To be perfectly honest, I didn’t want to spend any time in Malaysia.
So much about travelling this circuit is talking to other travellers who have either been somewhere – or know someone that’s been to – where you’re headed and asking for their recommendations. Yes you should always take this with a grain of salt, but I’ve found over the past several months that I can generally rely on information that’s consistent.
What I had heard was that Kuala Lumpur is “nice” (unanimous traveller speak meaning “go if you have time but don’t go out of your way”) Langkawi is “pretty” (followed immediately by “BUT if you’re going to the Thai islands nearby I would suggest those instead”) and Penang is awesome: it’s the food capital of Malaysia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My ears immediately perked up at this.
DING DING DING WE HAVE A WINNER!!!
Situated on the Northwest coast of Malaysia, it’s a thriving tourist destination with an exciting diversity in it’s food, ethnicities, languages and religions. As a foodie hub, I discovered a wonderful mix of offerings that far exceeded my expectations. Not that the other two destinations weren’t memorable in their own ways, but Penang is a place that I literally wanted to write home about.
First things first, whenever I arrive somewhere new I try to discover what a popular local dish is. I had previously received an email with recommendations for Char Kway Teow (Hokkien spicy rice noodles with giant prawns) that have be eaten at a specific food stall on Lorong Selamat, where two notorious ladies crank them out at lunch. Rumour had it one of the ladies wears an iconic red beret.
We biked halfway across Georgetown leaving behind us the comforts of the city center to arrive on a very small and congested street. When we finally spotted the red beret it was a MAGICAL moment. I wiped the beads of sweat running down my face (note: Penang is humid, so so humid), composed myself and walked towards the restaurant.
Kafe Heng Huat is definitely one of those places that leaves you with a lot of first impressions as it inundates your senses. Here are some of my initial thoughts:
- The restaurant is BUSY. There’s a very palpable energy in the space created by the staff running by with plates of noodles and the dozens of loud conversations amongst all of the patrons.
- The lady with the red beret is SASS-Y. Armed with a beckoning voice and barely a smile the entire time we were there, she has this arthritic stance from what I imagine to be years of frying up the same dish, in the same position. See below.
- The Char Kway Teow is DELICIOUS. And totally worth the hype.
More important than the legend herself, we like many others before us, came here for the signature dish and were not disappointed. While the portion was rather small for what was considered a “large”, it came with a heaping amount of prawns, cockles, and bean sprouts.
Chinese people often talk positively about “wok hei” when referring to the intensity of heat/char that a dish has from cooking with a wok over high flames. There certainly was an abundance of “wok hei” here! UGH so good.
In addition to the food, Penang (more specifically George Town) has an adorable street art scene that has brought a lot of attention to the city with murals that mimic every day life. With a full stomach, hunting down all of the murals over an afternoon was an amazing way to explore the city.
If you haven’t been to Penang, go. If you haven’t tried Char Kway Teow, do it. Both were some of the best surprises I’ve had on my trip, and now have a special place in my heart.