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Saturday May 12, 2012

Under the Marble Arch

Here’s a place to have street food in Pulau Tikus that’s a little quieter than the usual hawker centre.

DID you know that Penang has quite a lot in common with London?

Not only are we a city, a status bestowed upon us by none other than Queen Elizabeth II herself, but we also have a Drury Lane, Victoria Street, and Downing Street. In fact, we even have a Marble Arch!

This one in Pulau Tikus is quite different, though. For one thing, it’s a lot smaller, and isn’t really an arch; and if it were, it probably wouldn’t have been made of marble anyway. It’s actually a tiny mall with a couple of eateries in it, as well as a few clothes and organic food shops.

Ah Yam busy frying char kuey kak.

However, our focus here is what is within sight of the large sign which proudly proclaims its name: the night street food scene which takes place every evening from 6pm to 10pm just outside the Pulau Tikus Market.

Committee chairman Ong Seng Kwong, affectionately known as “Kopi P’hong” to differentiate him from the Hokkien mee seller Ah P’hong, explains its origin: “Many of us here started selling outside the Peng Hwa Chinese Girls’ School in the 1970s.”

This was, of course, the stalls lining Gottlieb Road.

When the road had to be widened to allow for increased traffic in the 1990s, the stalls had to close down, and the council moved them to their present site in Solok Moulmein.

According to Ong, there are now nearly 50 stalls which congregate there nightly, some which are still run by the original stallholders. With o jian, wantan mee, satay, yee fu mee, curry mee, belacan fried rice, mee goreng, Ah Yam’s char kuey kak – he’s another old hand, having cooked and served the dish for over 20 years – and many other Penang favourites available, it’s a place where you’ll be hard-pushed for choice. Not every stall opens daily, though, and there are a few repeats.

Ah Chai still wraps up his takeaways in banana leaf-lined paper cones.

There are two lok lok stalls, for example, at which you can stand and help yourself to any of the skewered vegetables, meats and fishballs. These are dunked into the boiling vats of hot soup to cook, then dipped into one of the numerous chilli and sweet sauces, oils and other condiments laid out for your delectation.

Alternatively, you can sit at one of their tables, attractively laid out with plates of colourful raw vegetables, taufu and sausages, and have yourself a steamboat meal. Be warned, though: it’s hot, in every sense of the word.

The heat from the steaming vessel in the middle of the table, combined with the hot food and the sultry night, will definitely make you sweat. However, you’ll be able to cool yourself down with an ais kacang.

There are also two char kuey teow stalls, one of which is Ah Chai’s at the Sin Wah Stall. With 40+ years under his belt, Ah Chai has been around a long time.

“I have been quoted in CNNGo,” he said proudly, gesturing to the Chinese press article which takes pride of place at the front of his stall.

His char kuey teow is still (almost) fried by the plate, although he will do two at a time if pushed for time. And if you order to take away, there’s none of this modern polystyrene packaging for him; each portion is wrapped in a waxed-paper-lined-with-banana-leaf cone, just like the old times.

A couple of stalls away Ah Suang sells Penang’s famous assam laksa. A relative newbie – she’s just been there six or seven years – she took over the stall from the old auntie who used to run it.

“I also sell Thai laksa lemak,” she said, “which I learnt to cook from a Bangkok chef.”

It’s not bad; slightly on the sweet side for me, but spicy and fragrant nevertheless, topped with lots of fresh julienned vege-tables.

Hot stuff: Foodies can opt for a seated piping hot meal of steamboat or stand and help themselves to lok lok.

Next to her is the aforementioned Ah Phong’s Hokkien mee stall, which he’s been serving up for the past one or two decades, and just a bit further up is the jiu hoo eng chai (cuttlefish and kangkong) lady who was reticent about giving her name.

“I’ve been selling this for over 40 years,” she said, along with chee cheong fun and home-made otak-otak in banana-leaf packets.

The Foo brothers have been dispensing their pork and chicken satay for more than a quarter century, along with their beef burgers, and right at the end, Howard will whip you up a plate of chicken rice, served with blanched taugeh (bean sprouts) or a bowl of his chicken congee.

“It takes two hours of slow cooking to make it smooth,” he explained.

It’s not one of those noisy, lau juak (merry) pasar malam-type street scenes, and in fact, the place is relatively quiet, almost sedate. But it’s Penang as it was, and, barring the odd clean-up, it will – one hopes – continue as it is for the next 40 years or more.

Pulau Tikus Market Night Hawker Stalls
Solok Moulmein
Pulau Tikus
Penang
Open every night around 6pm to 10pm

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