Last of the Fatties. Two days in Penang.

So it’s been a couple of weeks, but I’m back. New domain, new look, new blogging engine. But not much else has changed. Thanks to those of you who noticed I had taken a break, and those who encouraged me to get back to blogging sooner. It’s heart-warming/ego-stroking to know that people actually read what I write!

Anyway, enough with the pleasantries, it’s time to clear the decks for new eating adventures. So what was probably going to be another four or five posts is now the #fatty Penang megapost. I was in Penang for a total of four days. This post represents the food I ate in the last two days. You’re about to see why I hit ‘food fatigue’ at the end of this holiday.

Let’s start with Penang-style yum cha.

20110501-114537.jpgInstead of trolleys being pushed around, dishes are paraded around the tea house by waitresses with huge steamer trays. The servings tend to be typically smaller. To be honest, I wasn’t really that impressed with this, compared to yum cha in Hong Kong, but it was an interesting take on it, and I liked the relatively informal feel to it all.

20110501-114612.jpgThere were all sorts of dumplings and yong tofu-style items.

20110501-114654.jpgAnd also the typical braised items, involving bean curd skin, prawn mince, or various types of offal.

20110501-114719.jpgIt might seem greedy that we had so many har gao between two of us, but these things are tiny! Which makes them all the more impressive for the pleating skills involved, but they lacked the succulent plumpness of the more famous Hong Kong style ones.

20110502-010751.jpgWe also had a couple of char siu bao, which were pretty great, though probably not the best idea given the amount of food I was going to gorge myself on over the next 48 hours…

20110502-010844.jpgEither was this lor baak gao, which was totally awesome. No minced prawn or Chinese sausage, but the texture was pretty perfect, and look at those cripsy edges! I’m going to try this deep-frying approach next time. Mmm, hard arteries…

20110502-010905.jpgSo this morning yum cha session took place at around 10am. We then drove around a bit – there’s not much walking to be done when Mr A is your culinary guide – and before too long, it was around 1pm – time for lunch! Never mind that usually, if I have yum cha in the morning, I don’t need to eat until dinner.

Mr A took me to a little neighbourhood restaurant, so I could try some typical Hokkien food.


20110502-011015.jpgFirst up was an oyster omelette. Having just had one a week ago in Hong Kong, expectations were high. And while it’s not really fair to judge one against the other – as they’re completely different styles – I much prefer the crispy Hong Kong version. This Hokkien version was pretty gelatinous. The omelette is held together by the egg, but there’s also a fair amount of a tapioca or corn starch-based batter involved. To keep this from sticking to the wok, it seemed like they simply fried it up in more oil, which meant it ended up quite greasy and heavy. Also, I wasn’t a huge fan of the strangely sweet chilli sauce.


This was some sort of bee hoon dish, I think. Bean thread (the transparent type of vermicelli) ans choy sum stir-fried with prawns, some sort of soy, and a hefty whack of garlic. This dish was great, but a little challenging in the searing middle-of-the-day heat.

20110502-011105.jpgMr A said this was a traditional Hokkien Mee. Which was interesting, because I’d always though Hokkien Mee was more of a dry, stir-fried noodle, like Mee Goreng. To be honest, I rarely ever order it, because the size and texture of the noodle itself isn’t one of my favourites, and wherever Hokkien Mee’s on the menu, most often so it char kway teow or laksa. I wasn’t a huge fan of this dish, but I did like the little oysters peppered throughout it. Apparently oysters are a pretty common ingredient in lots of Hokkien dishes.

20110502-011127.jpgThis was another gelatinous Hokkien specialty. Little chunks of pork had been battered and fried, then cooked in thr broth. The broth itself had an odd amount of cornstarch in it, giving it a slight viscosity, but not so much as you would find in some Chinese soups, usually involving feathered egg. The end result was a little unpleasant, texturally, though the flavour was not bad.

20110502-011148.jpgA few hours off – I went for a browse around the air-conditioned malls – and Mr A picked me up again, this time to take me to the local night market near his apartment building. The markets are on once a week, and situated outside the local wet markets. It was similar to Viet Nam in that respect, where the day/night raw/cooked use of market spaces is also very common.

We wandered around, picking up various items at different food carts, and then settled down at a table to feast on the goodies we’d collected. It was not unlike visiting a hawker centre, only you could also pick up some cheap sandals, a new mobile phone cover, or some LED torches while you’re there.

