Penang is an island just off of Malaysia’s west coast. I’ve heard a lot of cool things about Georgetown so I was excited to check it out. The vibe here, as you’ve probably gathered by now, is a mish-mash of culture due to the colonial past of these countries. Heading over this way highlights to me again and again how some countries (aka my country) felt they could just conquer and take over different parts of the world. Thank goodness most of these places have got their independence back now, but I’m always questioning the marks of the past and the impact of hotheaded explorers that just thought their ruler/country/religion was better than everyone else’s. Totally gross. Hardly anywhere is free of Europe’s clumsy and damaging footsteps. We might not govern them anymore but nothing can take away what’s already have happened.
The streets here are fun, with bright and colourful street art, street food and lots of people everywhere. You can while away many hours wandering here. Surrounded by the coast there are some great views and the Clan Jetties are a must see; a wooden pathway into the world of Chinese settlers who built their houses on stilts and this tradition has been kept alive, now partially fuelled by the tourists that trample towards the sea everyday buying durian ice cream and tropical fruit ices. I definitely watched a beautiful sunset here with swallows swooping the light catching the gazillion insects ducking and diving in the dimming light. Trying to take photos of birds like this is impossible! But I tried for a loooong time!
The first night here I headed to Lily’s Vegetarian Kitchen. I’d just got off an 8 hour coach journey where I had eaten a packet of biscuits and little else. We’d stopped at a coach stop where I’d hoped to grab some fruit but the stall was in the beating sun and crawling with flies so I thought not! A lovely lady had offered me half her own lunch on the bus but as it was unidentifiable smooshed meat or fish in two slices of bread, I had to decline. It was such a kind gesture though and I hope she didn’t find me too rude having not split her small sandwich with her.
This is a cafe where you tick what you want on a list, take it to the counter, pay and then wait. I order Popiah, which is a type of spring roll made with a thin wheat outer coating and filled with a variety of ingredients. These seemed to be full of mostly daikon or some kind of radish-like ingredient with other crunchy veg and tofu. It was ok but the slightly bitter radish was a little overpowering.
Satay is one of my favourite dishes ever so I kind of had to try this. Unlike the versions I’ve had in the UK, the sauce seemed less peanutty really, with a strong tomato base. I wonder whether this is more authentic? The mock meat was tasty but kind of fibrous with ginger and onion I think which took a little getting used to.
Lastly, I’d asked the owner what local dishes they had on the menu, and I ordered Penang Char Keoy Teow which are usually flat rice noodles fried with seafood. Mine had tofu and mockmeat in them. When ordering I’d been asked about whether I liked hot food, and I think judged on this conversation they’d left all the spice out. It kind of left me feeling a bit underwhelmed with the flavours in it (particularly after all my wonderful experiences in Melacca) And this was the start of my adventures in not-spicy food in Penang!
The next day in search of more flavoursome foods I headed to No 1 Cannon Street Galeri and Kafe. This little cafe is covered with photographs of Penang, and although not necessarily what I’d deem an art gallery was a cool space from the beating sun. Here I wanted something different and also lighter so tried the Cintan Mee Dumpling Soup, and yes, you guessed it more Satay! It was interesting how the clear Chinese and also neighbouring (to the mainland) Thai influences were coming through. The soup was tasty but light and the dumplings were filled with one large piece of mockmeat accompanied by basic vegetables and greens. Again I still felt it was lacking some oomph after the big flavours lower down the country. The satay sauce was flavoursome and filled with large peanut pieces – again a variation on the old favourite from home, and satisfying.
At least I can count on Little India, this was from Woodlands Vegetarian, for a decent meal for a low cost – this dosa was a few dollars, and simple as well as tasty. As a vegan you know one thing, as long as there’s no ghee involved, you’re always going to be able to find dinner in an Indian restaurant!
When grabbing lunch at a light and airy space called The Quay Cafe near Little India I asked for the Laksa craving the flavours I’d enjoyed a couple of days before but the lady serving said it would be too spicy for me. It was there I realised that probably in the whole time I had been here people were down-spicing my meals for me in kindness. Convinced by their advice that I wouldn’t be able to handle the chilli I had a plate of the Nasi Lemak which was tasty but nothing too special really. The marinated tofu hidden under the sauce was the best bit. I will totally have a go at making this when I’m at home. I like the combination of sauce, protein, veg and rice with something crunchy.
And I had ordered a local salad dish of mixed vegetables in sauce, Rojak but they had run out so brought me some Inari instead which was sweet and chewy as usual but bizarrely filled with sweet corn! I wasn’t sure about that to be honest! On my way out the lady running the cafe asked me whether my meal had been too spicy, to which I replied it was lovely thank you but I didn’t really find it spicy at all! She looked surprised and told me I should order the Laksa next time!
I also tried a warm Nutmeg drink which was nice but quite sugary. Penang used to be filled with spice groves and Nutmeg is still grown here I think. It remains a very popular flavour here in both beverages and foods.
So I would like to end my Malaysian adventure telling you about the best place where I ate in Penang, Luk Yea Yan. This was quite a sizeable restaurant with both a self service bit, an a la carte menu and a little shop attached. There was a huge menu of veggie friendly foods and the owner was so helpful in explaining what each dish was. In search of the spice and flavour I had discovered in Singapore and Melacca I ordered the Laksa, praying that it would be delicious, and the Hokkein Mee. Finally, the food had the kick and depth of flavour I was hoping for. The mint in this was amazing.
Based on my experiences here I have learnt a couple of things. If asked if you like really spicy food just say yes with no hesitation. You can eat half a bowl of really spicy soup and leave the rest but that is way better than a plate of plain noodles. If you are feeling a bit mockmeated out, head to an Indian place or a market and pick up fresh greens or a juice. I found in both Singapore and Malaysia my hostels did not have kitchens you could use. I think this must be because of the cheap hawker food culture everywhere. Furthermore there are totally some great food options here, but maybe I didn’t find all of the amazing places yet. Plus perhaps some of the stuff I ate was westernised for the tourist (HI!) brigade?
Saying that, there were loads of choices and everywhere I went people were friendly, kind and accommodating to my needs. I would like to come back and head out to more rural areas equipped with my Vegan Passport and see what awesomeness could be rustled up for me but as a solo, female traveller with limited time, the city was the place for me this time.