On a recent evening in George Town, local food blogger Ken Tho told me that among the myriad food cart specialities on the Malaysian island of Penang, char koay teow remains the most contested. Trading opinions over the stir-fried flat noodle dish of chives and shrimp can become as heated as the April sun here.
"Everyone in Penang is a food expert. And we all know the best places to go to," said Tho, adding with a laugh: "Humans like to argue."
Tho, a bespectacled 26-year-old government worker with a keen fashion sense, has written about and documented his home of Penang and its capital George Town's world-class local food scene for seven years at Ken Hunts Food. The food cart is its anchor.
Tho prefers the food carts of the Chinese ethnicities–the Hokkien, Cantonese, and Hakka. But there are others, too; the Indian, the Indian Muslim, and the Malay carts all have something to offer the curious food lover. And none of it will break the bank.
The culinary variety is dizzying. Here on this small island, the ethnic microcosm of Malaysia is even more condensed and cooks have never been averse to mixing and matching culinary styles, flavors, and textures.
"We developed this kind of food culture ourselves," glowed Tho. "It is unique."
As Tho gave me the lowdown, I was working through a bowl of curry mee, a Malay and Singaporean speciality of chili paste, mint, cockles, coconut broth, coagulated pork blood, tofu, and thin rice noodles with thick egg noodles. The dual noodle factor was a local Penang oddity, said Tho, added in "for texture."
"You should drink the soup," he instructed. I did, followed by a sip of a local iced drink of barley boiled with rock sugar, "for cooling."
Five days earlier, on my first night in George Town, I found myself under a giant tent surrounded by food stalls and loud Mandarin pop music. It was the Kedai Makanan Dan Minuman food court, on the outskirts of the old town across from the clan jetties. But its name didn't matter, really, because there are a million and one places just like it here in this under-the-radar street food mecca.
Dan Minuman, a large area accustomed to high volumes of patrons, had all the Penang Chinese specialities: hokkien mee, koay teow soup, mee goreng. Vendors vied for customers through peacock-like advertising, adorning their stalls with blinking lights or other eye-catchers. One stall that sold fried fish featured many photos of the chef next to freshly caught giant groupers—gargantuan, monster-sized creatures, the kind you'd see on Victorian sailor maps—as if the size of his seafood corresponded to its taste.
For the uninitiated and hungry, the whole scene was overwhelming, but in a completely awesome way. Which to choose? There was safety in familiarity at the crispy duck stand, so I went there and ordered duck porridge with a Tiger beer. Across from me at the table was an old Chinese man slurping noodles, like most of the patrons there.
And the duck arrived, as it always should, in fatty slices, basking in its own pond of some soy-based soup with bok choy and a tray of chili and lime dipping sauce. Only $1.25 for the whole get. The rice porridge came in a separate bowl, salty-thick like Georgia grits. I duck-munched, beer-sipped, and took in the scenery, which is what you do most of the time in George Town.
I watched the stage in the center of the court where a band was setting up. Above it were many disco balls and bar mitzvah lights. A television aired a Nat Geo program that featured a random assemblage of animal life, –bears, zebras, water buffalo– and a sign underneath that said in both Chinese and English, "DONT SPIT ANY WHERE."
People must have heeded the warning. As I slurped up the last of my porridge, I realized it was the cleanest Chinese food court I ever saw.
I walked a ways over to Chulia Street, turned a corner, and found myself in India—a smaller, neighborhood-sized version of it at least. There were shops blasting Hindi music and selling garlands of bright flowers, Ganesh figurines, and incense.
In a tent on the corner, men toiled behind pots underneath fluorescent lights while people sat at tables eating. I joined them with an order of fresh chapati and chicken curry. It came magically fast, a plump slab of breast and rib, moist and soaked in some Vishnu nectar of holy heat. The patrons around me were all Indian.
I dipped the last tear of chapati into the curry and picked the remaining bits of white meat from the bone, eating fast because I had sat at the only table behind the fan. Across from my table was a peculiar shop, with a picture of a full moon on its storefront.
I dipped the last tear of chapati into the curry, picked the remaining bits of white meat from the bone and walked into the moon shop.
A thousand eyes came upon me. They were of the same person, an old bearded man wearing a head cloth. Paintings, figurines, vintage photographs, and sketches of him lined the whole shop. Everything here was dedicated to this sacred pirate, the shelves lined with his literature. Some had titles like, "The God Who Walked on Earth" and "Baba's Sayings."
An adherent handed me one book, Shri Sai Satcharita: The Wonderful Life and Teachings of Shri Sai Baba.
"This is him," she said and smiled. "This is the Baba."
Sai Baba was a 19th-century Indian guru, and by the looks of the prostrating worshipers gathered in that shop, he was a worthy one. The devout Penangite urged me to buy the Baba book. It would change my life, she said.
But your food has already done that, I thought.
Breakfast was something to look forward to in George Town. The morning after Little India and the duck porridge, I had a bowl of char koay teow, your typical breakfast of champions for the average Penangite, at the Ping Hooi Coffee Shop. It was open to the street and surrounded by food carts and featuring all the essentials for the Penang coffee shop: tiled floors, small tables and dusty fans.
This kind of coffee shop, much like the prawn noodle dish I had ordered there, is ubiquitous in Penang. It's where the locals start their day, with a bowl of some greasy goodness and a cup of teh tarik (frothy black tea with condensed milk) or white coffee (robusta beans roasted in butter), or any other of the many caffeinated and sugary morning brews available—Malaysia's sweet remnants of British colonial rule.
The dish came fast, which was becoming a theme. Flat rice noodles, with fatty shrimp, fluffy egg, chives. At 11 AM, the place was packed. There was another no-spitting sign, but this one was more lenient: "DO NOT SPIT ON THE FLOOR."
There were stalls at every entrance. All I heard was Chinese chatter and smacking pots. It was a wonderful place. I slurped and thought of the baba and how much carnage he would wreak on my behalf if I laid just one bowl of these divine noodles at his feet.
In George Town I ate and ate and never got bored. Though locals told me that the city is developing at a rapid pace, with some colonial-era building being bulldozed and many working class residents being forced out of old neighborhoods, Tho assured that the food cart scene remains safe from the societal makeover.
Around us, people sat at tables, eating happily under a setting sun. It was an outdoor cafeteria set up outside a wet market that had closed for the day.
"The local government supports this scene. It is one of the factors that makes Penang so unique," said Tho over a street-side dinner of jellyfish and cuttlefish marinating in a nutty chili sauce. "Why would you wanna kill it?"