A Window to Penang’s Soul: Lost in the Taste of Time

Penang, Malaysia

It was like being stuck in a time machine.

Rusty buildings and greying walls, these features were more than mere exhibits in a forgotten museum. Neither were they centrepiece, as they defined Penang’s every street. Instead, the ancient pillars were windows to Penang’s soul, where every crack and crease revealed another yellowing page in its century-old history.

However, Penang is no longer an inhabitable, old island. With the prestige of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the ‘Food Capital of Malaysia’, it is now a thriving tourist destination. A short three day stay made me feel like I was lost in time, unable to figure out if I was living in the present or the past.

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As I strolled along Armenian Street, I was mesmerised by how Penang was a perfect marriage of old and new. Street art and abandoned houses lined the roads of Georgetown, occasionally dotted with some semblance of modernity.

Processed with VSCO with hb2 presetI also couldn’t help but to be surprised by how much was retained from the past, and how each artefact made Penang beautiful, rather than run-down and broken. In a city so rich in history and culture, it was the uptown cafes that seemed to be Penang’s resentful nod to modernity, while its cracked walls hummed on happily, seemingly unaware – and proud – of its decay.

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Not forgetting a taste of nostalgia with Penang’s hawker fare, this city has been hailed the ‘Food Capital of Malaysia’ longer than I’ve lived. I turned my 3G on and walked, in search of the best stalls to enjoy an authentic street food experience. Alas, my ambition was short-lived, and was ruined by countless ‘FAMOUS PENANG’ food stalls dotted along the street.

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I swore under my breath — for once, tourism wasn’t something I was grateful for. I decided to have a look at the menu before deciding whether to have a meal here, or to move on to another stall. However, upon approaching the entrance, I was immediately welcomed to take a seat.

“Hello gal! This one is best in Penang! Come in la, we have the best Char Kway Teow, Laksa, Oh Chien, anything you want,” the staff proclaimed. 

I hesitated, almost wanting to check if Seth Lui or Daniel Food Diaries thought so too. Suddenly, I wished I hadn’t done a single bit of research before hitting Penang. Maybe it does serve amazing Penang food? But what if it doesn’t? 

I sighed, contemplating for a long while before heading off to the Seth Lui-certified food stalls. 

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As I forged onwards, I came to appreciate the rustic beauty of Penang. Where each coffee shop is replaced by Kopitiam in Singapore, Penang doubled and intertwined its food culture even more with its city street.

The best part is that hawkers have not succumbed to a bland, common taste that would satisfy any tourist. Serving watered down versions of the original would be a rare find in this Food Capital, as each meal is enriched with bursts of flavour. Taking this vow to centre stage is the Assam Penang Laksa, where every spoonful highlights a bold sour taste that would shock any foodies’ palate.

A sip of its soup left me reeling from its acridity, and I couldn’t help but cringe from the overwhelming taste. However, as I gave it a second try, and a third, I eventually fell in love with the sheer uniqueness and boldness of its zesty flavour

Glancing back at the stall-owner, I saw his worn-out features — wrinkled skin, blemished arms and a bent-over back. I knew then, that this meal was whipped up in minutes not because of his casual ignorance, but because of his decades of experience and love for cooking.

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Indeed, in Penang, it does not matter which stall you patron, as any hawker would at least have a decade-long history to share. I talked to some, genuinely curious about how they’ve come to be part of Penang’s local food scene.

“Ahhh, the boss of this restaurant created the method of making wan tun mee himself. Last time, he thought of using the big bamboo to whack the noodles and today he opened three branches in Penang already!”

Today, Hong Kee Bamboo Noodles has been published in newspapers, magazines and is visited by celebrities and locals alike.

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Over at Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Kueh, the memory of childhood and a dreamy past was felt most strongly here.

“Our recipe has been passed down for generations and it’s been 80 years since our shop was started. This is my passion you know, and I just want to make the best nyonya kueh for my customers.”

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Indeed, a bite into the nyonya kueh brought me right back to my past. I remember the times when I would buy a rainbow kueh, and peel off each colour of the rainbow to make the delicacy last longer. With such a wide variety of kuehs handmade by the skilled craftsmen in this stall, a well-plated dish can easily become a visual and gastronomical feast.

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I was captivated, not only by the amazing people and food, but also by the seamless blend of tradition and modernity in this city state. Although a three day stay offered only a peek into Penang’s culture, I felt as if I’d been there for a long time — lost, and stuck in the taste of time.

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