by Rachel Vasser
Breakfast in Penang
Malaysia wasn’t really on my travel radar when I began trip planning. I knew I’d be in Southeast Asia for several months, but the country hadn’t yet inspired me to prioritize a visit. However, one place nagged at the back of my mind, and I felt I’d regret not giving it a shot. The Malaysian state of Penang and the promise of its enormous food culture kept me intrigued.
With a mix of Indian, Chinese, and Malay populations, Malaysian food combines some of the best (ie, my favorite) cuisines. My friends eating and traveling in the area further inspired me to visit with their incessant food photos.
While Malaysia is a little off the traditional “banana pancake” tourist trail of Southeast Asia, Georgetown, the colonial capital of Penang, is a cozy haven for tourists, especially those seeking to sample authentic local food. Unbeknownst to me, Malaysia’s incredible, cheap, and diverse dishes would play no small part in my decision to remain in the country for over five weeks.
Just a quick wander down the hot and humid roads of crumbling, beautiful Georgetown leads to an overwhelming choice of street food carts and open-air restaurants.
The energy of the streets ebbs and flows in accordance with mealtimes. Well-known hawker centers spring to life with crowds, lights, smoky grills, and tiny, colorful plastic stools.
Each stall cooks one particular dish, and long lines form at the best of the best, no menus needed. While we spent over a week sampling the satays, pork noodles, and laksas of the city, on one particular day, we managed to hit two time-tested roadside eateries.
For breakfast, we made the jaunt to a celebrated stall serving roti canai, a meal that’s omnipresent all over Malaysia. A popular dish for any hour of the day, this stretchy, savory grilled bread is served with a bowl of curry sauce for dipping. But unlike the typically small bowls of curry that we’d receive in other parts of the country, this bowl was filled with an entire chicken thigh, its tender meat falling off the bone.
Clearly, this place was well-known for a reason; the enormous pot of fragrant curry had been stewing all night. The thin roti bread was filled with an egg and cooked hot on a giant flat-top grill by a man who looked like this was his life’s work. Unlike the locals, we were given utensils with our plates, though we did our best to use our hands as much as possible. While one order would have been enough for the two of us, we attempted to put down two massive bowls of roti canai.
Since food is such a high priority of mine while traveling, my typical schedule on the road involves a lot of downtime where I basically just wait to be hungry again. After mildly recovering from our curry breakfast, we headed back out into the bustling streets without a plan, feigning hunger in order to scout more food options.
Upon first glance, we knew this next place would be good. A glass case with roasted pig parts hanging out front, it was Chinese-owned and crowded. We immediately took a seat.
Bowls of rice were cranked out assembly-line style, each accompanied by a tiny portion of bright orange chili sauce. Workers on their lunch breaks sat packed at tiny tables. A man pounded a meat cleaver against a thick wooden chopping block, expertly portioning the thick slabs of pork. With the language barrier at play, this time we just held up one finger to order. As in, one portion total… this time.
The resulting dish was like pork turned candy. Our plate was filled with the perfect amount of sweet, glazed, juicy meat served on top of rice, accompanied by baby bok choy. We fought over the soft pieces of pork belly and crispy skin. And the thin, fiery chili sauce provided the perfect accoutrement to the fattiness of the pork. Had we underestimated how hungry we were? Or just how amazing this place was going to be?
In Penang’s sea of food options, would it be heresy to eat at the same place twice? No, we reasoned as we planned our return trip to each of these popular institutions, no it would not…