Southeast Asia 2016

Day 19: breakfast tour, Penang Hill

Day 19: Wednesday December 7

We're halfway through the day and it already feels like we've done a full day's worth of stuff, including eating! This morning we skipped the hotel's breakfast and did a breakfast tour with Heritage on a Plate. Since we already know a lot about the dinner dishes from Chad's family, Chad thought this was a good chance to learn about breakfast food in Malaysia and Penang in particular. We learned not only about the food but where it comes from and why it is what it is.

We met our guide Danny at the Toh Soon Cafe, a VERY popular spot in the mornings, and we were lucky to get a table. Danny introduced us to white coffee, which is the local coffee. The coffee beans are mixed with sesame oil, margarine, and brown sugar, then ground finely and sold. The grinds are then strained through a "sock" to serve. It was very sweet and delightful. Alex had sweet tea with lime, a surprisingly delicious combination. Our first breakfast was Roti bakkar - bakkar meaning burnt. Hence, toast. It was served with kaya, a sweet jam-like spread made with eggs and coconut. It came sliced into fingers along with a cup with two half boiled eggs to which was added soy sauce and pepper and mixed well. The bread was then dipped in and eaten. Delicious sweet and savoury combination. We learned about how the original workforce was mainly blue collar labour, intensive (dock work, agriculture, etc) and so breakfast was an important but quick meal to sustain one through the morning.

Next we walked through the morning market, which sells everything from lingerie to raw chicken. The market only exists in the morning, and is done by 10am. At 9am it was just the stragglers left, of which we were three.

Then we stopped for curry mee, which was a slightly spicy noodle soup with fish balls, pickled octopus, and fragrant tofu, with vermicelli and thicker yellow noodles. It was less spicy than it looked, and it was a warm pick me up to start the day.

We also tried one cold and one hot calamansi lime drink, the hot one was less sweet so Alex liked it more. At the same food court we also sampled char kway kak - exactly like char kway teow but instead of noodles it had small rice cakes which are the same thing as the noodles just a different texture. As always char kway teow is a big hit. This is usually served for a snack because it's typically served as a communal dish whereas char kway teow is usually a meal.

We learned about how food courts function. One person owns the area and serves drinks (in most food courts you have to buy a drink or pay a fee to sit there). The owner rents out space to food vendors, so the owner can be seen as a curator of food. It's advantageous for everyone because the curator won't tolerate bad food, and they get money from drinks and rent, while the vendors are able to stay out of the sun and have a consistent place to open shop where people know how to find them, and the customer knows how to find their favourite stalls plus has variety all in one place.

Our next stop was at a restaurant run by an older lady that Danny described as "eccentric". We weren't sure if there would be food because our guide told us that some days she opens, some days she doesn't, some days she does but doesn't sell anything(!). Today she was open and had food. Our first dish was called Otak Otak (translated literally, brains) which was described as a "fish custard", made of mackerel omelet with bettel leaves and tapioca. Alex didn't expect to like this since she has not liked white fish and tapioca so far on the trip, but is was pretty good. It was a little like a sweet/savoury pudding, the fish had a mild taste, and the leaves were really yummy. It came wrapped in a banana leaf. This dish is a traditional nyonya dish, and it is a rare example these days. Nyonya refers to the mixing of Malay and Straights Chinese. Because these were intermixed families often with Malay women and Chinese merchant men, the cooking pulls from the Indian spices available in Penang, Chinese cooking styles, and Malay flavour preferences. It is called nyonya food because the women were the cooks back then. It's hard to find true nyonya foods because the nyonyas were never hawkers, so they were mainly cooking for themselves but not for selling.

