Art, and the Food Coma – George Town (Penang), Malaysia

It doesn’t take long after you arrive in Penang, Malaysia to figure out you have a big problem. No matter how long you’re planning to stay here, its just not long enough. There are only so many meals in a day, and there are just too many foods to try and too many places to eat at. But believe us when we say, this is the best kind of problem to have.

Penang is food heaven and George Town, the capital city of Penang State, is the heart of it all. For hundreds of years George Town has been a melting pot of cultures, first under British Colonial rule and more recently as part of independent Malaysia. Native Malays, Indians, Chinese from several different parts of China mixed together with smaller groups of Vietnamese, Thai, and any number of other ethnic groups native to South East Asia are here. Over hundreds of years they all came to George Town, bringing their cultures, religions, and of course, their foods.

And despite everyone’s differences, all these various ethnic groups have found a way to live and grow together. The people are proud of their history, but even prouder of what they have created in the city of George Town and the Island of Penang. This is abundantly clear from any interaction with the incredibly friendly locals, who are happy to talk with you on the street.

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The main street in downtown George Town.
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Wandering the Old Town, a UNESCO Heritage Site.
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Armenian Street, the heart of the Old Town. We aren’t sure if Armenians actually lived here, or if that’s just its name.
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A typical scene in old George Town.

We were chatting with a local man whose family was brought from South India to Penang 4 generations ago to build roads. At first he introduced himself as Indian, but it soon became clear how much he loves being Malaysian. It was a little reminiscent of people in Canada, who might be 1st, 2nd, or 3rd generation Canadians who have a strong sense of their family background – perhaps Italian, Dutch, Ukrainian, etc. Both Malaysia and Canada were British Colonies, so perhaps there has been some similarities in how the people tended to migrate to both, and how their cultures developed.

This multicultural prosperity has translated into an unbelievable mixture of foods. Head to Little India for any sort of Indian food you can imagine – South Indian, North Indian, Muslim-Indian. Only a block or 2 over you’ll find the Chinese cultural centre of town with rows of traditional eateries and street foods. Mixed in everywhere is ethnic Malay food, ranging from street carts to super high-end restaurants. And of course, seafood is abundant, with one restaurant advertising “if it swims, we have it”.

The best way to experience the variety is to head to one of the many food courts that are spread throughout the city. These are laid out like you would find in a mall at home, but rather than corporate fast-food chains, each stall is family-owned and operated. The variety is incredible, and to be honest a little overwhelming at first. Thankfully, the portions are mostly small, which let us sample many different things in a single sitting.

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Red Garden Food Paradise – Around 30 stalls, including seafood, Japanese Tepanyaki, Korean, Chinese of many varieties (noodles, dumplings, rice dishes), Malay, Italian pizza and pasta, Mexican, doners and kebabs, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian. We could have eaten here every day in George Town and had completely different dishes every time.
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One of several Chinese stalls.
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Chinese dumpling stall, which conveniently shows you what your meal will look like.

To order food, you simply let the stall owner know what you want and then tell them your table number. Then you head back to your table, and sometime later someone will bring over your dish and take your payment. A separate waiter will come and take your drink order. Most dishes range between $1 and $5 CAD, with the some of seafood getting more expensive. And despite being a Muslim country, beer is readily available though much more expensive than elsewhere in South East Asia. A bottle will run you $2 to $5 CAD, depending on what beer you order.

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Emily’s grilled mackerel, with wasabi, lemon, and soya sauce. It was from a Japanese tepanyaki restaurant.
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Tiger prawns bigger than Doug’s hand.
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Chinese noodles and pork.
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Tepanyaki chicken and rice with miso soup.  This whole plate cost less than $2 CAD.
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We didn’t get to try these, but they looked and smelled amazing.
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This one isn’t at the food court, but we thought was worth including.  This is a street food stall where everything is on colour coded skewers.  Each color corresponds to a price, from about $0.06 CAD to about $0.8 CAD. Some of the skewers need to be cooked, so you lower them into a pot of boiling water for a minute or 2. Load your plate up with some of the various sauces (the peanut sauce is incredible) and you’re good to go.  We didn’t know most of what we were eating, Doug just tried to establish if it was fish or meat.  When you’re done eating, you bring the skewers to the owner and he tells you how much it is. We spent about $2 for a surprising amount of food.