This was a type of pancake/waffle/crumpet, which had sesame seeds and brown sugar sandwiched in the centre. It should have been dessert, but we came across it first, so ate it was we wandered around buying other items.

20110502-011226.jpgOne reason why Asia is the best continent on Earth: food on sticks. Everywhere.

20110502-011251.jpgMmm, satay action.

20110502-011314.jpgThese are some loh bak sausage-y things (it’s spiced pork mince wrapped in bean curd skins) deep frying.

20110502-011339.jpgOf course we were going to have some of these!

20110502-011402.jpgMr A knows the local fish ball guy. And trust me, once you’ve had fresh fish balls, anything you can buy in an Asian grocer pales into insignificance. The genuine article is light, springy and delicate, and is at once wonderfully fish-flavoured, without being ‘fishy’. And no, I have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what sort of fish was in these. Nor do I care. They’re that good.

20110502-011434.jpgA little chai tow kway, anyone? It’s a glutinous rice flour cake (like the lor baak gao, but without  the daikon) that’s been stir-fried with beanshoots, egg and soy, similar to char kway teow. It’s pretty great, but again – there’s a pattern here – not advised for those with limited stomach space.

20110502-011539.jpgWe walked past this weird stall…

20110502-011612.jpgThose little vermicelli nets were actually sweets. Like little coconutty hoppers.  As if that weren’t enough, Mr A insisted that I needed to try some of the Malaysian version of chin po leung/sam bo luong. It’s a sweet soup with all manner of fruits, grains and fungus in it. Sounds more scary than it actually is. It’s actually very refreshing!

20110502-011659.jpgThe next morning, we went around the corner from the hotel where I was staying, because I was staying in close proximity to Georgetown’s best har mee.

20110502-011723.jpgThis har mee is so renowned that it’s not uncommon to have to wait 20-30 minutes for it. So we ordered, and in the mean time, we ordered other things. ‘Cos you gotta have waiting food, right? Right. Like these prawn fritters.

20110502-011800.jpgAnd this char koay teow.

20110502-011906.jpgMr A wasn’t in a shrimpy mood that morning, so he had some of hte soup noodle, involving pork mince and Hokkien noodles.

20110502-011837.jpgAfter about 20 minutes, the har mee finally came, and let me tell you, this was the most intensely shrimpy broth I’ve ever tasted. Well, that might not quite be true, because there are a few Vietnamese dishes which would give it a run for its money, but what set the har mee apart is that its flavour had a lot more to do with prawn heads and shells – like a bisque – than the use of fermented prawn paste.

20110502-011945.jpgI would have finished all of the broth, except it was making me thirsty. That’s not to say it was laden with MSG, it was just very salty and rich.

20110502-012006.jpgI was left to my own devices for lunch, because Mr A was busy, and to be honest, I was hitting the food fatigue wall. I often laugh at those who claim that certain foods aren’t ‘breakfast foods’, but seriously, prawn fritters, char koay teow and har mee is a hefty challenge. I thought I should try something a little less punchy for lunch, so I headed to nearby Fatty Loh’s, a chicken rice specialist, with a cartoon chicken mascot. Never trust an animal that is selling you its own flesh.



20110502-012441.jpgThe chicken itself wasn’t great. It was a bit on the dry side, though quite tasty. The pork was much better, though the highlight was actually the chicken rice. Well seasoned and lightly garlicky, I would have been happy to eat it on its own. The sambal was also quite good, though not really sour enough, and well, the less said about the vegetables the better. Oil city.

Full, but unsatisfied, I craved more chicken rice. When Mr A picked me up for dinner and asked what dishes I’d still like to try, I told him without hesitation that I was yet to try good chicken rice here in Penang. He seemed a little surprised – chicken rice is not enough of a Penang specialty, perhaps – but he quickly knew exactly where to take me.

20110502-012539.jpgAs we walked up to the little hawker ‘restoran’, proudly out the front was its big draw: the chicken rice stand.

20110502-012718.jpgI’m fairly sure Mr A ordered me what was a double serve, as I did see other locals having chicken rice, but their servings weren’t nearly as generous as the one placed in front of me.

20110502-012604.jpgFeeling a tad guilty, I nonetheless tucked in. Oh, the joy of simple, perfectly boiled chicken. The meat was tender, moist and succulent. The texture was not so far removed from the soft, plump skin which clung to it. Yet somehow, while being oily, it didn’t taste greasy at all.  The polar opposite of Fatty Loh’s, the rice here was just plain steamed white rice. But I didn’t care; that chicken… that chicken!

