We spent last weekend in Penang. On Sunday, determined to get out of our George Town rut (if one can ever call something as pleasurable as staying and eating in George Town a 'rut'), we drove over to the west side of the island.
Our destination was Balik Pulau, a small village that's known for its Sunday market -- which truth to tell wasn't all that interesting. It must have been so when all the buying and selling happened in the great old, now-empty market building on Balik Pulau's main street. The new structure, built by the bus terminus, is just fine -- big and airy and cleaner, I'm sure, than the old. The fish looked good, and there were the usual vegetables and fruits and dried goods. (One less-than-usual site: a vendor selling what appeared to be freshly dead geckos. A medicinal thing, I think.) There's a food court in the new building, and we'll probably explore it at some point. Stalls were set up across the road, but about half appeared to be selling clothing and such.
Nothing to capture our fancy, really. So we headed back into 'town' to hunt up some breakfast.
We just love Balik Pulau's main street, with its remaining wooden structures, a few grand George Town-style shop houses, the aforementioned old-style market building, and all sorts of places to eat. It's got such a great, almost festive atmosphere on Sunday mornings (we arrived around 9am), busy as all get out with folks in town to catch up with friends, do a spot of shopping and, of course (this is Malaysia after all!) get a good meal -- and maybe a snack too -- in before heading home.
Balik Pulau boasts what might just be the island's best siam laksa (a clearly Thai-influenced, coconut milk-based gravy heavy on the lemongrass with chewy round laksa noodles) -- something we know from our last visit. But this time around we thought we'd explore other options.
We made a circumference around the old market building and knew fairly quickly that this is where our grazing would focus, starting with a stall at the back of a coffee shop that fronts the main street. It was a simple set-up: fish and one pot on a single burner. As soon as the female half of this husband-and-wife vendor team lifted the lid from that pot, letting loose a curry-scented cloud, our initial tasting was decided.
The husband has been making and selling fish curry and rice -- nothing else -- for over 10 years. All morning the curry bubbles away in the pot, getting stronger in taste as more and more fish is added to cook. Dave opted for a whole small pomfret while I went for a 'sea bass' steak.
Absolutely fantastic they both were, bathed in a spicy curry neither lemak (made with coconut milk) nor necessarily assam (sour), but almost briney in its fishiness, much like a bouillabaise. The gravy was thick with lemongrass and shallots. We might have added seasoning with soy sauce from the table, but it seemed unnecessary. The next time we're in Penang we plan to pick up a bag of curry, fishless, and pack it home to use in our own kitchen.
The lane deadends at a welding yard. It's there that we ordered our next meal, at a busy stall catering to probably 10 or 15 tables, all of them packed. Seafood is the theme here and there's much to choose from: porridge, several kinds of noodles including some in soup and some cooked in claypots. We watched a number of dishes come off the burner and decided on seafood cooked in a gravy with yellow noodles.
After five minutes it became apparent that the wait would be long, so I wandered out to the lane to a char koay kak (fried 'carrot' cake) stall. This may have been the best version of this hawker food that we've ever eaten, even better than one that we quite like in George Town's Chow Rasta market.
There's no theatrics here. The vendor doesn't clank and clang his spatula against his griddle while tossing cubes of carrot cake into the air, he doesn't fling bean sprouts into the mix or break eggs with a flourish. Instead, he works quietly, slowly, and intently, barely lifting his spatula from the grill.
Our char koay kak included bean sprouts, egg, chinese chives, and finely chopped salted vegetable, the latter a nice addition that's new to us. The carrot cake here is cut into smaller-than-usual cubes, which makes for an excellent smoky-charred-surface to untouched-by-direct-heat-interior ratio. What's more, the cubes are so thoroughly heated through that they become creamy.
It's hard not to like char koay kak -- it's fried and greasy and tasty in that "I only allow myself this sort of thing once in a while" sort of way. But this is a char koay kak that we would go out of our way to eat again and again. Not everyday, perhaps, on order of our doctor.
Coming on the heels of that char koay kak our seafood noodles really needed to deliver. And they did, with wonderfully fresh -- and perfectly cooked -- prawns, squid and chunks of firm white fish and a light gravy more fish stock than soy sauce that echoed the taste of the seafood. We'd like to return to this place to sample the seafood porridge and claypot noodles. Everything arriving to other tables looked scrumptious.
At this point we were stuffed, but we hadn't yet had any fresh nutmeg juice -- reason in itself to head to Balik Pulau -- so we stopped in at the coffee shop famous for its mee siam.
Nutmeg juice, for which the 'peels' or skins of the fruit are squeezed, is something any visitor to Penang simply should not miss. At first sip the brain says "eggnog", so strong is the nutmeg flavor. Then it processes the fruity, slightly sour (from a Chinese salted plum that's added) quality of the drink. Nutmeg juice sounds unlikely but is entirely refreshing, and delicious.
As might be predicted, while sipping our juices we caved to the scent of mee siam wafting around the joint, and order a bowl to share. Waddling back to our car, we didn't regret a thing.
Stand facing the old market building on Balik Pulau's main street. The fish curry stall is in the lane on the left side of the market. Continue straight down the lane. The char koay kak vendor is on your left; opposite him is the seafood noodles/porridge stall. Continue around the circumferance of the market and you end up at the coffee shop serving nutmeg juice and mee siam (among other things). Across the street is a very decent asam laksa. For more on Balik Pulau go here and here.