On the one hand, wrapping my head around Penang’s food has been easy: it’s ubiquitous and delicious. On the other hand, the disparate blend of cuisines that have come to define the island’s food — Hokkien, Cantonese, Hainanese, Teo Chew, Indian, Malaysian, English, Peranakan — is somewhat more complicated. Luckily, there’s a great resource. Pointed in the right direction by Robyn, I picked up a copy of Penang Heritage Food, written by a native of Penang, Ong Jin Teong.
Teong lives in Singapore, but was in Penang during my visit, and I got the chance to meet him and talk about the food of Penang and about his book. I mentioned the fact that his book seemed very personal, and he told me that most of the recipes came from his mother. He explained that she used to give cooking demonstrations, and in doing so, recorded many of her recipes. It’s these dishes, via a great deal of trial and error, that eventually became his book. Adding to the personal feel are the family photos, and amazingly, even a few old photos of the food vendors and hawkers his family used to be fond of, interspersed with the recipes.
We also had a couple meals together, but as mentioned previously, had bad luck with restaurants and hawkers being unexpectedly closed. Luckily, the delicious Hokkien mee vendor in Pulau Tikus was open, and I was able to score one of their last bowls — this at about 9AM:
Otherwise, we were forced to try a few new places (or at least places new to us), not many of which were so great. But some were interesting.
At a Hainanese restaurant in Georgetown’s Little India, we sat down to a lunch of chicken chop (pictured at the top of this post). Teong explained that in the past, Chinese who emigrated from the island of Hainan were the cooks of choice for wealthy colonial families. Later, they took their experience in the food industry and worked as professional restaurant cooks and opened restaurants. In doing so, they continued to make many of the quasi-Anglo dishes — chicken chop, curry puff, min chee, macaroni pie, chicken pie — they had cooked previously. These dishes can still be found at a handful of Hainanese restaurants in Georgetown, many of them served with Worcestershire sauce as a condiment.
Compared to Hokkien mee, I can’t say that the chicken chop could compete in flavour, but the fact that both of these disparate dishes have been available here for decades, and are considered part of Penang’s cuisine, is fascinating.
For recipes for Hokkien mee and Hainanese/English dishes, and more detailed background about the influences and ingredients that make up the food of Penang, refer to Penang Heritage Food.