Auck Ward

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Tag: roti canai

Penang Street Food Over Four Days

Hokkien mee in Penang. Photo by Tina.

Penang is a place I think gets overlooked on Southeast Asia itineraries, often overshadowed by Thailand, or Angkor Wat or Vietnam.

But Penang is worth the trip, even if you have to take two days to get there. You can’t walk a block in Penang without missing a food stall where you can get your fill of noodles and or rice. Noodles of all kinds. Noodles in soup. Noodles alone. Rice. Chicken rice. Fried rice. Fried chicken rice. Rice with curry. Noodles again. Wild card: roti! And most dishes cost roughly $1 to $3.

Penang let us fondly remember a couple of Malaysian restaurants in D.C. that sadly closed: Straits of Malaya, which had a great roof deck overlooking the mammoth Lauriol Plaza; and Malaysia Kopitiam, which closed this past summer. The restaurant owner emailed foodie website Eater and said that the property owner found new tenants once the lease was up. A giant bummer. When ourselves or friends would get our paychecks, Kiwi would send out a call to see who was down for “payday Malay.”

To guide us through the street food scene, a brochure stand in Fort Cornwallis offered a Penang street food map with explanations of the best-known dishes. Perfect for playing Penang street food bingo or just figuring out the next thing to try.

The problem with eating your way through Penang is: If you eat three meals a day, and have only four days to explore Penang, it’s not enough time to try everything. Your limitations are your stomach and your need to eat more of a favorite delicious thing. Why try something new when you know what you like and want more of?

But we pursued new things anyway, mostly at New World Park, stalls in George Town or along Jalan Burmah. There are dishes that we missed, and hopefully I can try them in Kuala Lumpur or in Singapore. But who knows, maybe those cities will have specialties of their own.

Here are the dishes tried during our four days in Penang:

Char Kway Teow
Char kway teow, oh myyy. Smoky noodles in soy sauce with garlic, egg, bean sprouts, shrimp, sometimes clams and a little spice. Easy standby. Hard to try something new when char kway teow is always there and always good.
Ice Kacang in Penang. Photo by Tina.
Ice Kacang
This dessert is the weirdest thing eaten in Penang: Red beans, corn, jelly, some evaporated milk, shaved ice on top, with some syrups: one that tasted like root beer, one that tasted like rose. It wasn’t bad. It was sweet and icy, and therefore qualifies as dessert. But part of me can’t shake Yankee logic that if you start a meal with red beans and corn, you’re halfway to chilli, not dessert. (Cendol, another dessert, is similar to ice kacang in that it has shaved ice and red beans, along with some green noodles.)
Penang laksa. Photo by Tina.
Penang Laska
Penang laksa is fish noodle soup with a broth made of tamarind and mackerel. It’s considered one of the best street foods according to a often-referenced CNN article. If you like mackerel and sour tastes, you’ll like this. (I did not because I am not a fan of mackerel.)
Hokkien mee in Penang. Photo by Tina.
Hokkien Mee or Prawn Mee
Shrimp noodle soup with slices of pork. Good. Shrimpy. But after eating this and eating Penang laksa, I was ready to take a break from seafood. Too much fishyness.
Pork steamed bun in Penang. Photo by Tina.
Steamed Buns or Bao
On the way home from picking up some laundry, we stopped by a steamed bun shop off Jalan Burmah. Sweet pork with some pork fat in a sweet sauce, akin to teriyaki. It cost something like 50 cents. Winner.
Chicken rice. Photo by Tina.
Chicken Rice
Chicken rice doesn’t sound like anything special. It could sound rather boring. But roasted chicken in soy sauce with scallions, a little bit of hot sauce similar to salsa and rice to soak it all up? Better than you think. A reminder not to overlook simple things just because they are simple.
Popiah and banana pancake at New World Park in Penang. Photo by Tina.
Popiah and Banana Pancake
Popiah and pancakes are not complements necessarily; I ordered them both from the same vender at New World Park while waiting for breakfast rotis. Popiah (left) is like an egg roll, wrapped in something like a crepe to sop up the sauce that goes over it. It’s filled inside with a mix of vegetables and tastes rather mild. The banana pancakes (right) were more like a dry, crispy crepe with banana slices and crushed peanuts inside. We ate them as if they were sweet tacos.
Roti canai in Penang. Photo by Tina.
Roti Canai
Ahhhhh! Flaky, crispy flatbread to dip into curry. The most delicious thing, easily ordered at every chance we could. The curry often had a few cubes of potato in it, which I would eat with my fingers. I have no shame, no regrets.
Nasi kandar in Penang. Photo by Tina.
Nasi Kandar
Nasi kandar is rice with curry: you pick what goes on top. I asked for two plates of chicken curry and some cucumber salad, which was actually cucumber, carrot and pineapple. The vendor spooned a brick-sized piece of chicken and some sauce from the chicken curry, plus sauces from two other curries: one that tasted like butter chicken and one that was straight up spicy (me likey). This was the most expensive thing ordered at eight ringgit, or roughly $3 a plate. We waddled out of the food stall after eating this for lunch.
Wan Tan Mee
Wan tan mee is noodle soup with dumplings (wan tans) and pork slices. Really good for breakfast as it is light and filling. A simple dish, like chicken rice, but you’ll never not look forward to a bowl of wan tan mee.

Anything here making you hungry? Tell me in the comments. All photos by Tina.

Leaving Koh Samui, to Penang via Hat Yai

Saying goodbye to the dogs in Koh Samui. Photo by Warwick Meade.

Eventually and sadly, we left Koh Samui and the pups that kept us company for the last few days. It took us two days to get from our little corner of Thailand to Penang, Malaysia. Why? Cause we’re cheap and avoided planes. Budget airline Firefly was quoting something like $100 per person to go from Koh Samui to Penang. Taking the overland route was cheaper: about $90 for the both of us to get bus tickets to Penang, with a night at a budget hotel in Hat Yai.

