One Monday evening last September, I found myself and my good friend, whom we shall call Philip, at an off-the-grid hawker place in Penang, a foodie paradise located off the northwestern coast of Malaysia.
Although Philip mentioned that we were going to another part of the island, I would not have known where we were headed that time. It was a ride longer than usual but since he expertly navigated through the traffic along Tun Dr. Lim Chong Eu Highway, we arrived on schedule.
Along the way, we passed by the Fort Cornwallis — one of the iconic colonial buildings at George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the capital city of Penang. The bastion fort and other colonial buildings around the area, are one of the many enduring legacies of the British occupation during the late 18th century.
“The food of course”
I told Philip that I’ve attempted to visit Penang a few times in the past. I even booked return tickets back in 2016 but I cancelled my plans literally at the last minute. I decided to just stay at a budget hotel somewhere in downtown KL. It was a sound decision in retrospect as I would have spent only a few hours here before catching another flight to India the following day.
What I didn’t tell him was that the company I’m now connected with turned me down a few times as well. During my first attempt, one of the interviewers asked me why I’ve considered moving to Penang.
“The food of course. Penang has a variety of cuisines – Malay, Chinese and Indian just to name a few,” I blurted out loud.
I already knew that I did not get the job a few seconds after I gave that way too candid answer. Up to now, I’m still scratching my head why they still contacted me a few years later.
Hawker unwritten rules
If you should find yourself at a hawker place in Penang, the first unwritten rule is to find an empty table. Roam around next and go to the stall that capture your fancy. The auntie or uncle from that stall will then deliver your orders as soon as these become ready. Another server will also approach your table and offer you drinks. Everything is paid upfront here.
Although the particular hawker place we visited is located at the outskirts, it was still packed that evening. We ended up at a dimly-lit spot at the back. The lighting was not the most ideal for my #flatlay photos but I decided to just wing it out later on.
We had apom telur (coconut pancakes), hanga hu (grilled stingray with aromatics), o chien (oyster omelette), char kway teow (stir-fried flat noodles) and Penang laksa (a tangy noodle soup) that night.
“This will be quick man,” I promised my good friend as I took a few shots. I then apologized for the delay and jokingly reassured that this unavoidable blogger duty can sometimes take awhile especially when you are around food bloggers back in the Philippines.
The final unwritten rule in hawker places – the dirtier, the better. Don’t get me wrong as mandatory sanitation checks are very important. What I’m trying to say is that you should not get too picky in terms of ambience, the non-existent customer service and even the cleanliness of the toilet.
These should be the least of your concerns. You came here primarily for the glorious food. And to borrow the wise words of Downton Abbey’s Tom Branson – “That’s all. That’s it. The rest is detail.”
There’s something for everyone
I remember we talked about the juicy backstories behind Anthony Bourdain’s visit in Penang, my friend’s honest perceptions about the Philippines and how (and why) we ended up in our chosen professions. Later on I’d realize that Philip and I do have a lot of things in common, well except for my preference for third wave coffee and my love for old, sappy country music.
We felt all those good food begged for a bottle or two of local beer. That’s why we stopped by Chulia St on our way back. I was surprised to see it quite crowded, albeit with the usual backpackers, at this hour.
A week after, I revisited this alley and found out that it wasn’t as packed in the daytime. The throngs of tourists apparently all congregate to have selfies at Ernest Zacharevic’s street murals. If you fell for that trap, that’s also fine.
I realized at that moment that Penang, as trite as it may sound, has something for everyone – nature walks, colonial architecture and the food culture especially.
I came here for a career opportunity (and the food of course) but I think there’s so much to explore in this beautiful island. I haven’t even scratched the surface at all. But I’m just glad that I’m finally here.