For most people visiting Penang Island, their top-most to-do agenda is to savour the local delicacies such as Penang Kuey Teow, Hokkien Hae Mee, Assam Laksa and local desserts such as cendol and ais kacang. Favourite eating places include those around Pulau Tikus and the Penang Road area.
In a recent visit, the notorious “Penang Belly” got the better of me after checking out my favourite Indian mee goreng stall. So I had to take it easy on the local roadside stalls and focussed more on the alternate cuisines that Penang has to offer.
There is another more interesting and rewarding (for the palette that is) aspect of Penang cuisine that is not common knowledge. With the status as UNESCO world heritage site, the new generation of Penangites have taken to exploring and enhancing their cuninary skills to cater to the ever-increasing number of tourists visiting their little island. This is in the same spirit that the Peranakans (as the Straits-born Chinese are called) adopted when faced with the new and alien environment when they first arrived in Penang.
For breakfast, head directly to Urban Daybreak. They serve breakfast from 8am till 11:30am and you can try great fusion breakfast concoctions such as Hash and Eggs and Stout Pulled Pork with Poached Egg (see picture below). Located right in the tourist belt, it is certainly worth a detour to quench your hunger and thirst after a good day of sight-seeing.
Another must-visit spot is China House a stone's throw away. Touted as the longest cake house in Penang, China House is a gold mine for the budding Instagrammer. There are nooks and crannies hidden around every part of the long shop house and there are photogenic spots everywhere you turn. And oh, the food there is to die for, and the specialty is the tiramisu.
The spread of pastries and cakes is mind-boggling and many of the servings are huge by normal standards. And while you are at it, be sure to try out many of the drink concoctions to wash down the delicacies.
For the more artistic, there are crayons on every table to draw out your creative doodlings.
Whilst on the topic of hipster, Instagrammable spots, one of the more notable ones frequented by the locals must surely be Corner Keng.
Located at the left-most corner of Precinct 10 in Tanjong Tokong, this very local food outlet comes with a unique interior decor of tall ceilings. There are enough props and seating spots to attract and house all budding Instagrammers.
When in Penang, digging into the fresh and sumptuous sea food is something not to be missed. But with so many less-than-authentic restaurants sprouting all around, which do you choose? Well, for that, it is best to ask a true blue Penangite (my Grab driver actually). His answer? Ocean Green Restaurant!
Be sure to try the mussels, the chicken satay as well as the spring rolls and teochew noodles. As the place is pretty hard to find, just tell the Grab or taxi driver to head to the Paramount Hotel. The restaurant is just across from the front entrance of the hotel.
Yes, I know, I started by saying that I was staying clear of hawker foods, but Kek Seng is the exception. It is a must-visit for old-world durian ice kachang. I remember coming to this restaurant when I was a kid, and the place has changed little since then. Located a stone's throw away from the famous cendol, Kek Seng is can be reached by crossing the road and walking further down towards Chowrasta market.
And speaking of the famous Penang cendol, well, one of the most well-kept secret is the roti bakwa (bun with barbequed meat fillings) next to the cendol roadside stall. The new twist to this old-time favourite is the addition of meat floss together with the bakwa. This is Penang's answer to the Vietnamese Banh Mi.
If you are willing to bear with the long traffic jams along the Causeway or the Second Link, then what awaits you at the other side is a haven when it comes to great seafood.
Two more well-known from the unending list of seafood restaurants are Senibong and Todak. Located within 5 kilometres of each other along the coastline fronting Singapore, the only thing common between these two restaurants is the seafood. All else are total opposites. Whist one provides a modern air-conditioned environment, the other exudes old world charm that is reminiscent of Malaya in the fifties.
Senibong Bay Seafood
Everything about this place is welcoming. Even as you driving into the compound, there are car park attendants leading you all the way to a car park lot. Waiters and waitresses welcome with broad smiles and show you to the next available table. The restaurant is spacious with a tall ceiling with huge fans (like those in the MRT stations) to ensure you that you have a cozy dining experience. The menu is well illustrated and prices of the food are reasonable.
