Penang, Glorious Penang!

April 24, 2007

If Malaysia is a gourmet heaven, then Penang is for the gods and saints. For two hundred years, the island has acted as a hub port for the Asian region; at one time, almost all ships crossing the Indian Ocean stopped here to load up on supplies. The result has made Penang a treasure chest of cultures, religions, ethnicities, and, best yet, all of their respective cuisines.

Penang’s metropolis, Georgetown, is a foodie paradise, with two of the world’s most popular cuisines – Indian and Chinese – represented two or three times each on every street. The aroma of garlic frying in black woks wafts from makeshift noodle stands. Fat, doughy Chinese buns beckon from giant steamers. Indian restaurants proudly display tray after tray of scarlet- and sienna- and mustard-colored curries. Even though it’s over 90-degrees, groups of men sit at tables drinking steaming teh tariks, sweet and frothy milk teas. Indian pancakes, fruit shakes, Chinese donuts, Western breads, pizza, fresh sliced fruit, it’s more than I can bear.

Best of all, more than any country we’ve been to, food is downright cheap. The night we arrived in Penang, Shin and I stumbled from our guesthouse, tired and starved from the twelve-hour trip. A plain cafeteria beckoned from across the street and, as it seemed somewhat peopled by the locals, we went in. A waiter shoveled some rice on a plate and nodded towards a counter where probably forty separate dishes – from fried chicken to steamed fish to okra with chilis – waited. I heaped several dishes onto my plate of rice and ordered a Chinese tea. Before I chowed down, the waiter peered over my shoulder to calculate the bill. With rice, tea, and four dishes, it all came to $2.

Hawker centers – i.e. open-air food courts – abound. Stalls of all kinds line the perimeter of a courtyard filled with tables and chairs. The choices amaze; there’s everything from dim sum to rib-eye steak, and even sashimi, although, clean as the hawker stalls usually are, I would still hesitate before ordering in an open-air market. Nevertheless, after ordering Malaysian noodles, ramen, two bamboo baskets of dumplings, and two drinks, Shin and I still couldn’t break $5.

With prices so low and quality so high, it’s easy to organize the day based on how many meals I can get in. Breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, mid-afternoon snack, early dinner, late-evening snack, dessert. And it takes planning, because you wouldn’t want to ruin the momentum by eating noodles twice in a row or wasting precious stomach space on ice cream bought from a convenience store. I would eat constantly if I could, but sometimes Shin gets mad at me so I have to cut out a snack or three. Although we’re only on Day Four of what will probably be five weeks in Malaysia, I feel that there isn’t enough time in the day to stuff as many delectables as possible into my ever-expanding stomach.

Penang Tropical Fruit Farm

Speaking of food, I highly recommend this place for fruit-lovers. We made the one-hour journey to the center of Penang via motorbike. Past the turn south, I didn’t see any bus stops so I assume going by local transport isn’t an option. According to our Rough Guide, staff can come pick you up, though it’ll cost you.

When we pulled up to the fruit farm, we were the only people there. We paid the expensive admission fee, RM 25 (about $5.50), and waited for our guided tour to begin. Admittedly, the “farm” looked more like a garden than any place where mass quantities of fruit were produced. Our guide arrived and explained that the actual farm amounted to 25 acres of land and that it set up this miniature version of itself for the tourists.

Despite its size, the fruit farm was very heavy on content. We saw all kinds of rare fruits from all over Southeast Asia, some so rare, that they don’t normally grow even in Malaysia. We saw thorny fruit, hairy fruit, miniscule fruit, and jackfruits the size of small boulders. Best of all, our guide was very hands on, allowing us to sample these rarities straight from the tree. We tasted nutmeg fruit, which were incredibly bitter, red bananas, and juicy water apples. The tour only lasted about thirty minutes, but as the midday heat started to overwhelm me, I didn’t mind.

fruit.jpgThe end of the tour was what I was looking forward to anyway, and it didn’t disappoint. Our guide showed us to a pavilion and uncovered a fruit buffet the likes of which I’d never seen – two types of watermelon (yellow and pink), two types of guava (white and pink), two types of water apple (green and pink), mango, starfruit, figs, the most luscious papaya and dragonfruit I’ve ever had, and more. All were grown locally and organically, and it tasted like it. In addition to this, we gulped down large glasses of fresh juice, blended to order with any fruit we wanted. After three plates, I was bursting, yet kicking myself for not sneaking in a Tupperware.

No matter. The fruit farm sold some of the largest, healthiest looking fruit in the gift shop. I bought a kilo of mangoes for RM 8, a bit overpriced, but being organic, I figured they would cost more than the fruit in the local markets.

So now that I’ve stocked up on my vitamins, minerals, and fiber, I can spend the rest of my day chowing down in Penang, guilt-free.


One Response to “Penang, Glorious Penang!”

  1. Sheelz said

    Hi hun! I miss you! Hope you are having a blast…

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