The taste of a name

Westerners eat foods like cereals, toast and bacon and eggs for breakfast. Malaysians eat curries. Both were on offer at the hotel buffet this morning, but when in Penang do what the Penangites do. Laksa, curried chicken and coconut rice for starters, plus lots of fresh tropical fruit.

We had to hurry our meal as we had booked a “Markets and Meal Experience” from the hotel as part of a loyalty club membership. The executive chef of the Parkroyal Penang met us at the lobby and he, B, Alex and myself piled into a car for a ride to Georgetown. The first part is very scenic as the road twists around the coast. The centre of Georgetown is narrow streets and old mansions, many sadly run down.

We stopped nearby to where we walked yesterday, alongside the old shophouses in the UNESCO heritage area. Filling the sides of the street were small stalls selling fresh ingredients, preserved ingredients and all sorts of plastic junk. And a snake. Wonder if we should have visited the snake temple. Last time we were in Penang I did. It was pretty unimpressive.

At one open stall we tried a piece of pink-green ginger flower, which had a slightly astringent, but refreshing taste. It’s added raw to dishes like Penang laksa and salads, but isn’t the same plant as regular ginger.

Our destination was a couple of wet markets, where meat and fish are sold. The chef told us that these markets were under threat as younger locals preferred the airconditioned comfort and convenience of supermarkets and shopping centres.

Alex was fascinated by a coconut grinding machine. B purchased bags of unfried keropok, prawn and fish crackers. I had a taste of a preserved mango, again surprisingly refreshing and sweet, unlike those salty preserves of Japan that I am more familiar with.

This wet market is mostly empty
Iceman, but where’s Maverick?

As we walked around old streets like Lebuh Campbell and Chulia the chef pointed out some of the famous restaurants that M-i-L had been requesting the day before.

Then it was time to pile back into the car and return to the hotel. The experience description had talked about a private cooking lesson, but that didn’t eventuate and we were too hot to care much. The local knowledge had been enough to make the trip worthwhile.

Despite the exhaustion we had to repeat the sequence of the morning’s events, only this time with M-i-L, friend and no chef as we piled into a taxi for a food adventure back in Georgetown.

The taxi dropped us off near Lorong Chulia, but the Shinkheang restaurant was shuttered. But M-i-L was delighted when we showed her an alternative, the Foo Heong restaurant as it turns out that there was a special history about it. After dining in there B’s mother decided to name her daughter Heong, after the restaurants name, and indeed it forms part of B’s Chinese name.

The restaurant was devoid of any customers, arches open to the air, worn owners staring vacantly outward. When the menu was presented my heart fell, for it was boring Cantonese staples. B’s mum ordered shark fin soup, some sweet chicken and a couple of noodle dishes with thick brown sauce that were little touched. It was most unappetising, but M-i-L declared she was satisfied, but wanted to get some chicken rice from another famous shop to take back for dinner.

This lead to a lot of wandering the streets (despite the fact I knew the way), stopping off at old shophouses selling medicinal drinks, biscuits, dumplings, antiques, jewelry. It was hot and we were all tired, especially Alex, but I loved these shophouses. They were remnants of a different age and so were many of their contents. From some you could smell grease, see items still being manufactured and some for which there was surely no new stock available.

My day was made when I happened upon a portable apom balik stall. The elderly owner had been making them for 43 years.

We found the Kedia Kopi Thew Chik Cafe, but M-i-L was disappointed with what little Hainanese chicken they had left. Still, Alex ate enough and I got to try refreshing and sweet nutmeg juice.

It was a relief to finally return back to the resort for a swim. I’m going to miss those waterslides!

We were treated to a glorious red sunset behind the hills across the water. Tomorrow we must wake very early for our flight to Kuching.


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