Penang: Exploring a food lover's paradise

THE PEPPER MILL - Pepper Teehankee - The Philippine Star
Penang: Exploring a food lover's paradise
Chef Beh Gaik Lean.
STAR/ File

The island of Penang in the Strait of Malacca in Malaysia is known for its food and heritage. That part of my bucket list has been ticked off, as I finally went to this dreamy place because of a food tour set up by Travel Warehouse Inc. (TWI) and Air Asia. I had pre-arranged extra baggage allowance with Air Asia and got a 40-kilo, two-baggage allowance. Believe me when I say that you will need this when you see all the food and crafts available in Penang.

Great food started onboard as I was told that Air Asia plane food is actually good. I am not exaggerating when I say that the nasi lemak I had was really good!

Houses in Chew Jetty.

We took the first flight at 1:10 a.m. to Kuala Lumpur to connect to Penang and arrive at the UNESCO World Heritage Site George Town in time for breakfast. UNESCO states that George Town “represents an exceptional example of a multicultural trading town in Southeast Asia, forged from the mercantile and civilization exchanges of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and European influences.”

Our hotel was The Wembley-A St. Giles Hotel, which was clean and very centrally located. It was pretty much walking distance to everything, as I love to walk. The nearby Chowrasta Market is both a wet and dry market that has been there since the 1980s. On the second floor are used and new books and a lot are in English! There is a lively breakfast scene here — we ate and chose whatever we wanted, from dim sum and char siu (Cantonese-style barbecue pork) to stir-fried classic noodle dishes char kway teow and char hor fun.

Lorong Warna or Colorful Lane

Things here slow down by lunch, so we had time to shop for souvenirs, and a must-buy here is Uncle Lim Famous Traditional Handmade Kacang Tumbuk or peanut candy, which is extremely addictive and delicious!

Wonderfood Museum showcases larger-than-life food replicas, where several Instagram-worthy photos can be had. It also shows various types of food found on this island that is a food lover’s paradise. We stopped by Chew Jetty, where houses on wooden stilts are built around a walkway on the most popular water village in George Town. There are several shops and some places to eat around this small water village.

Our lunch and dinner were going to be Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine, which comes from Peranakans or descendants of early Chinese migrants who settled in Penang, Malacca, Singapore, and Indonesia. They inter-married with local Malays and a female is called nonya and a male is called baba. This cuisine combines Chinese, Malay, South Indian, Javanese, and Arabic influences.

Lunch was at Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery, a family-style restaurant that got a Michelin star last year. Auntie Gaik’s Chinese Peranakan cuisine is from recipes passed down from older generations and is one of the best in town and an affordable Michelin-starred restaurant. Auntie Gaik runs the business with her son. Get the Baba Delight consisting of spring rolls, lor bak (chicken roll), cucur udang (similar to our okoy or shrimp fritters), and acar awak (pickled vegetables). She has a wonderful dish called “curry kapitan” and fish-head curry as well.

We had a totally contrasting dinner at Jawi House serving Indian Peranakan cuisine. Jawi House was established by the Karim family of Punjabi-Jawi Peranakan ancestry dating back six generations. Chef Nuril Karim (who is married to a Filipina) uses local and sustainable produce to create food with balanced flavors. Specialties of this Michelin Guide restaurant are biryani and curry dishes, but I really loved the Malay-style fried chicken! Two types of Peranakan cuisine for lunch and dinner made me realize that there was so much more to this type of cuisine than I thought I knew.

In between lunch and dinner, we went to The Top for great views of Penang. The Top is the tallest building here and is a great place to have afternoon coffee or a cocktail.

I also stopped by a supermarket and made sure to get local spices (nutmeg and white pepper are cheap here) and Ghee Hiang sesame oil (get the red label), known to be one of the best in Asia.

This was only the first day in George Town, Penang.

(To be concluded next Thursday)

* * *

This summer, TWI will be organizing a Penang food tour led by foodie Angelo Comsti. Contact Junmar Capuli at 0927-7387162 or email [email protected] for inquiries. Visit https://twi.com.ph.

Air Asia flies daily from Manila to Kuala Lumpur twice daily (1:10 a.m. and 12:55 p.m.) and Kuala Lumpur to Penang seven times daily. Visit airasia.com.

Follow me on Instagram @pepperteehankee.

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