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2013.06.07

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Junko Igeta

I disagree to your remarks,
"At the recent World Street Food Congress in Singapore, organizer KF Seetoh insisted that street food "is a cuisine, not a physicality. "To which I say: "Baloney!" You can't take this food, put it in a prettyshopping mall food or restaurant, and expect it to taste the same."

Japan & Korea has taken a lot of their street food into Food Courts of Shopping Malls quite successfully.

While I agree that rustic street food on smokey, smelly, noisy streets do have an exotic appeal (which I do enjoy as well), it doesn't mean it cannot be enjoyed in a more "dressed up" and a more "comfortable" environment. It may not give you the same experience but can the taste be the same? I would think so.

Recently, on a trip to Taiwan, a TV station did a challenge. They went to a famous street food hawker. Took a shopspace beside it and they did this.

Same hawker cooked same dish in the 2 completely different environments and serve it at the street environment. They asked the 20 patrons served (whom had no idea on where the food was prepared) to pick which dish came from the street and which came from the shop. 17 picked the one prepared at shop as the dish that was prepared from the street stall.

Then they reversed and repeated the same test with another 20 patrons seated inside the airconditioned shop. 14 of them correctly picked the dish that was prepared inside the shop.

So what did this say? Street food CAN be taken and served into a different environment and yet still taste the same. But yes, the experience of eating at a street stall and eating at a food court in a mall can be a world of difference.

Robyn

Hi Junko -- thanks for your comment. That has not been my experience with street food in Malaysia. I've yet to have char koay teow in a shopping mall food court, let alone a restaurant, that even approaches the tastiness of one cooked on the street, over charcoal, in George Town.
And I've had so many Singaporeans in Penang tell me, "I come here because the street food in Singapore has lost a certain something. It doesn't taste as good there anymore as it does here." I don't think they are referring to exhaust fumes.
Theoretically, anything is possible. But when street food is "cleaned up" homogenization often happens too. Rents go up and old-time hawkers who can't afford it leave the biz. There is a certain indefinable something that makes food delicious, truly truly delicious. It's the difference between pasta at an Olive Garden and pasta at an Italian restaurant where the chef-owner is in the kitchen. It could be love or pride, or specialization. It could be something else. But I've eaten in enough shopping mall food courts in SE Asia to know you don't find it there (maybe Korea and Japan are different, and my experience of street food in those countries is too limited to allow me to comment on them).
We obviously don't see eye-to-eye but I respect your opinion and appreciate your observations.
Thanks for reading, and for commenting.
Robyn

Lizzie

I spent a very happy 4 days in Georgetown eating my way around. I came home rather plump. Gorgeous pictures.

Robyn

Thanks Lizzie! Most visitors to George Town do -- leave rather plumper than when they arrived, that is.

umami

Hi Robyn, being from both countries I have to say it is not a zero-sum game. Example, the success of Mdm Kwan and prior to that, her first restaurant Sakura which served hawker dishes in a more refined environment. Her satisfied customers know that there are probably more tasty versions out there, in grittier surroundings,and patronise both types of places probably equally, but I doubt they cast those street stalls in such a romanticised light.

Most Singaporeans are aware that our hawker food is not as exciting as,say, Ipoh or Penang, which is why they will travel out there to eat. That is not to say we do not have some good ones, neither do do we collectively subscribe to the illusion of being a street food capital. If you are referring to the world street food congress, it is more than just a collection of street food stalls from Singapore, there are a few to represent the local food, but majority are from many other countries. Logistics etc meant some counties with rich food cultures were not represented. It may cost more for what is is, but it exposed people to food they never otherwise would have tasted or have the time etc to visit. I had to go three times to just about cover most of the dishes, almost all amazing in taste and also back-story. In addition, there was a 2-day dialogue that went to some lengths to really talk about street food in the world, its problems, its future etc. It is a worthwhile cause and the organisers did a heck of a job, and I know they do not get much monetary rewards for it. Maybe next year you might find time to participate.

Ling

As a Singaporean who has done precisely what the Singaporeans you've met in Penang were doing, I wholeheartedly agree with your observations, Robyn. Penang is one of the last bastions of authencity when it comes to a true street food experience for what used to be commonplace in SG. I'm looking up the next long weekend to fly up and recover some of my heritage...

