You'd think that will all the good times and good food we had in Penang for Chinese New Year, I'd want to go back. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong.
We knew going in to Penang that all the famous Penang hawker stalls would be closed for the holidays, due to their owners returning to their own homes to celebrate. We knew that we would still be eating well, with all the big, home-cooked, celebration dishes and other holiday tidbits - such as the rose cookies above and these kueh kapit below - that we'd be snacking on during visits to relatives and friends. We just didn't know how much we would be missing.
Kueh Kapit – Love Letters
You see, Penang has some really awesome food. I've said in the past that Penang has some of the best food on Earth. And Annie and I have been missing that food since the last time we were in Penang, more than 4 years ago. But the problem is, if all the hawker stalls, restaurants, and various food suppliers are shuttered for the holidays, your chances of eating said awesome food are as small as this pineapple tart.
Tiny Pineapple Tart
We did manage to find some good food outside, but it wasn’t Chinese food. The Original Penang Kayu Nasi Kandar restaurant is Malaysian-Indian – they don’t shut down for Chinese New Year.
Original Penang Kayu
It was here that I got to have a few of the things I’ve really been craving while living in Kuching: roti telur (griddle-fried flatbread with egg), teh tarik (pulled tea), and…
Roti Telur and Teh Tarik
…thosai (dosa). Oh, I’ve really been craving a big, crispy thosai! They just don’t do them like this in Kuching (at least, not anywhere I’ve looked). Here at Kayu, they do them just the way I like it. Mmm!
Later on that day, Uncle took us to Kedai Kopi Genting, at Lorong Delima 3. This kopitam has a good selection of hawker stalls featuring several popular Penang dishes, such as kway teow th’ng. The thin rice noodle comes in a clear broth, accompanied by some chicken meat (sometimes duck) and a few fishballs. The kids shared this bowl, but I wasn’t having any of it.
Kway Teow Th’ng
I was specifically here for some assam laksa from the Ayer Hitam stall. It was here where I fell in love with the sweet-sourish, fish-filled spicy soup noodle dish for the first time. I was so glad to see he was open on this visit, because sometimes he runs out early.
Ayer Hitam Assam Laksa
Unfortunately, the laksa today was not up to par. The soup flavor was good but not great, and the condiments of shredded banana flower and cucumber were lacking. Worse, the noodles themselves were lifeless. They lacked that nice, springy chew of a freshly made noodle.
I suspect that the regular noodle supplier may have either been closed for the holiday or charged too high a price (the Chinese New Year “surcharge”). So the vendor opted to use reconstituted, dried rice noodles. Whatever it was, I was not satisfied.
Annie ordered a platter of char koay teow, another dish that Penang is famous for.
Char Koay Teow
But, same as the laksa, this dish did not satisfy. Perhaps because she ordered it without chili sauce, but also I think the quality of the ingredients wasn’t there. We were disappointed, because we only had one more day in Penang before we had to return to KL.
When we were planning to come to West Malaysia, we of course desired to meet up with some food bloggers. I put out some feelers, and made contact with Criz Lai and Lingzie, both Penang food bloggers. But we couldn’t make any more connections, because all the other bloggers were going to be either traveling or tied up with their own CNY family obligations.
We made plans to meet up with Criz on the last day of our stay in Penang. Criz is a wealth of information about eating in Penang. He took us to a new hawker center in town called New World Park, where we were to meet up with Lingzie. I thought the hawker center was a fantastic concept: clean, open air, rooftops lifted high overhead, plenty of food choices and a fair amount of parking stalls so you don’t have to fight to get in.
First thing Criz got us was a Swatow Lane Special ais kacang.
Swatow Lane Special Ais Kacang
It’s basically a bowl of shaved ice with lots of fruits, corn, syrup and a scoop of mango ice cream thrown on. It was a yummy, but a bit too much fruit. I recall having a really good Swatow Lane ais kacang on one of our previous visits here, and it wasn’t nearly as chock-full of stuff.
Criz also ordered an otak-otak. This Nyonya dish is a spicy fish paste that is steamed inside a bamboo leaf. Actually, this otak-otak was probably one of the best I’ve had. Nice balance of flavors.
That dish turned out to be the highlight dish. This Chee Cheong Fun (steamed rice noodles) is served with chili sauce and the hae ko shrimp sauce that Penang is famous for. I thought the noodles were again lacking.
Chee Cheong Fun
Lingzie called Criz to tell him that she couldn’t make it, as some out-of-town relatives had just shown up. Argh! Darn Chinese New Year visiting!
We hopped back in Criz’s car and he took us to his favorite cendol stop, the Penang Rd Famous Teochew Ceondol cart. On this hot day, the cart was doing brisk business. Criz stepped up to order some bowls.
Penang Rd Cendol Cart
Cendol is different from ais kacang. Cendol is a simpler shaved ice dish, featuring coconut milk, gula melaka (palm sugar), red bean, and these little green noodles which give cendol its namesake. It was very good!
Penang Rd Cendol
Standing there waiting for my cendol, I smelled the unmistakable aroma of assam laksa. This vendor was serving his laksa in the kopitiam next to the cendol cart. Criz asked me if I wanted a bowl of laksa, saying that his laksa was very good.
At first I was unsure, seeing how much food I’d already eaten just a little while earlier. But the mouth-watering smells called to me, and I answered yes. The vendor ladled his soup into a plastic bag to go.
Assam Laksa Vendor
Boy, am I glad I said yes! The laksa indeed was very good. Simple, yet strong flavors. The chili spice lingered on my lips, tongue and throat. Best of all, the noodles were just right.
That was pretty much it for our Penang eating adventure. Criz took us to the Hock Lock Siew bakery, where we picked up some baked goods as gifts to bring back home. Then he dropped us off back at Uncle’s place.
Later on, Uncle took us to a Nyonya restaurant that was supposed to be pretty good. Unfortunately, the restaurant was short-staffed due to the holiday, and were only serving set meals instead of a la carte dishes. The food came slowly, and was mostly uninspiring save for the Chicken Kapitan. We returned to Uncle’s house, where we packed up our suitcases, stuffed them into Dad’s (non-air-conditioned) car, and started the arduous journey back to KL.
Not Going Back
So ends our Chinese New Year eating adventure in Penang. It wasn’t until the last day did we get some decent Chinese food from the hawker stalls and kopitiams. And then, we only got to meet up with one food blogger.
Hardly a successful trip, I’d say. With airfares at a premium during Chinese New Year, you could almost say it’s not worth it to come to Penang for CNY. You miss out on too much.
So we’ve decided. We’re not going back to Penang for Chinese New Year. We’ll go a little bit later, say the second week when more stalls will be open, more food suppliers will be producing ingredients, and more friends / floggers will be free to meet up.
How does that sound to you?