After our Vietnam blog posts, its probably apparent that we are fans of Anthony Bourdain. He has a way of describing food and its cultural importance that makes you want to try anything and everything. In an episode of No Reservations, he visited Penang and went to a restaurant called Line Clear. Line Clear specializes in an Indian-Malay food called Nasi Kandar, which Wikipedia tells us is essentially some kind of meat over top of rice, with multiple sauces poured over everything. His experience there looked so unusual that it was one of the top things for us to do when in George Town. The episode is on Netflix currently, if you’re interest to see Line Clear in action. In the same episode he also visits Red Garden Food Paradise briefly.
We got to Line Clear around 5pm, which must have been a little early apparently as there were only a few people eating. Its intimidating when you walk in. There is a wall of various foods – meats, sauces, curries – most of which we had no idea what they were. The staff there are energetic. They grab a plate and start asking you what you want on it. First, what type of rice do you want – plain or special? We have no idea what the special rice was, but we ordered it anyways. It looked like multi coloured rice, so we think it was seasoned with something. Next is the meat. They had four kinds of chicken, including spicy or black chicken. Its basically a quarter chicken, including breast and wing. They had other meats and vegetables too, but they seemed insistent that we pick chicken as our meat.  Next comes the vegetables, including okra, cucumbers, and a curious triangle shaped fried hunk about the size of small muffin. It looked suspiciously like fried fish, but the staff insisted it was a vegetable. Inside it had the texture of custard, and was slightly sweet like a dessert. Afterwards we were told it is soy based. It sounds out of place in this dish, but it strangely worked with everything. And finally, the sauces. Asked if we wanted spicy, we both said yes. So a generous amount of sauce gets ladled on top of everything. Then comes the chutney and sambal sauce, both of which were also spicy. Everything is mixed in together on the plate and the result is a dish that sounds crowded, but tasted amazing. Its not the prettiest dish, but we both cleaned our plates in record time. Two of these plates together with two cans of pop cost just a little over $8 CAD. It was one of the best meals either of us have had on this trip.

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The line of food at Line Clear.
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Emily got the black chicken, which was better than the spicy chicken.  It tasted a little sweet, which was nice contrasted with all the spicy sauces.
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We got talking with the staff after our meal.  They were all super friendly, and wanted to know about Canada and whether we liked their food.

After a big meal its best to for a walk and burn some of it off, and George Town knows how to take care of you there too. The city is beautiful, filled with British Colonial architecture blended together with Indian and Chinese elements.

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City Hall

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And then somewhere along the way, the streets of George Town became a sort of art gallery. Artists have created murals, unique iron artwork, and cool interactive installations throughout the city core. Some of the artwork is even interactive.

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This one is called “Brother and Sister On Swing”.
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“Children Playing Basketball”
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Wrought iron artwork like this can be found throughout the city.  Each one explains a part of George Town/Penang culture. This one is called “Untrained Parakeet”, which references Indian fortune tellers using parakeets to tell the future.
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“Ah quee”, which is named for a person who donated their house to the city. The city eventually turned the house into a road, and named it after him.

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This one was titled “The Real Bruce Lee Would Never Do This”. He must be a cat lover.
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“Old Motorcycle”
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“Tok Tok Mee”, which refers to the sound that street hawkers (vendors) would make to signal their presence.

And to finish the day off, we headed to the place on our map that was just labelled as “The Cheapest Beer in George Town”.  Malaysia is officially a Muslim country, so we weren’t sure how readily available beer would be.  In George Town at least you can get it all over, either in restaurants, bars, or convenience stores (where it is labelled “For Non-Muslims Only”).  As it turns out, the cheapest beer in George Town is literally a convenience store where the enterprising owner has provided a bunch of plastic chairs and tables on the street.  So you go inside, buy some really cheap beer at convenience store prices, and find a seat outside.  We ended up sitting with some George Town locals, and were soon joined by random people from all over – Uruguay, Belgium, Spain, and some from the USA (surprisingly rare in this part of the world).  Across the street is a vendor selling fried chicken, called “IFC – Indian Fried Chicken”.  He does a very good business.

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Antarabangsa Enterprise, the most interesting place to have a beer in George Town.
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Someone said the store had turtles inside, so we went to investigate. Turns out they did have turtles, but in a bucket.  We suspect these are going to be dinner at some point.

We were really excited to come to Malaysia because we know almost nothing about the country or culture. Whatever it was that we expected, Penang has delivered that and more. You can probably tell from this post that we really like George Town and Penang.

To close, a few random pictures that we liked but didn’t fit into the blog elsewhere.

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George Town, seen from Kek Lok Si Chinese Buddhist temple.
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Kek Lok Si Chinese Buddhist temple.
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Kek Lok Si Chinese Buddhist temple.

– Doug and Emily / May 9, 2017 @ 12:37pm / Langkawi, Malaysia @ Rainbow Cafe in Pantai Cenang

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