[Penang, Malaysia] Hawker food options at Mandarin Cafe, Island Glades

Island Glades is one of the oldest suburbs outside George Town on Penang island, and is a largely middle-class Chinese residential area. My earliest food memory of Island Glades dates back to 1972, when I have my first taste of ice-kacang, the Malaysian shaved ice dessert from Delima Selera, perhaps Island Glades’ first kopitiam (traditional Chinese coffeeshop).

Kopitiams, besides providing customers with an array of hot & cold beverages, usually sub-let stalls to hawkers who provide the various types of food to the customers. Each stall usually specialise in one type of food, which they’d do very well.

Delima Selera has long gone from the scene in Island Glades - when I renewed my acquaintance with this area last year, I found a cluster of 5 competing kopitiams - all within 500 metres from each other, which means a LOT of really good food. It’s survival of the fittest, as one can not hope to survive amidst such competition if one’s food offerings is not up to par.

Their target clientele are not just denizens of Island Glades, but also the surrounding residential estates of Island Park, Batu Lanchang, and Gelugor.

Delima Selera’s spot is now occupied by Heng Lee kopitiam - I was told that it was a recent change, as Heng Lee had been a provision/grocery store for the past 3 decades before assuming its previous incarnation as a kopitiam early this year.

The leader of the pack among the competing kopitiams seem to be Genting Cafe, which has been going strong for more than two decades now. It does brisk breakfast and lunch business, but closes down around 3pm each day. Right next to Genting Cafe is Mandarin Cafe, which opens the whole day and is busiest in the evenings when all its 15-20 food stalls are open to cater to the dinner/supper crowd. Clientele are, of course, wholly local Penangites. Most foreign and interstate visitors to Penang tend to gravitate towards to touristy hawker stalls at Gurney Drive, Kimberley Street, Chulia Street and New Lane/MacAlister Road - where the food tends to be more expensive.

However, my visit to Mandarin Cafe this time was for Sunday morning breakfast. And local Penangites do take their breakfasts seriously. You basically get the works!

The variety of breakfast options in a typical Malaysian-Chinese kopitiam like Mandarin Cafe can be mind-boggling. Unlike in Hong Kong, where food options are basically Cantonese, or in Bangkok where it’s mainly Thai or else Taechiu (Chaozhou/Chiuchow Chinese), the ethnic Chinese in Penang, like their counterparts in Singapore or KL, also has a preference for spicy Malay and Indian flavours, besides Hokkien (Fujianese), Teochew (Chaozhou), Cantonese, Hainanese and Hakka-Chinese, plus local Nyonya (Straits Chinese) food, which is a centuries-old fusion cuisine of Chinese, Malay & Thai flavours).

What we had for breakfast:

  1. Nasi kunyit with chicken curry - this is a typical Penang-Nyonya dish of steamed glutinous rice, tinged yellow with turmeric. The chicken curry is Nyonya-style - richer in coconut milk than its Malay counterpart, and less assertive in aroma compared to South Indian ones so common in Penang.

  1. Penang “char koay teow” (fried rice noodles) - the rendition here is as good as any of the more famous ones in Penang - which is a mecca for “char koay teow” amongst food connoisseurs in this region.

  1. Fried rice with salted fish - very popular among patrons of Mandarin Cafe. The version here is really good, with the salted fish providing the perfect touch of flavour to the piquant fried rice.

  1. Wantan noodles - Penang, whose Chinese populace is mainly Hokkien and Teochew, never does wantan noodles well. Ditto Singapore, which is also mainly Hokkien and Teochew. Only the Cantonese do wantan noodles well - but I prefer the KL version to the Hongkong one. KL’s largely Cantonese population are the masters of BBQ pork (char-siu) as well, and they pair that with the wantan noodles in a way no one else does. The rendition at Mandarin Cafe is fine by Penang standards - nice balance of flavours in its dressing which consists of soysauce (both light & dar versions), oyster sauce, lard, sesame oil, etc.

  1. Penang-style curry mee - very different from curry mee in other states, as Penang ones have pig’s blood, blood cockles, shrimps, tofu puffs in a light savoury soup enriched with coconut milk. The version here is very good.

  1. Steamed taro cake, topped with dried shrimp floss, scallions & shallots - one of my fave food items from Penang. I used to hand carry boxes & boxes of these stuff back to Singapore on the plane.

  1. Penang-style “chee cheong fun”. Very local taste - different from HK or KL styles. Penang’s version, with its strong (almost obnoxious shrimp paste/“hae koh”) scent can turn off the uninitiated. But the version here is simply delicious! Do NOT miss it.

  1. Nasi lemak - tinged blue with the use of the local “bunga telang” flower. It’s served with sambal udang (spicy shrimp sambal), Penang-Nyonya style and a boiled egg. Excellent rendition.

  1. Nyonya otak-otak - I loved the Penang version above all other types - even the Singapore-Nyonya one. Really very delicious from the spices (turmeric, lemongrass, blue ginger, chilis) and coconut milk. It also incorporates the wild betel leaf (“daun kadok”) before being wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Absolutely love it here.

  1. Nyonya kueh (steamed dessert puddings) - average rendition here - we ordered a selection to try: kueh bingka beras, kueh bingka ubikayu, kueh sarlat, abok-abok, kueh talam and pulut tai-tai.

  1. Indian appam - the stall here is extremely popular, but I think its standard pale in comparison to really excellent ones I had in Jelutong market and Batu Lanchang market nearby.

  1. Our drink orders encompass our usual favourites - kopi (hot local Hainanese-style coffee), iced milk tea (called “teh peng” in Penang) and iced Milo (a malt-chocolate drink).

