We had plans to be in Turkey right now. But two weeks ago we decided to give ourselves more time to settle into our new home and pushed our departure back. Lucky, I guess. Or not. Turkey has become a big part of our lives over the last three years and a big part of me wishes that I was there this week. Not to make some half-baked attempt at "reporting" on the protests -- but to observe, talk to people and get a firsthand feel for the mood. We care deeply about what's going in Istanbul and the rest of the country, and where all this will end. Whether we're physically there or not, right now our hearts are in Istanbul.
Our stomachs, however, are another story.
Over the last few weeks we've eased into a routine that we could only dream about as we waited, in our suburban Penang rental, to move into our George Town shop house. Walking instead of driving, almost everywhere. Shopping at the morning wet market just three blocks from our house. Becoming regulars at certain stalls in the market and finding "our" butcher. Exchanging hellos with neighbors. And, of course, breaking up hours in front of the computer with meals and snacks out.
Perhaps we've gone a bit overboard. When all is said and done, a steady diet of hawker food can kill you. (Malaysians are, in fact, the least healthy population in southeast Asia, with high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Their devotion to street food is partially to blame.)
But there is so much goodness out there in our new hometown -- much of it literally minutes from our front door. And we've only scratched the surface. The streets of George Town present temptations often impossible to resist.
It's amazing to me, really, that so few travelers outside of Asia are aware of the culinary attractions of this city. Not to pick on Singapore, but the Lion City's self proclamations set it up for the comparison, so here goes: Southeast Asia's "street food capital?" You must be joking.
Spend a couple days just in George Town -- let alone the rest of Penang -- and such an assertion will come to seem as absurd to you as it does to me. And pesumably, also to the hundreds of Singaporeans who descend on Penang's kopitiam and hawker stalls every weekend.
I love the street food in Chiang Mai. And Saigon. And Hanoi. And Taipei and in other cities on Taiwan. But the bottom line is this: if you're contemplating a street food-fueled tour of southeast Asia you'd be crazy to skip Penang.Roast duck, sticky barbecued pork and gravy-soaked rice. Carnavon and Cheong Fatt Tze.
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.
(If you're looking for a few more reasons to visit my home town I can -- and did, for Wall Street Journal Asia -- think of five. Read them here. Not to mention the George Town Festival, on until July 7.)
UPDATE: This post generated quite a bit of discussion on a FB page. Among other tidbits, World Street Food Congress organizer KF Seetoh deemed me a "semi-retired auntie" and a colonialist, presumably because I am a foreigner who enjoys local food. Fairly offensive, but we're all allowed our opinion! You can see the discussion here, though the original poster has now closed it to comments: https://www.facebook.com/ivan.ng.56027/posts/279519462193565