Craving for a bite of home
by Peter Tan. Posted on September 20, 2014, Saturday
IF there are two things that we Penangites are known for, they must be our independent mindedness in politics and the love for our food.
Let’s leave politics to the pundits and talk about food instead.
Yes, we are fiercely opinionated and proud when it comes to our hawker fares and rightly so.
CNN Travel ranked Penang asam laksa seventh in the World’s 50 best foods in 2011 and dubbed George Town Asia’s greatest street food city in 2013.
More recently, popular travel guide Lonely Planet picked Penang as the top food destination for 2014, singling out char koay teow, Hokkien mee and laksa as must-trys.
The rich and diverse flavours we have today were influenced by Malay, Middle Easterners, Chinese, Indian and European cuisines from communities that settled in the island at various times since the 18th century.
A discussion of Penang food is never complete without bringing up Peranakan and Hainanese cuisines.
The former is a distinct fusion of Malay and Chinese recipes that evolved over a few centuries when Chinese traders inter-married with local Malay women.
The latter draws from the kitchens of colonial British households infused with touches of Hainanese flavours.
Both are unique to Malaysia and Singapore up to this day. Both cuisines also share some similar recipes like roti babi (deep fried bread with minced pork filling) and choon pneah (deep fried spring roll).
The tastes of hawker food display hints of Peranakan influence to some extent as is evident with the generous utilisation of chilli and other spices.
Being an island and surrounded by the sea is a plus point. Bounties from the ocean are plenty. Seafood are used to great advantage as main ingredients or in stocks to enhance tastes of most, if not all, of the hawker food. These include cockles, crabs, prawns and fish.
In the early days, immigrants were brought in to work at the port and plantations. These manual labourers needed meals that gave them energy, were cheap, and could be served and eaten quickly.
The nasi kandar was one such simple meal consisting of steamed rice served with aromatic curries of meats and vegetables.
It was popular with port workers who were predominantly from India.
Chinese immigrants too had their non-spicy rice dishes and noodles to keep them going.
Local ingredients and flavours were gradually assimilated to become tastes that were uniquely Penang.
From those days when food was purely nourishment for the body to pull through another day of toiling, it has become indulgences to tantalise taste buds.
We are now spoilt for choice with the plethora of mouth-watering fares available throughout the day at the many food courts, coffee shops and even restaurants.
There is a saying that one cannot die of hunger living in Penang as there is a hawker at every turn of the corner.
Tourists on food adventures should take the list of highly recommended food and stalls widely available in the Internet with a pinch of salt.
I have eaten at stalls that were given good reviews only to be disappointed time and again. Perhaps as a Penangite, my taste buds are more discerning.
As much as I love char koay teow, nasi kandar and Hokkien mee, I must say many, if not all, of the popular stalls are over-rated and expensive.
It is difficult to justify paying RM7.50 for a plate of char koay teow with three large prawns when I can get a similar sized portion with smaller prawns for only RM3.70 or RM4.50 elsewhere.
The queue during meal times is also hard to fathom. Besides being expensive, these hawkers can be aloof and rude, and waiting time to be served can take as long as 45 minutes to one hour.
I do not know about other people but I certainly do not fancy paying a premium only to be treated badly and waste one hour of my life waiting for food. It is just not worth it.
I have had the privilege to sample some of the best and the worst my hometown has to offer, and finally found one place where many of the hawkers selling my favourite food converge.
The Batu Lanchang market food court is the usual haunt each time I make a trip back to the island.
The place is clean. Food is delicious and reasonably priced. Parking is ample. And most of all, it is accessible by wheelchair. Whenever friends from out of town asked for recommendations to eating places, I never hesitated in pointing them that way.
When I was staying in Penang, I never thought much about hawker food. They were just means to fill a hungry stomach.
Now that I have uprooted to Kuala Lumpur, the cravings strike each time I see images of those glorious food posted in Facebook.
Sometimes, the hankerings got so bad that I had to settle for substitutes that did not taste quite the same although the signboard on the stalls claimed to be Penang this and that.
Well, beggars cannot be choosers.
That is why I always look forward to going back, if not to soak in the scenes and scents of familiarity, then to satiate those cravings for a taste of home.