So, how many of you clicked on the link because it read… 50 Shades of Sexy…? It’s alright. No one’s judging. Ha! I promise, we’ll get there. Eventually.
So, this week has been an exciting week as my birthday is approaching (12th March, if anyone’s interested!) and celebrations have started! Ever since our dating days, we’ve always found a reason to celebrate – pre-anniversary, pre-birthday, post-birthday, survived-a-mad-project and every other reason. Mostly the merriment begins with food (but, of course!) and sometimes a trip to the museum or simply just a picnic in the park. We like it simple – no over-the-top celebrations or gifts, just the gift of good company and maybe some wine.
Well anyways, the post-birthday celebrations kicked off with us spending a whole day chilling and ending it off at the Savour Food Festival at the Marina Promontory. We ate some fantastic food prepared by chefs from around the world and soaked up some food wisdom at a masterclass by Chef Julian Royer from Jaan and a coffee appreciation course by Nespresso. What a lovely day it was!
Now, back to the food/travel posts on Penang. This installment will be about a much-loved Penang dish – Penang Assam Laksa followed by Cendol and Mamak Mee Goreng.
One cannot leave Penang without trying the extremely popular Penang Assam Laksa. Ask anyone on the street if they know of a good place to have a bowl of this quintessentially Penang classic and they would have a definite answer. In fact, many Penangites who live overseas head straight for their favourite Assam Laksa haunt the moment they return from abroad! To me, a bowl of Penang Assam Laksa is symbolic of the island – it is colourful, has multi-cultural roots and is reflective of its early years as a harbour/ spice trading base. Penang Assam Laksa is a Nonya (Straits Chinese) dish adopted from the Malays’ Ikan Assam Pedas (Spicy Tamarind Fish Curry). First, a spice rempah (paste) of chillies, belachan (shrimp paste) , fresh kunyit (turmeric) and serai (lemongrass) is fried and then boiled with a fish stock made from Wolf-herring or Mackeral, tamarind water and Polygonum/ Daun Kesom (Vietnamese Mint). The finished dish is rice noodles ‘swimming’ in a big scoop of the tangy fish broth and lots of colourful garnishes- sliced torch ginger, cucumber, mint leaves, pineapple, red chillies, a squeeze of calamansi limes and heh ko (prawn paste).
I’ve sampled a few Penang Assam Laksas and the one at Pasar Air Itam stood out as one of my favourites because of its bold flavours. This version is definitely not one for the faint-hearted as the gravy is thick and very ‘fishy’- a good thing by most Penangites’ standards and it takes at least 30 minutes to get there from Georgetown. The laksa at Joo Hooi Cafe along Jalan Penang is a strong contender simply because of its accessibility from Georgetown and less ‘fishy’ but still good flavour. A bonus is that you get to enjoy a yummy bowl of cendol after you’re done as the cendol is just outside the main area. However, this is a very popular spot for tourists and so, do come early for lunch. We braved the crowds on our first day in Penang and were not disappointed. If you’re staying near the Macalister Rd side then, the stall at Kafe Lok Pin, Jalan Anson is also quite good with its generous garnish. The bonus here is the ultra crispy pancake stall sold from a small cart just next to the coffeeshop. This is definitely a quieter spot and just a stone’s throw away is the famous Char Koay Teow uncle at Siam Rd. I’m not one who’ll tell you that one bowl of noodles is superior to another. I’m not an expert on Penang food and neither am I a food critic. What I do know is that you should be able to find a decent bowl of Penang Assam Laksa just about anywhere in Penang. Unless you’re on a mission to hunt for THE best (very subjective, don’t you think?) then, just revel in the delight of slurping an extraordinary bowl of noodles all sour, sweet, spicy and balanced at the same time.
Are you drooling yet? I’m pretty sure you will when you take your first mouthful of this sinful concoction designed to satiate any sweet tooth. This is the CENDOL ! Trust me- you’ll need this on a very hot Penang afternoon. It is a truly exotic tropical dessert. If strong, bold, fishy noodles doesn’t sound like your cup of tea (I hope not!) then, rest assured- this is SO good! Make sure you ask for a little more palm sugar/ gula melaka ie. the sweet nectar of South East Asia!
Cendol can be found in many parts of South East Asia, each with a slight variation, but all of them are made with a generous, generous portion of fresh coconut milk and gula melaka (palm sugar) on shaved ice and green rice flour ‘worms’ (as we used to call it when we were younger) with pandan (screwpine) flavour. Then, it’s topped off with some red beans, sweet corn, atap seeds etc. I’ve probably had hundreds of bowls of cendol but somehow, the ones from Penang taste better. Not sure if it’s because we’re on a holiday or the very fresh coconut milk that’s added. However, one cannot deny that many beautiful things are made with coconut milk and gula melaka. The cendol in the photo above is from Joo Hooi Cafe along Penang Rd.
Oh yeah, baby! Fifty Shades of Mamak Mee Goreng (or something like that).
Pause, breathe, check it out, breathe harder, dive in, SLURRP! Shiokaliciously Sedap! (local slang for you’re nuts not to try it). That is how this sensuous plate of fried noodles should be enjoyed.
I never (repeat: NEVER) hyperventilate over mee goreng. The local versions have all become drap and just not worth your calories, in my opinion. Ever since many of the mamak (South Indian Muslim) stalls decided that 24 hours is the way, it all went downhill. There are some decent ones in Ayer Rajah Food Centre but most of the stalls have cut back on ingredients and upped the red colouring which results in such an uninspiring, sad plate of its once glorious noodle self.
But this stall at the corner of Bangkok Lane, Pulau Tikus in Seng Lee Cafe brings the sexy back ! The Penang version of mee goreng is very different from the usual dry, slightly meaty one as it’s more moist with the addition of a sweet potato gravy, cuttle fish gravy and chilli paste. It’s almost like a mixture of Indian Rojak sauce with the cuttlefish you get in Singapore. A squeeze of calamansi lime and shredded lettuce completes this indian street food which also has diced potatoes, tofu cubes and chive fritters. The mamak frying this dish at this stall is very quick and he even has an assistant! They’re constantly bombarded with orders on weekends but each plate is fried to perfection. I’ve read that this stall has been around for a more than 80 years! The stall is manned by a father-son team and everyone who comes to this coffeeshop orders a plate. This place is also popular for its Hokkien Mee. This is by far the best plate of mamak mee goreng I’ve ever had! You’ve got to try it to believe.
If you have other recommendations for these dishes, do drop me a comment below 🙂 Thanks for reading!