Hawker food may be the way to go in Penang, but United Overseas Bank takes LEE SIEW PENG for proper sit-down meals instead.
THE best thing about going to Penang is that you’re already thinking of what to eat on your next trip,” my boyfriend once sagely remarked between mouthfuls of tau sa pia.
After going on a United Overseas Bank (UOB) roadtrip, I now realise he really did know what he was talking about.
I mean, think about it. Char kway teow. Or assam laksa. Curry laksa. Lobak. Popia. Hor chien. Penang’s gifts to hungry Malaysians! Sure they can be found in any hawker centre, but as many will argue, the finest, most authentic and cannot-beat-one examples are still found up north. And that’s what we’re in search of on this roadtrip – good food.
Steamboat and stars
FLAME RESTAURANT20 Jalan Bagan JermalGeorgetown, Penang(04) 226 8422Website: cuisinehaven.tripod.comBusiness hours: 11am-3pm, 6pm-midnight10% off a la carte menu for UOB card holdersNon-halal
Our trip to Penang starts at Foh San in Ipoh. This town is famous for its excellent fare – sar hor fun, taugeh chicken, salted chicken and white coffee, to name but a few – and Foh San, deep in the heart of the Old Town, is the place to go for dim sum. We happily tuck into steaming ha kou, siu mai, yee mai, char siew pau, woo kok and two very satisfying plates of chee cheong fun, among others.
This local culinary institution specialises in egg tarts, which are hugely popular and sell out fast. You’ll have to get there early – after 10am, you’re chancing it. We arrive a little late and are told everything’s sold out.
We also arrive late at Flame in Georgetown – but in this case, we’re only following in the footsteps of celebrities. Hong Kong actor Mark Cheng is a business partner, and celebrities William So and Calvin Choi (of Grasshoppers) have been spotted in the vicinity.
True to its name, the restaurant is decked out in a sizzling shade of red, and its specialty steamboat menu is just as hot. Instead of the usual tomyam and ching tong soups, you get 10 exotic broths, including oxtail soup with red wine, ginger milk, kimchi, Macau pork, sukiyaki, Szechuan and porridge. All these combinations at fire-sale prices of just RM1 per person.
The ingredients are just as extraordinary: green tea beancurd, chicken and fish paste (artfully served in split bamboo), fish paste noodles and beef noodles. The a la carte menu offers Mongolian prawns, ducks’ tongues (a very tasty delicacy, apparently), nam joo meat and deep-fried dumplings.
Special mention must be made of the dips. My personal favourite is the spicy fried heh bee, and the garlic oil, Hong Kong chilli, coriander spicy and sour Thai sauces are also very good.
We’re served cups of strong, concentrated nü er hong, or daughter rice wine. Our hostess, Corrien Yeap, tells us the charming story behind the name: when a baby girl was born in ancient China, the parents would carve and paint jars of wine and bury them. The wine would be dug up again many years later for the girl’s wedding feast.
HOT WOK3H Jalan Pantai Molek, Penang(04) 890 7858Website: hotwok.com.myBusiness hours: 11am-3pm, 6-10pm20% off bills over RM60 for UOB card holdersHalal
After our steamboat spread at Flame, I feel a bit like a jar of nü er hong myself, in the sense that I would like to wait a number of years before seeing another feast again. But no such luck. A short nap, and it’s time to leave for Hot Wok.
We cross the threshold of an old bungalow, and step into a time warp. The place feels more like a museum to Nyonya culture than a restaurant. There are old sepia and watercolour-tinted prints and ornately carved screens; an old accordion and a large black and gold tengkat (tiffin carrier) sit on a side dresser. Even the waitresses are in tight-fitting Nyonya kebaya.
Proprietor Mervyn Wong tells us that Hot Wok’s food has strong Hokkien influences – the restaurant’s name is a direct translation from the Hokkien, juak tia.
In other words, it’s Nyonya to the bone. Speaking of which, the pork trotter swimming in our bowl of kiam chai boey is really flavourful, especially with a dollop of sambal belacan. The soup isn’t potent enough, but we still polish it off, as we do the spicy pickled vegetables.
The crisp joo hoo char, with its abundance of fragrant dried cuttlefish, is excellent – we forego the lettuce and eat the turnip naked. Ditto the fried popia and gulai tumis fish. The latter is chock-full of ladies’ fingers, and goes brilliantly with steaming hot white rice and sambal.
Not wanting to waste even a crumb of the drool-inducing pan-fried, caramelised assam heh (which come thoughtfully deshelled), I suck even the heads dry and mix some gulai in so as to scrape off every last bit of tamarind sauce. The law of diminishing returns does not apply to this dish, I’m afraid.
I want more prawns, but am terribly disappointed when my dining companions choose to have spicy, crispy Nyonya fried chicken, inche kabin, instead. It’s all right, but nowhere as good as the assam heh – that’s the one dish that gets my digestive juices working overtime that night. Oh, that and the jackfruit sago dessert.
East meets Middle East
COPTHORNE ORCHID HOTELTanjung Bungah, Penang(04) 890 3333Business hours: 24 hours10% off a la carte menu for UOB card holders
But there’s no way we can call this a real roadtrip without some hawker food – so next morning, we dutifully head to Solok Moulmein in Pulau Tikus to tank up on laksa, wantan mee, Hokkien mee, koay chap (duck in herb gravy), appam and of course, char kway teow. Brunch is barely over before it’s time for our appointment at Terrace Bay at the Copthorne Orchid Hotel, where a traditional Malay lunch awaits.
There’s chicken kurma, fried lala, kobis goreng a la mamak, but special mention must be made of the lamb masala and fish head curry. We also get to try a few new recipes: a very mild and fresh Baked Fish in Balinese Sauce and an East-meets-Middle East dish of Char Siew Chicken in Pita Bread. There’s a bit too much mayonnaise on the chicken, but it’s a light, feel-good snack all the same. Likewise, the white sauce that covers the Seafood with Curry Fruity Mayonnaise Sauce is slightly too creamy, but makes good comfort food.
Secretly, I’m glad when it’s time to head back. I never thought I’d say this but eating is exhausting! And if one is supposed to have soul-enlightening moments of karmic realignment on road trips – well, I’ve had three beliefs reinforced.
One, the Penang name sells (why else are there so many establishments with “Penang” as a prefix?) – I can only put it down to the Malaysian obsession with eating good, cheap and excessively; two, Malaysia really does have the best food in the world; and three, I’m going to have more curry laksa on my next trip up north. W