An Introduction to Malaysian Street Food

30th August 2017 to 5th September 2017

KL & Penang

We arrived in KL to find that our hotel, booked months in advance, was fully booked. Not ideal, but we were put up in the hotel next door for the same price, so no harm done. We would discover why the hotels were so busy the next morning as the streets were teeming with people celebrating Merdeka Day (celebrating Malaysian independence from the British Empire).

After a day exploring KL, including the almost compulsory trip up the Petronas towers, we took the train to Penang. In Penang, we stayed in an Air BnB in Butterworth, by the Ferry Terminal. It wasn’t the most convenient of locations, but it did mean that for the same price as two bunks in a dorm room, we were able to get an entire flat with an infinity pool. The downside was having to get the ferry to Penang Island everyday (counting jellyfish along the way), but the upside (besides from the pool!) was getting a glimpse of “normal” day to day life away from the tourist hotspots.

As we would be in Penang for a week and it was consistently sweltering, the pace of life was slow. Eating street food and swimming were the main activities of choice when we weren’t out on a day trip somewhere and in truth I would have been fairly content if we had done nothing else at all.

The excursions that we went on were fairly low key compared to some of the bigger ticket items later in the trip, but were certainly pleasant enough ways to spend a day. Particularly when a tasty meal was never more than about 10m away should one feel hungry.

Our trip to Batu Ferenghi beach seemed at first as if it would be a touch disappointing as the beach was overcrowded and the abundance of jet skis detracted from the usual calm lapping of the waves against the shore. Whilst we never really came round to the jet skis, the abundance of people ended up being a positive as we ended up playing ball in the sea for hours with a big group of locals and later on watched another group of friends play a big game of kabadi in the sand. All in all, it turned into a very enjoyable day out.

One of our least successful trips out was to Penang Hill. On our last visit to Penang, we had spent a lovely afternoon up there surrounded by monkeys. This time however, the weather saw to it that we did not have a lovely afternoon, we had a wet and miserable afternoon! However, on another day, a more successful monkey viewing excursion was had at Monkey Beach in Penang National Park. After a couple of hours trekking through the jungle, we arrived at Monkey Beach where we could relax and have a swim on a beach that we were sharing with a troop of Macaques. Which all sounds picture perfect until I add that we were also sharing the beach with huge crowds of people, boats, jet skis (again!), quad bikes and inexplicably a horse for people to ride along the beach! The monkeys were great but not quite what we had expected from such a remote beach.

Undoubtedly, the star of the show so far has been the food. The breadth of Malaysian cooking is simply staggering and we have wasted no time in exploring the food scene. The stand out dishes so far (basically all of them!) would be:

Hokkien Char Mee – Wong Ah Wah Chicken Wings, Jalun Alor, KL

A dish of egg noodles stir fried in pork fat, with cabbage, pork, prawns and squid in a thick soy sauce. We ate this on the first night in Jalan Alor, a well known street food strip, whilst being bombarded by guys trying to sell us random tat. Oh and obviously we tried the chicken wings too, also very tasty.

Chilli Pan Mee – Chinatown, KL

Flat rice noodles topped with minced pork, fried onions, anchovies and tons of dried chilli. Fiery and absolutely packed with umami, this gave a real endorphin hit, that lasted all the way round Chinatown!

Char Kway Teow – Old Market Food Court, Butterworth, Penang

A favourite from our last trip to Penang, rice noodles stir fried with prawns, cockles and Chinese sausage. The version served at the Old Market food court packs a real smoky “wok hei” punch. I’ve already had this twice!

Char Hor Fun – Old Market Food Court, Butterworth, Penang

Another dish of flat rice noodles. However in this dish, after being fried, the noodles are flooded with a savoury gravy with prawns, pork, chicken, and pak choi. It is supposedly uncommon for a Penang Char Hor Fun to contain eggs, but the version I had at the Old Market Food Court was finished with eggs, giving the gravy a creamy finish.

Wanton Mee – Chulia Street, Georgetown, Penang

Another dish that I had on our last trip to Penang. Egg noodles and pork wontons are topped with roast pork. I ate the “soup” version at the Old Market Food Court, but it wasn’t a touch on the “dry” version that we had in Georgetown that is finished with soy sauce. A simple but delicious dish.

Roti Canai – Mansion Tea Stall, KL

A breakfast favourite. Crispy, flaky roti served with a small bowl of curry sauce for dipping. Set us back the princely sum of 1RM (20 pence). I ended up washing down my roti with two cups of very sweet milky coffee due to a misunderstanding when ordering across a busy room and Kim’s complete dislike for the taste of coffee. The man sitting next to us thought it was hilarious and kept asking me “do you like coffee?!”

Nasi Kandar – Subaidah Nasi Kandar, Butterworth, Penang

Something of a Penang institution, but slightly daunting to an outsider, Nasi Kandar is essentially rice (Nasi) served with all sorts of curries and sauces. The “Kandar” part of the name derives from the pole that door to door hawkers used to carry the curries in big containers on either end. More typical now, is the sight that greeted us when we arrived in the restaurant, about 20 different dishes laid out cafeteria style ready to be piled on top of a mountain of rice. I opted for a piece of chicken on the bone in a curry sauce, 3 vegetable dishes (got to take veg wherever you see them when living on a street food diet) and “all the gravies”. The guy serving essentially took a bit of sauce from all of the 5 or 6 different curry dishes and poured them over my rice. As ever it was a steal at 9RM (less than £2). Kim had a similar mix, but her chicken was even more delicious, in a rich sweet curry sauce.

A close second to the food has to be Georgetown itself. I could happily spend weeks walking round the city, people watching and sampling street food in streets that are bursting at the seams with interesting buildings. Every building looks as though it has a thousand stories to tell and the mix of cultures is intoxicating. I could take or leave many of the tourist attractions around the island, but walking around this charming old city with a healthy appetite has to be one of the best ways to spend a day anywhere in the world.

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