The menu for crabs, the favourite among all the patrons to the restaurant is extensive from the must-try chilli crabs all the way to the black pepper, salted egg and Kam Heong crabs. Other items in the menu include lobsters, mussels, all types of seasonal fish and prawns.
Restoran Todak (Orang Asli)
Everything about Restoran Todak is different. Having reached the end of the road leading to the coastline, you need to make a hard right into the darkness and find your way to the restaurant. The only thing is a dimly-lit sign and even then, you are not entirely sure you have arrived.
And the car park? Well, you just have to fight your way through muddy potholes and other obstacles to find a decent spot.
You know you are there if you have succeeded in finding the plank walkway into the restaurant built right into the sea. At low tide, be warned that the aroma of the surrounding muddy shoreline adds to the allure of the place. Nevertheless, this location is a most Instagrammable spot to add to your collection of postings.
Once you are in the restaurant, you need to quickly "chope" a table (remember to look for the number printed on the floorboard) and run to the front of the restaurant to make your order. As for the food, just point to the one you want and decide the way you want it cooked. And the menu? Well, it is printed on the large signboard behind the rows of aquariums full of fish, prawns, lobsters and crab.
Unlike Senibong Bay, you have two choices of seating - covered with fans for ventilation or chance it and go for the open-air area. Just pray that it doesn't rain.
As for the seafood. Just one word - delicious! Unfortunately there are not too many photo shots of the food. Blame it on the old-world style lighting. Or maybe it was me - too busy enjoying the food.
If you arrive before the sun goes down (highly recommended so as to find the way), you will be treated to a beautiful sunset with the Singapore coastline in the distance.
Atmosphere at Parkland Green
One of the hidden gems along the East Coast Parkway is Parkland Green. This little plot of land is full of surprises. There you can find wholesome family fun activities from laser tags to bubble soccer. If you are driving, head for the car park C1 and if you fancy some exercise to work up the appetite, you can start from Parkway Parade Shopping Centre and make your way through the underpass to cross to the beach.
There are loads for eateries around the area ranging from Starbucks to Northern Indian and Mexican outlets.
My personal favourite is Atmosphere Bistro and Bar, just a stone's throw from the beach.
If you observe carefully from the photo above, the reflection of the beach can be seen on the glass pane.
The place is also kids-friendly and you can relax and enjoy your food while the kids play nearby.
The place serves a fusion of local Thai-style concoctions such as prata mussels and eggs benedict (nasi) lemak burger.
If you don't fancy travelling down to Chinatown, struggling through the traffic, paying ERP charges and searching for a horrendously difficult-to-find parking lot, then the good news is that Hawker Chan, Singapore's first Michelin One-Star restaurant in now available in the Eastern region.
Located at the slightly up-market 18 Tai Seng building, the Liao Fan Hawker Chan Hong Kong Soya Chicken and Noodle store is located on the ground floor and is only accessible from the outside. Parking is free from 5:00pm on weekdays and on weekends. Alternatively you can take the Circle Line all the way to the Tai Seng MRT station.
Prices are still kept reasonable and a plate of soya sauce chicken rice costing below S$4.00. The noodles version costs below S$5.00. If you are there with a party of more than two, then my recommendation is to separately order a half or full chicken and a combination platter of char siew and roast pork to share.
You can then individually order noodles or rice to your preference.
Liao Fan Hawker Chan Soya Chicken and Noodle
18 Tai Seng St, #01-02
Neatly sandwiched between the row of shop houses along the up-market Neil Road area is an undiscovered gem! Apiary at no. 84 Neil Road serves, according to the signage on its shop front, Simple, Honest and Humble ice creams and desserts.
A few blocks away from the busy office area around Maxwell Road, Apiary (meaning a beehive farm) is the ideal spot to relax and while the time away, especially on a Friday evening.
