On Lebuh Kimberley in the heart of George Town, Penang, most evenings find locals and tourists milling around a rubber-wheeled stainless steel cart parked halfway between Jalan Pintal Tali and Lebuh Cintra. There, beneath the harsh glow of a fluorescent strip, Por Beng Kuan and his round-faced son – the spitting image of his dad, whose signature look is a backwards baseball cap pulled tight to his skull – assemble bowls of koay chiap. Whether the crowd is heaving or tiny the two work at lightning speed, chucking duck meat and duck and pig offal, five spice-simmered hard-boiled egg halves, and tube-like curled noodles into bowls before sloshing in mahogany hued soup. Finally, the garnish: Chinese celery and a smidge (or a sizeable spoonful, if you ask) of oily crushed dried red chilli sauce.
It’s a fine version of a classic Teochew dish, reflecting a talent honed over 30 years of preparing the dish day after day, month after month. The soup is bewitchingly fragrant (you can smell it half a block away), and Por Beng Kuan’s way with pig ears and duck giblets has been known to sway the most ardent anti offal-ist. The pleasantly tender yet elastic koay chiap (the dish is named after its noodles), assembled from tapioca, rice and mung bean flours, are made ‘in-house’; this I know after strolling the one-block length of Jalan Cheong Fatt Tze (which runs parallel to Lebuh Kimberley) one day. There I found, arrayed on a stoop across the street from a butter yellow Chinese temple, round rattan trays of snow-white koay chiap drying in the mid-afternoon sun.
A three-decade veteran cook serving small-batch noodles made a ten-minute walk from where they’re served – the is the sort of locavore, artisan eating that sends western foodies over the moon. But for Penangites it’s no big deal. And that’s why the island’s edibles have long been the stuff of legend.
Is there a Malaysian who hasn’t made a pilgrimage to sup at the knees of George Town’s renowned hawkers? I didn’t think so. And the buzz about what’s good to eat in Penang doesn’t stop at Malaysia’s borders. Step into a kopitiam in George Town on a weekend or school holiday and there’s a good chance half the tables will be occupied by hungry Singaporeans. Penang’s cheap rooms and tumbledown colonial charm have been attracting foreign backpackers for years, but these days the island is gaining international notice as an Asian culinary destination par excellence. Singapore, ‘southeast Asian street food capital’? No one who has experienced hawker food on Penang could utter those words with a straight face.
Come to Penang and you’ll eat incredibly well. Hokkien mee (pork and prawn and chilli-based noodle soup), lor bak (five-spiced pork wrapped in bean curd skin and deepfried), koay teow th’ng (smooth, silky rice noodles with pork and fish balls in a clear soup), rojak (mixed fruit and vegetable salad) dressed with sweet and pungent black shrimp paste, char koay teow (flat rice noodles fried with black soy sauce, eggs, bean sprouts, prawns and Chinese sausage), wonton mee with crisply fried dumplings crisply fried, sup kambing (richly spiced mutton soup), fish cooked in fire engine-red, sour-spicy gravy, prawns thickly coated in fresh tamarind sauce. And that’s only the tip of the island’s gastronomic iceberg.
But there’s more than tastiness to account for the appeal of eating on this island once known as the Pearl of the Orient. Think decades – in some cases a century or more – of experience, long-standing traditions, elderly aunties and uncles watching over pots and working woks, recipes passed down from generation to generation. The island’s coffee shops and hawker stalls and restaurants are scented with nostalgia; Penang’s bygone days live on, deliciously, in its food. Nowhere else in Malaysia – or in the region, for that matter – is history so clearly, and deliciously, writ on what you put in your mouth.