|Penang street food vendor|
Writing in the London Independent this week, Lonely Planet's Robin Barton asks where the foodies are going in 2014. Her Number 1 pick: Penang, Malaysia.
"Its food reflects the intermingling of the many cultures that arrived after it was set up as a trading port in 1786, from Malays to Indians, Acehenese to Chinese, Burmese to Thais. State capital Georgetown is its culinary epicenter," she writes.
Food is at the top of of the list of the reasons many people visit Penang. It certainly was for me when I stopped there on a trip through Southeast Asia a few years ago.
Malaysians seem to be constantly eating. Miss the street food here and you miss a nightly movable feast that takes place on street corners and outdoor food courts like this one called hawkers centers.
Books have been written about Penang's hawkers. Most started out as traveling pushcart vendors hawking their food from portable kitchens with stoves powered by gas canisters.
Later, things became more organized with licensed vendors operating permanent stalls in centers like Red Garden where hygiene standards are high.
Locals seek out their favorite hawkers for the best oyster omelets or laksa, a noodle soup of fish, tamarind juice, pineapple and mint.
Foodies will do well to seek out local spot such as New Lane Hawkers Centre — crowded and chaotic — with tasty duck meat noodle soup ($1) and wet spring rolls (also $1) stuffed with tofu and turnip.
Eating this way is an easy way to meet local people. LP's Barton mentioned one of my favorites is the bright and clean Esplande Food Centre on the seafront at Fort Cornwallis in the old British colonial district.
|The Esplande Food Centre|
Malay Muslim families and students from a nearby school gather here in the late afternoons for snacks and drinks.
When I asked one family if they minded if I took their picture, they invited me to sit down with them and sample their Singapore duck.
Penang has good restaurants, and it's nice to relax in the air conditioning, so sometimes I like to combine a meal with a street stop for tea or dessert after.
I became a regular at Bala Murugan's drink shop in Little India where we go for 25-cent cups of hot tea sweetened with condensed milk, and nasi lemak, triangle-shaped packets of banana leaves stuffed with rice, coconut and fish.
|Tea in Little India|
More on a taste of Penang here.
Searching for dessert after dinner one night along the Gurney Drive seafront, I stopped at a cafe specializing in Indian cooking, called nasi kandar, a combo of Malay and Indian cuisine.
The concept came about when nasi (rice) hawkers would balance a kandar (a pole with containers on both ends) on their shoulders and sell their wares.
The Pakistani owner waved me in. He hoped I'd order dinner, of course, but all I wanted was the honey ice cream we saw advertised on his sign board.
What I got was a thin pancake filed with warm bananas and topped with ice cream drizzled with honey.