All the ice cream served in the shop are made in-house. My favourites include the house specialty Apiary ice cream (honey-based of course) with a generous sprinkling of dark chocolate chips. And if you are a chocolate lover, you simply must try the dark 69%-pure chocolate ice cream!
A favourite with both the locals as well as the tourists, Maxwell Food Centre has a lot to offer. A casual stroll round the food centre located in the midst of high-rise modern buildings reveals many of its old world charms.
Many of the old-time stall holders are still around, serving rarities from yesteryear such as the Fuzhou Oyster Cake (see photo below). Prices have been going up and up and a piece costs $2.00 today. Still it is worth every cent. The fillings are loaded with a generous serving of meat, oysters and peanuts.
As for the tourists as well as the locals, their lunchtime favourite is the Tian Tian Chicken Rice stall. Queues can snake all around the stall, so do come early.
My personal favourite is the Zhen Zhen Porridge stall. The old couple has been serving this dish for as long as I can remember. Be careful not to call it "moay" when ordering. She'll correct your Hokkien and aptly instruct you to order "choke" instead. For a full meal, add .30 cents for an egg to be added into the porridge.
Speaking of porridge, another local favourite is the Fish Soup & Porridge stall. Again queues begin to form way before noon time. If you want a more "atas" meal, ask for the gourmet (expensive) Pomfret fish to go along with your soup or porridge.
Besides the Fuzhou Oyster Cake, there is no end to the number of stalls serving a wide selection of local desserts ranging from peanut soup all the way to fritters, ondeh-ondeh, tapioca cake and soya bean curd.
Maxwell Food Centre is a must-visit for all wanting a truly Singaporean food experience. The blend of old and new may not last for long though. New stalls are fast replacing the traditional local favourites, as the old timers start fading away and their next generation not wanting to follow their footsteps.
Planning a lazy afternoon just relaxing or meeting up with friends? What better place than the Brasserie Les Saveurs on the ground floor of St. Regis Hotel.
Located a stone's throw from the Tanglin Shopping Centre, St. Regis is the perfect sanctuary away from the hustle and bustle of Orchard Road. Glowing in elegance, the five-star hotel is welcoming and lavishly decorated.
Sooth your nerves to the strains of classic favourites played by the resident pianist at the Brasserie Les Saveurs.
Enjoy the three-tiered spread of classic sandwiches and sweets and indulge in the spreads of hand-made waffles, scones and mini pizzas.
Chung Ling Alumni Restaurant, KL
A lot of my friends and relatives from Penang have since migrated to Kuala Lumpur. And almost inevitably, conversations will turn to how much they miss Penang food.
Well not more! Introducing the Chung Ling Alumni Restaurant. For the uninitiated, Chung Ling is the name of one of the most famous Chinese schools in Penang. Many famous persons hail from Chung Ling, the most notable being Mr. Khaw Boon Wan, the present Transport Minister of Singapore.
So if Penangites cannot go back home to have a taste of their beloved cuisines, they can certainly bring their cuisines back to where they are!
Located at 14 Jalan Utara, PJ, the restaurant serves genuine Penang favourites such as Lobak (see picture below), Jiu Hu Eng Chai and Pulut'kan.
Not for the faint hearted, Pulut'kan or Malay for fish intestines, takes several weeks to ferment to perfection. The restaurant conjures up a fabulous combination of king prawns with Pulut'kan sauce (picture below).
Jiu Hu Eng Chai - cuttlefish salad served with Eng Chai vegetable (Water Spinach, also know as Morning Glory) is another must try in the restaurant. Wrap the salad in the spinach leaves and taste the goodness of this unique Penang delicacy.
And of course, no meal is complete without Penang Hokkien Mee.
Chung Ling Alumni Association Restaurant
14, Jalan Utara
Petaling Jaya 46200
Malaysia Boleh! @Jurong Point
Craving for some Malaysia food when in Singapore? Look no further than Malaysia Boleh!.
Located on the third level of Jurong Point, Malaysia Boleh! has expanded two-fold in a recent renovation. Even then, it is still difficult to find an empty table. The place is always packed any time of the day. And finding a table is just the start. Next comes the challenge of deciding what to eat. The selections are just mind-boggling. And the queue at some of the stalls can tax even the most patient of customers.
Of course, the longest queue is for the Penang Kway Teow. Prices are reasonable and you have a choice of regular (S$4) or large (S$6).
Other favourites include the lobak (below left) and the KL Prawn Mee (Black "Oh" Mee).
Hipster Joints - Ho Chi Minh
For a relaxing afternoon or just about any time you are feeling tired after a hectic day shopping, here are some hipster joints you can put up your feet and take a break.
So what is the definition of "hipster joints"? Well firstly, they are hip, trendy and certainly out of the ordinary . Next they are well hidden or difficult to find. The journey there is as unforgettable as the destination itself. The food served in these joints are also prepared by chefs who are passionate about providing the best, the most delicious or possessing the ability to tease the most out of your taste palettes. Finally the decor. It certainly must be "Instagrammable" to say the least.
That out of the way, here are some interesting hipster joints awaiting you in Ho Chi Minh City.
Located on the second floor, the sign board on the street level is obscure but if you look up the ceiling, it is not difficult to find. Relax as you watch the waiters and waitresses prepare for you a long slow cup of coffee.
Located just round the corner from the Bitexco Tower, Nu Bistro is located on the second floor, on top of Villa Roma. The decor is certainly opulent and definitely Instagrammable. Step out to the French-style balconies and you will be face-to-face with an uncluttered view of the Bitexco Tower in the distance.
The place offers a good selection of teas, snacks and desserts.
Maison Marou, Saigon
Located just round the corner from the Central Ben Thanh market, Maison Marou offers a range of freshly-prepared chocolate masterpieces to delight every palette.
Gastronomic Adventures - HCMC
Ho Chi Minh city is an amalgamation of different cultures where east meets west. As such if you so happen to be in HCMC for a visit, here are a few recommendations of some of the fabulous restaurants and eating outlets that I have had the privilege of visiting.
Huong Lai Vietnamese Restaurant
First of is Huong Lai Vietnamese Restaurant. Located just off the shopping street of Dong Khoi, take the stairs up to the first level. The food is very authentic Vietnamese home cooking and some of the kitchen staff are former street children from poor families.
Mien Tay Riverside Restaurant
For the more adventurous, take a Mekong River cruise at My Tho City and choose the option that includes lunch at a local river-side restaurant. The seafood does not disappoint and savour some of the local delicacies.
Be sure to try the stick rice ball.
Nha Hang Ngon
For dinner, the restaurant of choice among the locals is Nha Hang Ngon. Located in the District 1 tourist centre, the restaurant serves a whole array of international cuisines. My advice is to stick with the Vietnamese menu. If you are looking for good ambiance, prompt service and good local food, then Nha Hang Ngon is definitely your best choice.
Royal Saigon Restaurant
A favourite among the tourists is the Royal Saigon Restaurant along the Bui Vien Walking Street.
Notable dishes include the Royal Platter, the Royal Saigon Ban Cha rice noodles and the Vietnamese Pho (pronounced "for").
Nostalgic Tiong Bahru Market
I always enjoy eating the food around the Tiong Bahru area. Many of you oldies out there will still remember the old hawker stalls selling "chok" or the gooey kind of porridge, lor mee and satay. There was the Tiong Bahru "pow" stall selling an assorted array of dumplings round the corner and if you were game enough, there was the fried ice cream stall further down the dirty alley way.
Much has changed around the area, and the old stalls have given way to the Tiong Bahru Market complex. However, many of the stalls in this new complex is still run by the old generation of hawkers.
There are still many of my favourite stalls still run by the generation of hawkers from the old days. My favourites are the Hwa Yuen Porridge stall and the Tiong Bahru Loh Mee and Chicken Rice stalls.
