As we get tantalizingly close to finishing work on our old shop house in George Town, Penang, I'm beginning to allow myself to imagine what it might be like to actually live there. I imagine breaking up long stretches at the computer with a walk to a favorite kopitiam for a glass of iced caffeine, or a quick hawker stall lunch -- noodles in beef broth rich with Chinese medicinal herbs perhaps, or a spicy coconut milk-rich curry mee. I contemplate having Tek Sen a 10-minute walk away on evenings when I'm just too tired to cook. And I anticipate meandering George Town's endlessly fascinating lanes during the day's best hours, early in the morning while the air is still fresh and cool and as afternoon becomes evening, when the setting sun casts a beautiful hazy glow on the city's pastel building facades.
I foresee a lot of evening strolls in Little India. There's always something going on there, always something worth seeing. On weekdays office workers congregate in the evenings at tables bunched around teh tarik stalls. Barber shops are busy, a male customer in the chair getting a trim and a shave while friends and onlookers watch and comment from chairs lined up beneath the shops' picture windows. CD shops engage in music wars, blaring Bollywood hits at top volume, drowning out the tap-tap of goldsmiths sitting out front of jewelry shops. Worshippers walk up and down China Street on their way to and from the Goddess of Mercy Temple and the small Ganesha shrine on the corner just opposite. Single devotees come to light a few sticks of incense and whole groups intent on performing a complex ceremony file in and out of Mariamman Temple on Queen Street.
Of course, this being Penang there is also food being made, sold, eaten. Several vendors proffer samosa, deep-fried gram balls, warm spice-scented mashed lentil "doughnuts" and various other savory and sweet snacks from stainless steel trays displayed on plastic-topped trestle tables. On Penang Street, a vendor and his wife steam ground rice layered with butterscotch-y Indian jaggery in tubes and serve the finished cakes, called putu, on a piece of banana leaf with shredded coconut and more jaggery. (It's absolutely delicous, a must-try if you're in Little India after 4pm).
Roti jala -- lacy griddled dough "nets" -- and curries can be found at a stall on Lebuh Pasar near Jalan Masjid Jamek (formerly Pitt Street, also known as the Walk of Harmony). I can't offer an appraisal though; the vendor's distinct unfriendliness has put me off all these years. On Queen Street there are freshly stretched, flipped, folded and griddled roti for sale, and chapati too.
Street side chapati are not so easily found in Kuala Lumpur, but in George Town's Little India are five or more five spots that make and serve the wholemeal flatbreads. On Queen Street between Lebuh Pasar and China Street an elderly woman and her husband offer a variety of curries to go with their chapati. Whether or not the chapati are fresh depends on when you arrive to their stall. If they make as if to serve you from a stack of pre-made chapati you can attempt to cajole the old woman into making you a fresh one; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
At any rate, their chicken curry is superb -- very spicy and laden with fresh curry leaves. If you're not up for a whole piece of chicken just ask for a bowl of gravy to eat with your flatbread.
Up Queen Street towards Chulia and almost directly across from the entrance to Mariamman Temple is something different: chapati grilled rather than griddled. The stall sits in front of a shop which also does roti; you order from the two men patting out the chapati and cooking them over the coals and then eat in the shop. (The shop owner will expect you to order a drink.)
I've no idea if BBQ'd chapati are done in India. But I'm glad they're done in George Town.
The fire blisters the flatbreads something fierce, but somehow doesn't leave them with a burnt flavor, just a haunting smokiness from the charcoal. Pliable in some spots, mildly crispy in others, the chapati becomes a bread-chip perfectly suited to dipping. Served alongside is a not-too-fiery, warm spices-fragrant dal featuring plenty of fresh curry leaves and another nice change of pace: chickpeas rather than the usual lentils.
Evening stalls in Little India usually don't get going until around 4:30/5pm. The place is busiest Monday-Thursday, when workers from the office buildings near/on Beach Street and other 9-to-5ers wander over for a snack before heading home to dinner.