Robyn

Hi Umami, Thanks for your comment.I disagree with most everything you've said. ;) But that doesn't mean we can't converse.
A) "Street food capital" is a term that has been deployed by Singapore's own tourism body in the past. It has been very effective (both the work of the body itself and the term) in convincing westerners that if they aim to eat street food in Asia they *must* go to Singapore. My comments (which are a little bit tongue-in-cheek; as a freelancer I hate reading, and being asked to write, those "best of" list-y type pieces) here are less an attempt to claim a "title" than to open traveller's eyes to the possibility of Penang as a street food destination. Singapore does many things very well. It's upscale restaurant scene, bar scene, shopping are all (IMO) better than Malaysia's. It is greener and cleaner city -- something I wish that Penang, and the rest of Malsaysia, would learn from.
But the region's "street food capital"? No. I didn't invent the term, and it's only bec. it's been used in Singapore's tourism campaigns in the past that I feel able to raise it as a point of debate.
B) The World Street Food Congress -- a "good cause", but for the benefit of whom? What I see is a strong personality with certain ideas about what street food should be (ie. like Singapore's) proposing to figure out ways to "professionalize and standardize" world street food along those lines. I also see alot of the same faces, and voices, forming a "committee" to discuss the issue.
I wrote on the WSFC in my WSJA street food column earlier this year. I called for new voices, the voices of pple who are really working it on the ground. Do we really need to know, again, how much Anthony Bourdain loves plastic stools in Vietnam? You could argue that his involvement, and that of a NOMA rep (to which I really have to say -- Why?) in a street food event will draw more attendees to that very expensive dialogue. But for what end? When you call in the big guns -- who, to be honest, really have little day-to-day connection with street food or street food vendors (Bourdain does not comb the streets to do his own research for his shows, like other TV travel food show hosts he is squired about by local fixers and his producers) to form a committee that has charged itself with coming up with ways to structure the evolution of street food around the world it all starts to seem like showmanship.
And no, I did not attend this year. I was invited as an observer but a) I had originally planned to be in Turkey during he Congress and b) I write for publications that do not allow me to accept free food/lodging. I'm not sure how observing what, judging from the Bon App piece I link in this post, sounds like a few talking heads (all male but one, most big names, see my comments above) talking about street food might make me feel differently about it usefulness. (If the Bon App writer got it wrong in her piece it's probably worth pointing that out to Bon App.)
Let's be clear: KF Seetoh seems to view Singapore's street food evolution as a model for the rest of the region. I find that presumptuous and objectionable. I suspect there are others out there who agree. I suspect they were not included in the Congress.
C) Madam Kwan -- yes she does OK (halal) versions of char koay teow etc. What can you say? It's fine for restaurant street food. It's acceptable. But as a food-oriented type I'd rather skip a meal than go for "acceptable". If blindfolded I could tell the difference between Madam Kwan's CKT and that cooked by the Uncle on Siam Street in Penang. And if I met a tourist with 2 days to taste Malaysian food I would beg them to eat Uncle's not Madam Kwan's.
The two versions are apples and oranges. This is all very subjective, of course.
D) Please -- enough with this accusation of "romanticizing" street food. "Romanticize" or some variation thereof is a word that is usually deployed by insiders to discount the opinions of outsiders. Have you ever noticed that a Penang-ite who raves about Penang's street food (I was talking to one this morning) is never accused of "romanticizing" it?
I reject the notion that insiders (in this case, Malaysians/Singaporeans/Asians) possess some deep knowledge or special insight that I and other westerners lack, that enables them to see and judge street food for what it truly is.
I don't wear rose-coloured glasses. I live on a street that has parking problems and sewage/drainage issues bec of the presence of hawkers. I readily admit that eating street food in Penang can be sweaty (I indulge before a shower, and never in business attire), and smelly. This does not make me love it more. Unlike Bourdain -- who, I think, can rightly be accused of romanticizing certain aspects of street food -- I do not argue that exhaust fumes add pleasure to the experience. (I do agree with Bee though, that the immediacy of street food -- watching your cook prepare your food right under your nose -- adds to its allure.) I have never suggested that eating noodles by a dirty stinky gutter makes them taste better.
I like the street food in Penang because it is tasty (not all of it, of course -- I don't subscribe to the notion that just bec it's on the street it is delicious). I'm about flavor, and experience to the extent that it truly adds to the pleasure, not in the macho travel-food TV host-y sense of "the dirtier, the more out there, the crazier, the better".
It's mildly insulting to suggest to an outsider who loves and touts Asian street food that he or she is romanticizing it. Please judge our arguments based on their merits, not on the presumption of ignorance/inability to see things for what they really are. (But thank you, you may have planted the seed for a future street food column.)
All that said, I appreciate your reading. And I really do appreciate your comment. It made me think about why I feel the way I do about the topic. We shall agree to disagree. With respect, Robyn

Nate @ House of Annie

Well said, and well-fed Robyn!

