Experiential: Live to eat or eat to live, choices are ample in Penang

The island is the street food capital of Asia to many, and for us, it is the street food capital of the world!
In Frame: UNESCO Heritage Architecture, George Town, Penang, Malaysia
In Frame: UNESCO Heritage Architecture, George Town, Penang, Malaysia

"Do you want to watch monkeys or eat the most delicious food? Borneo beckons baboon watchers and Penang pacifies palate cravings.” This is our travel agent, Rasheeda’s everyday hustle to fill up the bus that makes five daily trips from the Old Railway station in Kuala lumpur to Penang. Though Sabah tops the chart in beauty and natural abundance, it is Penang, fondly called Malaysia’s Melting Pot, that draws more tourists. The lush green hills and beach juxtaposing itself beautifully for miles and miles is a rare sight, and the colonial architecture and moreover, the peaceful co-existence of the different ethnic races make it the perfect destination for casual visitors or expats who want to call it their second home. The island is the street food capital of Asia to many, and for us, it is the street food capital of the world. We have lived here for almost six years in the ’90s opposite Gurney Drive, which is a mile-long promenade specked with street vendors, cafes, resto bars, and motels. George Town, the capital of Penang, received its UNESCO award in 2008 for preserving its cultural and architectural townscape. There is one more feather on its cap, or, must we say two? Penang boasts of two Michelin one star restaurants and we make a whirlwind trip to the island as our reservations to both these places come through one after the other! Malaysia is visa-free now, but two days prior to your travel, a digital arrival card needs to be filled. There are no direct flights to Penang. We take the Singapore route just to pick up the Hainanese chicken rice from the airport’s Seven Eleven convenience store. The flight from Singapore to Penang is only one hour and 20 minutes and we download the Grab taxi app, which is like Uber or Ola. The recently reno- vated Mercure Penang Beach in Tanjung Bungha is our place of stay, as it is close to interesting eateries and clubs.

In Frame: Restaurant au Jardin
In Frame: Restaurant au Jardin

Every day for breakfast, we only have native fruits, flavoured jellies, and iced Milo, which is like a national drink! The tropical weather does make one thirsty, and it is advisable to carry a large bot- tle of water. Raffe’s Nasi Kandar in the Pulau Tikus area boasts of the most popular set menu, like Egg roti, steamed vegetables, deep fried quails, biriyani and boiled eggs. Be prepared to stand in the long queue to savour their fish head curry with steamed rice. Meanwhile, there are a dozen messages from the team at Au Jardin, the Michelin-starred restaurant, asking about dietary allergies and table preference. Dinner is at 6 pm and we arrive early dressed in formals to taste the finest con- temporary Franco-Asian Cuisine by Chef Kim Hock Su, who consistently promotes local ingredients to reduce carbon footprint. This 18-cover restaurant itself is housed in a warehouse compound and has a poetic atmosphere with natural light, lush green potted plants and a pristine ebony and ivory interior. We are served the De gustation menu, which is a seven-course meal cooked with great care. The yolk ice cream and century Egg Royale with lacto fermented cabbage foam are warmly sweet without being overly chill. The delicately soft cured wild prawn is served with local braised beets, seaweed and the emulsion of fish roe and horseradish, which sits perfectly like a fluff. You may indulge in the fresh bread that has the flavour of South Indian Dosa. The staff, indeed, tells us that the taste was inspired by our very own dosai! Chef Lim Yan You, who won the prestigious Michelin Young Chef Award, is our chef for the evening and one can watch him up close, deftly plating and encouraging his staff to keep up with the momentum. “Yes Chef” is the chorus, which we hear from time to time and this really breaks the soft silence. Next up are the mussels on a bed of charred stink beans that are mildly briny with the tender bitter ness of the beans and fragrant kafir lime foam. The star here is the Cognac and hay aged duck, which follows the heritage chicken porridge and watermelon sorbet. A two-day prior notice is required to order this richly flavoured duck that is presented in a wooden box, and you can very well ask them to prepare it medium, rare or well done. Only the tender breast portion is served, and you receive the rest of it packed with salad and chutney butter for your next day meal. The preparation of this aged duck is elaborate, as it is marinated for almost two weeks with spices and cognac. Artichoke cake with rose ice cream and waffles of artichoke skin with meringue completes the dinner in style. Au Jardin is an experiment well executed.

In Frame: Magnum Sorbet
In Frame: Magnum Sorbet

Avg cost for two at Au Jardin: MYR: 1,400 (INR 25,000). Prior booking is needed. Dress code: Formal.

