What else is there to eat in Penang besides Char Kuey Teow and Laksa? PLENTY.
My cravings for the Nasi Kandar rice curries, the hearty noodle soup Laksa, and towering shaved ice dessert Ais Batu Campur were easily satisfied within George Town, the heart of Penang where I was spending a weekend. But I was still hungry for more of the gastronomic goodness that this northern Malaysian state can offer. Since renting a car in Penang was relatively easy, including a myriad of options here, off I went on a little foodie trip in mainland Penang!
The mainland does not have many of the heritage buildings or towering residential condos that George Town boasts. The pace of life is considerably slower here than on the island, but it is on the brink of modern development nonetheless. We made our way to Lorong Bagan Luar in Butterworth, where sits a row of restaurants as old as the country itself. Even though it was still quite early in the day, both Meng Chai Kopitiam and Restoran Luang Fong already had many customers, quite possibly enjoying their hearty brunch of Roti Kahwin (a marriage of bread, butter, and coconut spread) or Cheese Toast, with a cup of Hot Milo or Kopi O on the side. Another specialty at both establishments is the Sup Lembu (beef soup), but we had to skip all those as a tantalising spread of meals at Restoran Sin Bee Chew were beckoning for us to savour them.
Here, the must-order is the Hainanese Chicken Chop, a Western-Eastern fusion that came about during the British occupation of Malaya. Back then, the British employed local Chinese as cooks, who learned to infuse local flavour into Western fare. The restaurant itself has been around for half a century, decked in old school tables, chairs, and booths, white in colour and scrubbed so clean they looked almost sterile. Even the condiment bottles that most restaurants often overlook are wiped regularly, hence the eight certificates of excellent cleanliness that bedeck its white walls.
Between the three of us, we shared its signature dish Hainanese Chicken Chop, Fried Bihun (rice vermicelli), and Inche Kabin Chicken. Whilst the first two are somewhat of a regular fare in our daily eats, I was more intrigued about the Inche Kabin chicken, a Peranakan dish. Crispy golden brown on the outside, the meat juicy and tender on the inside, it was a real winner. The chicken was marinated overnight with various herbs including its special ingredient, Worcestershire sauce, and then fried to perfection. We washed these truly indulgent meals down with tall glasses of Bandung Cincau (rose syrup with grass jelly), Limau Asam Boi (calamansi and plum juice), and frothy Iced Nescafe. So good was our lunch here, we could’ve just drove back to George Town and call it a day. But this food adventure is bound for a second phase, and it involved a boat ride to a little island!
In between the mainland and Penang island, lie a few small islands including Pulau Aman, which translates to “island of peace”. Our journey continued 20 kilometres down south to Bukit Tambun, a popular area for seafood dishes that have the potential to induce food comatose. To catch a speedboat to Pulau Aman, we headed to the Batu Musang Jetty, where the lack of ticketing counters did not seem to worry the two local couples who I assumed to be on a mid-day island date. So we just followed their lead and sure enough about 15 minutes later, a speedboat came and off we went to Pulau Aman. No ticket? No problem.
Chalets on stilts, fishermen boats, and the smell of fresh salty seafood greeted us when we reached Pulau Aman. At the wooden jetty on the small island, we found a counter with information and an illustrated map of the island on a wall. Boats depart from Batu Musang Jetty to Pulau Aman every two hours, starting at 8am until 6pm, whilst the return boats to the mainland also go every two hours from 9am until 7pm. We paid RM7 for our return journey (yes, you need to get on the boat first and then pay for the return journey at the island jetty) and made our way to Restoran Terapung Pulau Aman, walking past a secondary school, humble homes, and butterflies swirling around blooming flowers. Not a single touristy activity going on and yet the island was very welcoming to visitors. Most of those who come here to look for a brief respite from everyday life, or simply to eat, like yours truly.
By the time we got to the restaurant, the couples that were on the boat with us had already ordered their mouthwatering plates of Mee Udang (prawn noodles). Whilst the trademark dish of the island looked pretty tempting, we opted for fresh steamed mantis prawns instead. We picked, weighed, and paid for three huge mantis prawns at an adjacent station and brought them to the restaurant for them to cook for a minimal fee. From my previous encounters with these delightful-tasting crustaceans, they were usually cooked in various types of sauces like butter cheese or chilli, not plain steamed. Oh boy, did I truly miss out on the true taste of fresh mantis prawns all these years. Succulent, juicy, utterly tasty, I didn’t even need to dip them in chilli soy sauce, as the fresh meat was sweetly delicious on its own.
As if to add a dash of seasoning on my truly fantastic food journey, a pod of dolphins swam by on the calm sea once we finished eating. There were about 20 of them, a sight so wonderful I couldn’t even bother to take out my camera. Afterwards, we took a stroll along the humble village whilst waiting for our boat to the mainland. There was still the lure of Mutton Briyani, Mee Goreng Sotong (squid fried noodles), and the Malaysian classic Nasi Lemak for dinner, and that’s why Penang is truly one of the food capitals of the world.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Penang from various destinations. For flight info and lowest fares visit AirAsia.com.