city where the past peeks out from every corner, China House is a step into the future: a compound of three heritage buildings looped by an open-air courtyard has now been repurposed into 14 spaces that are modelled like a laneway. We walk into the wood-panelled Kopi C café, which spills into Beach Street Bakery, which in turn opens into an art gallery, live music venue, and so on. Here, happiness for my friend is crayoning while he sips gula melaka-almond milkshake. I linger around a mind-boggling buffet of cakes; about 35 tea cakes, cheesecakes and flaky pastries are baked here every night. I settle for a giant slice from the basketball-sized tiramisu cake.
On our way back, we walk past George Town’s most famous mural at Armenian Street: a boy and girl on a bicycle. The little boy is squealing with glee, clutching the girl as she drives him around. That is how we too feel in that moment; on a joyride in this wondrous city of moveable feasts and art on streets.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.