Glorious food

Penang food © Adrian Cheah

Having a reputation as a food paradise, be it haute cuisine, or cuisine bourgeoise (hawker fare), Penang offers a heady and exotic mix of delicious cuisine to choose from.

In a word, Penang food is both famous and fabulous. When people mention Penang food, they are more often than not referring to hawker food and coffee shop dining. It is true that some of the hype is overblown but it cannot be denied that Penang is home to many uniquely delicious chow. Ironically, hawkers in other states or towns have been known to pull the crowd by simply advertising their food as hailing from Penang, regardless of its authenticity or quality. Then there are the Penang hawkers who advertise their cuisine as specialties from another state, like Johor bak kut teh, Ipoh chicken and bean sprouts or laksa Kedah. In short, an infinite variety of dishes are yours to savour – all you need to do is pick and choose.

Penang food © Adrian Cheah

Penang hawker food can be broken down roughly into several varieties, with each being attributable to Penang's multi-cultural character: Nyonya, Chinese, vegetarian, Indian, Malay, Hakka-styled Western, seafood and desserts. Hybrids are also known to exist, and some famous examples are Malay-style chicken rice and char koay teow, and Chinese satay and nasi lemak. The prices are cheap and reasonable.

Penang food © Adrian Cheah

With fishing being a major economic activity on the island, Penang is naturally a haven for seafood, and a handful of restaurants have already achieved legendary status among locals and foreigners. Tucked away in remote corners, these eateries are not easy to find without local guidance but are definitely worth the extra effort to seek out.

Penang food © Adrian Cheah

Desserts play a major role in Penang gastronomy. There are as many varieties as there are races in Penang! To mention a few would do injustice to the rest, so you would just have to let your nose and eyes be your guide. A word of warning though – most local desserts tend to be sweet and rich, as coconut milk, flour and sugar are the main ingredients.

Penang food © Adrian Cheah

Thanks to early Chinese migrants, Chinese cuisine ranges from Cantonese to Teochew to Hokkien to Hainanese to Szechuan cooking. There's also Penang Nyonya food, which is a combination of Chinese, Malay and some Thai. The Penang variety of Nyonya food, apparently, is different from the Malaccan or even Singaporean versions. For a touch of luxury, try a five or ten-course Chinese meal at one of the restaurants or hotels in town.

Penang food © Adrian Cheah

Indian cuisine goes by two names generally – banana leaf rice and nasi kandar. Both are hot and savoury with rice being the main staple, and a menu from north Indian tandoori and nan bread, to South Indian rice and chapati.

Nasi kandar is famously popular with Penangites, and many restaurants selling it are well known not only to those on the island but those in other states as well. It is quite common to find people from other states detouring to Penang just to stop for a meal of nasi kandar before continuing on their journey elsewhere...

Indulge! Savour!

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Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
Updated: 6 March 2019


The humble golden kee chang that are extraordinary

kee chang © Adrian Cheah

Preparation for kee chang (alkaline dumplings) starts a week in advance. Picking the jasmine rice grains out from a heap of glutinous rice is time-consuming and requires patience. The laborious task is necessary in order to obtain a translucent finish for the dumplings. If rice grains are present, the kee chang will lose their translucent appeal. I vividly remember sorting through the grains of rice when young, or as Mum would call it, “pilih the pulut”. I failed to understand then why such a tedious undertaking was even necessary since everything would be gobbled up eventually. Mum refused to entertain our rationale and would not compromise on quality. Today, being a "product" of Mum, I too have learnt not to compromise on quality, finding it rather ironic that my daughter would utter the same arguments I once did.

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Emperor Villa's "kochabi" set meals good for lunch or dinner

Emperor Villa © Adrian Cheah

Emperor Villa, a family-run business offering accommodation and dining first opened its doors to the public in September 2019. It took two years to complete the construction of its rustic villas complete with a spacious swimming pool, nestled among nine acres of greenery in the hills of Sungai Ara, Penang.

