Perfectly Penang

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The tiny island northwest of the Malaysian mainland has numerous drawcards but the beach isn’t one of them.

The fringes of Batu Ferringhi, approximately one hour drive from Penang International Airport, are lined with a selection of boutique and famous five-star hotels for holiday makers wanting accommodation with an ocean view and roll-out-of-bed access to the beach.

If this is your first trip to Penang, don’t expect fine sand and crystal blue water. Instead, opt to pay a little more for a hotel with a fancy beachside resort, such as the Shangri-la Rasa Sayang which time and again has been voted the best hotel in Batu Ferringhi. If that exceeds your price range, look into the Golden Bay Sands Hotel, the sister hotel of Rasa Sayang situated next door.

For someone who isn’t entirely acclimatised to the humidity and heaviness of the South-East Asian heat, the decision to lay by the pool or head to a nearby massage parlour instead of trekking out to the museums and heritage sites, was an easy one.  The west coast of Malaysia was experiencing another dry month in February where the sun scorched mercilessly on visitors unaccustomed to its intensity at temperatures averaging 30 °C while the humidity had the propensity to cleave and slow down to your every movement. But by the second or third day, you get used to it. Put on a generous amount of sunscreen, sunglasses and take shelter in the shade when necessary.

By noon when the sun is at its zenith, the streets of Penang lay bare. At 5:00 pm the sunrays slowly soften and people start to emerge from their air-conditioned enclaves. At night is where we start to move about briskly and freely in the absence of the petulant heat. Well in the depths of the night and spilling over in the morning that the serious eating begins.

Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine does not get tastier, fresher and more authentic at buzzing smoky hawker food centres sprawled across the island like Long Beach Cafe on Jalan Batu Ferringhi. Other notable hawker centres are Gurney Drive Hawker Centre and Red Garden on Lebuh Leith. The food halls hibernate until sundown when they open their woks, frypans and tables to salivating tourists who subconsciously end up as pilgrims on this tiny island: in search of exciting, bold, spiced-up, intense and downright delicious food.

Hawker centres are the confluence of Indian curries and rotis, Chinese noodles and Malaysian satays and nasi lemaks. Five days in Penang was simply not enough to try an exhaustive list of Malaysian food. It didn’t help that I kept ordering the same four dishes at different locations: nasi lemak, nasi goreng, roti canai and beef rendang.

There’s a certain flow to a hawker centre. In a clockwise fashion, people move from stall to stall then zig zag through the floor looking for an empty table. Upon arrival, it may seem like you will never find a spot but once you see the slightest sight of a group rustling to leave, it is advisable to jump at this chance to increase your opportunity to eat as quickly as possible. Dinnertime for me ran well past 9.00pm and by the time we had finished an hour later, hoards of people continued to stream in.

On the walk back to our hotel, the main road of Jalan Batu Ferringhi was ignited by the street markets. Rows of street vendors invite tourists to haggle over a variety of fake designer handbags, souvenirs and knick knacks. I found out inadvertently the old pretend-to-walk-away-if-you-don’t-like-the-final-price-trick really does work. I inquired innocently about a sarong on display just to get an idea of prices, smiled then slowly moved on, only to have the vendor throw the price down lower and lower with each step I took.

It was highly unusual for someone who loves to shop, not show any interest in shopping the entire time I was on this island; just happy to walk off another satisfying meal was the ritual. As the duration of my stay dwindled down to its last days, it felt sacrilege not to have tried every Malaysian dish conceivable and as I went to bed that night, I had Malaysian food on my mind – which hawker centre shall I try tomorrow? But more importantly, where can I get this food back home?

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