Ipoh and Penang: Traipsing Through the Flavors of Malaysia
By Ma. Gemima Valderrama | Photography by Marlon Aldenese
If there’s one thing exciting about traveling, it will always be trying out the food. Food always plays an important role in preserving culture and creating a national identity. It also connotes a lifestyle. Food is an important feature of any country’s culture, and Malaysia is no different. We took a bite of their offerings, whether it was in the humming, busy street food areas or the elegance of their hotels. I am happy to have experienced, enjoyed and tasted their variety.
Now, let me bring you with me.
It took almost four hours from Manila to Kuala Lumpur, and since Malaysia Airlines was our carrier, and you can say our airplane meals were our introduction to Malaysian food.
The stewardess was making me choose between two entrees, but since I only understood the last one she mentioned, I went with the chicken. Served with noodles (pancit canton style), that was seasoned with oyster sauce and mild spices.The other passenger seemed to enjoy his shrimps in a thick orange sauce that looked really spicy, I somewhat regretted my less exciting choice, but there’s always the flight back.
Our first stop in Ipoh, one of the biggest cities in Malaysia, is the famous Old Town White Coffee, but it isn’t all about coffee here. We tried two of their all-time favorites, the kaya and butter toast and the banana French toast. The first is a coffee soaked toasted bread with a thin slice of butter and the other is loaded with banana, jam and topped with vanilla ice cream. The coffee and toast classic combo is pretty reasonable at 6 to 8 RM (around 80 to 100 Php).
The Weil Hotel serves the famous Tiffin lunch and dinner buffet. Tiffin serves a wide variety of Malaysian and international flavors that excite the palette for an appetizing dining experience. You could say this particular hotel buffet is cheaper than the ones in our country because it’s only 38 to 48 RM (or about 500 to 650 Php).
On the flipside, we went out at night and tried the street food where people flocked together. We tasted the fish noodles at 3 RM only (40 Php) and it definitely tasted good as the fish balls, and they were made mostly of fish meat rather than flour. The ice kacang (ka-chang) or corn-bean frozen dessert is their version of the halo-halo, with the shaved ice topped with peanuts and sweet corn, mongo red beans, grass jelly and syrup. For only 3 RM (30 to 40 Php) you get one refreshing bowl.
We travelled to Penang the day after and another food adventure began. The Eastern and Oriental Hotel (E & O Hotel) is a luxury heritage suite hotel. There was almost everything in their buffet that you could possibly eat, and so my great food adventure officially began quite fittingly with the Char Koay Teow. This ever popular noodle dish among our neighboring countries is perhaps the most popular hawker food in Malaysia because its tasty stir-fried rice cake strips topped with egg, pork or chicken strips or prawns, and some Chinese chives (kuchay) goes a long way as a snack or a meal. At E & O Hotel, they serve it with no meat as a healthy alternative. Topped with egg, red bell pepper strips, and spring onion leaves. The Nyonya Chicken Curry Kapitan is a richer and thicker version of what we would consider regular chicken curry cooked, and is cooked with belacan, a popular locally fermented shrimp paste, to give the dish more depth. Basically, it’s their version of bagoong. Asian curry is distinguishable from Indian curry in their use of spices and herbs such as galangal, lemon grass, and kaffir lime.
Their Roasted Chicken is kicked up a notch with fresh spice and peanut chilli. The chicken is marinated beforehand with chili peanut sauce and topped with fresh tomatoes, onions, and green pepper. It leaves a sweet-spicy aftertaste even after you consumed a glass of water. Foodies know that the sweetest part of the fish is head, which is true of the Salmon Fish Head Curry, which is simmered in curry powder and tamarind pulp. Though I am not into spicy flavors like curry, this luscious dish is quite memorable. I have tasted a lot of their food from the grilled salmon slices and steaks to puddings and ice cream. Whenever offered, I never fail to partake of the roasted duck accompanied by a sweet-chili peanut sauce. The distinct flavors of this dish is something the group would certainly want to experience again. For only 68 to 75 RM (800 to 1,000 Php), you can enjoy all this.
A food adventure would never be complete without trying the street food. Tourists and locals gather around Gurney Drive and the rest of streets in Penang because of their cheap, clean, and delicious street foods: A Roast Chicken Rice comes with chopped chicken drizzled with soy sauce, gravy with minced ginger and cucumber. Mixing the chicken with ginger after dipping in the sauce brings out its flavors. I also enjoyed Chendol, a tangy bowl of finely shaved ice topped with red beans, green noodles made from mung beans, is drizzled with syrup made of palm sugar. It ranges from 2.50 to 4.00 RM (30 to 40 Php). Rojak , a plate of sliced fruits and vegetables in a sweet-spicy sticky sauce sprinkled with minced peanuts, got my attention. It is incredibly delicious and only costs 4 to 5 RM or (50 to 60 Php). At first, you won’t notice the spicy flavors, but as soon as you relish the sweetness, the spicy flavor then makes its presence felt and remains in your palate for awhile. Marinated cuts of pork, chicken, beef, fish and vegetable balls all go for 2.50 RM or barely (30 Php) and is dipped in a special sauce. Cooks standing beside hot woks all over the streets of George Town has become an identity of this place. It’s famous all over Asia and one of the must visit places in Malaysia, especially for foodies.
It is interesting to partake of the distinctive flavors from our ASEAN neighbors and learn through your palate the similarities and the differences. The tastes of Malaysia certainly leave a mark.