Tuesday, September 13, 2011

28: Penang

The Penang I know, admittedly, is a Penang of short visits filled with wonderful company. I have never lived there so I don't know first-hand how it treats residents. I have never worked there so I can't comment on its economy. I have no comments, really, nor idealistic ramblings -- I've sat in its traffic; experienced the rudeness of some of its veteran hawkers; been rubbed the wrong way by the tourist-flattering peddlers of the Batu Ferringhi night markets. I don't think I'm entitled to feel anything but what I always have: an abiding fondness for the island where my parents grew up and where they met; and which they never quite left behind in their hearts, despite having set up their family south and inland.

And the food. If food were like people, I think every animal and vegetable destined for the table would aspire to finish its journey in Penang. It's the place where food becomes the best, truest, most guileless form of itself -- no wonder some call it a food paradise, since that is what most of us hope will happen to us upon reaching that place.

For instance, the cendol, the famous Penang Road cendol that everyone will tell you must be bought from the stall that is on your right as you enter the side street; never the one on the left. I have been perplexed for many years at the survival of the stall on the left, since I have never seen it with a single customer whereas the other one has an ever-present queue. Some of us have a theory that both are owned by the same people; the second was set up to provide an illusion of competition and high demand. Profits fall to the same family/group and, we are quite certain, if ever the "popular" stall runs out, there must be some dim alleyway nearby where staff members from both "sides" meet for the surreptitious handover of refills.

In matters such as cendol buying, at least, I go with the herd. Above: a bowl from the stall on the right. Note the subtle green, a shade that one can believe comes from pandan leaves. This is most unlike the lurid modern variety that resembles alien slime and usually has the texture of powdered cardboard. I wish that you could taste the Internet, because you would want to taste the slippery, beany, coconut-milky, palm-sugary iced wonder above.

And then there's the equally renowned asam laksa stall at the Ayer Itam market,

as reductionist as a stall can get with its one dish offered, one size only.

But what a dish!

Everything in the laksa appears in perfect proportion to everything else: the minced fish, the tamarind soup with its small chunks of pineapple and its julienne vegetables, the spices, the hae koh, the fat noodles that are not, as some would claim, simply overfed bee hoon. Unlike regular rice vermicelli, laksa noodles are springy, just the slightest bit chewy, and resistant to soaking up liquid so that slow eaters do not start on a bowl of soupy noodles and end with a dry bowl filled with expanding starch. I am a fan of this last attribute.

After dark, the eating continues. At Padang Brown, kuay teow gets cha-ed with duck, not hen, eggs over a charcoal, not gas, flame. It tastes as distinctive as those two factors would suggest.

But who ever heard of eating only one thing per meal in Penang?

Satay is as it should be: glistening, yellow and sweet with black crunchy bits falling off the edges. I once met a Kiwi who told me he'd get by on meals of nothing but good Malaysian satay sauce if he could. You would feel the same if, after a long tiring day in the cranky heat with the irregular meals of a typical holiday, you had it bathed around a skewer of lean meat sandwiching fat, or a lump of compressed white rice, or a chunk of cucumber or piquant red onion. Or you might agree with my acquaintance that the sauce is an event in itself.

Lor bak, too, is textbook at Padang Brown: the meat is seasoned with perfect amounts of five spice, white pepper and other secrets, deep-fried till the beancurd skin blisters and shrinks protectively around the meaty core. The sweet lor, the dipping sauce that I loved as a child until some mischievous elder told fat-hating me it was mostly lard, runs out repeatedly as I catch up on all that I missed out on during the 20 years or so that my eating was picky. But not just me; everyone around the table is scooping it up. And why wouldn't we, when it's almost like having a smile on your taste buds?

Still at Padang Brown, the chai kueh (literally "vegetable cake") are a mathematician's or an artist's dream of ideal fractions. The skin is just translucent enough to show you what's inside, whether shredded turnip or koo chai (Chinese chives) with tiny cubes of dried bean curd. And, once again, what comes to mind as one chews is completeness. Nothing lacking, nothing out of place.

Finally, the mua chee for which a special detour is made to New Lane (Lorong Baru, if you're mapping). What is the minor inconvenience of driving out of the way and waiting double-parked on a congested road, when this is the reward?

Any attempt to pronounce the name of this dessert from this stall should have heavy emphasis on the "m", because you too will involuntarily hum with joy as you encounter every sweet-and-salty, crunchy-chewy morsel from a box that's always too small.

All that from just one day of a nine-day trip with my brother's family last year.

I doubt I would know how to experience Penang alone when so much of its food is centred upon communal eating... and so much of its experience is centred upon food.

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