Everyone has the urge to snack every now and then. That includes me, and I am sure, you too. Here is a list of savoury snacks that can be easily found across Penang which you can pick up and munch on anywhere, anytime.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “murukku”? Is it the deep-fried doughy spiral? That’s the mullu murukku (star murukku), made using a star-shaped mould. If you break the murukku and look at the shape of its insides, it is shaped as a star.
Murukku is commonly perceived in this form by default, but there’s more to it than that. Kai murukku, for one, is handmade and is smoother than its star-shaped siblings. There are many other variants to murukku, which in itself means “twisted”. However, the name is also used by those not in the know to describe anything crunchy and savoury – for example, “Chinese murukku”, which is a flat fish-flavoured snack.
Murukku is also not to be confused with chivda, which is also known as the Bombay Mix or chanachur. Chivda is made from spicy dried ingredients such as fried peanuts, corn, flaked rice, chickpeas and curry leaves. While it is commonly served and sold alongside murukku, murukku it is not. They’re both tasty, though.
Chickpeas, also known as kacang kuda in Malay or beh tau in Hokkien, are a snack that some might have forgotten about over the years. In Penang, chickpeas come in two major forms: the steamed version and the roasted version. The roasted version is very hard and crunchy, with a strong flavour that makes it popular among children.
Steamed chickpeas are the softer alternative. Most elders would appreciate steamed chickpeas more as they are easier on the teeth. These can be found at places such as Pisa Corner or Chowrasta Market, where they are sold by specific vendors.
Before popcorns were the mainstay in local cinemas, kacang kuda were the must-have snack for locals who wanted to chew on something while they watched their movies. So next time you’re looking to munch on something when you’re streaming videos or Netflix, consider giving chickpeas a go. They’re not as sweet as popcorn, and cheaper too!
Kacang pedas (literally “spicy nuts”) has got the Big Three any Malaysian would want in a snack: crunchiness, saltiness and spiciness. These curry-coated treats are more popular than their kacang kuda siblings, and are easily found, especially when festive seasons draw near. While sesame peanuts are commonly used, there is no definite recipe, as any edible kernel can be coated in curry to produce similar results. Chickpeas and green peas can be coated in curry to form kacang pedas, too.
Kacang sepat (broad beans) are another common choice of nuts used to make kacang pedas. There are three variants of kacang sepat: sepat kulit (whole broad beans), sepat isi (peeled broad beans) and sepat kari (curry broad beans). Sepat kulit have the skin cooked together with the kernel, while the sepat isi variant consists of the kernel only. Sepat kari is another type of kacang pedas, coated in curry.
Fun fact: Most titbits sold in Penang are manufactured on the mainland by notable companies such as Thien Cheong Trading and Thien Poh Food Industries. The snacks manufactured there are distributed not just in Penang, but across the country and as far away as China!
Unlike most puff pastry foods, the filling in curry puffs, which usually consists of potatoes and chicken, is kept thick so that it doesn’t easily ooze out of the crust. This makes it a filling snack – and even for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
A trademark pastry, curry puffs are not to be confused with epok-epok, which is the Malay version of the snack. While both snacks are similar in shape, epok-epok are different from curry puffs as they are often smaller and have their own types of fillings. If you’ve ever bitten into a palm-sized curry puff expecting curry only to find a different filling, it’s probably an epok-epok.
The curry puff has been made and tailored to the preferences of local taste buds, and is one of the most popular local snacks in Malaysia. Getting a regular curry puff on-the-go is great and all, but getting a freshly fried, piping hot one? Even better!
You can find prawn crackers being sold at various chai diam ma (convenience stores), food courts and even stalls by the road. The trademark transparent plastic bag and “Prawn Crackers” printed in red catches the eye anywhere you go.
A healthier alternative to store-bought prawn crackers is to buy uncooked prawn crackers and frying them yourself. There are also the instant microwavable ones available in hypermarkets.
This thin, disc-shaped snack is a mainstay in many Indian-style cuisines. Crunchy and piquant, they are as addictive as prawn crackers once a bite is taken.
Uncooked papadum can be bought and then cooked at home, either by deep-frying or putting them in the microwave (just like prawn crackers). While the saltiness of papadum is one of its main attractions, most brands of papadum are found to have salt levels that exceed the daily limit of sodium intake recommended by the World Health Organization. The Consumers Association of Penang found out last year that some samples contain more salt than the daily limit of 2,000mg.
Be it home-made or bought, moderation is advised when consuming papadum.
Chinese Cruller (Yew Char Kueh)
The yew char kueh can be found across Asia in different shapes and names. “Yew char kueh” is the Hokkien pronunciation while the Cantonese name is “yauh ja gwai”, which means “old fried devil”. Legend has it that during the Song Dynasty, the official Qin Hui and his wife orchestrated a plot to frame General Yue Fei, which resulted in his execution. The people protested by frying two human-shaped doughs and eating it; the dough, which joins at the middle, is said to symbolise the husband and wife. This is the reason why yew char kueh always comes in pairs joined in the middle.
Available in markets, coffee shops, street stalls and some restaurants, yew char kueh can be eaten in many ways. In Penang, the conventional method is to dip it in coffee as a quick breakfast bite in the morning.
For lunch or dinner, yew char kueh can be served together with porridge or bakuteh, sliced into thin pieces to be dipped and eaten. Some yew char kueh are stuffed with red bean paste or kaya, adding sweetness to its savoury taste. Its versatility and availability make it a popular savoury among locals, but remember to drink lots of water after eating!
Popiah of the fried variant.
Popiah is perhaps the most wholesome snack you’ll find on this list. It is packed with a hefty amount of vegetables and wrapped in a thin layer of pastry, and sold in restaurants, food courts or vendors by the street. It is said that making popiah skin is an art, and a great deal of effort is needed to ensure the wet dough is thin yet durable enough to hold the contents of the popiah together. Most vendors wake up very early to work on the wrapping, as well as to cook the vegetable fillings of the popiah.
Popiah has two primary variants – the regular and the fried. Regular popiah is called popiah basah (wet popiah) by some and is served with kuah (gravy) either on top, beneath or inside the popiah. The viscous skin becomes translucent where it comes into contact with the kuah.
The fried variant requires the popiah to be deep-fried until the skin turns golden and crispy, while the insides remain moist and soft. The combination of tender filling and crispy crust is what makes the fried popiah a wonderful treat.
Street vendors sell less wet popiah these days as these are difficult to transport. People are particular about the composition, as the slightest tear in the skin makes a popiah rather difficult to eat. This also applies to the fried variant. Still, fried popiah remain popular as a quick bite.
But to end with some food for thought: If a fried popiah is doused in kuah or chilli sauce till it becomes wet and soggy, is it still fried popiah, or has it become fried popiah basah?
Jeremy Tan is a mass communications student whose passion lies in Japanese language and culture. He hopes to one day visit the land of the rising sun. He is also frighteningly fond of cats.