A bunch of Singaporean friends were in town, photography hobbyists, to shoot George Town’s inner-city sights, as well as indulge in Singaporeans’ favourite pursuit in Penang: gorge on local Penang hawker food. Most of Singapore and Penang’s hawker foods share the same names and have the same origins, but diverged in their preparation techniques, and even ingredients used as they evolve separately in the past couple of centuries.
The two island-states share more similarities than the other states within the Malaysian federation - both started off as early colonial-British settlements: Penang was founded by Francis Light in 1786 and Singapore by Stamford Raffles in 1819 - both under the auspices of the British East India Company. Both island-states have majority Chinese populations which are mainly Hokkien (Fujianese/閩南儂) and Teochew (Chaozhou/潮州人), but with other smaller Chinese dialect groups like Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, Foochow/Hockchiew, etc. Local Malays and Indians (mainly Tamils, Bengalis, Punjabis, Malayalees, Telugu, etc.) add to the cosmopolitan mix - all contributing to the food culture and taste preferences of the local populace.
We started off our food-hunt on Monday morning at Ping Hooi Cafe on Carnarvon Street. Like other traditional kopitiams or traditional Chinese coffeeshops in Penang, this one is virtually packed in the morning with the breakfast crowd.
Ping Hooi is famous for its char koay teow, a stir-fried flat rice noodles dish for which Penang is virtually world-famous for. The one here (by the Tiger Char Koay Teow stall) is one of the best in George Town, and is absolutely delish: flash-fried in pork lard over high heat, the flat rice noodles are wok-seared, flavoured with the chef’s secret blend of sauces, and with prawns, beansprouts , eggs , Chinese waxed sausages, chives and cockles thrown in.
The other famous stall at Ping Hooi is the lor bak stall, which has been there for more than 4 decades. The platter ordered by my Singaporean friend consisted of some crisp-fried 5-spice marinated pork-belly (which I’d not normally order) and the signature “lor bak” 5-spice pork-rolls, encased in yuba skin and deep-fried till crisp on the outside, but still moist on the inside.
My Singaporean friends love Penang-style Hokkien mee, a noodle in soup dish which is called “Hae Mee” or Prawn Mee in Singapore. I didn’t try the version here at Ping Hooi myself, but my friends finished every drop in their bowls of noodles, and were more than happy with it. The Penang version of this Hokkien dish is punchier than its Singaporean counterpart as the Penangites added chili paste into the soup stock when cooking it. Garnishes are similar: shrimps, pork-ribs, hard-boiled egg, beansprouts. The noodles used are a combination of yellow Hokkien wheat noodles and thin “beehoon” rice noodles.
We took a walk down Kimberley Street after the Ping Hooi meal and came across a popular “ban chang kueh” (Hokkien pancake) vendor. My friends swarmed around the stall like a starving band of ferrets:
- Onwards past Hameediyah, the 112-year-old Indian-Muslim restaurant on Campbell Street that’s famous for its “murtabak” - rich, greasy, meat-filled pancakes that are almost guaranteed to fill one up for the whole morning.
But my friends’ appetites proved unsatiable up to this point - we gobbled up those pancakes and proceeded to Cowboy Street Cafe, a rather oddly-named Chinese eatery on Victoria Street that specializes in food from the Fuzhou region of China. The Fuzhou/Foochow people speak a dialect that is unintelligible to Hokkien speakers like myself. Although Fuzhou city is, in fact the capital of Fujian Province in China, its geographical separation from the rest of the province by mountain ranges resulted in its linguistic, cultural and culinary variances from other regions within the same province.
We ordered some signature Fuzhou/Foochow dishes which were done very well here:
6) Chicken and “mee suah” (rice vermicelli) in red wine soup - the signature Foochow dish by which every self-respecting Foochow cook is measured by. The one here passed with flying colours!
Foochow fishballs - the Foochow people fill their fishballs with minced pork, served in a very savoury, light broth - a childhood favourite of mine.
The other dishes were signature Penang dishes which the Foochow chefs here adopted from other ethnic cuisines:
Nyonya chicken and potato curry, served in a bun - this is similar to South African bunny chow, but much, much tastier and spicier.
Teochew/Chaozhou-style “guan chiang” - a savoury yam-jicama-peanut roll, wrapped in yuba skin and deep-fried.
Hokkien/Fujianese-style “lor bak” - this is Penang-speak for “ngoh hiang” 5-spiced pork rolls - done very well here.
That was quite enough food to keep my hungry horde satisfied, at least until tea-time!