In France, they say, people talk at lunch about what they're going to have at dinner, but when it comes to talking about the dinner you're going to eat immediately after the dinner you're eating right now, the people of Penang win hands down. Penang is a tropical island where, as one local puts it, "the weather never changes so everyone talks about food instead". Here, eating isn't so much a way to pass the time or simply sustain life, but rather, the national sport. Every Penangite is a player. And, regardless of their background, they play to win.
Penang is a smallish island connected to the north-west coast of peninsular Malaysia, and here geography, demography, politics and history have conspired to produce a perfect climate for street food of a higher order. The island has fertile land and seas, a confluence of food cultures and a comfortable, discerning populace - all factors that combine to produce a great place to eat. Penangites eat out constantly and with gusto, and any dip in quality from a vendor isn't tolerated because there's just too much competition. For the traveller, too, you can add a feeling of personal security (which you can't necessarily count on in other parts of Asia), a level of food safety that you won't find in, say, Thailand or Indonesia, and a capital city that's comfortable to explore on foot (in ways that Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok certainly aren't).
Visit Penang on a public holiday and you'll see Singapore and Kuala Lumpur numberplates on the cars circling the hawker streets. Why? Because this is the food destination that out-KLs KL and leaves Singapore on the other side of the causeway. Mention a Penang dish that you've tried in KL to a local, and the response may be a look of theatrical horror. Say you tried it in Singapore and it'll be more like pity. Penang is where you come to try the real thing: flavours are brighter, textures are more distinct and lightness is prized. Simply put, the food is fresher, crisper, cleaner.
Penang is considered unusually multicultural even for Malaysia. Malays make up the bulk of the island's population, closely followed by the Chinese. The Indians, most of them Muslims from the southern states, are the next largest contingent. But in George Town the Chinese are the dominant group. While the Chinese are mostly Hokkien, with a smaller group of Cantonese and Teochew, the culture of the Peranakans (the Straits-born Chinese, best known in Australia for Nonya cooking) is a distinct part of the local identity. And you can forget East-West being a recent innovation: from as early as 1592 English ships were landing in Penang. In 1786 the island was leased to Captain Francis Light of the British East India Company, George Town's founder, and Penang's fortunes were closely pegged to those of the Empire till the granting of Malaysia's independence in 1957.
Today, George Town is indicative of Penang's diversity. On Pitt Street (more properly known as Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling) you can stroll easily from the grand 19th-century Kapitan Keling Mosque - past scores of Chinese clan houses and stalls selling garlands of marigolds for the nearby Sri Maha Mariamman Hindu temple - to St George's Anglican Church, the oldest Anglican church in South East Asia. In the centre of the street, by a spreading fig tree, gargantuan incense burners and vast joss sticks announce the entry to the temple of Kuan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, and just behind the temple is Antarabangsa, a bar frequented by travellers and trishaw drivers stopping in to commune with the cheapness of its remarkably wide range of beers and the unfailing surliness of its barkeep.
In other streets you pass shop-houses selling scooter mufflers, or flour, or "money" to burn as temple offerings. Here's a storefront bristled with pineapples, there's a neighbourhood that appears to sell nothing but gold. In Little India, meanwhile, strings of mango leaves hang across the doorways. This is a living city, a city where the architecture is alive and the shop-houses are still both shops and houses. Everywhere you go, whatever the hour, people are cooking, people are eating. They might be eating different things, of course, but they're united in their ardour.
Peranakan food is very different from Chinese food, and, in turn, the Peranakan food in Penang has a lightness - probably stemming from the influence of nearby Thailand - that makes it different from Peranakan food in Malacca, say, or Singapore. Peranakan is also a pork-rich cuisine, and the fact that on a street corner in George Town you'll encounter a vendor selling pork-based dishes more or less right next to a Muslim vendor is indicative of the cultural flavour of Penang.
Penang has what is probably the most developed regional cuisine in Malaysia. There's a finesse here, a pride in the details, that sets the island's cooking apart. Take char kway teow, a dish that, along with asam laksa, is probably Penang's best-known culinary export. It's flat rice noodles, prawns, cockles, chives and bean sprouts stir-fried in lard with light and dark soy, chilli and a little prawn paste. Apart from sourcing the right ingredients and using them in the right ratios, the essence of char kway teow is in how it's cooked. Wok hei, a smoky quality that translates as the breath or energy of the wok, is essential. To get it, the hawker has to be working the wok with one hand while manipulating the fierce heat of the gas burner (or, in the case of some purists, the fan-forced charcoal fire) with the other, and because the dish is served scalding hot the second it's finished, there's no opportunity to taste and adjust the seasonings. A truly great char kway teow is done by feel, by split-second timing: this is what Penang cooking is all about, and this is why it's such a draw for the destination-diner. In Penang, the popiah fresh spring roll will be a paradox of delicacy and strength, the har mee prawn noodle soup will be the perfect fusion of spice and prawn stock, and, though it's not a local dish, the bak kut teh (a dark, spicy pork-rib "tea") will be made by hawkers you can set your watch by. And then there's laksa.