20110502-012627.jpgThe sambal was also very good. Nice and piquant, though I could have done with a little more chilli heat.

20110502-012652.jpgAs if that weren’t enough eating, because it was my last night in Penang, Mrs A insisted  that I should try everything I hadn’t yet tried, pressing me to name dishes I still hadn’t sampled on my short eating tour. The only thing that came to mind was Siam laksa. So we stopped off at another local neighbourhood night market. It was starting to rain, and people huddled around tables under tarps and beach umbrellas that sprung up as the downpour got heavier.

20110502-012751.jpgWhen I had questioned her about Siam laksa earlier, and how it differed to the Assam laksa more commonly found in Georgetown, she said it was Thai style, and had coconut milk in it. I took this to mean that it was the more common curry laksa style that I was used to in Melbourne. But I was wrong! It was still very similar to Assam laksa – the use of mackerel (or sardine) was still there, as was the trademark tamarind. But this had been married with curry and coconut flavours, creating a whole other experience.

20110502-012911.jpg20110502-012936.jpg20110502-013002.jpgOf course, no meal is complete without one last char koay teow. This one was decent, but nothing to write home about.

20110502-012828.jpgSo finally that was the end of the #fatty adventure for me in Penang. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about and looking at the wonderful food I tried there as much as i did shoving it in my mouth! Next time, we’re back onto more local eateries.

Nyonya Breeze

50 Lorong Abu Siti, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

After an afternoon of, well, driving around and eating, Mr A and I went to pick up ‘his darling’, and the three of us headed off to dinner. Mr A told me that since I was in Penang, I must try the Nyonya cuisine. What he didn’t tell me was that he was going to introduce me to it in the form of a single meal – a Nyonya feast!

We stopped in at Nyonya Breeze, a pretty unassuming place. Modern, clean, and a little lacking in character. Not what I was expecting when being told I was going to try traditional food with a history that stretches back to the 16th century. But as usual in Asia, first impressions can often be deceiving.

We started off with an iced nutmeg tea. A unique flavour I hadn’t encountered before – slightly tangy, though mostly sweet. The nutmeg was present, but not overwhelming, and it was quite refreshing.
Otak-otak is a type of ‘fish custard’. Yeah, I know, that makes it sound gross. But it’s really not, if you don’t think of custard as a sweet dish, but rather as a consistency. Spiced with turmeric, galangal and lemongrass, the coconut milk custard is set around fish and kaffir lime leaves, and steamed. Wonderfully fragrant, this was great to mash into rice.
Ju hu char – stir fried shredded sengkuang (jicama), carrots and dried cuttlefish and mushrooms. I quite liked this. The mushrooms and the dried cuttlefish injected so much umami into the dish, and again, it kind of required some rice in each mouthful to temper the flavour. Are you beginning to see a trend here? No wonder I managed to gain four kilos on this holiday. So much rice!
When I’d previously heard of Nyonya food, I never bothered to investigate as to what it referred to. I just thought it was a subset of Malaysian food, and assumed because of the exotic sounding word ‘nyonya’ that it was probably more Malay than anything else. But it actually refers to a people – and their cuisine – who are descendants of Chinese migrants who South in the 15th and 16th centuries. So it makes sense that these Nyonya dishes seem like variations of Chinese dishes with which I’m very familiar.

Though of course, there are points of difference. Like in Chinese cooking, they’d tend to preserve a fish by salting it. In Nyonya cooking, they like to pickle things in vinegar. Like this acar hu, fish pickled in turmeric vinegar. Slightly sweet, and a little tangy, yet a bit salty – I think it was probably mackerel – a perfectly balanced dish in and of itself. I reckon you could probably just snack on this.

Choon peah – pretty much a pork and cabbage spring roll. The pastry was a bit thick, but wonderfully crunchy in that Chien Wah spring roll way (you know, the big ones you get at fish and chip shops).

