'Penang is really more Hokkien than Nyonya.' Not a surprising observation, coming as it did from a Penang-born Hokkien Chinese Malaysian. But not one you'll find in most guidebooks.
When food-oriented travelers think 'Penang' (if they think of it at all) they think 'nyonya food'. Nyonya (also spelled 'nonya') are the female descendents of Chinese immigrants who, centuries ago, settled in Penang, Malacca, and Singapore (and Sumatra) and inter-married with locals and adopted local customs ('baba' are their male counterparts). Nyonya cuisine is likewise a marriage, of Chinese and Malay (and a bit of Indian, in Malacca) ingredients and techniques.
In actuality nyonya food is not thick on the ground in Penang. There are a couple nyonya hawker specialties but few nyonya restaurants - which most locals wouldn't bother with anyway, believing that dishes as time-consuming and laborious to make as those claimed by the nyonya are best left to home cooks and better eaten in private residences.
What is plentiful in Penang is Chinese-origin hawker food. Penang's population, unusually for Malaysia, is mostly Chinese, and the Chinese immigrants who settled in Penang so many years ago came mostly from the southern coastal province of Fujian. Which brings us back to the assertion that in Penang, Hokkien food rules.
Before our trip up north I spent a couple of hours with Sharon and Nick, proprietors of a Kota Kemuning restaurant specializing in Penang food. I asked them, as I'd already asked every Penang-ite I know, to name one iconic Penang dish. Nick, the aforementioned Penang-born Hokkien Chinese Malaysian, answered without hesitation: 'Koay teow th'ng. If you haven't eaten koay teow th'ng you haven't been to Penang.'
Koay teow th'ng Penang's iconic dish? Not assam laksa? Or rojak? Nor nasi kandar? I was intrigued. Which is how Dave and I ended up, early on a Saturday morning, hanging our heads over steaming bowls at Penang's Fook Cheow Cafe.
Koay teow th'ng sounds dull. It's just flat, wide rice noodles (koay teow, better known for their starring role in stir-fried char koay teow) in a clear soup (th'ng = soup; 'tang' in Mandarin). Many of Penang's koay teow th'ng stalls serve a duck version, but the stall at Fook Cheow sticks with basic pork.
Ordering a 'complete' brings a bowl brimming with - in addition to noodles, stock, lettuce, and pork slices - pork innards, blood jelly, chicken feet, and fishballs. This I learned too late; since I didn't specify otherwise my bowlful turned out to be a foreigner-friendly version, with only fishballs in addition to pork meat (I'll know better next time).
What's special about this dish are the impossibly silky yet toothsome noodles, the deep, rich meat stock, and the garnish that makes koay teow th'ng what it is: chopped garlic and crackling fried to a caramel-ish crunch. The folks working the stall add a spoonful to every order, but those in the know make a beeline for a metal bucket of the stuff perched at the front edge of the prep counter. Observation tells me that, when filling one's saucer, it is perfectly acceptable to fish around a bit in search of those extra few pieces of crackling.
Our tablemate, a Saturday regular who, unsurprisingly, labels this stall's koay teow th'ng Penang's finest, showed us how to maximize the koay teow th'ng experience. Sip the soup separately, she advised, and don't dump the crackling-garlic mix directly into the bowl.
Instead, chopstick up a few noodles and carefully arrange them in the bottom of your soup spoon. Place atop this koay teow pillow a fishball (obviously hand-formed, fresh and fishy, light but with a bit of bounce) or some meat (or blood, or stomach or liver). Add plenty of garlic and a crackling or two and, finally, a soy-soaked piece of chili or three.
Bring spoon to mouth and marvel at the range of textures and tastes that one simple soup noodle can deliver.
Koay teow th'ng stall at Fook Cheow Cafe, Lorong Amoy, Penang. Early morning till they run out.