Sunday, October 28, 2007

Culinary Delights in Penang

Malaysia is my favorite place to eat! It could be because Malaysia is the culinary playground of my childhood. Whether it was the steamy piles of flavor on a banana leaf at an Indian restaurant, a deliciously greasy roti chanai soaked in curry washed down by a thick glass of coffee, or Hainanise chicken rice smothered in chili sauce the eating was fabulous.

On a recent trip to Malaysia, the tradition lives on. The chicken rice was just as I remembered. Succulent pieces of chicken splayed over rice cooked in chicken broth topped off with a sweet chili sauce. I had a breakfast of two roti chanai with egg and strong coffee for less than a dollar. Chicken biryani was the perfect comfort after a day of travelling. And the banana leaf restaurant still remains on of the world’s best kept secrets.

The Penang hawker stands are famous. People make sacrifices to sit on a flimsy plastic stool and slurp the stir-fried creations of each booth. I had heard about Penang Laksa and wanted to give it a try. The flavors were intense, almost too intense. It was as if the cilantro was at war with the lemon grass in my bowl. For my money, the creamy, cholesterol-laden laksas of Singapore or northern Thailand still win the day.

Growing up, our family would occasion the hawker stalls in Kuala Lumpur. All of the sights and sounds that might be new or even shocking to the average westerner was old hat for me. What was unique, however, was the man walking around with a tray of sushi. Or the stall serving up burgers and fries. My first response was that these outsider foods don’t belong here! It is an offense to the great foods of Malaysia to piddle with these other foods. But, as I mulled over this, the thought occurred to me that the thing that makes Malaysian food so great is the incessant drive to experiment, improve, tweak, and explore the infinite number of possibilities. I have lived in a number of places and in many of those places the majority of people want their food the way it has always been. The culinary imagination is stunted. So, I appreciate even the entrance of outsider foods because it tells me that Malaysians have not stopped their quest for exquisite eating.