Tuesday, July 9, 2013


Singapore, that internationally-known foodie mecca, has got a neighbor that says it's better: Penang, an island off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia that's home to a vibrant cultural mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Burmese and Tamil settlers. A strategic trading post since the 1500's, Penang was "discovered" by Englishman Francis Light about the time America declined to be ruled by George III. As the English did in those days, they soon took over, and what came to be known as the Straits Settlements were part of the Empire until World War II.
Penang's main town, George Town, is today a World Heritage site, which puts it on my bucket list. The historic district is crammed with two-story Chinese shophouses that once held a store on the ground floor and housing upstairs and in the back. Today, these narrow, deep shophouses are being converted to hotels and elegant, trendy private residences. Their teak floors and beautiful woodwork, and the thick second-floor shutters on the street side, plus the inevitable architectural flourishes so beloved by the Chinese, make these a photographer's dream. The photo at right is a fairly typical street scene, one of the thousands of area trishaws backed by one of the many temples - this one Chinese - George Town sports.But...hey...this is supposed to be about the food.Turn the page!
All across Asia, ridiculously cheap street food is everywhere. Vendors often gather together along a street or intersection, and soon tables and chairs are crammed with people slurping noodles. It's the done thing, to slurp, in this neck of the world.
More than just noodles are served. The food court on the left is in Penang, and simply does not suggest the frenetic atmosphere and myriad smells, the long lines of devotees who'll ignore an adjacent empty cook in favor of their preferred chef. Some things simply can't be translated.
Food vendors gather, at times, in a special area set aside for them. The venues range from highly organized to ad hoc. Our incredibly noisy George Town hotel (no glazing or screens, just those heavy louvered shutters that let in every single sound of the 800+ vehicles/motorbikes that pass per hour) is just around the corner from a string of a score or more of hawkers stalls, most selling noodles in one form or another. One sells do-it-yourself sticks of food; you just pop your choice into a pot of boiling water, and 60 seconds later you're done. The choices ranged from fish balls (everyone seems to love fish balls), bok choy leaves, and pig ears to prawns (we call them shrimp), pig intestines, won tons, and chicken. The vendor gives you a plastic plate wrapped inside a plastic bag (saves on washing, you might want to try it next time you're feeling lazy), and you pick what you want.
But most vendors offer noodles. Great piles of them are stashed behind glass on the vendor carts; they've been parboiled, and just wait their final warming and the garnishes. Curry mee (noodles with curry sauce), won ton mee (soup with wontons, roast pork and noodles), Hokkien mee (in the style of Hokkien, China, where many of Penang's centuries of immigrants came from), plus a dozen variations, all starring mee (or mie). They cost about a buck, sometimes less. The broth has cooked chicken and who knows what else, and is almost always rich and flavorful. Toppings always include sliced green onions and fried shallots or garlic. See below for a quick recipe on a garnish that could change your life.
Then there's nasi: rice. Boiled, fried, in soup, in pancakes, in a cold drink, rice is everywhere. The classic nasi goreng is a dish you may have made: fried rice. Here, the "fancy" version has a fried egg on top. The addition of fried shallots is especially nice, something you can do yourself and keep on hands as a crunchy garnish.
We strolled past a dozen stainless steel carts with double propane-fuelled burners roaring beneath, pots of broth steaming, woks on one end with noodles being tossed with sambals and onions, garlic and more garlic,  and a final sprinkle of chiles. Then on to a plate (or into a plastic bag for carryout), fork over your 3 RM (less than a buck, my friends), and you sit at a table at the edge of the street and chow down. Vendors of all ages labor over their woks: I saw one nonya (the local word for mother or grandmother or aunt) working from dusk until late night without stop, ladling noodles, snapping orders, elbowing another worker aside when he was too slow. She was there the next night, too. Anywhere else, she wouldn't be commanding a cadre of relatives on a street, she'd be CEO of a multi-national corporation. But her noodles were sublime, and the people around us slurping them down seemed to agree.
FRIED SHALLOTS: This ain't rocket science. Just slice up some shallots and either deep fry or fry at medium-high heat until crispy. It's okay if they wind up rings. Drain on paper, then keep, tightly-closed, in the fridge. Makes a nice crunchy topping for many dishes, from nasi goreng to steamed asparagus or broccoli, to congee (rice soup) or even a simple green salad.
CONGEE: This is a basic soupy dish you'll find on most Asian breakfast menus, in street-side food carts, and in almost every dim sum joint. You could call it the mashed potatoes of Asia. Basically, you cook one cup of rice, one large chopped onion, and a half dozen garlic cloves in 15 cups of water until the rice melts (about an hour; you can use leftover rice if you like). Use chicken or other flavored broth. But it's always the garnishes that jazz it up. After all, rice in chicken broth, while very tasty, is kind of uninspiring. But the additions? That's where the fun begins. For starters, add a tablespoon of Tom Yum Base to the pot (get the paste in a jar at an Asian market, keep in fridge); you could also add any of the soup bases sold as pastes (duck, pork, and five spice are some options). Got a spare carrot? Grate that in, too. Dried mushrooms or dried shredded black fungus (that's its name, and it is worth seeking out to add crunch) is good, too. When ready to serve, add sliced leftover meat or chicken. Top with those fried shallots, a handful of sliced green onion, or some chopped cilantro. If you have a head of lettuce that is aging ungracefully, shredding it and stirring it in is a good way to keep it from going into the trash.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I try to answer all comments, but when I'm on the road sometimes I'm not near internet cafes. Patience! Eat some chocolate! I will get back to you!