As a child, I loved nothing more than looking through old photo albums. I would spend hours flicking through the pages, asking my parents to tell me the stories behind the pictures and all about the places they had been. I remember listening to my Mum telling me about their holiday to the island of Penang in Malaysia, and about the wonderful foods they tried, in particular my Mum's favourite, Ais Kachung.
I had created such an image of this place in my mind that I almost felt a sense of familiarity as we stepped off the ferry and into Georgetown, the main city and UNESCO listed region of Penang.
Penang has an eclectic mix of cultures, religions and cuisines that all combine to create the wonderfully diverse melting pot of Georgetown. Georgetown is renowned for its food. The combination of Malay, Thai, Chinese and Indian cuisines is a recipe for one hell of an incredible food scene!
Hawker markets and street-side stalls can be found just about everywhere in Georgetown. It is almost impossible to walk even 50 metres without being tempted by the sight or smell of some wonderful edible delicacy.
Photo: (L) There is some excellent street art around Georgetown and (R) one of the many beautiful mosques in Penang
Being the food-obsessed travellers that we are, I made it my mission to spend the week trying as many different foods as I could fit into my growing waistline. My aim was to avoid eating the same meal twice, which is ridiculously easy in theory but was made much more difficult when my first meal was the most deliciously tantalising Char Kway Tao I have ever laid lips on!
We began our stay in Georgetown by wandering the streets, exploring the area and it's rich history with the help of a tourist map given to us by our hostel. Amongst the hustle and bustle of this small city, we saw some beautiful old buildings, ornate temples and a wonderful blend of cultures in everyday life.
That night we headed to the nearest open air "Food Court" where live music plays while vendors set up stalls around hundreds of tables. After doing the rounds checking out what each stall has to offer, you order your food, quote your table number and hey presto, 5 minutes later, food appears in front of you!
Photo: The wonderfully delicious food stalls at Red Garden food court had us returning night after night to sample new dishes!
Tables were scarce so I took a risk and minded the table and told Wade to go and order for me. He knew my plan for the week and as he walked away something inside of me forced me to yell out "take a risk!". Wade hates being let down by food so he often chooses the same safe and well known favourites so asking him to "take a risk" was a risk in itself! I had no idea what he'd come back with!
When he sat back down, he looked unsure. All he wanted to do was tell me what he had ordered for me and all I wanted was a surprise when my meal showed up! Right on cue 5 minutes later 3 fresh looking dishes were set down on our table. A noodle soup for Wade, a plate of mixed veggies to share and a boat shaped dish of meat, bean sprouts and fiery hot chilli sauce for me.
I was impressed. It was a simple looking meal but had enough interesting elements that made it a new and exciting dish that I probably wouldn't have chosen for myself. We’re both still in doubt as to what type of “meat” it was and I definitely left my fair share of questionable “bits” but it was tasty enough so I just enjoyed my meal without too much thought! Thanks Wade.
Over the following days, we continued to explore Penang first by visiting the Snake Temple south of Georgetown. This temple is literally filled with deadly pit vipers on almost every surface. When we first arrived we didn’t know what to expect but after spotting one, two, three of these deadly snakes we were well and truly dumbfounded!
The temple was built in 1850 and legend has it that the snakes took up residence in the temple of their own accord! Apparently many have had their venom glands removed for safety reasons but the monks stand by their story and say that none of the snakes are collected or brought to the temple and rather have all made their own way there! Either way, it was an awesome and terrifying experience and there was more than one occasion when we almost leant on a deadly snake by accident!
Photo: There are literally deadly pit vipers EVERYWHERE in the Snake Temple!
We also spent a day trekking through Taman Negara Pulau Penang National Park chasing monkeys for that perfect photo and chilling on the stunning white sand beaches. The park is an excellent place for wildlife spotting and without even trying we managed to spot Monitor Lizards, Squirrels, Long-Tailed Macaques and the cute faced Dusky Leaf Monkeys. With all the wildlife, Wade struggled to drag me out of the park just in time for it to close for the day!
