Penang Top Five: Wazir J. Karim
Dato’ Dr Wazir Jahan Karim is an anthropologist, conservationist and food critic. She is author of ‘Feasts of Penang: Muslim Culinary Heritage’. She’s recently opened Jawi House which is a café gallery showcasing post-modern Peranakan food on Lebuh Armenian. Here, she shares her favourite five places for a dining experience in Penang.
1. Restoran Mutiara
Batu Maung is the Fisherman’s Wharf or Restoran Mutiara by the sea which serves the best fish-head curry in Penang in a large gleaming kuali or wok. The curry is light and tangy and okras, bright green. With a combination of sambal belacan, or shrimp paste sambal, ulam or shoots of herbs, stuffed fish or ikan belah belakang, fried squid in turmeric and salt fish, one leaves the place light-headed and happy, from taking too much curry, ready to take on the inevitable siesta. This is a place to take the curious visitor who wants to sample authentic Malay food. The service is fast and brisk and the place large and airy. And the prices? Most affordable. It’s run by the fishermen’s cooperative. By the way, if one hears stories that fish head curry originated south of the border, say, ‘Huh, nay, it originates from Penang, cannot lah. Penang was discovered by native Malays before 1786!’
The exterior of Suffolk House
2. Suffolk House
The elegant Suffolk House used to serve Sunday Tiffin that brings on nostalgic memories of childhood when father would come home from ‘outstation,’ ready to take on seven eager beavers in his brood for Sunday tiffin. Mind you, the Indo-Malaysian tiffin of egg curry and potatoes (where the boiled eggs are fried to a wrinkly brown –just like Mom’s), spicy fish cake, stuffed fried bean curd and masala fried fish and prawns is almost like Jawi Peranakan home food, 40 years ago. The ambience of century old gigantic rainforest trees, sweeping across the sprawling lawn with canopies of branches covered with epiphytes, wild orchids and birds nest, adds to its charming colonial legacy. Unlike ‘Keyel’ (KL) people who did not so much as murmur when the Le Coq D’or was torn down (I still mourn the death of this beautiful heritage house, its ensemble and the hybrid English – French cuisine served by waiters in coats and tails), we fight for our heritage buildings and trees. These come with the delights of hybrid cuisines of a far gone era.
3. Line Clear Nasi Kandar
Once in George Town, one finds a dizzy selection of nasi kandar , Penang’s most famous street food. The most obvious choice? Line Clear at Penang Road. The young and adventurous would like the rustic style of eating open air. The standard nasi kandar of white rice, fish curry, boiled egg, ocras and fried beef in thick spicy sauce is the way to go. Nasi kandar tastes of Penang and conjures images of portable food brought in baskets on bamboo poles to Weld Quay for starving dock workers. Tempers must not be lost while queuing. This must be reserved for the cats which pussy foot around Line Clear, competing for the best left overs.
Mouth-watering rice and curry available in nasi kandar restaurants
As a fifth generation Penang native, I should bring in Hameediyah at Lebuh Campbell, born 1907, still going strong, with their adjoining outlet, Tandoori house. Still, the original place where our great grandparents used to go thrives on and would appeal to the old-fashioned visitor. Their biryani, fried pigeon and goose are legendary and their murtabak a must for tea and a Ramadan treat. The mamaks here are confident and friendly. Servers have grown old and bossy. They remember family trees, so be careful. The stairway is not for the elderly, so stay downstairs!
5. Mak Lall’s in Tanjung Bungah
Before driving to Batu Feringghi, stop over at Mak Lall’s place at in Tanjung Bungah hill (right across the floating mosque). She does a delightful ayam masak merah or chicken in red sauce. Her fried beef tastes almost like rendang and her ikan terubuk or toli shad is something to die for. Her growing clientele of the rich and famous don’t bat an eyelid when they pay RM16 for a fried terubuk and I notice they never share! She makes close to 60 a day, shad I mean! Mak Lall is a Jawi Peranakan and all her sisters are famous cooks in Tanjong Tokong and George Town. She was once poor she said, and pushed a food cart in Tanjung Bungah. Her good fortune is that she did not lose her fortune to a husband who married the inevitable younger woman and melaram (show off) in a coupe. By the way, Malays are grumbling that after Friday prayers, they have to scrap the bottom of the pot to get Mak Lall’s food. The standing motto for Tanjung Bungah natives? Have Mak Lall’s food before prayers and pray the ‘Keyel’ group have not descended upon her that day. A safe time to have lunch here? 11am and be prepared to do the shuffle!