This led into a discussion about how street vendors are viewed and how food is viewed in Penang. Even though good street vendors can do very well for themselves, it's not viewed as a desirable profession. And so Danny worries that this expertise is disappearing because people don't want to pass it on to their children, and would prefer that their children went into other industries. This led into a discussion about how Penang is still focused on manufacturing and the usual historic professions of this area, and how Penang industry was modelled after Detroit, which led to bad recessions in the 2000s. In 2008 a new hopeful era was started when the local government of 60 years was replaced with a new party intent on returning priority to the people. This has led to a rejuvenation of the city, with young people returning, increased tourism, and overall cleaner and more organized (we did notice they had pedestrian crossings on a few major roads now). Danny also explained how "fusion" food is the new fad which is ironic because traditional Penang food was fusion all along.

At the same restaurant we had a bowl of koay teow th'ng (soup koay teow), a mild flavoured breakfast soup that is usually given to people when they're sick, their equivalent of chicken noodle soup. Apparently in most places the soup tastes like nothing, but at this restaurant the broth is made with sesame oil, shallots, pork bones, and has complex flavour that was very tasty.

On to dessert! We stopped for ais kacang (specially served with homemade durian ice cream). We were told this was the only place in the city to get durian ice cream, and we can attest to that as it had a much more full and smooth flavour than the place we tried a few days ago). Ais kacang is weird. It is honestly the strangest mish mash of things on a plate Alex has ever seen. On the bottom, is shaved ice with a pink syrup. On top of this is red beans on one side, corn on the other, both in a sweet syrup. This in turn is topped with a three-layered upside down cupcake of jello and two scoops of durian ice cream. By the time we had finished eating it, it was a liquidy stew on the plate. And it was surprisingly good although I'm not sure I'd order it every day.

Our last dish was pie tee, which are savoury Asian "cupcakes" with an outer fried hard shell containing salad items and topped with chilli sauce.

At the end of our tour Danny dropped us off at a place to buy traditional tambun biscuits. We stocked up. Then we headed back to the hotel to get out of the heat.

After a bit of a rest, we were ready to brave the heat again to head to Penang Hill. Danny had told us that we needed several hours for this as there would be a lot of people going due to the school holidays. We debated going to Kek Lok Si temple as well but decided not to. It was just as well, since we ended up spending several hours at Penang hill. Alex had been told to walk up the hill by one of her coworkers who used to live in Penang, but by the time we got there, we were hot enough that we thought the cable car was a great idea. The line up wasn't even that long - we waited only one round and were first in line to get a view as we went up.

This is the 4th generation car, installed in 2011 and Penang hill also has undergone some major renovations since Chad was last here. There is a viewing platform, and the views out over Georgetown and the water are quite spectacular. Really worth the trip up. And then there's now a whole bunch of different things to see on the hill. We didn't actually do any of them other than eat, drink fruit juice and shop (we got our favourite street art tshirt here!) but if we'd wanted to, we could have gone to an owl museum, written a message on a love lock and attached it to their fence, checked out the wildlife habitat (we didn't do this because we'd just been to the spice gardens), visit a botanical garden, or get your photo with Spider-Man (who had an Asian accent). We just went for the view, and had a great time people watching as well.

Then, as we were heading back towards the cable car, the artists who were doing portraits offered 20 ringgit for a cartoon picture of the two of us, so we decided to give it a try. The picture is awesome! The artist ended up with a bunch of people watching over his shoulder and laughing, so we were laughing as well. It's especially amazing because he did it in about 10 minutes. And we actually got a 2-for-1 deal. Another artist who did not have any customer at the time did a cartoon of Chad, which is really excellent as well! Afterwards we thought we should have gotten a second drawing of Alex, but at the time we were laughing too hard to think of it. We think we helped them drum up some business.

For dinner we aimed for the street night market on Kimberley Street because we'd been told it had more variety. Hokkien prawn mee (delicious), satay (peanut sauce was good but marinade was a blander and sweeter version), char koay teow (good but not the best we've had), char koay teow attempt #2 (what we were looking for), and finally onde onde (nyonya kuih) for dessert. So back to Chulia Street tomorrow night we go!

Next: Day 20: Penang cooking class

Back to main page