Eating Well in Penang
The restaurant’s name is also its entire menu: Hainan Chicken Rice. Three generations of family run the place every single day, as they have for years, serving up the dish they’ve perfected over the decades. The elderly matron bellows orders over the heads of the sea of customers and her family members scurry to carry out her wishes; it’s abundantly clear who’s in charge. She stops by our table. “Two?” Yes. “Drinks?” Coke. She barks out the order in the general direction of the kitchen. And just like that, the interaction is over. Nothing superfluous. Minutes later, a single large plate arrives, heaped with what I assume is probably two servings of chicken, along with two smaller plates of rice. The lightly seasoned chicken is extremely tender, and the juice perfectly flavors the rice. It’s a simple dish done just right.
By day, it’s just another street. Hot sidewalks, unidentifiable junk stores, and dangerously overloaded power cables line the road. At night it comes alive. Vendors trickle out of the alleys starting around sundown, and by 8-9pm, the street is packed to the brim with food carts and pedestrians. Each cart specializes in one type of food, and they’re all very good at what they do. Satay is a particular favorite – marinated meat skewers served with a rich peanutty dipping sauce. It’s the perfect walking around food, which lets you eyeball some of the other offerings such as the hot pot stand, where a variety of stick-based meats, seafood, and veggies are sold raw. You can then take your skewers and cook them to taste in the near-boiling pot of shared broth.
Noodle dishes abound as well, if you’re looking for something a bit more filling. Mee goreng, literally translating to “fried noodle”, is a spicy stir-fry noodle dish popular throughout Malaysia. Usually served with chicken or seafood, every stall has their own unique take on the recipe — the perfect excuse to try them all. Wantan mee, a Chinese-inspired dish, is one of Bridgette’s favorites. A tangy soup broth packed with noodles and wantons, a large bowl of this will definitely fill you up and is the perfect complement to a night out at bar street. Walking through the streets of Penang at night is a treat for all your senses.
Heaps of indistinguishable meats slathered in sauces ranging from red-brown to yellow-brown to brown-brown are arrayed in a grid, and the line around the corner has only grown since we got in line, imbuing a sense of urgency to the whole situation. We point at one at random, shrugging helplessly. The man shakes his head. “Tripe”, he says, gesturing to the dish we selected. He’s no stranger to tourists staring confusedly at the buffet at his restaurant stall. “Chicken?” we ask, going with the safest option. He nods approvingly; this is a more standard tourist choice. He points out another suggestion, something vaguely meat-shaped and fried. We trust him now and nod along. We take a chance and point to another dish that looks appetizing. This one turns out to be lamb; we are relieved at our selection. All this meat is piled on one plate atop a mountain of rice, along with a hearty helping of extra sauce. All the sauces. Nasi Kandar is all about combining flavors, so everything is heaped up onto a tower of Indian-inspired saucy goodness. We throw an egg on top for good measure. At 2am, it’s the perfect dish, and at only about three bucks a plate, it’s wallet-friendly as well. We walk away more than satisfied.
The massive open-air restaurant floor is very familiar to us; this is the third time we’ve eaten here in four days. Pungent Indian spices waft through the air as the hot air billows out from the massive tandoori ovens in the kitchen. The fiery red chicken isn’t the only thing on the menu, but it might as well be. There are literally hundreds of whole chickens in various stages of preparation visible in the open kitchen, and they’re being eaten as quickly as they can be churned out. The only decision to make is whether to get the naan or the biryani rice to accompany the chicken; we opt for both. The saffron and turmeric flavored rice is nice and spicy, and the savory garlic naan is the perfect counterbalance. After scarfing down the meal (using our hands rather than silverware; this is Indian food, after all), we head out, looking forward to next time.
The culinary scene in Penang is something else. In terms of sheer concentration, it probably has the best food selection of anywhere we’ve been. Around every corner is an amazing street food cart that you just have to try, and the sit-down places are every bit as delicious. Practically our entire visit to Georgetown, the old colonial city in Penang, was centered around food, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The best way to find amazing food in Penang is to just start walking, and stop when you smell something delicious. Go ahead. It won’t take long.