Before we go on, I have to make a confession: I'm no laksa fan. Or at least, I'm not a fan of what passes for laksa in Australia. The laksa we typically encounter back home is a bastardised version of laksa lemak, though in Penang they'd call what we're eating a third-rate curry mee. Even on a good day, lemak-style laksa is as different from asam-style laksa as minestrone is from gazpacho. Where "lemak" means fat or rich, "asam" means sour or tamarind, and it's this huge flavour punch of tamarind over fish stock that makes asam laksa so refreshing. Along with the thick rice noodles, the sardines or mackerel are joined in the bowl by Vietnamese mint, pineapple and the chopped raw flower of the torch ginger, to produce sweetness, spice, heat and acid to go with the sour baseline.
You can eat a perfectly dazzling asam laksa at a café in George Town, or you can do as I did and spend half a day driving to the other side of the island to the small town of Balik Pulao to try what's considered by many to be the finest example of the dish. It's a measure of the average Penangite's interest in food that mention of my plan not only failed to elicit any surprise or discouragement, but instead prompted a raft of questions about where I was going to eat on my way to, and from, my date with laksa destiny.
The drive took us from George Town's mix of Straits-eclectic and deco architecture (which helped win the area a UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2008) through Batu Ferringhi, home to the island's resorts. It can be hard, as an Australian, visiting beaches when you travel, and Batu Ferringhi, with its flat tepid seas and coarse sand, was no exception. The architecture is pure Gold Coast, with the notable exceptions of Lone Pine, a rather snappy, newly renovated resort channelling a sort of Don Draper-in-swimming-trunks vibe, and the Floating Mosque, a beach-side edifice that is surely the last word in Sunni, surf and sea architecture. It's a lovely drive regardless, and as you climb into the hills, the crab shacks give way to durian plantations. Ooi Geok Ling, the managing director of Penang Global Tourism and my guide for the day, was the first person to introduce me to the idea of durian tourism. Such is the zeal of hard-core durian lovers that they travel from throughout South East Asia to make the most of Penang's durian season. The fruit that are grown more slowly in the relative cool of the hills, Geok Ling tells me, are particularly sought after for the creaminess of their flesh. We pass a slope where one enthusiast, she said, kept a pavilion in the middle of his best orchard; he and his guests stayed here in the height of the fruit's season.
When we do arrive, Balik Pulao isn't much to look at. Kim Laksa, the stall of legend on Jalan Besar, neighbours an abandoned market, empty except for a cart hawking mangoes and petai, better known as stink beans. Like many vendors, the laksa stall is in a café. It's a standard symbiotic relationship in Penang - the vendors sell the food, the cafés provide the roof, chairs and tables, sell drinks and presumably take a cut.
One corner property in George Town - the Sin Hup Aun Café at Pulau Tikus market, for instance - might house stalls specialising in mee goreng, chicken rice (or the local roast-pork variation), char kway teow or one of five other dishes under its fans, a precursor of today's food halls. Here at Kim Laksa, there's no question what you're buying; the stall has been a tourist attraction since the 1970s. I only have five other bowls of true Penang laksa to judge it against, but even for the layman blow-in, the balance in the dish is as startling as its intensity, the pungency of the prawn paste and shallot kept perfectly in check by the herbs, the tamarind and the pineapple. It's one of the best things you'll eat anywhere, any time. A bowl is three ringgit, about 90 cents Australian.
Geok Ling had insisted, as any good Penangite would, that we stop along the way for fried bananas on sticks (the equivalent here of Paddle Pops for the beach; they're hearty) and nasi kandar (several curries mingled on the same plate of rice; even heartier). Though nasi kandar looks and tastes like a southern Indian dish, she explained, the way it combines several curries is a local Tamil Muslim staple indigenous to Penang. You can specify how much of the various curries on offer you want, or leave the decision to the vendor, some of whom are noted for their gift for knowing just how much of the squid-egg curry, for instance, is needed to set off the eggplant or the okra.
