Sunday, December 4, 2011

Dining Like a Local

Dinnertime rolled around this Sunday night, and I was beat. Tired from our weekend roadtrip, I seriously had no desire to cook. (I'm not quite sure why I was tired. While hubby was the one behind the wheel in the pouring rain, I took a nice, long nap in the passenger seat.) In Texas, I might have driven down the road for some Rudy's BBQ or maybe called in an order for pickup at Carino's. This night, I decided to dine like a local and head to a hawker center.

In Malaysia, Penang is known as a foodie heaven because of its hawker food. Cheap and quick, numerous hawker centers and street-side food carts dot the island. At the airport departure hall, the city even has a Penang Food Trail  brochure. In my early days here, I found myself referring to the brochure repeatedly to help me figure out strange menu items like Char Koew Teow, Roti Canai and Assam Laksa. I found an iPhone app, Penang Street Food, which was helpful, too.

So, I grabbed my purse, called out that I was going in search of dinner, and headed out the door. First stop was the Spicy Chicken stall. I've never had it before, but my friend's kids like it, so I hope mine will like it, too. Ayam Goreng is Malay for "Fried Chicken". The dish is so popular here, that McDonald's has it on their menu. "Is it really spicy?," I ask the man behind the counter, hoping that he speaks English. He assures me that it's not. Freshly fried with a crispy skin and steaming hot, it had just a hint of spiciness. Total cost for 5 pieces: US$5

Next up was Rudy's of Penang. Nothing like the Rudy's in Texas, this one serves up noodle dishes and seafood omelettes instead of brisket and ribs. The lady who owns this stall has been on vacation for over a month, so I'm glad to see she's back. It's my favorite hawker stall in the whole center. "We missed you," I tell her.

Decisions, decisions

Char Koew Teow is hands-down my favorite local food. Supposedly, Penang has the best Char Koew Teow in all of Asia. The way the name is spelled changes on different stalls' menu — everything from "Char Kway Teow" to "Char Gway Tiao", but if you sound it out, you'll probably recognize it. The main base is toothsome, flat rice noodles that I knew as Chow Fun back in America. She stir fries them over a hot wok together with bean sprouts, prawns, cockles, sliced fishcakes, chopped up scrambled eggs, green onions, and bits of fried pork rinds that remind me of Mexican chicarones. Soy sauce, chillis and belechan (fermented shrimp paste) season the entire dish.  I opted for the D'Special version with an over-easy egg on top. Total cost: US$2

To balance out all the fried food, I make my way to the fruit stall just outside the center. It's against the curb but essentially in the street, and I'm always afraid that some car will come up and smack me. Hey kids, mom was trying to be healthy but got run over instead!

I grab a persimmon, a perfectly ripe papaya, a mango, 4 apples, and a bunch of small bananas. Some oblong, dirt colored fruit that fits in the palm of my hand catches my eye.  I ask the man what it is and don't recognize the name. He tells me it's sweet and to slice it up. Intrigued, I get one for later. Since I was allergic to tons of fruits when I was growing up, I feel better trying new ones when I have some Benadryl close by. Total cost: US$5

My last stop is the fruit juice stall. You can find these all over Penang. Just tell the guy behind the counter what fruits and veggies you want and listen to the juicer start whirring. Today's request is apple, lime (squeezed, not muddled), and ginger. "Sikit sikit gula," I ask so he knows I want just a little bit of the sugar syrup instead of the small ladle-worth they usually put in. I want to drink it at home, so he pours the concoction into a plastic bag and loops a plastic cord around the top to keep it closed. Later on when I take a sip, I'm sure that my whole family was surprised when I yelped, "Woo wee, that has some kick!" Total cost: US$1.67

Drink your fruits and veggies

For less than US$14, I've found dinner for the night plus some fruits for the next day. Gathering up my bags, I get ready to dash back across the street to my hungry family. What do you know? Running the other way is another expat dad out to get his meal. As we stand in the center median, looking for a break in the traffic, I wish him good eats and make my way home.

Aerial view of the semi-covered hawker center


  1. Hi Michele, I must tell you that I am really enjoying your blog. I never get to travel so I am having to live through you!

  2. Wow, I wish I could feed my gang of monsters on $14 US. I can't even do that at a hawker center here in Singapore. Teenagers.

    Did you ever figure out what the brown fruit was?

  3. Anna - Glad you like it!

    Niki - See my next post about Mystery Fruit #1


I read each and every comment. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Comment moderation is on, so your comment may not appear immediately.

Web Analytics