Monday, February 2, 2015

What Did I Eat in Penang?

Malaysia is not known for its good food. Sorry, Malaysia. For a while, I thought that I was the only one who failed to have a memorable meal in Malaysia, until I met other travelers who shared similar stories. Once I met an Italian man who had been living in Thailand for 15 years, and he said that Malaysia had the worst food in all of SE Asia. The main industries are petrol and banking, he said. "Nobody goes to the fields." Sadly, I found his observations accurate. The food at fine restaurants in cities like Kuala Lumpur is uninspiring, expensive, and tasteless. The food on the street is appalling. I'm not a picky eater by any standard, but I would prefer starvation to any of the street food I saw in in Malaysia...with one exception.

Penang.

This island is the cuisine capital of Malaysia, and home to the country's only decent food. All of the good meals come from the streets. There are typically a few carts set up along side the road, with tables and chairs beside them. These carts world together in kind of a hawker-center - without the actual building. This means that if you sit at one of the tables, you can order food from any of the carts. In more well organized food centers, people will walk around and take your order like waiters, but be careful - they may charge you prices that are higher than the actual price you would pay if you ordered directly form the cart. So I recommend going up to the cart to buy your food, then sitting down and order a drink from one of the "waiters." Once you order your food with a cart, there is no need to go back and pick it up. They will deliver it to your table and collect your money at that time. How they remember who you are, what you ordered, and where you are sitting, is a mystery to me. But every time I did this, I got exactly what I ordered each time.

One word of caution. You cannot bring outside food and drink into the food centers. If you sit down at a table in one of these places, you are expected to order all food a beverage from the corresponding carts that serve that food center. Sometimes two food centers will be located right next to each other, so it is hard to tell which carts serve which tables. Ask first. Don't make the mistake of ordering food from a cart that doesn't serve your table, or the servers in the other carts will be quick to berate you!
Yeah, not the best customer service in Penang. But good food. Really good food.


Clockwise from top: 
Assam Laksa (noodle soup)
Char Kway Teow (stir-fried noodles)
Rice rolls with Shrimp
Oh Chien (oyster pancake)
Chicken Wings
Wanton Mee (pan-fried noodles)

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