And how mean of you to withhold the info on the location of the superb thosai :-P

Cris C

All I can add to the discussion is this: Neon green colored cendol has never tasted as good as the authentic pandan-leaf-colored thing.

I haven't tried Hainanese chicken rice in Georgetown, but that dish is something that has typically been really well done in Singapore's old hawker centers and kopi tiams. Not sure about the new mall hawker places though.

Bee

Hi Junko,

I agree with Robyn on her POV, street food off the street is just not the same. Take a simple example: the famous Teochew cendol at Penang Road, and the fancy, AC-blasted, sit-down cendol restaurant just 20 meters away from the original stall owned by the same vendor carrying the same logo. People (tourists and locals alike) would still flock to the original street stall, queue up under the sun, standing up and eating the cendol right in front of the stall, and no one would patronize the restaurant. The thing about street food is that it's essentially the complete experience, not just the food itself. What makes it so darn delicious and special is the complete package: watching the vendor preparing your order, the anticipation that your order is coming, the first taste of the goods, and of course, the sweat, noises, smells, and exhaust fumes. When you take all those things away, it's just not going to feel the same. At the street food congress, Bourdain said this: "...pho tastes better on a low plastic stool in Vietnam amid durian and diesel fumes.

So to your point: Street food CAN be taken and served into a different environment and yet still taste the same. Yep, it might taste somewhat similar, but it's just not going to feel the same or give the same kind of satisfaction (or in Malay, "puas hati"), in my honest personal experience.

Bee

Robyn - what a wonderful write-up. Love all the photos and really not good as I am reading this on empty stomach. Have you tried Hutton Lane Kuey Teow Th'ng? In my opinion, it's probably the best, better than the ones at Carnovan Street. Go there late morning before they are sold out (maybe 11 am) when their broth is just crazy delicious with pork fats floating on top of the soup, ahhhh, heavenly.

When Patty Unterman (SF Examiner Food Critic for those who don't know) came to Penang, she told me one thing: "I've never been to a place with such delicious and varied foods in such a small place." She is coming back to Penang again next year as she misses the legendary Penang street food.

Chris

I shout it from the mountain every chance I get abt the food in Penang!! There is absolutely no comaprison. The funniest thing is that a lot of hawkers in KL or SG will advertise "Penang CKT", "Penang wantan mee" etc. Does that not prove Pg has the most amazing street food?? I had the opportunity to try "street food" in the basement in Lot 10 a couple of years when I was back (from Canada) and it just lacked that certain je ne sais quo. Of course the locals would joke that sanitation has killed off the umami (for lack of a better word)! I think it is the love and devotion the hawkers put into their pride and joy that can never be duplicated. Sorry for being sappy but we are talking Penang food!!

Robyn

Nate -- the thosai is a recent discovery that I am keeping for my street food walks. A girl has to make a living. ;)

jotarozen

I agree with you wholeheartedly on your observations of the Singaporean claims to having the best street food.

I also note that they tend to push things their way, for example - the use of the word Peranakan.
Coming from Baba-Nyonya heritage and growing up in Penang, we had never heard of the word Peranakan. It was either Baba this or Nyonya that. Speaking to my Baba-Nyonya friends from Melaka, they are of the same opinion.

Even the Baba-Nyonya Mansion in Church Street calls themselves Peranakan! My ancestors must be turning in their graves.

Robyn

Cris -- so true! True pandan flavour is lovely. The fake stuff is .... tasteless. Yes, I would agree that Hainan chicken is considered a Singapore dish. Which of course doesn't mean it can't be done well in George Town, too. (And in Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, etc etc.)

Thanks Bee. The amazing thing about koay teow th'ng is there are SO many versions of it just within GTown (let alone the rest of Penang) and they all taste different. Broth is a very subjective thing. Like you I usually prefer it hearty, but the other day I drank a koay teow th'ng broth that was impossibly light and cure, just the essence of the meat in a light liquid form. It was lovely. But maybe today or tomorrow I would prefer sth heartier.
BTW are you referring to the koay teow th'ng ON Hutton Lane or on the sidestreet OFF Hutton Lane near Penaga Hotel?

jotarozen -- that is a very interesting observation. I have no clue as the the genesis of the term "Peranakan" but you've made me curious. Shall investigate further. Thank you!

