In Penang’s George Town, food is cheap and in great abundance; there are all manners of food establishments from roadside hawker stalls, shop house restaurants to food courts. If you’re new to street food, cut down the chances of upsetting your belly by making sure the food is prepared fresh and steaming hot in front of you; take a probiotic pill with each meal to be extra safe.
Red Garden Food Paradise & Night Market
The Red Garden Food Paradise & Night Market had its own live Hokkien drag queen show on the Thursday night that I was there; it was a full house roaring with laughter when I arrived. The food was varied; there was Japanese and Thai street food alongside local delights like the sambal stingray; apparently the Penang version is marinated in curry with the sambal on the side instead of on the fish typical of the Singapore version. It is considered more expensive than the roadside hawkers or shop house restaurants, but still inexpensive by Western and Singapore standards. Beers were cheap; only RM$10 or US$3 for a small bottled Carlsberg. The fresh fruit juices came in one-litre plastic mugs from RM$6.70 or US$2 depending on your choice of fruit and would make great thirst quenchers if you, like me, have been gallivanting in the sun all day.
Penang Assam Laksa (noodles in a tamarind and fish broth) and Rojak (essentially a fruit salad made savoury)
Many argue the standards of the famous food hub Gurney Drive have plummeted since tourists started eating there by the droves and driving the prices up, but I went there anyway to have a taste of the famous Penang Assam laksa (rice noodles in a tamarind and fish broth, served with mint leaves, tiny slices of pineapple and onions) and the local rojak (essentially a fruit salad – turnip, pineapple and ‘jambu’ and cucumber tossed with piquant prawn paste sauce and peanuts). Both were priced at just over RM$10 or US$3.
For those who travel with Western friends who may find the local fare too exotic for their conservative tastebuds (my fiancé John turns his nose up at fishy anything), there is the continental Kopi C. Espresso at ChinaHouse http://www.chinahouse.com.my/ which straddles Victoria Street and Beach Road. The Australian-run joint make ALL their dozen or so cakes daily by hand (from RM$8 to RM$12 or US$2.50 to US$4 a slice) which impressed old John; no matter what confection we chose on our visits, the sponges were light and textured and their icings were natural-tasting and delicious.
The grand cake table in Kopi C. Espresso in ChinaHouse which straddles Victoria Street and Beach Road
We gobbled up a 15cm tall passionfruit and coconut layered sponge; the cake dough had fresh coconut shavings in it – it didn’t taste like the dessicated versions often used in mass-produced cakes and kuehs – and there were dollops of fresh passionfruit in the icing finished off with lime zest on the top layer. I also had a delicious chocolate tart with berries which was technically not a tart but a cake; it was very chocolaty but not cloying like in the synthetic, commercial versions you might find elsewhere.
The two fusion-inspired bento lunch boxes I had at ChinaHouse did a good job of redeeming overrated and overpriced fusion-inspired menus I have had just about everywhere. For just RM$25++ you get a rice dish, a soup, an appetiser and a meat dish, with the appetiser usually inspired by a local dish like a dumpling or a savoury pastry; the menu changes everyday.
ChinaHouse has plenty of event and meeting spaces and enclaves; there is the Canteen & Bar which also hosted Singapore comedians Fakkah Fuzz, Shahrul Channa and Jinx on their two sold out nights at the CausewayEXchange festival (which was also part of the recent George Town Festival) and a spacious art gallery upstairs. There is also an open courtyard which seemed to be under construction on our last visit as there was scaffolding put up on one of their walls; it turned out that their dilapidated neighbour’s wall had collapsed into the courtyard and the area had to be closed for repairs.
The delightful Bento lunch box at a mere RM$25++ each redeemed overrated and overpriced fusion cuisine everywhere.
We were actually all very tempted to ask the owner of ChinaHouse if she would be interested to launch a cake book – I run a contract publishing house – if only to steal her cake recipes!
All pictures are mine except for the picture of Red Garden Food Paradise & Night Market which is taken from Tripadvisor.com
Stay tuned for more Penang insights and reviews of the CausewayEXchange festival!