When up in Penang we tend to spend a lot of time in Little India. That's partly a function of proximity -- we stay just a few blocks away, on Armenian Street, and morning and evening strolls invariably carry us through the area.
Then there's the eats. Honestly, Indian food in Kuala Lumpur just can't compare to what's on offer up north. So we store up our cravings, and then kind of go nuts when we hit George Town.
Last year Kuala Lumpur's municipal authorities 'upgraded' the Little India behind Sentral Station. When we arrived in KL we loved walking the tip of Jalan Tun Sambanthan, with its messy shops blaring music, always-packed sidewalks, and general atmosphere of controlled chaos. In the lead-up to Deepvali there was no better place in the city to be.
That part of town is now very purple, somewhat Disneyland-like ... and rather soulless.
Happily -- thanks perhaps to its UNESCO World Heritage status -- George Town has no similar plans to bland-ize its own Little India. So if you find yourself in the vicinity, devote some time -- preferably early in the morning or after the sun starts to weaken -- to a wander around the patch of city roughly bordered by Chulia, Beach, Pitt (aka Masjid Kapitan Keling) and Bishop streets. They're loud, colorful, and permeated with the scent of steam rising from big pots of curry, incense rising from everywhere, and tasty things cooking on the street and in doorways, on grills and deep-fryers and griddles.
In the evenings, there's puthu. Puthu bambu, to be specific, but for these puthu stainless steel tubes substitute for bamboo.
Rice flour, jaggery, a bit of steam and some fresh grated coconut. Doesn't sound like much, does it? But this sweet snack is what I'd call a sleeper -- divine, in other words.
To make the puthu ground rice and jaggery are pressed into the metal tubes, which are then placed over a steamer. After 5 or so minutes the rice cakes are unmolded and garnished with a bit more jaggery and fresh coconut.
What's special about these puthu is the ratio of jaggery to ground rice, and the quality of the jaggery itself. It's caramel-ish, almost butterscotch-y. The steam softens the sugar to the point that it's almost oozing from the rice cake, which is soft, almost cloud-like, and fragrant.
The vendor always has a few newspaper-wrapped packets ready to go, but the puthu wilt in their enclosure -- best avoided. Instead, ask for (insist on -- gently -- if you have to) and wait for the vendor to pull a fresh batch from the steamer. Ask that your rice cakes be unmolded onto a piece of banana leaf and a plate, if one's available.
Then, dive in directly (with your right hand, please) right there on the street, standing in front of the stall. (Bring some tissues.)
Also worth trying: kolkatai, sweet steamed dumplings made of white rice flour, black rice flour, or gram flour - and coconut. The texture is chewy, a bit gummy, but pleasing. The white rice flour kolkatai are reminiscent of an austere macaroon. Wonderful in their own right but if I'm to be honest, merely a consolation prize if the puthu aren't available.
Puthu stall, corner of China and Penang streets, George Town, Penang. From about 4 or 5pm, most days.