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Discover legendary handmade mooncakes by Chef Chong Kei

Mooncake © Adrian Cheah

Celebrated by the Chinese on the 15th day of the eighth lunar moon (between late September to October), the Mooncake Festival commemorates the overthrow of the Mongols, when the insurgent leaders, by way of smuggling secret messages in mooncakes, called the people to revolt.

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Jia Siang Cafe, seafood at its freshest

Jia Siang Cafe © Adrian Cheah

Being more than half a century old, I have learned to watch with my own eyes and note down the "gloriousness" that is everywhere around me. As an artist and a photographer, this singular duty of being aware has helped me capture photographs that forge the narrative in my projects and creative endeavours.

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An authentic Hakka luncheon in Balik Pulau

Hakka Village © Adrian Cheah

In Penang, where do you go for classic home-cooked Hakka favourites? To answer that, I ventured to the village of Balik Pulau, where about 30 percent of the Chinese are presumed to be Hakkas. Perched on a hillock in Pulau Betong is a restaurant located at Balik Pulau Lodge. Some recognise it as the "Hakka Village".

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Da Shu Xia Seafood House – sumptuous and fresh seafood in Penang

Da Shu Xia Seafood House © Adrian Cheah

We just want it all – fresh seafood, delicious flavours, beautiful presentations, a cosy ambiance, great service and above all, cheap prices. Yes, we do, especially Penangites!

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Half Acre Restaurant, Taiwanese flavours in Penang

Half Acre Restaurant © Adrian Cheah

When you talk about Taiwanese food, fried stinky tafu, scallion pancakes, oyster vermicelli, minced pork rice and pearl milk tea come to mind. However, at Half Acre Restaurant, you will not find any of these popular Taiwanese street food. On the other hand, you would be treated to strong Taiwanese flavours that are aggressively herbal with deeply umami.

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Sea cucumbers – back to nature cures

sea cucumber © Adrian Cheah

Marine life in Malaysian waters is full of many natural wonders. Among them is the humble sea cucumber. Locally, it is known as "gamat" in Malay and 'hai som' in Hokkien. It is scientifically called holothurians, a class of the phylum echinodermata.

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Traditional and avant-garde Asian cuisine at Maple Palace

Maple Palace © Adrian Cheah

Chinese New Year celebrations which last for 15 days offer an ideal time for family reunions as well as to catch up with old friends. When my classmates from Han Chiang High School decided to have a mini class reunion, Maple Palace was our top choice. The restaurant serves mouth-watering cuisine that is both traditional and avant-garde at the same time. It also offers festive Chinese New Year dishes synonymous with good luck and prosperity. On top of that, the quality of the delicacies at Maple Palace has been consistent throughout my visits in the past.

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Chinese cuisine at PUTIEN

PUTIEN restaurant © Adrian Cheah

We started our dinner at PUTIEN restaurant at Gurney Paragon Mall with the Starters Platter which had an assortment of four PUTIEN delights. They were cold pig's trotter jelly, seaweed with mini shrimps, braised pig intestine and braised bean curd. The cold dish of pig's trotter jelly topped with a dark chilli paste was packed with flavour and collagen. I enjoyed this dish very much.

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Festive Kuih Ee – glutinous rice balls in syrup

Kuih Ee (Thong Yin) © Adrian Cheah

Traditionally, Kuih Ee ("Tong Yuen" in Cantonese) is served on special occasions such as during weddings and the Winter Solstice Festival (between 21-23 December, about a month or so before Chinese New Year). Nowadays, Kuih Ee is available daily in Penang from certain hawkers in the Pulau Tikus and Ayer Itam markets in the morning.

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Ti Kuih to sweeten the words of the Gods

Ti Kuih © Adrian Cheah

Ti Kuih (sweet sticky rice cake) in Mandarin (nian gao) literally means "year cake" which also echoes the sound of rising abundance or prosperity for the coming year.

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