Sometimes researching food can be pretty tricky, especially with only a rudimentary grip of the local language. A bit of local knowledge is invaluable, and in that respect I was incredibly fortunate to spend an afternoon as a guest of SEGi College in Penang.
A quarter of a century ago I spent several months in Malaysia and was enthralled by the diversity and quality of the food. I’ve always longed to go back, and in March I had the opportunity to stop for several days on my way back from New Zealand.
Having only a short time in Malaysia, I was determined to learn as much as possible and to sample as much food as I could. Penang was the perfect location and when Mr. Buvin of SEGi College offered to help me in my search for knowledge I knew I was in luck.
Mr. Buvin arranged for Miss Gan of the Department for Hospitality and Tourism, accompanied by her friend known enigmatically as J.Q. to take me on a personalised afternoon culinary tour.
Both the articulate and knowledge Miss Gan, and the effervescent and witty J.Q. really seemed to appreciate the diversity of the food their hometown has to offer.
Over several wonderful hours they showed me a range of dishes and great dining spots. They were a great double act, enlivening an informative afternoon with lots of laughter and good humoured banter.
First stop was for Yam Rice. Rich flavoured rice cooked with yam, dried shrimp and black soy sauce was accompanied by an intriguing, slightly sour soup.
The soup was made with pork stock and flavoured with pickled vegetables. Floating about in it were dumplings, tofu and all sorts of bits of offal - intestines, liver, blood pudding…
Everything was eaten together- taking sips of soup, spoonfulls of rice, and dipping all the bits in a slightly spicy chilli and soy dip.
I tried to emulate the dexterity of my hosts by eating as they did. Being a bit clumsy, I found it pretty tricky.
Chopsticks in right hand, ok. Soup spoon in left- not so easy. Both at once- it got a bit messy!
J.Q. also ordered a couple of additional steamed vegetable dumplings. One filled with bangkuang (jicoma), a vegetable I’ve only ever had in Penang, was sweet and rich. The other, crammed full of chives was fresh and aromatic. It really made me appreciate how good a simple dumpling can be.
Next stop was back in the World Heritage listed Old Town to pick up some Yew Char Kwih.
We stopped at a small shop where 2 women were rolling up leavened dough, cutting it into strips and deep frying it. The result was like a chunky, slightly salty doughnut.
After buying a couple to take away we popped around the corner to the locally famous Toh Soon Café. A few tables squeezed into a narrow alleyway, with people wandering through and the racket of an ice crushing machine, it’s a classic Georgetown place.
Here we ordered cups of coffee mixed with tea. The result was something that tasted a lot like hot chocolate and was a perfect accompaniment to the Yew Char Kwih. Dipping the doughnuts into my mug of “hot chocolate” I could have been in Spain eating churros… except the atmosphere was distinctly Penang!
Kaya toast is a very popular snack in Malaysia and Singapore and is a speciality of Toh Soon Café. It seems very familiar, consisting of thickly sliced toasted white bread and butter, topped with coconut jam. Toast and jam! OK the coconut jam is a bit different but with a cup of tea…you get the idea.
Miss Gan thought I should try “half cooked eggs” which many Westerners find a bit weird. I must say the “half cooked” concept was a bit misleading. “Barely having encounter some heat” eggs would have been a more accurate description.
Mixed up with some white pepper and soya sauce, it tasted pretty much like soft boiled egg but the texture was distinctly raw. Not the most appealing thing in the world but actually pretty good as a dip for the kaya toast!
Feeling rather full we headed off to small restaurant on Jalan Siam for what was to be the highlight of the day. Arriving at 2.45 we drank ice tea and lime juice while waiting for a mobile stall to arrive at 3pm.
It was important to get there early. According to Miss Gan, this particular chef’s skill is such that she usually has to wait at least 45 minutes to get a dish that probably only takes a minute or so to prepare.
The man and his stall arrived right on 3 oclock.
He only makes one thing, a noodle dish called Char Kuey Tiao, which he cooks over a scorching hot charcoal fire. It was inspiring to watch him furiously fanning the fire with one hand whilst mixing, stirring and frying with the other. This was a barbeque like no other.
It’s amazing that a simple dish of fried noodles with prawns, cockles, sausage, beansprouts and egg could be such a sensation. Already full and, on my 5th meal of the day, I still managed to down a good plate full.
Char Kuey Tiao is one of the ubiquitous dishes of Penang and as a consequence the quality ranges from good, to bad to indifferent. On this occasion it was fabulous and one of the culinary highlights of my trip.
The restaurant was doing a brisk business too, serving drinks for the eager customers who were all there for the Char Kuey Tiao. A fantastic demonstration of a symbiotic relationship!
Having spent several fun and informative hours with Miss Gan and J.Q. it was time them to head back to SEGi College and they dropped me at my hotel on the way back.
Miss Gan asked me what else I was looking forward to eat while I was in Penang and I said that I hadn’t had a bowl of Laksa since I was last there. I was intrigued to see if was as good as I remembered.
Later that evening a message arrived from Miss Gan to extend an invitation from Mr Buvin. I was invited to visit the SEGi College open day the following morning. The students were preparing Assam Laksa Penang, a fish and noodle soup flavoured with fresh herbs, vegetables and pineapple. I was welcome to come along and test their skills.
The next day I was met by Mr Buvin and served a delicious Laksa, as well as sampling the “mocktails” and desserts prepared by the students.
I am extremely grateful for the hospitality shown me by all those at SEGi College.
A big thank you must go to Mr. Buvin for arranging my fabulous culinary tour of Georgetown and a delightful visit to SEGi College.
I also send a special thank you to Miss Gan and J.Q.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate to have lots of fascinating experiences, but it’s the people that you meet that make them especially memorable.
This is one trip that I won’t forget.