Penang Feasting

Apom balik – Crispy Indian pancakes

My mother is from Penang, and although we migrated to Sydney when I was just four years old, my family still has strong roots there. Over the years though, my visits have tapered off and the Penang I know has become a memory – rapid urbanisation has fundamentally changed the city so much I don’t recognise it any more. The city has fortunately been declared UNESCO protected so the the city has been cleaned up, but the traffic is still congested, which makes getting around to the best places to eat that little bit more difficult.

Penang has long been lauded as having the best food in Malaysia – particular hawker food. It’s hard to explain why – the best I can give (based on a thoughtful discussion with a fellow Penang-ite in Singapore) is that each hawker is his/her own artist in the way they prepare and cook their dishes, achieving a distinct character, so much so that a certain dish does not taste the same if it’s been cooked by the owners son even when all other variables are constant.

Malaysians in general are quite obsessive about eating the best food and will often drive for an hour to get to “the best [insert food here]” – chicken rice, crab, fried noodles – you name it. Some have become so famous that there are often lengthy queues, which, in the blistering Penang heat, is something even I am not willing to do.

Penang curry noodles

When we were recently in Penang, we stayed close to a massive hawker centre called Supertanker. It’s a bewildering, bustling, noisy, crowded, mass of hungry people in for a quick bite – this I guess is the Malaysian equivalent of a fast food court. It’s quite difficult to explain the whole experience. There are maybe 200 tables and on the perimeter of the area are tiny little food stalls that usually sell just one or two types of dishes – fish soup, Penang char kuay teow, congee, drinks etc. You queue and order your food, pay the hawker, gesture in the direction of where you are sitting, and somehow your dish manages to find you just a few minutes later. They seem to have an amazing capacity to remember who ordered what.

The pace that these hawkers prepare the food is astounding. They are literally human machines – when you’re only charging the equivalent of US$1 for a bowl of noodles, turnover is critical, and these hawkers work hard and fast to feed the masses.

It’s open air but with plenty of fans and I was so happy to enjoy a few of my old favourite that I haven’t had for possibly over ten years. It’s amazing how smells and sounds and tastes can bring back fond memories.

Two dishes I am thrilled to have eaten: curry noodles and “apom balik”. The curry noodles are a Malaysian speciality. I guess the most easy way to describe it is as a laksa, but here, they somehow manage to extract the flavour of the coconut but with none of the thick creamy consistency of some laksas I’ve had outside of Malaysia. The broth is rich yet almost white in colour and the dish comes with a generous spoon of chilli sambal, tofu, squid, fresh cockles and most importantly, cubes of pig’s blood. Now I know that might sound horrifying to many of you, but I just love the squidgy, squeaky, springy texture of these and you can’t get this easily at all outside of Malaysia. It adds a richness to the entire dish that I just love.

The second dish is probably much more palatable – it’s called apom balik, and Indian speciality, essentially a pancake batter that’s cooked in a mini-wok, so that the edges are thin and crispy and crepe-like, with a small “bump” of lightly cooked spongy batter in the middle. Sometimes they are filled with a mixture of sugar and crushed peanuts which are also delicious but I think the simplicity of the plain ones appeal to me (perhaps because I can justify eating more?).

With my gran passing away I’m not sure I will have as many opportunities to sample the amazing food in Penang. But I can take the wonderful memories of the food with me and they come attached with the even more wonderful memories of enjoying it with her.

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About Carolyn Chan

A girl slowly eating her way around Singapore and farther afield when she's lucky. View all posts by Carolyn Chan

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