And then there’s loh bak. Pretty common throughout Penang, it’s basically a spiced pork sausage, wrapped in dried bean curd skin, and deep fried. It’s another great snack food, but it always confuses me, because loh bak in Cantonese means carrot or daikon.
Next up was a salted fish and tofu soup. I didn’t catch the name. It was nice and pungent, and the tofu was silky smooth. Salted fish and tofu are always a great combination, as the neutral passivity (blandness?) of the tofu is a great foil for the sharp saltiness of the salted fish.
Another soup arrived at the table, this time an assam pedas, or tamarind fish.
Although it’s not really supposed to be a soup, more a braised fish dish with a lot of sauce. Which Mrs A expertly doled out into bowls for each of us. I just drank the sauce like a soup anyway, because it was that tasty. The fish itself was good, but a little fiddly – lots of tiny bones.
So yeah, that was my introduction to Nyonya food. I definitely liked it, though apparently some people didn’t think much of Nyonya Breeze. I don’t pretend to know any better. I’m a tourist, so hey, maybe he’s right when he says “Penang Nyonya?I think not. Cater To Tourist Nyonya… more likely I will agree.”
Caters pretty bloody well.

Lorong Selamat Char Koay Teow

Lorong Selamat, Georgetown, Penang

I have to put a caveat on this post, only because I was doing a little research to try to find a more precise address. This is not the (in)famous Lorong Selamat Char Koay Teow stand at Cafe Heng Huat, run by the allegedly abusive auntie. You’ll know you’ve found the right place when you see this guy working up a sweat in his scuba mask over a searingly hot wok. Oh, and if it helps, it’s directly opposite two garishly pastel peach apartment towers.

Mr A, my Penang food guide, took me here for CKT as Georgetown’s best CKT stand – which uses a charcoal fire – wasn’t open that day, being closed on Mondays. According to Mr A, this place is the next best, even though the vendor uses gas (apparently gas-fired woks are inferior for CKT?). Apparently he’s a second generation CKT master, and having learned from his father, whose eyesight was damaged by years of intense heat and smoke, he dons the safety goggles to protect his eyes from the constant smoke coming from the sizzling char koay teow. Wok hei is great for noodles, but not so much for eyes, it seems.

This was the first CKT I tried in Penang, and I was excited! CKT has always been one of my favourite dishes, Malaysian or otherwise, and I’m fairly sure the fact I ate it four times in four days had something to do with my holiday weight gain. But it was bloody worth it. Now Penang CKT is slightly different from the KL or Singapore styles – from what I can gather, I might be wrong – in that it uses a much thinner rice noodle, much like that of a pad Thai.

It’s stir-fried in a searingly hot wok, along with prawns, clams, bean shoots, Chinese sausage, chives, and egg. Mr A told me that what differentiates a good CKT from a great CKT, however, is the soy sauce used. Each vendor in Penang uses a different soy sauce concoction, usually a secret recipe, rather than something unadulterated off the shelf.
There’s an element of sweetness to the soy, like a kecap manis, but it’s not a sticky as that, and also there’s the matter of how much wok hei there is, which accents and changes the way the soy tastes. Then there’s the amount of chilli or sambal, which again, interacts with the soy, changing its flavour profile. Who would’ve imagined a stir-fried noodle with two sauce elements would be so complicated?

Anyway, Mr A was right. This CKT master served up a truly spectacular Char Koay Teow. The prawns were plump and juicy, and all the elements ‘popped’ flavour-wise, the bean shoots and chives bringing a freshness to what is essentially quite an oily dish. That’s the other thing: CKT should be inhaled as quickly as possible, as it can start to taste a bit greasy once it cools. Which is a guilty pleasure of an entirely different sort. In any case, I made short work of this one.

And then Mr A thought I should try the ice kachang. A traditional Malaysian dessert, it involves shaved ice mounded over a selection of not necessarily sweet ingredients – like kidney beans, corn and grass jelly – drizzled with some sort of sugar syrup – often rose, gula melaka or pandan – and coconut milk.
This one had rose and sarsaparilla syrup, and a little scoop of ice cream on top. The sarsaparilla was an interesting flavour, but to be honest, ice kachang really isn’t my cup of tea. It was definitely refreshing in the tropical heat, but there’s something about shaved ice with jelly and dairy that is a little off-putting for me.

Joo Hooi Café

475 Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Phone: Hahaha are you for real?

OK, so the Hong Kong #fatty posts are done,but believe it or not, my blog is still on holiday! Next up, Penang. Sans @eatnik, I was on a solo eating mission, though I did have a local guide, thanks to @RippingYan. Her friend Mr A had graciously offered to show me around Penang, which essentially just meant a culinary tour. We’ll get to that later, but on my first morning in Penang, I ventured out on my own.