There's a lot to be said for gaining access to a little local knowledge. Even though standards are high and it's safe, clean and easy to navigate on your own, the overwhelming range of choice means that a guide can help. In Penang, you're not short of options.
Local Pearly Kee gives walking tours and, like several other guides, also teaches cooking classes, some of them at the lovely Tropical Spice Garden, a botanical garden equipped with a new cooking school. If you're lucky, a tour with Kee might feature a special guest in the form of her husband, Chandra, whose southern Indian heritage illuminates a side of Penang different from Kee's experience growing up in a Peranakan household. Being on your own when you visit the apom telor stand on Queen Street won't make the fermented rice pancakes with an egg in the middle any less crisp and flavoursome, but having a local guide introduce you to Aminah, the stallholder, and learning that she and her late father have plied their trade in this spot for more than 40 years, unquestionably enriches the exchange. At the roti canai stand next door, Chandra suggests I try it "flooded style", with the curry sauce and some dhal poured all over the golden, cloud-like layers of the roti rather than served to the side. I'm sold.
Take a walk with another guide, and though you may tread the same streets and look at the same or similar stalls, you'll see different things. Join Nazlina Hussin for a tour around the markets where she will help you make purchases to later deploy at her Spice Station cooking school on Stewart Lane, one of the newest additions to the city's food scene. A very different but no less erudite perspective comes from the company of Robyn Eckhardt, an American-born journalist who, with her photographer husband David Hagerman, has made Penang her home. Our stroll one evening begins with puthu bambu - a powdery sweet snack of rice flour, jaggery and fresh coconut steamed inside steel tubes, the modern-day equivalent, presumably, of the bamboo in its name. It's a tiny street-side taste of Little India's excellent food. The quantity and crumbliness of the particular jaggery used by this stall, Jelutong ("Since 1983"), is what sets it apart, Eckhardt says, confiding that she's more than a little bit obsessed with palm sugars. Several blocks and even more bites later, we arrive at Tek Sen Restaurant, its bright yellow walls already ringing with the clamour of diners.
Eckhardt tells me that one of the big hooks for destination-diners is Penang's Chinese food. Sitting down to a meal of bean sprouts stir-fried with salted fish, trotters in vinegar, lala (clams as small and fine as a child's fingernail) and a wonderfully caramelised double-cooked roast belly dish which she calls pork candy ("pork crack" might be closer to the mark), her argument seems wholly persuasive. When I'm on the road, it's usually anathema to me to visit the same eatery more than once in one trip. I think I ended up eating at Tek Sen four times this time around, twice on the same night, and I'll certainly be back.
Tek Sen is also a favourite of Narelle McMurtrie, an Australian who's something of a mover and shaker in the Penang tourism scene. McMurtrie divides her time between the islands of Penang and Langkawi, where she owns Bon Ton resort and the animal shelter that is her passion. In Penang she's responsible for the Straits Collection, a group of terrace houses in the heart of the city that she's converted into stand-alone boutique accommodation, and the newly opened China House, an impressive 120-metre-long converted warehouse space that houses restaurants, cafés, art galleries, a bookshop and a theatre. The Straits Collection's large and airy terraces, meanwhile, feature high ceilings and authentically precipitous stairs linking the downstairs living area to the bedrooms above, and are perfect for extended stays and quick jumps into the city alike. (Not least because the café McMurtrie operates at the end of the street does a damned fine palm-sugar ice-cream.)
Clove Hall is George Town's other best-regarded boutique option. It's a grand Edwardian Anglo-Malay home converted to a small hotel with a careful hand. Being a 15-minute walk or quick cab from the heart of town, it's a more serene option. It was opened in 2009 by Christopher Ong - the Malaysian-Australian entrepreneur also responsible for the Galle Fort Hotel, one of Sri Lanka's luxury landmarks - and was something of a breakthrough at the time. Ong has since sold the property, but between the swimming pool and the simple pleasure of taking a drink under the awning of the terrace in the afternoon, Clove Hall remains the yardstick for accommodation on the island.
With so very much going on, food-wise, it's hard to feel like you've even skimmed the surface here in just one visit. Penang establishes the benchmarks and resets your perspective on just how good hawker food can be. You've got the choice of the familiar, which will be presented to you with new clarity, and plenty of stuff you won't see anywhere else. If you're the kind of traveller who books the restaurants before the plane tickets and comes back with as many pictures of food as of family, this is one destination that needs to jump straight to the top of your to-do list. I can't wait to go again.