Mandarin Cafe is at its busiest around 7.30am till 10am. It gets busy again at lunch-time.

I have Penangite friends who come to Island Glades for their breakfast - driving all the way even from Tanjung Bungah or Tanjung Tokong. For nearly 50 years, this little suburban oasis of good eats have provided some of the best hawker foods to local Penang folks.

Address
Mandarin Cafe
1N, Lintang Delima 5
Taman Island Glades
11700 Penang
Operating hours: 6.30am to midnight daily, except Tuesday.

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Wow… was this breakfast for 6 people or more? Very nice looking food. Anywhere in the World, this would be considered a feast even for lunch, let alone breakfast.

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Haha, I suspect K didn’t eat alone!

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There were TWO of us. :joy: :joy: :joy:

We grazed rather than finish everything.

More hawker food options at Mandarin Cafe:

  1. Claypot chicken rice This stall only opens in the afternoon and operates thru dinner-time in the evening. Definitely one of the very best renditions of this dish in Penang, with fragrant salted fish used to provide a salty tang to the cook-from-scratch-in-the-claypot rice and marinated chicken pieces. Waxed Chinese sausages, shitake mushrooms, egg and chopped scallions are added to the subtly-flavoured dish. Very nice textures from the perfectly-cooked rice.

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  1. Char koay kak The fried rice cake here is nowhere near the standards of others I’d had in George Town. The soysauce-based flavouring paled in comparison to the ones in MacAlister Lane, Chowrasta Market, Pulau Tikus, etc. and especially nowhere near Chan Kok Ming in Batu Lanchang Market ([Penang] Chan Kok Ming Seafood "Char Koay Kak" (fried rice cakes) at Batu Lanchang Market), which I regard as the best in Penang.

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Day 18 of the current COVID Lockdown in Malaysia. Breakfast was koay teow th’ng from Mandarin Cafe, Island Glades.

Koay teow th’ng is another of Penang’s best-known street food dishes: flat rice noodles ( koay teow ) in a light, flavorsome broth ( th’ng ) made from boiling chicken, duck and pork bones. This Teochew/Chaozhou dish also includes fish-balls and fish-cakes, all made from fish forcemeat.

The Teochew people harked from Guangdong Province in Southern China, near its border with Fujian Province, which made the Teochew dialect closer to Minnan dialect spoken in Fujian than the Cantonese dialect of its home province.

Historically, the Southern Chinese from Fujian has been going to South-east Asia since the 13th-century for trade. In the 19th-century, constant civil strife and famine drove thousands of Cantonese and Fujianese peoples to South-east Asia. The Cantonese, especially from Toishan (Taishan) made their way to the West, building railroads in the American West and working the plantations in Mexico and the West Indies, whilst their compatriots worked the tin mines in British Malaya.

The Teochews, together with the Fujianese dominated the mercantile/retail trade in South-east Asia in the 19th-century: Siam (modern-day Thailand), British Malaya, Spanish Philippines, French Indo-China and the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia).

But the Teochews went one step further: they also went into street food in a big way. The streets of Bangkok, Singapore, Saigon or Penang will have itinerant Teochew street food vendors hawking their goods. Vietnam’s hu tieu Nam Vang (i.e. “koay teow” from Phnom Penh) was so-called because Teochew noodle vendors from Cambodia came to Saigon to hawk their dishes.

A close relation to the hu tieu Nam Vang is Penang’s koay teow th’ng - a Teochew noodle dish which consisted of flat rice noodles (called “koay teow”) in a light broth usually made from boiling chicken, duck or pork, or a mixture of those meats. The soup noodle dish would be garnished with springy Teochew fish balls, slivers of chicken, duck or pork, chopped scallions, golden-fried garlic in oil, lardons or, in some places, minced pork.

In Cambodia, this dish would be known as Keiv Teav Phnom Penh.

Peter - was this something of a “get it while you can” meal? I think you’ve mentioned the closure of eateries wasnt included in the current lockdown. But I’ve just read you are to have a “total lockdown” for a fortnight from 1/6 which, presumably, will close them. Stay safe, friend.

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The food places will still be open, John. But only for take-outs, no dining at the premises.

Under the stricter lockdown measures to come into effect in Malaysia from 1st June (next Tue), only one person from each household can go out to buy food and other necessities - this is similar to the one-week lockdown in the state of Victoria, Australia, which came into effect yesterday, where only one person is allowed to go out for groceries, etc.

Takeaway (or delivery) has been the norm here for most of the last 12 months. We had a few weeks relaxation last summer and places have been open again for the last 2 weeks.

We’ve not had the “one person allowed out” here but it sounds very similar to how Spain operated in the early weeks of the pandemic last year - with the police and army patrolling the streets to enforce it.

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UK is doing very well now - do keep safe, John!

The Man from Mandalay
Bought some delicious crispy Indian-style curry puffs, served with crunchy pink-hued pickled onion relish, this evening from an itinerant vendor outside Mandarin Cafe.

The curry puff vendor, with a mask shielding the lower half of his face, looked like a tanned Chinese man. So, I spoke in Penang-Hokkien dialect to him when I ordered two curry puffs from him.

To my surprise, he asked me in Malay, “Mau bawang kah?” (“Do you want onions?”)

So, I replied to him in Malay, “Sorry, saya ingat kamu Cina, kamu Melayu kah?” (“Sorry, I thought you’re Chinese. You’re Malay?”)

He said, “Bukan, gua orang Myanmar. Dari Mandalay.” (“No, I’m Myanmarese. From Mandalay”)

So, the Man from Mandalay - happened to make the best-tasting Indian-style curry puffs I’d had in decades!

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“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold