Penang is said to have some of the best street food in all of Asia. Certainly there is no shortage of it. Hawker stalls are everywhere. There’s no excuse for going hungry, you can eat at any time of the day or night. I love to walk the streets of George Town at night. The balmy weather, the street lights, the colour, the sound of food sizzling in woks and above all the smell of many different spices wafting into the night air and playing games with my taste buds.
Even after nearly 20 yrs of coming to Penang, Little India still excites me with it’s busy narrow streets, loud Bollywood music blaring from corner cd shops, coconut stalls, flower shops, saris, jewellery, Indian sweets, sundry stalls, spice shops, chapatis, dosa, curries and lassis. In fact Little India has it all, not to mention a few temples thrown into the mix.
For many years we lived on the street food. We loved the variety and flavours that we couldn’t get in Asian food back home. We were training hard with our Tai chi master every day, lunches and afternoon teas were all local cafes and dinners were in food courts or on the street. We were younger too and our bodies coped with foods that we realised in later years were not always nutritionally great. Every now and then we were treated to a meal cooked by our local friends and we tasted the difference in the quality of a home cooked meal and the somewhat greasy equivalent from a street hawker.
We also noticed the difference in the colour of home cooked food. I could never understand how the veggies on the street and at the Nasi Kandar stalls stayed looking so bright & fresh, until I realised that they were all cooked with MSG. I should have realised why I always felt so thirsty after eating at a favourite vegetarian cafe.
Except for one bout of food poisoning when we stupidly ate icecream on an island that used generators and turned them off for nearly half of each day, we never got sick. And food was cheap. We would spend about $15-20 per day for both of us and that was eating more upmarket than a local person, eating say, a Char Kwaoy Chow or Bee Hoon for about 70cents. But even with all the exercise the Patient Partner gained weight every time we were in Penang. We rarely had the feeling of total well being. We could argue that this was due to the heat and lack of air quality that we are so fortunate to enjoy in Australia but we also realise now that we were not getting a totally nutritious diet.
Whilst Asians have grown up on a diet of noodles and rice we have not. Our bodies need different nutrients according to our location and upbringing. Interestingly enough the health and body shape of many Asians, especially the Chinese, who have been lured into the world of the west & its fast foods has changed dramatically. And, so have we. In Australia we eat very well and we realise that if we want to stay young and active in old age we need to fuel our bodies with what they need most. Great quality food, exercise, pure water and clean air (unfortunately clean air is not always available in Malaysia!! )
Street Food in Asia is so much a part of its culture and heritage that it can’t just be ignored. We still love to sit at a street stall or in a local kopi shop for a drink with friends, to relax after an early morning Tai Chi Session and to soak up the atmosphere of the amazing city that we have adopted as our second home.
Even before my new friend fructmal began doing her damndest to change my life we found we enjoyed Asian street food less each year.
For this couple of foodie nerds who spend each Saturday of every week hunting & gathering at whatever farmers market happens to be on, a plate of fresh, organic veggies is far more appealing than a plate of greasy noodles cooked in blackened oil and doused with MSG
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not against Asian food. During our 18 yrs of traveling we’ve been lucky enough to sample some amazing local food from several Asian countries. Tastes we would never have had in Australia. How could we ever have known what Yak butter, buffalo curd, smelly tofu, idlis with coconut chutney or tarantula legs tasted like if we only ate lettuce & bean sprouts!!
If you happen to be on a two or three week holiday go for it. Try and taste all you can. Experiment like crazy and enjoy the local food and drink. If food intolerances are not an issue then a few weeks of eating food that may taste great but is perhaps not nutritionally great won’t do you any harm.
But living long term in Asia is a different story. We don’t want to compromise the health that we enjoy. We love the quality of the food we buy in Melbourne. We make it a challenge there to stay away from the processed crap found in supermarkets and enjoy our day at farmers markets stocking up on fresh veg, organic eggs, locally caught fish and seasonal fruit for the week ahead.
Buying quality fresh food in Penang can be difficult, though recently a few small farms have started growing organic or chemical free fruit & veg. One of these is Happy Farm at Relau, an organic farm run by Mr Lee, a hard working young man with just an acre of seasonal produce. On the day we visited his farm there was not a lot ready to be harvested but what we did buy such as lettuce, cucumbers, Bok Choy and pea sprouts were absolutely beautiful. What we didn’t eat immediately stayed fresh and tasted delicious even after several days.
Mr Lee also runs a delivery service. A package of available veg of the week will cost very little. Real Food, a vegetarian cafe at Straits Quay that run a farmers market on the 3rd Sunday of each month, is the pickup point.
Should you decide to take a trip out to the farm make sure you check out Mr Lee’s beehives. You can have a really close look at these because the bees are the non stinging variety. I’ve never seen this kind of bee before, and what was even more interesting was the pot as I think it’s called, which stores the honey. There were only a few of these in each hive, which, by the way, is a rather expensive tree stump with an entrance the same as a hole in a branch. The nectar is collected from the surrounding tropical fruit trees so it should taste quite amazing. Extracting the honey from the pots is done manually and is incredibly time consuming. Mr Lees’ hives are quite new so at the moment there is only enough honey for his family but he hopes that in the future there may be enough to sell.
A stones throw from Happy Farm is Wonder Wilder Farm. We have yet to visit this one although we have eaten some of their lovely herbs at a local restaurant where an interesting talk was given about the farm and the meal was cooked with the the creative flair of Chef Mathijs Nanne.
Much of Penangs’ fresh produce comes from the Cameron Highlands where the temperature is cooler and conditions are more conducive to growing a greater range of veg.
Other than that what we see in street markets and supermarkets is brought in from overseas, often Indonesia or China, and since we are finding out more each year about the chemicals used on and in their food production then we are probably better giving them a big miss, although I’m not sure that what is grown in Malaysia is any better!
We can’t complain these days about the lack of Health Food, or organic shops as they are called here in Penang. I guess this is a bit of a misnomer because not everything in them is organic! They are popping up almost as fast as cafes in Penang and in areas I haven’t yet checked out.
However, some are a bit short on what I would call Health foods, as they appear to be selling lots of tinned powders and packaged goods, often from China, and much of it is soy based.
From what I see they have nothing much that is to do with health and I don’t shop in these.
On a positive note there are shops such as I.E Organic in Pulau Tikus and Just Life at Hillside in Tanjung Bunga that have a wide range of healthy products including fresh organic veggies and free range eggs.
We do most of our buying at IE as it’s a bit closer to us. Just Life is further out of town and can be a little more expensive. The staff at I.E. are lovely, especially Sam who runs the shop as well as the wonderful little adjoining cafe.We love to eat here, the food is a healthy take on local dishes such as the Hakka Lei Cha (Thunder Rice), a spicy Rendang dish, Pineapple Rice, Vietnamese Egg Rolls, Fried Bee Hoon, a superb Laksa as well as an Indonesian Lodeh Rice and Nasi Lemak.
There are also a few set menus that include an apple cider or longan & honey drink and either soup or dessert, and if you like you can upgrade for an extra RM4 and have their delicious sugar free ice-cream. Why wouldn’t you?!! And if you happen to be lactose intolerant then they do have a vegan icecream. The prices are very reasonable, main meals are around RM 11.50 to about RM 15. Set meals are around RM 12.50 ( so cheap for this quality of food) and all ingredients where possible are organic or chemical free.
As for dessert, the cakes are hard to resist. Made using coconut oil, free range eggs and coconut sugar I can rarely get out of the cafe without devouring one of them at least. ( I could probably eat two!!) Their chocolate & walnut brownie with a scoop of double chocolate ice cream is a must have!!
Tip: If you happen to visit this cafe and have a food intolerance such as Gluten, Fructose or Lactose then please let them know what you can’t eat. I have found them to be extremely happy to avoid any problem foods you might have in certain meals.
Pulau Tikus is an easy trip from George Town on the bus. The 101, 102,103 & 104 will take you. Get off at the Burmese Temple & Reclining Buddha and walk past the temples to Burma Rd. Turning left, cross over the road and you will find Solok Moulmein on the right. The Interesting Pulau Tikus market is on the right and if you like markets this is well worth a visit. Inside the market is a small stall called LSY Health & Organic selling a small range of health foods including some vegetables & fruit. If you feel like a bit of healthy refreshment on the go then do try one of their organic juices.
Also in the market you will find a stall with a lovely lady selling products from Happy Goat Farm in Balik Pulau. Goat milk can be a great alternative for anyone who has an allergy or intolerance to cows milk, as it is far more easily digested, and therefore more gentle on the stomach. This is especially so for small children and babies. As well as milk they also supply, kefir, yoghurt and cheeses. My three children all had allergies to cows milk and suffered with hives and eczema until they were changed to goat milk. From then on they never had another problem with the skin.
Turn left at the end of Solok Moulmein and you will see IE Organic on your left. It’s right opposite a nearly finished block of expensive apartments.
If it’s the right time if the day you will see an Indian couple making String Hoppers. Do try it. It’s rice flour pushed through a wooden mold and layered like lace onto a steaming upturned basket. When cooked it’s piled into several small oblong layers and served in paper, alongside a mixture of coconut & sugar. Very moorish!!
A little further on from IE on the same side is another Organic shop called Oon. We do get a few items from here too. Like IE the staff are very friendly and the shop has a reasonable range of items.
On the right hand side of Solok Moulmein is Go Organics. I like the feel of this shop. It’s small and packed full of stock. What they do have is a good selection of Gluten Free products and they did manage to get us some Schars Gluten Free bread (one of the better tasting GF breads) when we needed it for a member of one of our Penang tour groups.
Just Life in Hillside is a beautifully laid out shop with a good selection and its the only place I can buy Australian Millet. They usually have a fridge full of organic veggies and its my favorite place to buy Shampoo & Conditioner as they sell the Indochine range of skin products which I love. Their basil and lemongrass soap is gorgeous, it smells and feels divine and I often put a bar in with my clothes as I’m sure it keeps the silver fish away.
I know there are a few other shops that I haven’t explored yet, but I’ll get round to them in time. I’ll update when I do.