Anthony Bourdain, Asia, Eastern and Oriental Hotel, Georgetown, Hermann Hesse, Jalan Penang Road, Jooi Hooi Cafe, Line Clear Nasi Kandar, Malaysia, New Lane Hawker Stalls, Penang Island, Salman Rushdie, Spice Garden, Spices, Sup Hameed, UNESCO World Heritage Sites
During the time I was in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Georgetown on Penang Island in Malaysia, I didn’t recognize the big impact it would exert on my life. But as my memory takes over from those experiences with the Straits of Malacca, I know that I’ll never be the same again.
Not only are the peoples and religions of China, India, Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka all mixed up with the remnant of former British Malaya in a dazzlingly vibrant textile of culture. What is now apparent, to the world’s intangible benefit, is a vibrant and alive composite cuisine that, for me, changed my taste forever. There is no going back. I’ve crossed a food Rubicon because of Malaysia.
Salt and pepper will never be the same again.
From the beginning, what the world wanted from bloody mother India was daylight-clear. They came for the hot stuff, just like any man calling on a tart. Salman Rushdie The Moor’s Last Sigh
Long before cars and planes needed oil and rubber, the spice trade dominated international power and wealth. The European colonization of the world was in large part driven by sugar, pepper and spices of all kinds. The British East India Company had a center in Georgetown, and not far away in Jakarta you’d find the rival Dutch East India Company, with the Portuguese in Goa, Macau, Phuket and Malacca (the Americas and Africa were additional battlegrounds). It was well known that whoever controlled the Straits of Malacca “had his hands on the throat of Venice.” In 1492 Columbus unleashed extractive colonialism, it’s why our First Nations People are called Indians, and why we’re still very much involved in comprehending this historical reality. Just check any headline in any newspaper around the world.
I must admit that my love of Asia, now a mature reality, developed in conventional ways when I was quite young. I didn’t realize that the inspiration of Claude Debussy’s La Mer on my musical life was pointing me towards an aural version akin to Hokusai wood block prints in Monet’s Giverny or Gauguin in Tahiti. My mom had our living room decorated with reproductions of his evocative South Sea Island paintings. Perhaps listening to records surrounded by Gaugain worked by osmosis. And, like many others, I read Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse in the 1960s. Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde was not far behind. Nothing extraordinary.
So when my wife Jan and I were investigating visiting Malaysia for the first time, on our way to Hà Nội in Việt Nam, I was excited finding the Eastern and Oriental Hotel in Georgetown as financially reasonable for our budget (as is all of Malaysia). I jumped at the opportunity to stay where Hermann Hesse did, allowing us to follow in his Journey to the East footsteps. Old childhood memories were waking up to mature realities.
But what’s even better than the history of this storied Sarkis Brothers Hotel from the late 19th century (they also owned the Raffles in Singapore and the Strand in Rangoon, creating a circuit for tourists) is its location. Just walk down a very short connecting street from the E&O and you’re on Jalan Penang Road. All you need to taste Georgetown!
I’ll bet you’re curious. Let’s start eating on Jalan Penang Road!
I don’t believe in the idea of The Best. My love of Asian food doesn’t mean that I am rejecting a French sole meunière in Paris or tapas in Barcelona. But the first stop on the Food Paradise Road that is Jalan Penang is not to be missed. Sup Hameed has the recommendation of CNN’s Anthony Bourdain, whose heart is in the right place introducing a Western audience to places that can get us out of our culinary comfort zone. According to Bourdain, Sup Hameed has one of the best broths of oxtail soup on earth. Arguments are over, my friends. Three cheers for this recommendation. We agree!
So do stop in and have the oxtail soup or lamb anything. Imagine all of the spices of India and Pakistan in one bowl. A daal soup, so to speak, with deep rich texture. A type of mulligatawny, a word I love. Try Sup Hameed – one of the great places on our planet. It’s probably under a few U.S. dollars, if you’re curious.
Next stop on Jalan Penang is open 24 hours a day. A good thing for this Indian Nasi Kandar place world famous for its fish head curry soup. You can order a modest size portion, so no worries. The amount of fish heads being put to use is encouraging. Legend has it that you won’t find this Indian dish anywhere in India, as it was a local Southeast Asian observation of what to do with the stock part of the fish that would make more tasty sense. You can find fish head curry in the Southeast Asian world of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia for sure. Line Clear is at the head of the list. 24 hours a day, so jet lag tastes great!
