Glutton Onboard: Pit stop in Penang

Penang’s “king of noodles” at work

If there is one thing that has been made clear during my world cruise so far, it is the noxious effect that colonization has had on every country it has touched. Some countries, like Papua New Guinea, have been left like empty husks sucked dry, shriveled shadows of what they might have been had they not met the likes of the Dutch; others, like Samoa, held onto simply as an accessory, divided up without its knowledge among strangers who wished to keep up with their neighbors.

Then there is Vietnam, once under the French, who were able to take back their independence after many bloody years. As much as the French claimed to have used colonization as a vehicle by which to spread their culture, quite a few of their subjects appear to have been unwilling to receive this particular gift — Northeast Thailand, full of Vietnamese communities who fled during French occupation, can testify to that.

And then there are the British. Although I personally have not experienced overt colonization, much less by the British, their way of doing things came back all too vividly after a rewatch of the movie “A Passage to India”, based on the anti-colonialist book of the same name by E.M. Forster, which was screened on, of all places, the television on our cruise ship. What I saw was that the British were particularly clever in enriching themselves on your resources, all the while convincing you that they were doing you a favor in doing so. It is a particular skill that, for example, persuades you to go to a garden party at a “whites only” club where you will not be allowed to sit, eat, or take shelter from the sun, and feeling thankful for the so-called privilege. That, in a nutshell, is being part of the British Empire. It made me better understand the prevailing attitudes around the current King Charles and his upcoming fancy hat party.

It made me better understand a lot of things, actually. Although the time for these types of empires is fading, colonialism lives on in a more modern, pertinent way, via capitalism. Like in the days of the British Raj, capitalism prescribes that some people are treated better than others, this time in accordance with how much they are perceived to be able to consume. This is usually dictated via the old rules of colonization, which tends to draw things along racial lines. Hence the old resentments about ancient jewels on crowns, and the toppling of statues, and the demand for old marbles. These are the only actions available to people who cannot protest the system that they live in.

But the most pernicious effect of colonization isn’t poverty. It’s that, when you are accustomed to being treated as “less than” by others, you persist in treating yourself (and others like yourself) as “less than”, even when the others are gone. Events like the ascendance of the Khmer Rouge and Idi Amin are pointed to as evidence of a people not being able to govern themselves, when really they are reactions: what does it matter what they do, when it’s just themselves after all?

This is a strange intro for a post ostensibly about food in Penang, but it feels like it can’t really be helped; colonization hangs like a ghost over every street.  Unlike Kuala Lumpur, which, as global as it is, still feels like a city made by Malaysians for Malaysians, Penang — with its shabby-chic shophouses and well-kept forts — hearkens back to another time. Many people enjoy that feeling; for whatever reason, Penang’s particular brand of charm left me cold.

What did not leave me cold, of course, was the food. Malaysians like their food like their durian: heavy-hitting and potent, intense almost to the point of bitter, just on this side of ponderous. Indeed, Malaysian food tastes like how dark soy sauce looks: glossy and inscrutable. We got our first helping of these flavors at Tek San, which was packed to the gills with the lunchtime crowd. Our generous hosts joked that our meal here would only be an appetizer, a threat that I, alas, did not take seriously. We ordered a dark, shiny stir-fry of lardons and another of pork with capsicum; black-flecked tiger prawns; three-layer pork with soft taro; chili-laced clams; and a stingray curry with okra. All packed enough of a flavor punch for three times as much food, but our hosts weren’t finished.

Two kinds of pork at Tek San
Stir-fried clams

Instead of taking us back to our ship, they took us to see Uncle Tan, dubbed the “King of Noodles” in Malaysia by the BBC. Also known as the “Goggle Man” for the goggles that he wears while cooking, Tan Chooi Hong is famous for his char guay thiew, made with flat rice noodles charred by a supremely hot wok and topped with prawns. Accompanying him were vendors serving oyster omelets, lo bak (various types of tofu on skewers with a dipping sauce), assam laksa (a type of noodle special to Penang), and cendol (green rice flour squiggles with red beans, shaved ice, and coconut milk).

Assam or Penang laksa
Oyster omelet

I’ve had oyster omelets before and the one here is generous, with lots of big, plump oysters on top; the char guay thiew, as well, was familiar yet delicious. What I was most taken by, however, was the assam laksa, which, after its first swampy sip, somehow ingratiates itself to your palate. If Thai food has a funk, this one has a whole symphony of it, a mix of nam prik gapi (shrimp paste chili dip), gang som (sour curry), and nam pla waan (sweet fish sauce) that is leavened by slices of fresh cucumber, pineapple chunks, and glass noodles. Against all my expectations, I ate it all, leaving only a little room for the lo bak and cendol.

Even with all the wonderful food, I must admit I was relieved to finally be deposited by our hosts back to the ship, having had as thorough of a taste of Penang as was humanly possible. I honestly don’t know if I will be back, but I do know that if I do return, it will be for the food.



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7 responses to “Glutton Onboard: Pit stop in Penang

  1. look yummy. i love food very much

  2. Penang is the one place I’ve lived in that I would never return to. Not even for rojak. Thank you for reminding me why!

  3. The photo of the Penang laksa looks amazingly tasty.

  4. Alan Katz

    Well, you got THAT off your chest! A little anecdote: Thirty years ago I was restaurant critic at The Denver Post. Not a very good one, but I did my best. After one review of a restaurant which specialized in Sunday meals for mostly churchgoing families, I got a note from the Executive Editor of the paper: “What’s this Moral Majority shit doing in a restaurant review?” Fortunately you’re your own boss.

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