A favourite with my wife is the Chwee Kueh stall just round the corner from the porridge and lor mee outlets.
There are still some stalls selling the old traditional food such as tow kwa pok, but alas, I don't know how long these will last. Taste buds have changed and the younger generation cannot appreciate the foods of yesteryear. Even a change in name has not made the stall more POP(ular).
But still, there are the foods that are finding a new audience among the younger generation such as the fried sotong prawn mee.
That said, the Tiong Bahru Market is definitely the place to bring back fond memories of the good old times.
Empress Restaurant, Singapore
If your museum-hopping stint in Singapore leaves you high and day, drop into the Empress Restaurant. Located just behind the Asian Civilizations Museum, Empress is ideally located along the banks of the Singapore River. And if weather permits, alfresco dining is available to wine and dine your way to the perfect end of your busy day.
Guaranteed to whet your appetite, start off with the Triple Roast Platter consisting of the Empress char-siu, Crackling roast pork and the Empress specialty - sticky and sweet pork ribs.
My personal favourite is the crispy-battered Japanese halibut fillet perfectly glazed and flavoured with yuzu and ginger flower.
And what Chinese meal is complete without the Royal Peking duck wrapped in silky crepe and with a touch of scallions and cucumber.
Singpopo @ Joo Chiat
If you happen to be around the Tanjong Katong area and are longing to savour some nostalgic delicacies from a bygone age, the Singpopo restaurant is definitely the place to be.
Located at Joo Chiat Road, the decor exudes the old world charm of the sixties.
The menu is traditional, and a must-try is the house special - the Sinpopo Nasi Lemak.
Other dishes to try include the Nyonya Keam Chye Arg (salted vegetable duck soup) and the Chargrilled Pork Chop.
For drinks, a must-have is the Sng Buay Pop (preserved plum in small ice balls).
These are just a few of the great favorites to bring back great memories for the Silver Generation, especially those who grew up in the Tanjong Katong/Joo Chiat area.
If you find yourself having visited all the peranakan restaurants in Malacca, here's my personal recommendation - Monterios Portugese food!
The restaurant is located a stone's throw from the Statue of Chist.
The restaurant serves some of the best seafood I have had in Malacca.
Be sure to try the salted egg crab, the la-la and the oil- cooked fish.
And to top off the perfect evening, take a stroll down the beach front to enjoy the sunset scenery.
Restaurante Comida Mexicana
Was sad to see Margharita's at my old haunt at East Coast Road closing down after so many long years. In its place is Restaurante Comida Mexicana and feeling peckish, I decided to give it a try.
Surprise, surprise! I was greeted with many familiar faces. The property is run by the same outfit and the proprietress greeted us with her usual wide bubbly smile. She then went on to tell us that the food here is even more value-for-money, with bigger portions and prepared from the finest and freshest ingredients.
Highly recommended are the Carintas - Mexican pulled pork done the traditional way and the Grilled Chipotle Fish Burrito. Top off your perfect meal with the Tiramisu dessert.
Just goes to show that old things just don't fade away. They become better with age!
A Taste of Malaysia - Nam Kee Pau
Top it off with some good old soya bean milk and pork porridge. Yum!
Springleaf Prata Place
Over the weekend, I had a sudden craving for murtabak. So it was off to my old haunt around the Jalan Tua Kong area in search for a good roti prata outlet.
I ended up at the Springleaf Prata Place off Jalan Tua Kong.
The recommendation by folks who have visited the place was the Ultimate Murtabak.
But alas, it was not my idea of murtabak - filled with cheese and mushrooms, it just did not go well with the curry sauce. Put it down to the Silver Generation's resistance to change and on the stubborn insistence that the good old days are always the best. Murtabak should taste like.... well, like murtabak!
Not a food critic, M. K. Wong posts whenever he comes across unusual and outstanding food finds everywhere.