GTWHI and Khoo Cheang Jin
We didn't exactly know where to go for our belated honeymoon this year. All I knew is that it had to have a South-East Asian flavour. Numerous options were thrown our way from friends who recommended the beauty of Bali, the beaches of Thailand and even the jungles of Borneo.
When I mentioned this to my Malaysian-born Australian friend, she suggested we go to Penang. Langkawi and Kota Kinabalu were even thrown in the fold, but for some magnetic reason, Penang stood out.
Other than it being a tiny island off the Malaysian mainland, I didn’t know much about Penang. Based on the advice of my good friend, I booked our flights and started researching about Penang with the belief her word would be as good as my expectations and that we would have a great time.
“Don’t expect nice beaches there,” she warned after I had paid for our tickets.
“Oh?” I said quizzically.
Chagrin smeared across my face; I had assumed that the island was encircled with glorious beaches. And besides, by my definition of “honeymoon”, the word connotes relaxation and lazing on the beach in a remote part of the world. Evidently I didn’t make myself clear.
“Skip the beach. Pay a little bit more and stay at a fancy beachside resort,” she advised.
“So what else is there to do in Penang?”
“Oh,” I said, uncertain what I got myself into. “I like to eat.”
I arrived in Penang with a staid palate and without knowing much about Malaysian food. I may have eaten nasi goreng and rendang in the past thinking it was traditionally Indonesian – therefore dishonourably failing to acknowledge the fact that many dishes cross over to both countries. My taste in food never tested the outer gambits of “mild and not too hot please, waiter”.
This trip to Penang changed all of that.
Firstly, the diverseness in Malaysian food is something to behold. How Penang unites diversity together through food is a masterclass for the rest of the world. Could there be any other place on Earth that can bring together distinct and separate cultures – Indian, Malay, Chinese and British – and unite them under one food island utopia? It’s like every ethnicity that conglomerated to Penang perfected its cuisine here.
Secondly, how Penang distils the diversity of flavours and cultures into an aroma, a sizzle on the grill and an indescribable flavour, is like a seductive attack on all senses – not just smell and taste.
Thirdly, everything about Penang is bold – the food, the flavours, the colours, the weather... In between eating, there is always something to do. All year round, the island draws people in for cultural, art, musical, sporting and community festivals.
Our taxi driver, a proud Penangite, told us about the time he and his family visited Australia for a few weeks. At the start of the trip, they were severely missing Malaysian food. Hunting down good Malaysian food unexpectedly dominated their holiday itinerary.
Not that they were disappointed with Australian food – it was fresh and delicious, he said, but there was only so much salad and bread he could take.
For anyone who has had to leave their homeland, food would be one of the biggest instigators of homesickness and irrepressible cravings.
But I somehow gathered that for Malaysians, and especially Penangites, this condition would be worse. And I could totally understand why.
I was there for only five days and it was enough to truly comprehend why food is Penang’s biggest drawcard. As we prepared to leave the island, the first thing I thought of was, “How can I get this type of food and at this level of deliciousness back home?”
I will leave it to American chef Anthony Bourdain to sum up what an experience in Penang is like:
“The smells and colours and flavours – the look and sound of the place, the impenetrable mix of Indian, Malay and Chinese cultures – it ****ed me all up.”