Bee

Robyn - I agree, there are so many variations of Koay Teow Th'ng, those freshed cooked with minced pork, those with a deeply flavorful broth, and ones with the lightest dried-sole fish flavored broth. I also think that Penang fish balls are the best in all of Asia: springy, QQ, and such great taste unlike the flour-laden ones that expand once cooked found outside of Penang. KTT is my absolute Penang comfort food. The ones I mentioned is the one which you have written before. Cross street of Amoy and Hutton Lane. I thought it was excellent, during my last trip back I couldn't stop eating there:the fish balls and the broth at 11 am. http://eatingasia.typepad.com/eatingasia/2013/06/george-town-the-state-of-the-stomach-street-food-in-penang.html

Gastronautdiary.blogspot.com

I have three points to make. Firstly, it’s meaningless to compare cities and their street food and argue which is the better. For example, the Nyonya food of Penang, Malacca, Singapore, and even Indonesia are different. I shall not even go into Thailand’s Nyonya cuisine. While they all come under the umbrella of ‘Nyonya’, they have each evolved over generations in their respective locales. They each bear different marks of ingredients, flavor, and stylistic emphasis, brought about by geography, demography, culture, etc, etc. For example, Penang Nyonya has Thai influences while I detect the Cristang element in the Malaccan version. Singapore’s is closer to the Malaccan. Having said that, we all swear by the food we grew up with; so every particular style of food will have its adherents. Therefore, arguing on something as subjective as personal taste in food – and hoping to reach some definitive judgment on it -- is ultimately futile and pointless.

Secondly, WSFC as a discussion platform might not be perfect, but hey, we have to start somewhere. And, it’s just the inaugural instalment. The disappearance and/or mutation of street food is a pattern in all developing/newly affluent societies. It is a cultural change that accompanies urban development. WSFC helps shine the spotlight on this phenomenon. It makes people aware and interested in street food from all over the world, and gets them thinking and discussing about the issues connected with street food. Are the selected council members the most ideal persons for the job? Only time will tell. Their immediate challenge, I think, is to keep an open mind, keep the conversation going, and work together to further illuminate critical issues such as heritage preservation, government involvement, career prospects, business challenges, etc.

Thirdly, we always equate ‘good’ and ‘authentic’ with the old. When we travel we like to see things that have remained, so to speak, in a time warp. I am guilty of this myself. Old architecture, old food, old cultures, appeal to us. But are such expectations fair? It is the right of every society to progress; for its people to enjoy better lives through commerce, technology, politics, etc. But when such advances result in loss of traditional foods, and other similar things, we lament the loss of ‘authenticity’ and ‘the good old days.’ The implication is this: that it’s okay for us to move forward, but when others do so, they’re being shortsighted and callous of their heritage. Isn’t this arrogance and chauvinism?

