The main reason for choosing to go to do my visa run in Penang had to do with the food. In the past several years, Penang has been getting some serious recognition as having some of the best (tasty, creative, accessible, affordable) food in Asia. With such a mix of cultures and backgrounds – Malay, Chinese, Indian – the food tradition in Penang is rich in flavor and variety.
I was looking forward to eating my way through my stay…but quickly remembered how intimidating it can be to walk up to a food stall where you don’t know what they serve, how to order, or how to eat whatever they put in front of you. I’ve gotten so used to being in one place and familiar with the different dishes available. Here I was out of my comfort zone. Lucky for me Penang’s tourism department offers an incredible food guide and map to Penang. Not only did it list out popular dishes with descriptions, fun facts and photos it then pointed out where you could get each of these foods around the island. Perfect.
So many options!
In the short time I was there I made it a priority to seek out and sample as much as I could – and did a decent job. To be honest though, I wasn’t blown away by anything. Perhaps I didn’t try a certain dish at the best spot in town, perhaps the bright orange and green dishes everything seemed to be served on put me off (no food looks good on neon plates), perhaps it was my overall mood about the trip not going as originally planned, but I was a little…disappointed. It was still fun searching for a certain dish I had read about and sampling something new, but I had been hoping for more. A few of the things I tried:
Chee Cheong Fun – Made out of steamed, wide rice noodles and served with chili paste, shrimp paste, a sweet red sauce and sesame seeds, chee cheong fun seemed like an odd, unfulfilling mix to me.
red beans and green cendol noodles
Cendol – Okay, this one I knew I probably wouldn’t like too much but just had to try for the heck of it. There are similar desserts made with different jellies, beans, ice, syrups and coconut milk throughout Thailand and Southeast Asia that I usually stay away from them, so I figured it was time for a taste. Cendol is ice, red bean, green cendol noodles (made from rice flour and pandan), palm sugar syrup and coconut milk. It comes in a bowl on top of shaved ice (like the bottom left dish in my second picture) or mixed all together and drunk through a straw. In case it wasn’t sweet and strange enough, the cup I got also had some sticky rice and black jelly, just for kicks.
Hokkien Mee – There’s a lot going on in hokkien mee. Two types of noodles and about five types of meat are mixed in a thick broth topped with egg, bean sprouts and chili paste. Before I had read about the soup (curry?), I thought I may have just been given a bowl of the odds and ends the food stall had on hand. Pork and prawns? Squid and fish balls? Huh? Also, in the end, it really didn’t have a strong flavor. Hmm.
Rotee Canai – This is one thing that did not disappoint, but who wouldn’t love a light, doughy flat bread cooked in oil? Cooked with or without egg and served with a curry to dip in, I craved this in the mornings with a cup of chai.
Have you been to Penang or Malaysia? What dishes did you like?