Gurney Drive is all well and good (hard to beat the ikan bakar at Song River, though you must wait until 10pm for the vendor to fire up his griddle), but for the most part we prefer to do our Penang nighttime food crawling in Georgetown. Less traffic and fewer tacky (and for the most part, depressingly empty) bars, not to mention hawker stalls selling eats of a generally higher quality.
First up on an evening back in January, the duck and pig innards koay chiap dished up by this man and his son, at their long-running (almost thirty years) stall on Lebuh Kimberley. Their specialty makes me thank the powers that be for landing us in Malaysia almost four years ago. Despite two years residency in Hong Kong and twice that amount of time in China, I never learned to enjoy offal until I moved to Kuala Lumpur.
Koay chiap are pasta squares made from rice, tapioca, and mung bean flours that curl into fantastically chewy tubes when they hit boiling water. In this dish they share space with slivers of pig ears, stomach, intestine, and tongue, as well as some plain old pork, and duck giblets, liver, and meat. There are a few chunks of blood in there as well, and a hard-boiled egg. Everything's floating in an impossibly intense broth fragrant with five-spice and fairly redolent with that offal funk that's off-putting to some, appetite-rousing to others.
I'm not going to b.s. you - to appreciate this dish you really must enjoy 'variety meats' to some extent, or have a desire to develop said appreciation. (It is possible to order an offal-free version, though the flavor is there in the broth.)
And you must be sure that when your order of koay chiap arrives it's decorated with a blob of chili sauce (11 o'clock in the photo above). If you're a foreigner it won't automatically be added to your bowl; I learned of the stuff's existence from observing other diners drift over to the stall, bowls in hand, and dip up spoonfuls from a plastic tub. It's nothing but dried chilies and a bit of Sichuan peppercorn roasted in oil, but the sauce pairs perfectly with the aggressively flavored innards.
From innards on Lebuh Kimberly we drifted over to Carnavon Road's Chew Kee Fujian chao stall (specializing in stir-fries Fujian/Hokkien-style), and a couple of perhaps more accessible dishes: fish meat meehoon - thick slices of fillet, thick ginger coins, chopped tomato, and plenty of choy sum stems in a thin, black peppery broth made milky with, well, milk -
and chen yee foo mei,
the same variety of white fish, deep-fried until golden and crusty and served with choy sum and more ginger, in a viscous gravy poured over a bed of fried wheat noodles. It may look a mess but this dish was full of flavor, so gingery and smoky; despite their almost being lost in the gravy the wheatiness of the noodles came through loud and clear. A simple, soulful stir-fry that we will certainly seek out when we're next in Georgetown.
This vendor will never go down as the most friendly in the history of Penang, but he might be one of the hardest-working. We enjoyed watching him wrestle with the flames as we waited for our dishes to arrive. Meanwhile other tourists obviously in search of something to eat walked on by, eyeing his stall warily as they headed for Chulia Street, where more foreigner-friendly - but almost universally awful - hawker stalls were doing a knock-up trade.
Koay chiap stall, Lebuh Kimberley, Georgetown, Penang. Nights only.
Fujian chao stall, Carnavon Road almost at the corner of Chulia Street, Georgetown, Penang. Nights only.