Has Post-pandemic Penang Lost Its Flavour?

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Has Post-pandemic Penang Lost Its Flavour?
Now that the borders are open, Singaporeans are travelling to Malaysia with a vengeance, with reports of massive jams on both sides of the causeway.
Feeling the cabin fever, we decided to recommence our overseas journeys, downloaded MySejahtera app and booked the short flight. Penang was our choice for the long weekend to join in the George Town Festival.
Just a few weeks ago, Singaporeans were riled when they heard the Malaysian stand-up comedian Uncle Roger say “Singapore food is weird and less good version of what we do (in Malaysia). There are more similarities than differences, especially in Penang (the food is better)”.
So, a comparison, albeit a personal one, was in store.
We made it our mission to venture out and roam the lanes armed with a checklist and eat and eat, as much as our senior stomachs could stomach.
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Penang Char Kuay Teow
The bright lights of Presgrave Street food stalls beckoned us even as we were rounding the corner from the airport to our hotel room.
Presgrave Street Hawker Center
Address:
67, Lebuh Presgrave, 10300 George Town, Penang.

Operating hours:
4.30pm onwards till late in the night

Duck Egg Char Kuay Teow

Our first order was, of course, charcoal duck egg Penang Char Kuay Teow, ubiquitous at every corner.
Has Post-pandemic Penang Lost Its Flavour?
Penang Char Kuay Teow
The really good ones start with a dramatic performance as the wok is glided onto the charcoal stove, after a cursory wipe from the previous order. Clang and sizzle as each set of ingredients hits the hot surface.
As no dark soy sauce is used in Penang Char Kuay Teow, making it lighter in colour than the Singapore counterpart, the browning is from the sear.
And the resulting masterpiece emerges from the wisps of steam; the first mouthful is that of true “wok hei” — the fire of the pan — infusing silky smooth strands of fine rice noodles and luxurious eggy clouds. Edges of lap cheong (Chinese sausage), caramelised and with the middle dotted with tiny cubes of sweet fat. Each chopstick grip varies delightfully, with bites of crunchy beansprouts, briny sweet prawns and hints of garlicky soy.
Has Post-pandemic Penang Lost Its Flavour?
Penang Char Kuay Teow
Simple ingredients made into a perfect dish. One would think that lard is the star, as most fried kuay teow noodles start with a few ladles of rendered lard which add a flavour dimension that vegetable oil cannot match.
New Lane Street Hawker Center
Address:
Lorong Baru, 10450 George Town, Penang.

Operating hours:
4.00pm onwards till late in the night

Left Handed Char Koay Teow

Has Post-pandemic Penang Lost Its Flavour?
Left handed Char Koay Teow
Yet, not so far away from the street hawkers, in an obscure side of a mostly defunct shopping centre known as Penang’s Times Square, the Left Handed Uncle Chan works the same magic with no pork, no lard. Sparks fly as he adds more egg and prawn to the toss up for many more to enjoy.
Penang’s Times Square Mall’s side lane
Address:
Jalan Dato Keramat, 10150 George Town, Penang.

Operating hours:
11.00am onwards till 8:00pm
Penang Or Chien
Has Post-pandemic Penang Lost Its Flavour?
Penang Or Chien
Another familiar name to Singaporeans is oyster omelette. Known to us as “or luak“, or spicy oyster fry, this is different from “or chien“, which is made only with eggs topped with a small handful of raw oysters. In Penang, or chien is our or luak, which has a runny batter base forming a savoury pancake with egg.
Each hawker has their own secret formula for the batter, which is made up of sweet potato and tapioca starch and rice flour, thinned down with water and thickened with egg. Once the batter firms up, the pancake would be immediately topped with raw oysters, lengths of spring onions and fresh coriander and served hot from the pan.
A blend of crispiness on the base and sides, with a soft gooeyness and iron bursts of the sea from the super fresh oysters, this dish has its followers on both sides of the Causeway.
Has Post-pandemic Penang Lost Its Flavour?
Penang Or Chien
The famous hawkers on New Lane, Kimberly and Presgrave Street certainly did not disappoint. But truth be told, Hup Kee at our very own Newton Hawker Centre does not fall far behind either, though less generous with the spring onions and coriander.
Presgrave Street Hawker Center
Address:
Presgrave Street Hawker Center 67, Lebuh Presgrave, 10300 George Town, Penang.

Operating hours:
4.30pm onwards till late in the night
New Lane Street Hawker Center
Address:
Lorong Baru, 10450 George Town, Penang.

Operating hours:
4.00pm onwards till late in the night
Bee Hooi Kopitiam
Address:
415, Jalan Burma, Pulau Tikus, 10350 George Town, Penang.

Operating hours:
8.00pm onwards till 11:30pm (Closed on Tuesday)
Penang Kuay Teow Soup
One dish that I really wanted to try was the kuay teow soup with fish balls, Numerous Penang and overseas bloggers highlighted Pitt Street Kuay Teow Tng at Carnavon Street as the best, as its fishballs were hand made with eel meat. Their reviews accompanied with appetite rousing photographs were plastered all over the walls in the coffeeshop. Sadly, we could not appreciate the texture nor the subtle to bland taste of the fishballs. So totally different from the bouncy ones made from mackerel or yellowtail which we are familiar with. And they were rubbery to boot.
Has Post-pandemic Penang Lost Its Flavour?
Penang Kuay Teow Soup
But the slices of pork fillet which were served with each bowl were tender and well marinated. They paired well with the kuay teow in the clear and clean tasting broth, salted with chopped tang chye (preserved vegetables).
Has Post-pandemic Penang Lost Its Flavour?
Penang “ngoh hiang” fish ball
An innovative fish ball, not available in Singapore is “ngoh hiang” fish ball, which is a five-spice meat mixture encased in fish. Usually, this strong filling is commonly wrapped in beancurd skin and quite reminiscent of the meat in bak chang (pork dumpling). A novel idea, but a discordant and jarring flavour in a fishball.
Pitt Street Koay Teow Thng
Address:
183, Lebuh Carnarvon, George Town, 10100 George Town, Penang.

Operating hours:
8.00am onwards till 1:00pm
Outside Penang Sin Yin Nam Café
Address:
Lorong Baru, 10450 George Town, Penang.

Operating hours:
Mornings
Penang Chee Cheong Fun
Rice based noodles and rolls feature large as an economical and filling dish. Chee cheong fun, literally translated as pork intestine rice roll is actually fit for even vegetarians as its name only reflects the shape of the layered and curled rolls and not its ingredients. Penang is famous for its rice rolls, sliced thickly and served warm.
Has Post-pandemic Penang Lost Its Flavour?
Penang Chee Cheong Fun
Has Post-pandemic Penang Lost Its Flavour?
Penang Chee Cheong Fun
A generous tablespoon of deep reddish-brown sauce would be ladled over, followed by a sprinkling of onion oil, toasted sesame seeds and finely chopped spring onions. All good, except that the preference for hae kor (prawn paste) to form the umami base for the sauce was way too fishy for the delicately rolled rice sheets. But having it with light soy sauce, flavoured oil and toasted sesame seeds returned it back to a familiar favourite.
New Lane Street Hawker Center
Address:
Lorong Baru, 10450 George Town, Penang.

Operating hours:
4.00pm onwards till late in the night
Chee Cheong Fun @ Macalister Lane
Address:
94, Jalan Macalister, George Town, 10400 George Town, Penang.

Operating hours:
Morning
Penang Hokkien Mee
A must have in Penang is Hokkien mee, our equivalent of prawn mee soup. The best prawn mee soups in Singapore are run by families of the founders which include Jalan Sultan Prawn Mee and Beach Road Prawn as well as the 545 Whampoa in Tekka and Whampoa Markets. Soups are robust made from a long-boiled stock of pork ribs and prawn heads and shells. However, no Singapore prawn mee soup stock seems to be as robust as the Penang Hokkien mee.
Has Post-pandemic Penang Lost Its Flavour?
Penang Hokkien Mee
Has Post-pandemic Penang Lost Its Flavour?
Penang Hokkien Mee
Rich swirls of reddish oil skim the surface of a punchy soup, slightly spicy from a powder made from hot chillies and pounded prawn. The soup permeates each strand of noodles, which are served with blanched water convolulus and bean sprouts.
But there is little to commend other than the soup. Really stingy with the garnishes, other than the large handful of fried shallots, there are only a few tiny strips of pork fillet and tiny prawns. Though prawn noodle soup is double or triple the price in Penang, but that applies to nearly every other street food dish, prawn noodles in Singapore is served with large prawns, shell on but halved to expose the flesh and thin slices, not measly strips of pork fillet.
Presgrave Street Hawker Center (standalone stall) – Soup
Address:
Presgrave Street Hawker Center 67, Lebuh Presgrave, 10300 George Town, Penang.

Operating hours:
4.30pm onwards till late in the night
Lebuh Kimberley (Kimberley Street)
Address:
97 -143 Kimberley Street, 10100 George Town, Penang.
Penang Wantan Mee
Another subtle taste difference between Singapore and Penang street food can be found in wantan mee, or cloud dumplings with noodles. Thin rubber band width noodles are served with minced pork dumplings wrapped in a thin flour pastry.
Some stalls in Penang use dark soy sauce in their wantan mee.
Has Post-pandemic Penang Lost Its Flavour?
Penang Wantan Mee
We headed to the renowned Wantan Mee House in Pulau Tikus, which expanded from a small stall to its own shophouse. The sauce here is further tweaked, with a cornflour-thickened sauce. Once completely mixed and tossed into the springy noodles, the gooey texture blended into the noodles ranking them among the best wantan noodles we ever had.
Wantan Mee House
Address:
321 Jalan Burma, Pulau Tikus, 10350 George Town, Penang.
New Lane Street Hawker Center
Address:
Lorong Baru, 10450 George Town, Penang.

Operating hours:
4.00pm onwards till late in the night
We certainly felt that, despite the ravages of the pandemic, the street food that we had in Penang offered the most value-for-money gastronomic experiences we enjoyed.
However, some Penangites in our party, including Penang born Patrick and Katie Tan, had contrary opinions. They returned to Penang from China where they were based, just before the pandemic, for a Chinese New Year visit, in 2020. “The standard of hawker food has really gone down since our return. Some hawkers have closed shop, and the line of hawkers along New Street has drastically shortened. The Uncle who used to sell the best chee chap chok (pig intestine porridge), has closed shop, with no successors to take over.”
Yammy Ang, does not share the same view, saying that the pandemic made us realise how precious it is to be able to eat out together as a group, and food outings seem to be even more enjoyable as we treasure the camaraderie and comfort foods.
Certainly, the crowd, the clatter and chatter, the diversity and range gave such a buzz to each meal, as we hurried to reserve a table.
Penang, or at least George Town, is open for business, and before the foreign tourists return in droves, this might be the best time to visit.
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