But what a trip it was. You too can get from one side of the Malay peninsula to the other by doing the following:

Day 1

1. Ferry from Koh Samui to Don Sak

Ferry from Koh Samui. Photo by Warwick Meade.

Beautiful weather for a cruise along the northern coast of Koh Samui. Not a bad way to spend two hours.

Time spent: two hours

2. Minibus from Don Sak to Hat Yai, but actually Nakhon Si Thammarat

We disembark from the ferry and end up in a minibus by ourselves and the two drivers, full air conditioning on full blast. We’re thinking: This is awesome. We can spread out, take in the scenery, I’ll catch up on Serial

The driver drove at 150 km/90 mph as he weaved in and out of traffic on the two-lane road. We’re both warily eyeing the speedometer. I was laying down, thinking that if we got into an accident, my spine would be snapped into two. I sat up and looked for a seat belt. No seat belts.

Kiwi chastised the driver to slow down, which he did for about 15 minutes. Then, the driver would slowly work his way back to 90 mph, and Kiwi would give him the side eye to stay in a safer speed.

I fell asleep, then woke up to find out we [our itinerary and the people on it] had been sold to another minibus. Meaning, we have to switch minibuses. Great.

Time spent: two hours, plus a chastisement
Total time spent: four hours

3. Minibus from Nakhon Si Thammarat to Hat Yai

We end up on a almost full minibus, which proceeds to flirt with maximum capacity at each stop, taking on one more additional passenger. And the air con felt more like someone breathing on you, like a creepy heavy breather, than actual coolness.

Time spent: three hours
Total time in transit: seven hours

We finally got off the minibus with the heavy-breather air con. The taxi touts tell us that our hotel is 15 minutes away, but we can take two motorbikes there for 100 baht ($3).

4. Motorcycle from Hat Yai minibus stop to Hat Yai hotel

Kiwi looked at me distantly upon the offer of motorbike taxi because in the past, I’ve said no f**king way to motorbikes. People drive crazy on them, and I was fairly sure that our travel insurance didn’t cover motorbiking.

Well, I checked the policy while on Koh Samui and we’re covered. I jumped on the motorbike with the driver, my carryon and my backpack on my back. Kiwi got on the bike with his driver, and we were off. The bikes don’t go much faster than maybe 15-20 mph, and the breeze felt refreshing.

When we stopped at an intersection, I looked to Kiwi to see how I should be holding on. Originally, I grabbed the sides of the driver; Kiwi had his arms around his. Kiwi fondled the driver’s chest as a joke. The driver laughed, pointed at me, then back to Kiwi, which I took to the effect that chest-grabbing is a couple thing to do. But who is supposed to grab whose chest? I don’t know. Whatever. I’m on a motorbike in Thailand, I need to focus on staying alive. When we got off the bikes at the hotel, I ran up to grab Kiwi’s chest to get a laugh out of the drivers.

Time spent: 15 minutes
Total time spent traveling on day 1: Seven hours, 15 minutes and two masculine chest grabs

That night, we explored Hat Yai. It’s a culture shock for me, an American, to see snowflake decorations at a town seven degrees away from the Equator.

Hat Yai, Thailand. Photo by Tina.

We ate some roti canai and made puns with Hat Yai (“Are you excited to be in Hat Yai? You mean Hat YAY?!” or “Hattttt Yaiiii [oh oh]!” to the tune of “Hey Ya,” complete with Andre 3000 jazz hands.)

Day 2

5. Bus from Hat Yai to Thailand-Malaysia border

We had the oldest, nicest bus I’ve ever seen: 1970s-style armchairs that lean back and USB ports for phones. But we wouldn’t be on for long. Once we reached the border, we were told that we needed to walk through Thai immigration, then a minibus would take us through Malaysian customs and immigration.

Time spent: two hours
Total time in transit: nine hours, 15 minutes

6. Waiting time at the Thailand-Malaysia border

Thailand-Malaysia border. Photo by Warwick Meade.

A busy border crossing. We walked around the border town for a bit, browsed the shops. One shopowner muttered farang (foreigner, in a similiar way gringo or gringa is used by Spanish speakers for English-speaking Americans. Not a slur, but I don’t love it. I wouldn’t wear it on a t-shirt ironically or unironically.)

We might have been the only Westerners walking through that day. Most Westerners probably would have just taken Firely or Air Asia. But we’re backpackers. Onward.

Time spent waiting: 90 minutes
Total time spent in transit and waiting: Over 10 hours over two days? Am I even calculating this logically?

7. Minibus from Thailand-Malaysia border to a Penang mall

Malaysia’s highways are really well kept. You could blink and think you were in the States or New Zealand or something.

There was a point where our van was trying to bypass two lanes merging into one by cruising along the median. The guy in the car in front of us was actively blocking the van. Our van would try to pass on the median, the car in front would go into the median, then merge back into the highway. Our van would try again, the car in front would straddle the lane and median. The driver let out something in not English, then punctuated it with “motherf**cker”. Kiwi and I yelled “yeah!” Obnoxious tourists.

Time spent: Are we there yet?
Total time spent: No, seriously. Are we there yet?

8. Walk from Penang mall to hotel

The walk was actually pretty nice. We walked by many street food stands: chicken rice, vegetarian food, prawn noodles…

Time spent: 20 minutes?
Total time spent: Too tired to count. Good night.

Now that we’re in Penang, we’ve seen so many cool coffee shops and food halls. Eventually, we summoned the will to eat some char kway teow (smoky fried noodles). A summary of Penang coffee and street food is for another post…

Should we have just taken a plane? Or was this worth it for the story alone? Comments.

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