In Frame: UNESCO Heritage Architecture, George Town, Penang, Malaysia
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The next two days, we loiter randomly through some food courts. A much recommended pastry shop is Moody Cow at Gurney Plaza, owned by Sunny Chang and Marcus Tan. “Diets are for losers, eat the cake,” is their popular jingle. Their Cinnamon Coconut Latte, known as CCL, is so popular that some eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We don’t try their cakes as we are stuffed eating popcorn squid at an outlet called Squid Boy. We next pick up a freshly packed honey comb imported from Azerbaijan at the Mercato supermarket, which has an overwhelming variety of groceries, cut meat, fresh sea food, vegetables and fruits. Evenings, we stroll through the night market at Batu Ferringi where high end resor ts like Shang ri-La’S Rasa Sayang and Park Royal are located. A big attraction here is the myriad juice and satay stalls. Due to Ramzan, most of the stalls are closed, which is a big disappointment for us. There is a very large food court serving Chinese and Thai cuisine. Most of the outlets display their food safety certifi- cates, from the Ministry of Health and they also display in bold letters if the meat they serve is Halal or non-Halal. In the recent times, there has been a huge public outcry to conserve the sharks, and hence, the popular shark fin soup is off the menu at most restaurants.

In Frame: Beh Gaik Lean
In Frame: Beh Gaik Lean

Our lunch the next day is in Georgetown, where the popular Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery is located. The interior is inspired by the movie, Crazy Rich Asians, and they serve the finest Peranakan home style food. Adrian Tan, son of Auntie Gaik Lean, recommends a few of the winning dishes. First up is the brinjal sambal, which has a mild smokey and tangy flavour, and we have it with steaming white rice. We order the Baba delight, which is an assortment of spring rolls, lor bak (marinated meat rolls) acar awak (mildly spiced pickled vegetable) and cucur udang (prawn fritters). Though deep fried, there is not a trace of oil. The portions are large, and two can easily share. The herb rice called Nasi Ulam is something that we find on almost every table. Dried shrimps, shavings of coconut, and finely cut home grown herbs such as betel leaves, lemon grass, mint and Vietnamese coriander leaves are generously mixed with glutinous rice.

In Frame: Auntie Gaik Lean's Old School Eatery
In Frame: Auntie Gaik Lean's Old School Eatery

One dish that deserves singular praise is the Gulai Tumis, which is the tangy grouper fish gravy paired with steamed lady fingers. The thickening pastes and curry powders are all freshly ground, and one can be sure of this, as there is a non-commercial taste to everything that is served. A gleaming and almost exhausted Auntie Gaik walks in with a cup of tea and tells the staff to close the restaurant for the day. As we chatted with her, she rubbed her palms on our hands — a stubborn pair of hands, which has worked in the kitchen for decades, and now we know the secret of the Old school Eatery’s extra layer of taste! We have the Pengat (coconut syrup with yam and sweet potato), Sago Gula (sago pearls with brown sugar) and the Bee Koe Moy (red rice with longan fruit) all intensely sweetened with coconut extract. The service staff are very alert and pleasant, taking care of every guest that enters.

Avg cost for two at Auntie Gaik Lean: MYR: 300. (INR 5,000). Prior booking is needed.

In Frame: UNESCO Heritage Architecture, George Town, Penang, Malaysia
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Communal Table by Gen serving Malaysia’s local food and Taman Emas Kopitiam that cooks the f amous three dishes, namely the Asam Laksa, Prawn Mee, and Char Kueh Teow are on our go- to list, along with a hun- dred other hawker stalls and cafes. To try them out one by one, we probably need to relocate to this island again! On the way to the airport, we take a quick detour to the Bukit Jambul Golf club to look at their newly renovated Sakurajima, the Japanese and Chinese restaurant, which is open to the public and not just club members. This is literally an oyster, and not many know about this place. At the airport, our souvenirs are almost always dried jack fruit sweets, rambutan wafers and miniature bamboo handbags. We give the Durians a miss, as they are banned at most places and clearly not my favourite too.

In Frame: The floating umbrellas in Market Street, Penang, Malaysia
In Frame: The floating umbrellas in Market Street, Penang, Malaysia

Whether you eat to live or live to eat, Penang is a place where your original purpose will never be lost.

(Written by Parveen Sikkandar)

In Frame: UNESCO Heritage Architecture, George Town, Penang, Malaysia
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