What happens when you bring Chinese, Malaysian and Indian cultures together? You get incredibly tasty dishes and a country obsessed with eating.
Easy access via road side stalls, air-con food courts and restaurants means you are never without a potential meal in all of Malaysia, especially on the island of Penang. Cheap, plentiful, tasty… anyone could expand their waistline in Penang, and Ken and I surely tried.
For a few days, we stayed with the Kangs, a Chinese family. We shared three evenings of dining with them, and no dish was missed: frog porridge, Hokkein mee, fried oysters, fruit salad with shrimp paste and more!
Penang is known for many classic dishes.
Nasi Lemak: the staple dish of Malaysia. A plate of rice, cooked in coconut milk, a hard-boiled egg, fried mini fish, peanuts, cucumber slices and sambal- a spicy chili sauce. About $0.50 US.
Nasi Kandar: the Indians took Nasi Lemak and made it their own. Rice, your choice of a curry dish, your choice of a gravy dish and a side of vegetable. About $1.50 US.
Frog Porridge: Soupy rice gruel, seasoned as you wish, spicy sauce or hoisin sauce, served with bony, frog legs. DO NOT watch them prepare this. Those frog legs were fresh! About $1.75 US.
Mee Goreng: Indian-style noodle dish. Fried yellow noodles and bean sprouts, gravy of chili and tomato paste; you can add potatoes, tofu or cuttlefish. Finished with ground peanuts and a lime for squeezing.
Hokkein Mee: spicy noodle soup dish, with a thick prawn and pork broth. Bean sprouts, prawns and egg, topped with crispy shallots. About $1.25 US.
Wan Tan Mee or One Tonne Mee: everyone spelled this differently, yet it was always tasty. Dry or wet noodles and meat-filled wontons either in broth or thick soy sauce. Add a few slices of meat and a leafy vegetable, about $0.75 to $1 US.
Fried Koay: Thicker, flat, rice noodles, fried in oil, with prawns, garlic, soy sauce, bean sprouts and egg and some chili paste. About $1.50 US.
Curry or Asam Laksa: another staple dish of Malaysia. The concept is similar, yet the tastes or ingredients vary by region. It’s a soup bowl, with bean sprouts on the bottom, covered with noodles, topped with a broth. Then add your choice of meat. Curry laska is a spicy, curried coconut milk broth. Asam laska is a fishy sour broth made with fish, lemongrass, chiles and tamarind. Curry laska is my absolute favorite meal, with the addition of a couple of fish balls and a very spongy piece of fried tofu. Both laksas are served with a spoon of sambal on the side. About $2 US.
Roti Canai: chewy, stretchy Indian bread made with white flour and lots of butter. Griddle-cooked and served with a dal dip. About $0.45 US.
Satay: name your meat, small morsels marinated, placed on a stick and grilled. Usually serve with an oily, chunky peanut sauce. 8 skewers for $4 US.
Fried Osyter: egg and tapioca flour batter, fried with oysters, both from the sea and chicken “oysters”. Yeah, it’s a little weird. About $3 US.
Loh Bak: a super tasty snack. Mince pork or chicken with spices, wrapped in a bean curd sheet and deep fried. Served (by Loh Bak Jack, among others) with a spicy, sweet sauce.
Cendol: their crazy version of dessert. Fill a bowl with shaved ice, add sweetened coconut milk, then top with sweetened red beans and sweetened noodles, the chendol. The noodles are made from a starch and colored green from the juice of pandan leaves. Um, I prefer beans and noodles in my savory dishes. About $0.50 US.
One of our favorites fruits is jackfruit, which can grow to 70 kilos (that’s 150+ pounds). Break one open and inside are delicious fruits- a little crunchy, kinda mango-like. Another fave is a rose apple. Part veggie-tasting, part fruit, it’s not very sweet. Add a sweet shrimp paste dip and it almost tastes like eating a caramel apple.
While in Penang, I took a cooking class. Hosted and taught by Nazlina, she has made quite a name for herself in the Penang food scene. Super friendly and knowledgeable, this self-taught chef shares her love of Malaysian cuisine. The class started at the outdoor market, where we ate a breakfast of roti cani. Walking through the food stalls, we picked up ingredients to make beef rendang, tomato rice, fresh springrolls and pineapple salad. The market was a cook’s paradise.
It was a leisurely walk through the market, where we got to ask a lot of questions and witness the creation of delightful foods, like fresh springroll wrappers, made of wheat flour. This man is a bit of a legend in Penang.
Finally, we made our way to Nazlina’s cooking studio, where the 6 of us got hands-on in creating the meal.
My main job was to create the coconut sauce for the beef rendang. First, I had to stir-fry the coconut over low heat until all the moisture was cooked out of it and it started to brown.
Then the coconut was transferred to a mortar and pestle, where I had to crush the coconut until it formed an oily, reddish brown paste and no longer resembled coconut. But oh, when it was added to the dish, it was delish.
Once everything was complete, we sat down to a lunchtime feast. I was stuffed and felt the $45 US I had paid for the class and food was worth every penny.
Many travelers skip Malaysia, yet the cheap food is reason enough to visit. You too will eat yourself silly. Just remember, we warned you!