Robyn

Gastronaut, thanks for your comment. I welcome the discussion. I'm not sure if you read my reply to Umami. I'll answer your points, but with a bit of repetition.
A) Thank you for the Nyonya cuisine primer. I am aware of local variations (you forgot Kelantan Nyonya in your round-up).
As I wrote to Umami, my "best" label was partly tongue-in-cheek, a rejoinder to Singapore Tourism's "street food capital" campaign. When you claim to be a street food capital you are opening yourself up for rejoinders. I would like travelers to know that George Town (and Penang) is a street food destination. That is all.
And while I agree that it is useless to label any city's XYZ food "best" -- bec taste is so subjective -- I am going to continue to assert that George Town's street food *scene* is better. Not bec I get exhaust with my noodles, but bec street food here is everywhere, on almost every block in kopitiam and from individual hawker stalls. It is easily accessible -- no need to duck into a shopping mall or a large hawker center to find it. When you walk in George Town the streets smell like food, most hours of the day. That, to me, spells a superior street food scene. For lovers of street food it doesn't get much better. You of course are free to disagree.
B) Yes, of course, as urban areas develop street food will mutate. It does not *have* to disappear. And *how* it mutates can be controlled. As I stated previously, my prob with the WSFC is that its organizers start from the premise that "the way it happened in Singapore is a model for other countries." I don't agree. (Just as I don't agree that, for all its merits, Singapore's urban development is also a model for all other Asian cities to aspire to.) And I'm unconvinced that packing the Congress with celebrities and others who aren't really down there "on the street", so to speak, is the way to introduce strong oppositional views to that stance. I'll stand by my assertion that the Congress could stand to benefit from steering away from the glitz and seeking knowledge from unknowns. (And no, I'm not referring to myself there.) We'll see what happens with Year 2.
Would pple be unaware of street food all over with the world without the Congress? I think that in this age of food blogs, that is debatable.
C) I deliberately steered away from using the word "authentic" in this post, so please don't put words in my mouth or ascribe thoughts to my brain. I've lived and traveled extensively in developing countries, and I've reported and written on heritage and conservation and the push-pull between the two and urban development.I like to think I have a pretty clear-eyed view of these issues, even when I travel (perhaps even more so when I travel). I'm not displaying a time-warpy, nostalgic love of the "old-timey" by expressing a fondness for George Town's street food culture.
That said, I understand where you're going with your third point. But I think I speak from a unique position -- I am living, right now, in city that is struggling with how to balance the "old" with "progress". I talk with people in George Town every day. I am not a nostalgic outsider focused on preserving "heritage" at the expense of "progress" for the locals. I know a dirty, decrepit old building when I see one. I also know, from experience -- having just finished renovations on a late 19th century shop house in the city -- that "old" buildings can be made liveable. And I know that "progress" for George Town's and Penang's street food culture doesn't have to look like Singapore's, Hong Kong's or Shanghai's.
When it comes to hawker food here Penang-ites are fanatically proud. No disrespect intended -- but they tell me "we don't want to be Kuala Lumpur. We don't want to be Singapore. We don't want to be Hong Kong."
What I think is arrogant is when "we" assume that others share our view of progress. Of course it is the "right" of every society to progress. But who's definition of "progress" do "we" assume they should subscribe to?

Shira Schnitzer

I'm thinking a return to Penang would make a very good honeymoon...

Robyn

Oh, wow Shira -- congratulations! I think you are right, lots of great honeymoon-worthy places to stay in town now. Do let me know if you do so we can share a meal and a drink!

Doug

Great post and interesting discussion. I wholeheartedly agree with your comments about street food. As you mention, when there is a shift from the street to more "comfortable--modern--hygienic" quarters, the rent and other costs increase and the economy of scale results in a different product. My favorite rumah makan in Indonesia was offered a deal by an oil company to provide meals for its staff. It would have meant much more money, but would have required they add staff and produce on a larger scale. Because of that, they turned it down. The good street vendors know how much they can cook for a day and if you're late, too bad.
I look forward to the day that I'm able to return to Penang to enjoy some of its treats. And I hope it will be while you're in town so I can book a walking tour.

Robyn

Thanks Doug, for your comment. Yes, that's an aspect of street food worth pointing out -- economy of scale. Meeting rent in a shopping mall food court would require serving for more than the 3-4 hours a day some of our fave vendors here serve (as you said -- if you're late, you're out of luck). I think street food vendors on the street, the good ones, also benefit from free advertising. You're walking down the street, you see/smell something delicious, you see others enjoying the food, and sometimes you decide to stop and eat when you hadn't planned to. I'm not sure how well that works in an enclosed food court environment when customers wouldn't normally be there, near a vendor, unless they have decided it's time to eat.
Anyway -- thanks for reading. This obviously requires more "scientific" research.

Rich

interesting debate aside, I read your blog and this post in particular and sometimes feel that you have carved out the most individual and idyllic lives for yourselves. i'm envious, but take great vicarious pleasure in imagining your days in penang.

incidentally, i didn't realise the streetfood was unhealthy. i mean - yes, it's fried, but i always thought of it as "real" food, as opposed to weird processed food that our lives are stuffed with in the west.

thanks,

I always enjoy your site.

Robyn

Hi Rich, thanks for your kind words. We do work very hard, for not much money. But we really enjoy our work and not everyone can say that. And we live somewhere that we love, in a house that (after a long wait) is just as we would want it to be. So .... we feel very lucky. I do feel in a way that finally, now in George Town, we are kind of living the "freelancer" life that a lot of people imagine freelancers live (and that most freelancers don't live).
Well, there's a lot of fat in the street food here ... if it's not pork fat it's probably coconut milk. Cholesterol can be a worry if you eat too much of it. So we try for moderation. Not always successfully. ;)
Thanks for stopping by.

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