George Town, Penang – My Hometown is a short roundup of places to go, food to eat, and ingredients to buy whenever I visit.
Some people spend the first half of their lives getting away from their hometown and the second half trying to return to it. The latter may not necessarily be a physical “move back into town”, but rather an emotional touchstone kind of thing. I am most privileged that my work allows me to get back to George Town on a regular basis. To me, this is a happy mix of necessity and personal re-connection to my birth place. My visits are often a happy reunion with family, friends, and most of all, a part of myself.
Staying in the City
I always stay in a hotel in the city center rather than at the beach hotels in Batu Ferringhi. I spend my days at work and only have the evenings and weekends to explore. Hence, it is more convenient to be in the heart of the old city so that I can get around easily.
George Town – a Hawker Food Haven
I am most fortunate that my Penang friends are more than happy to oblige. Depending on who takes me around, I do end up at different places each time. There is strong partisanship when it comes to the best Asam Laksa on the island. Some will swear by the coffee shop in Pulau Tikus, others Air Itam Market, and yet others require us to make the journey to Balik Pulau.
There is no shortage of seafood restaurants in George Town. I generally avoid the big ones that draw lots of tourists. Usually friends will bring me to the current local favorite. One such place in Tanjung Bungah is a boat repair workshop by day and a seafood restaurant by night!
Along Gurney Drive there are several good ones, including my favorite place, Island Café which serves seafood and Bak Kut Teh.
So, what should one order in a Penang seafood restaurant? Bali tong clams in spicy sauce and oh chien (oyster omelet) are good choices for starters. Local mud crabs fried in chili paste or steamed with garlic and seafood beehoon for the main course. Ask for only the freshest catch of the day for Teochew style steam fish.
Steamed Nyonya Cakes
The other must-eat when visiting George Town is Nyonya kuih (Steamed Nyonya Cakes). The good ones have become pretty elusive these days. Fortunately, there is still a push-cart stall that sells these delectable treats in the morning from 7:00am at the Pulau Tikus market. He is pretty much done by 10:00 am. There is another one that opens up for only about ONE HOUR at the Anson Road Padang starting from 1:00 pm. My favorites are the Kuih Talam and Pulut Tai Tai but I am more than happy to settle for Kuih Lapis and Pulut Inti. Despite their diminutive size, these steamed delights are very dense and can fill you up quickly. So, they are best enjoyed in small helpings.
One place that I do make a point to drop by is the Him Heang biscuit store, at Burma Road. To get the best Tau Sar Pneah (Fried Green Bean Biscuit), baked without preservatives you will have to get there before 9:00am. They come out fresh from the oven and get promptly wrapped in wax paper cylinders in rows of 5 each. People place their orders for the day by phone, so a large number do not even make it to the counter. The ones that are available are eagerly greeted by a long line of buyers consisting of locals and tourists from Singapore, China, and yours truly from the USA.
Apart from having my fill of hawker favorites, I also look for some ingredients to bring home. Premium grade salted fish is top on the list. In the old days, Penang produced its own salted fish on the southern stretch of Beach Street. Hence, its Hokkien name Kiam Hu Tnia or “Dried Fish Court”. Today, Penang is still the regional center for the salted fish trade where one can find many different varieties all in one place.
My favorite store is Eng & Company established since the 1920’s situated next to Chowrasta Market. It is here that I replenish our stock of Mergui salted fish, dried scallops, and dried silver fish.
During market hours, the place is a hive of activity. The nearby side street is packed with clothing vendors and fruit sellers. I strongly recommend it as a place to see how the locals shop.
Having had my fill of local goodies, I retrace my steps to my grandfather’s old village but that’s another story…
Postscript: Shortly after my visit back to Penang, the island was struck by Typhoon Damrey causing major flooding and landslides. We appeal to our readers to donate to help this beautiful island recover from this disaster. Donations can be made online at Mercy Malaysia. For the type of donation, please choose “Penang Relief Fund”. THANK YOU!