Just the mere mention of Penang is enough to make stomachs grumble, with the island sharing its name with a dry peanut-based curry fried in coconut milk found on the menus of many Asian restaurants around the world.
But there’s far more to the local cuisine beyond this delicious but most obvious of dishes – the island’s chequered past has blessed it with a diverse cuisine.
Here are five ways to uncover the culinary heritage of its capital, George Town:
1. On Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, I bite into what is possibly the finest samosa to ever pass my lips. With pastry the perfect balance between crisp and doughy and a perfectly spiced cloud-like potato and pea filling that, for an instant, whisks me off to India. The stall is piled high with puffy pakoras and sugary sweets in a variety of almost garish colours at bargain prices that could keep a hungry punter entertained for a while.
2. The city’s Chinese heritage is reflected in its Peranakan cuisine – dishes based on a blend of spices ground in a pestle and mortar with an often lengthy preparation have been passed down through the generations. We taste a variety of dishes from a spice-infused stir-fried rice to the tang of hot and sour soup to the soft creaminess of a mango custard pudding at the new restaurant at the house of famed Chinese merchant Cheong Fatt Tze – now a boutique hotel also known as the Blue Mansion.
3. By night, we explore Gurney Drive Food Court where the hawker stalls are piled high with fresh seafood or hand rolled noodles, with many dedicated to a local speciality – rojak buah, laksa Penang, sotong kangkung, ikan bakar, pasembur to name but a few. Simply take your pick and congregate on the plastic tables in the centre of the strip with a fresh green drinking coconut or a cool beer.
4. The city’s British colonial roots are more then evident at the Royale Bintang Penang hotel which has just opened in the last few months. This relic of the empire has been tastefully converted into a historic hotel with a small cafe in the lobby which prides itself on its cream teas – the most British of traditions.
5. All of these culinary traditions come together at fusion restaurants such as China House – a traditional compound of three heritage buildings linked by an open air courtyard and converted into 14 spaces comprising shops, cafes, restaurant, galleries, live music, a bakery and with free wifi. Here, dishes such as Japanese noodle soup with black chilli sambal, spiced cottage pie and spaghetti with ginger bud pesto make their way onto a menu that reflects the city’s diversity.