The magic words
Landed at Penang this morning. Listless. Sleep deprived. The hot sun hardly seemed welcoming. Was this where I wanted to be?
Then I did what all food explorers do to get out of a rut. I went down to the lobby of the Cititel Penang Hotel and loudly announced that I wanted to eat good ‘local food’. The first response was to direct me to a local Indian joint. I persevered and uttered the magic words, “I want to eat where you guys eat”. Words which open doors all over the world.
Suddenly a gentleman who was talking to the bell captain looked up from his work and came to me. The clouds parted, the angels of food sang and he said “I know what you mean. I will take you around”.
And so the afternoon begun. Hanif, my new friend, a stranger two minutes back. A second generation Hindu Punjabi. Converted to Islam. Dreams to work in India someday. A proud son of Penang. A wonderful human being. And so shy and humble that he only agreed to be photographed from the back (the gentleman in the yellow shirt).
My life. My food
He drove me around Georgetown in central Penang. Meticulously and patiently showing me its sights. He ascertained that I really wanted to have what ‘he would eat’ and not Indian food. He then took me to various eating options till he settled on one that he approved of. A restaurant which served the famed ‘Nasi Kandar’ of Penang. It was symbolic that a second generation Punjabi Malaysian, born in Penang, took an Indian born in the UK to sample the cuisine created centuries back. Created by Indian immigrants in their adopted country.
Lunch showed the advantage of eating with a local. I use the word ‘eating’ loosely here as Hanif only agreed to have a soft drink despite my entreaties to have a second lunch with me. What followed was an experience of the new with the familiar. Pigeon meat curry. I had never had pigeon before. It tasted exactly like chicken. Though the meat was less, scrawny and the bones were more. Similar to the quails at Mohammed Ali Road during Ramzan. The curry was like a nice north Indian light curry. They pour curry on Nasi (rice) here. That curry tasted very similar to what they serve in Malwani restaurants in Mumbai.
I also had a dark coloured curry on Hanif’s reccomendation. Something he eats at home. It’s called Ayum Nigara. The curry was a wonderful blend of Chinese and Indian. A pleasant sweetness born from the fusion of soy, which gave it to its colour and name, and caramelised onions. A very different and pleasant discovery which I made thanks to Hanif.
Hanif explained the origin of the word Mamak to me (South Indians who have settled in Malaysia). He also explained that ‘Nasi Kandar’ came from ‘Nasi’ which means rice and ‘Kandar’ which were the loads/ baskets carried by the early Indian settlers. Many such stories followed as he showed me a man making tongue soup outside the restaurant. I was too full and tongue tied as I saw the cook dexterously slice the tongue. Saved it for another day.
Raising a stink
Hanif suddenly looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes and said, “do you want to have Durian”. This is the moment which all food writers go through at some point. The famous ‘King of Fruits’ of the Orient. A fruit whose smell is considered to be too noxious to be allowed into hotels or flights. The fruit the rest of the world is wary of. Scared of. I decided to close my eyes, hold my breath and go ahead. If Bourdain had it then so would I. He is my Tendulkar after all. Hnaif broke open the Durian and I began my conquest.
I survived. And joined the Chinese and local Tamils who were happily munching their Durians.
I was surprised. It hardly stank at close quarters. In fact I repeatedly mentioned this to Hanif. He explained that closely packed Durians, transported over miles, are the ones that stink. Not the fresh ones. He did warn me of post Durian burps. Which did happen. I desperately hoped that the Starbucks Americano and Wrigleys Spearmint would help mask it.
How did it taste? Amazingly creamy. Comparable only to a mother’s love for her child. It filled you with an amazing sense of warmth, well being and comfort. Had an after taste of onions though.
I finally bade farewell to Hanif and headed down the charmed roads of Penang. A city which looked so different and magical thanks to its son and my new friend.
Following the crowds
I didn’t have Hanif to guide me for dinner. So I did the next best thing a food explorer can do. I settled on a roadside Chinese shop which was crowded with locals. The shop beside it was less crowded and I had got my answer.
The juicy pork satays that followed. The ‘egg’ fried rice with large prawns (!) in them. The delicately tossed squids in sambal sauce nestled in a bed of heavenly shrimp paste was just the right end for my first day at Penang. Can’t wait till tomorrow.
Note: This post is courtesy the wonderful folks at Hotel Cititel Penang who kept their business centre open for me so that I could write.