Our next stop is once again just a few blocks down from Sup Hameed and Line Clear. This is quite a street. Jooi Hooi Cafe and its side street Lebuh Leng Kwee made such a walloping impression that I devoted my previous post to just one afternoon spent there. A great spot for asam laksa, curry mee and coconut Teochow chendul for dessert (or to cool down from the balmy schwitz). Getting hungry??!!
I’d recommend going to full screen for the above picture. Here’s an important Travel Tip. At the right in the background notice a covered pedestrian overpass. Take note of it when you are in Georgetown. You can walk quicker from the E&O than by cab or rickshaw. Find the stairs to the pedestrian overpass to cross the busy Jalan Penang and go to your right as you descend the walkway. From this overpass its an easy walk (straight and then right at the next big street) to New Lane Hawker Food Stalls, probably the most spectacular street food in Southeast Asia. This connects Jalan Penang to New Lane and is well within an easy walk of staying at the E&O (or other hotels in the area). Whatever superlative label you want to use, plan a dinner at New Lane as part of walking on Jalan Penang Road (which is redundant – Jalan means street in Malay).
I’d recommend arriving early, around sunset when New Lane opens for the evening. Reserve a few seats. And then wander around the stalls to get your bearings. We opted to be right at the head of the street. Look closely at the above photo, you’ll be sharing the road with cars driving up for their take-out orders so exercise some common sense awareness as you cross from one side to the other. New Lane is short and we started by going up and down, because try as you might, eating something from everybody is not really a great idea, unless you want to put on ten pounds in one evening! So study the individual stalls first to see what hits your mood.
A word about these satays, which were right across the road from our table. This vendor is a living legend in Georgetown. The satays are marinading in a plastic bags filled with a delicious goo of spices. An amazing flavor bomb that’s a perfect appetizer, and one I can still taste. Yummy. yummy, yummy!
Also across the way was Beef Ball Soup Stall, or Sup Lembu. Star anise and cinnamon and a world of flavor, with a compressed beef ball and noodles. I was swooning at what was an aromatic broth of heavenly proportions. Bowls and sizes of everything are not the massive nonsense often found in the U.S., so trying a lot of things is easier than you’d think. Portions here are usually just perfect for one, which means that since Jan and I were sharing we honestly didn’t put on more than two pounds enjoying ourselves completely while in Georgetown. A good health tip!
“Noodles” is a great word. Filled with comedic potential and nickname ready, noodles in Asia equates to a food metaphor for long life. The longer the better. Don’t cut them and it’s desirable to slurp them in soup to show appreciation to the chef (which I know is good etiquette in Asia but still can’t bring myself to do, as my mom would have killed me making noisy sounds while eating. Maybe someday I’ll cross over!). Use your chop sticks to guide the noodle strand into your mouth, rather than cutting them.
Let’s keep walking down New Lane. Char Kway Teow is a rice noodle dish in Malaysia that is Straits Chinese in origin and not far from many Thai gravy noodles either. You’ll find great versions in Singapore as well. Each stall of course seems to say it makes the best, which is wonderful. Here’s a fantastic version at New Lane.
A word about coconut and tropical weather. If you are feeling a bit steamy, try drinking coconut water from a big green monster coconut. Cold, delicious, I’ve often experienced a drop in body temperature after enjoying one whether in Việt Nam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, or tropical Veracruz in México.
Now let’s bring in the concept of the French crêpe into Southeast Asia. I’m not sure where this food tradition originates, but let me also sing the praises of the pandan leaf. The aroma locates my taste to Southeast Asia. Mixed with coconut, you’ll encounter chendul dessert soups and kuij ketayap, a green crepe (the color is from the pandan leaf) with coconut that is like a sweet soft taquito. There is enough English left over from British Malaya that you can talk to everybody. Try one of each version!
This post is my second about Georgetown on Penang Island in Malaysia. And like the first post, I’m ending this one feeling like I’ve not even started on the extraordinary food world that’s been brewing in this city for centuries.
I’ll turn my next Malaysian blog toward the Tropical Spice Garden, where we took a cooking class and botanical tour. The heart of the old British East India Company came into clear focus and the cooking tips opened me and my wife Jan to a hands-on ability bringing Malay food back home. Got rendang?
Best, best, best,