Photo: The wildlife in Taman Negara Pulau Penang is so varied and easy to spot that it makes for a great self-guided day trip from Georgetown
As our food journey continued we were more and more impressed by the variety and quality of the dining options in Georgetown. We ate Yum Cha at Prosperous Dim Sum Restaurant, Wonton Mee Goreng at Red Garden, Chee Chong Fun from a street cart and of course my Mum’s favourite, Ais Kacung sitting on plastic chairs down a small, dark alleyway!
I also sampled the famous Penang Laksa which is very different to traditional Laksa in that it is made on a spicy lemon fish broth and tastes more like a tom yum than a normal coconutty laksa.
Photo: (L) Incredible scallop dumplings at Prosperous Dim Sum and (R), this bizarre looking dish is Chee Chong Fun. It's basically a plate of rolled rice noodles doused in sweet soy sauce and sesame seeds. Absolutely delicious!
On the last day I did something I have wanted to do throughout the last 6 months of travelling. I booked myself into a half day cooking class and where better to do it! Than Penang I chose to go with "Pickles and Spices with Nazlina". The classes had great reviews, the kitchen was within walking distance of our hostel and the price (while expensive for Malaysia) was very reasonable compared to other schools.
You can read our review of Pickles and Spices Cooking Class here!
Our morning started at 7am with a breakfast of delicious Roti Canai and coffee to fuel us up before strolling through the markets learning all about the local produce, traditional cooking methods and a bit of the history of the area. We sampled some pickled fruits, which are very common in Malaysia as well as one of the most incredible taste sensations, a peanut pancake. For around 30 cents you can buy a freshly made pancake complete with crispy base and fluffy centre, all topped with sugar and chopped peanuts forming a gooey delicious layer of yum!
Photo: (L) The taste sensation that is the Peanut Pancake and (R) delightful Nazlina did a good job of pretending that my Roti Canai-flipping-skills were passable but I think the look of amusement on her face (and the huge hole!) says it all!!
After an hour scouring the markets for everything weird and wonderful, we headed back to the kitchen to start the real work. We spent three hours kneading dough, pounding spices and frying coconut to create some of the most wonderful aromas I have ever contributed to! Each time we lifted the lid on a saucepan, an incredible smell escaped tempting us to speed up our cooking so we could move onto the eating!
By lunchtime we had created the following:
- Roti Canai mixed, kneaded, flipped and fried from scratch
- Chicken korma
- Lentil Dahl
- Pickled Onions
There was easily enough food for twice as many people but we all enjoyed the foods of our labour and oohed and ahhed our way through as much delicious food as we could possibly stomach.
Photo: The delicious meals cooked and prepared by yours truly at "Pickles and Spices" cooking class in Georgetown, Penang.
Click here to be redirected to "Pickles and Spices" website where you can book classes or contact Nazlina to make an enquiry!
On our last night in Penang, we decided to try a new night market that we hadn't visited before. Unfortunately a few of the best known Penang delicacies were missing from this market so I was unable to try Fried Oyster Omelet or Fish Head curry which were both still waiting on my list. I instead opted for a Tom Yum Bee Hoon Noodle dish (I had no idea what that was either!) and continued on my mission to conquer the many foods of Penang.
After four awesome days, our time in Penang was over but I had successfully stuck to my mission and in the process tried over 20 different local dishes! I also left with some invaluable knowledge and cooking skills that will hopefully allow me to recreate this incredible fusion of cuisines again in the future.
The little town of Georgetown in Penang was not only everything we had hoped for, but so much more. My Mum’s stories lived up to every expectation and while I’m sure we left with a few extra kilos under our belts, hopefully our next destination, Langkawi will give us a chance to work some of it off!
Enthusiastic but Useless Traveler.