The changing face of island cuisine

Updated: 21 Aug 2012

Penang cuisine is undergoing a massive reinvention, says Fay Khoo

Up until recently, Penang food has always been associated with amazing kerbside cuisine of the hawker persuasion. Ask just about anyone who’s ever heard of Penang to name their favourite food from the Pearl of the Orient and more likely than not, you’ll hear a roll call of such hawker delights as fried kuay teow, Penang Hokkien mee and assam laksa.

Since the designation of George Town as a UNESCO World Heritage site however, it’s not just the heritage buildings at the heart of Penang that have benefited. Penangites, both original and adopted, are now flocking to the island and setting up shop, and the unintended gastronomic consequences include the rules of Penang’s culinary tradition being irrevocably rewritten, and it seems, for the better.

There’s a new breed of eateries slowly but surely making their mark on the collective gastronomic consciousness of Penang, and on the quiet side street of Chow Thye, That Little Wine Bar (TLWB) (54 Chow Thye Road. +604 226 8182) is a succinct example.

Housed in a row of recently refurbished terrace houses, TLWB is owned and run by an expat couple who fell in love with Penang whilst passing through, and decided to open an eatery with a lipsmackingly tempting collection of boutique wines. Husband Tommes is designer and chef, while his wife Louise mans the front-of-house with congenial efficiency. It’s chic but cosy, and features a menu that includes a popular wild mushroom soup, a beef carpaccio embellished with generous shavings of Parmigiano, black olives and rocket, and a clutch of tapas selections that suitably impress.

In stark contrast, Amelie Café (6 Armenian Street. +6012 496 7838) is a miniscule eatery that barely contains its four tables and bar/counter/kitchen. There’s a rickety staircase and the walls, ceiling and every available surface is festooned with the owner’s artistic creations (Amelie Café is so popular with shutterbugs that its owner has had to ban photography from the interior as it impedes service).

The super chunky homemade mushroom soup, bacon bagel, and homemade pesto pasta are just three of the most endeared items on an admittedly limited, but well considered menu. More than just a visual feast, this little café is set to become a cult favourite.

Probably the best-known eatery of the new café culture of Penang, Kopi Cine (55 Stewart Lane.+604 263 7299) is the hotspot du jour and inarguably the place to see and be seen.

With its impeccable pedigree — the café is part of a boutique hotel that is owned and operated by Bon Ton Langkawi proprietors Narelle MacMurtrie and Alison Fraser — Kopi Cine is an eloquent example of the infinite possibilities that await the intrepid restaurateur. The previously abandoned coffee mill now buzzes with the patronage of regulars who can’t get enough of the seriously good coffee and snacks, and the vibe of an old world setting that has been imbued with equal measures of charm, good taste and humour.

Authentic Bulgarian fare can be found at Vintage Bulgaria (1E Jalan Sungai Kelian, Tanjung Bungah. +604 898 1890). Owned by a Bulgarian family, the décor exudes the rustic Bulgarian countryside, whilst the hearty menu features favourites like Bulgarian Shashlik and Chicken Kiev. Wash it down with a glass of wine from their wine list, or for a different type of dining experience, head to The Sire Museum Restaurant (4 King Street. +604 264 5088). The former home of Yeap Chor Ee, a banking magnate and philanthropist, The Sire serves up great beef tenderloin medallions and desserts, but you may have trouble focusing on what’s on your plate as the restaurant is filled with countless antiques that used to belong to Yeap.

You’re likely to face the same dilemma at Chin’s Stylish Chinese Cuisine (Tanjong City Marina, Church St Pier, 8A Pengkalan Weld. +604 261 2611), which serves authentic Sichuan and Hunan dishes. It boasts an award-winning pedigree (proprietor David Chin’s restaurant in London, CHIN’S, is award-winning) and the food is both elegantly presented and tasty; the aromatic crispy duck is rightfully popular, whilst the dishes served in bamboo tubes only add to the charm of dining in the luxurious settings that’s dotted by chandeliers, contemporary furniture, and numerous hand-painted plates – works of art themselves.

But even as Penangites and visitors alike marvel at the new additions to their gastronomic landscape, it’s still indubitably the hawker food that remains the star attraction. And at the centre of that glittering crown nestles Penang’s most famous culinary export: fried kuay teow.

There may be a kuay teow seller at every corner but – as any Penangite will tell you – it’s sacrilegious to settle for the merely mediocre when the best is within reach.

The best fried kuay teow can be found at the New Lasia Restaurant on Ayer Itam Road (just after the CIMB bank, before the roundabout to the funicular railway station). Here, each plate is individually fried and the distinguishing factor is the supple smoothness of each strand of noodle as well as a superbly understated aroma that has diners unfailingly hankering for more.

Another superlative version can be found at night on Kimberly Street (at the brightly lit knot of hawker cafés and pirate DVD stalls) in the centre of town. Considerably stickier in consistency because it’s fried with duck’s egg, it also has the added (and surprisingly compatible) flavour of mantis besides the ubiquitous prawns. The other jewel in Penang’s culinary crown, Penang Hokkien mee is a veritable fiesta of taste. Variously known as har mee (Cantonese) and Penang prawn mee, this is the other dish that can have hawker connoisseurs embroiled in protracted and heated arguments about whose favourite stall is superior.

If you can rouse yourself for an early breakfast, Swee Kong’s Hokkien mee (Jalan Burma, opposite Pulau Tikus Police Station) is available every morning but for a limited time only, as the brother and sister team who run the stall have full-time jobs at factories on the mainland. Theirs is a soup that is assiduously made every night from a rich stock of prawn shells and pork ribs, and unadulterated by the compromising addition of MSG.

Penang’s assam laksa – loved by women, especially expectant mothers, for its face-scrunchingly sour taste – is another culinary institution. An acquired taste, assam laksa’s fish soup base, heavy handed use of prawn paste and tamarind is a truly malodorous creation that gets most of Penang’s female populations into raptures, which also explains why the corner of Penang Road and Lebuh Keng Kwee – where some of Penang’s finest assam laksa can be found – is always jammed.

As the gastronomic scene continues to evolve, what remains immutable is Penangites’ continued devotion to, and obsession with, the food of their hometown. Whether it’s a humble plate of economy fried bee hoon (rice vermicelli) from the roadside stall outside the wet market, or a painstakingly prepared Chinese steamboat feast fit for royalty, no food is ever taken for granted in Penang.

And that’s why, putting aside the historic significance of Penang food and the sheer culinary talent that rocks the island, Penang’s gastronomic tradition will always flourish: it’s the people who sustain and nourish the food with their sheer belief and love, and as we all know, nothing in the world surpasses food that’s prepared and consumed with love.

Tags: Features