I had been curious about Assam laksa for a while, mostly because I’d been told that there pretty much aren’t any good versions of it in Melbourne, and well, when you’re travelling overseas, you should always try to eat local food, or at least food you can’t get back home. Ugh, I’m such a food tourist. At least it’s better than being a sex tourist, I guess. Though the likelihood of contracting a disease is often as high.

Anyway, I did a little research online about where to find the best Assam laksa in Penang, and apparently I needed to go out to Air Itam, which felt a little far to accomplish in a morning, so instead I went to reportedly the best place in Georgetown, Joo Hooi cafe.

The set up of this cafe is a lot like a mini hawker centre. There are various little specialty carts down one side of the cafe, each run by a separate owner, and communal seats and booths inside the cafe itself. It’s sort of like a food cart co-operative.
I sat down, and a gorgeous little old lady came over to ask what I’d like to eat. It was at this moment I was so glad I could speak Cantonese. Not that she didn’t speak some English, but because it was early in the day, and because she didn’t have many customers to serve – she seemed to be in charge of drinks and expediting orders to the various food cart owners – she sat down and started chatting to me about Penang and my holiday plans. She seemed amused when I told her I was pretty much there just to eat. But with the tourists who started to file in later on, I guess she’s seen it all before.

I ordered the Assam laksa, as that’s what the place is known for. Interestingly, most of the ‘cafes’ in Penang have this sort of set up, with specialist cart vendors, but each one tends to have one or two carts that are well renowned for being exceptionally good. It makes me wonder what the other cart owners in the joint think. Are they glad to have a star in their midst to draw the crowds, or is it a matter of annoyance, that everyone who goes there just wants the famous dish?

Anyway, for those of you who were expecting a big bowl of coconut curry soup, Assam laksa is not like that. It’s found in various places around Malaysia, but Penang seems to be the most famous for it. It’s called Assam laksa because of the use of tamarind in the soup (Asam being Malay for tamarind). The other main element in the soup is mackerel (though I was told that sometimes sardines are used). The result is an intense soup that is both tangy and salty; oh, and it’s fishy, so if you don’t like that, steer clear! This is balanced out with some lemongrass, galangal, fresh pineapple and mint, and given a bit of lift with cucumber, lettuce and red onion. The garnish is some torch ginger flower, and in the spoon is a molasses-like sweet prawn paste called petis udang.

The flavours of this laksa are heady and intense, but all the fresh elements keep it from being too fishy or too heavy. The noodles also weren’t what I was expecting, being a medium thick rice noodle – like those used for Vietnamese bun bo Hue instead of the Hokkien noodle/rice vermicelli combination normally found in a curry laksa (which incidentally, is known in Penang as curry mee).
The one strange thing about this laksa is that there aren’t really any chunky elements to it. There’s not prawn, or fish cake, or tofu. All the protein – the mackerel – is part of the soup, so in a way, it’s like eating a really soupy spaghetti Bolognese! Well, a fishy Bolognese. Nonetheless, I really loved this laksa, even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
I came back a second time a few days later, and the same little old lady was working. I have a feeling she works there every day. It was mid-afternoon this time, and again it wasn’t so busy. We chatted again about the places I’d been to in the mean time, and she suggested a few places I should try. I felt bad, because I knew I wouldn’t get to them – Mr A is the consummate food tour guide of Penang, you see – but I smiled and thanked her for the info anyway.

She made another recommendation as to what I should drink. I’m not sure exactly what it was in the end, but she described it as a sour fruit drink, assuring me it was very refreshing and perfect for the mid-afternoon heat. Deferring to her local expert knowledge, I of course agreed. I think it was some sort of under-ripe or pickled guava drink? It had the slight astringent taste that you get from guava or persimmons, and true to her word, it was most refreshing. Does anyone (maybe Malaysian) know what this drink might be?

I’d been on a bit of a mission in Penang. My research goal was Char Kway Teow. And while this wasn’t the best I had in Penang – more on that later – it was certainly good. Loads of prawns and Chinese sausage, and with a good amount of wok hei – that charred flavour, known as the ‘breath’ of the wok, which is usually seen as a hallmark of anything that’s been stir-fried well – the downfall here was that the soy used was a bit too sweet. Still, none too shabby!
Check out Jason Chow’s video on Joo Hooi.