I had planned to write a long, juicy, drawn-out post about the delicious food in Malaysia, and in particular, the food in George Town, Penang. Then I suffered acute Mini Syndrome*.
*Mini Syndrome is a curious affliction which happens when one drives a Mini. As a former Mini owner, I could only see Mini’s, when I was actually driving one. The same oddity has happened while riding motorbikes, driving lorries, and driving anything in the Australian Outback.
Symptoms include moronic waving, awkward eye contact, exaggerated smiles and the right to act as a complete and utter goof.
Returning to my original point; as soon as I sat down to write a post on Malaysian food, I realised the topic had already been covered. And more importantly, it had been covered by people who really know the subject well; rather than — like me — someone who had just sat down, and eaten.
“Look, no guidebook!”
Having left New Zealand in somewhat of a hurry, I was gloriously ill-informed about travel in Malaysia. I opted for the rebellious, “Look, no guidebook!” approach.
It’s in vogue, don’t you know?
I like to tell people it’s because I’m something of a groovy travel hipster. Truth is, I’d just paid £90 for three weeks’ worth of travel insurance, so I figured that paying another £15 to keep me out of trouble seemed an utter waste of time and money.
Nevertheless, I made the right decision.
Prior to my arrival in George Town — the World Heritage capital of Pulau Penang (pulau is Bahasa Malay for island) — I’d done a quick recce of numerous travel blogs and filled my notebook with some morsels of information to guide me in my hour of need.
I left my humble lodgings for a long walk and as planned, it culminated in the charming Kedai Kopi Sin Hwa* (Sin Hwa Coffee Shop) which I’d enthusiastically scribbled down during my research.
As was normal for me in Malaysia, I smiled at the chef (in the smaller cafés, the chef is usually found cooking at the front of the café, not least so that you can discern the house special) and ordered my food before taking a seat at the back of the open-fronted eatery.
There were ten tables covered in period world maps, and six weary ceiling fans tirelessly punching their blades through the air, delivering alternate wafts of pollution from the main road and spiced air from the wok.
Char Koay Teow in Penang
I’d ordered char koay teow, which is to Malaysians what a fry up is to we English. In a nutshell, it’s a little bit of everything: flat noodles, chives and bean sprouts, cockles, prawns and egg (optional), all fried together in a hot oil, soy and chilli paste. But somehow, it’s more than that.
A beautiful old lady took my drinks order via a comical series of kindly exchanges, and I settled back and watched a handful of lonesome diners elegantly flick noodles into their mouths.
The char koay teow (above) was so good, I ordered the bihun goreng (below) with the same trimmings, and a delicious home made lo hong ko (bottom; I can only guess it’s a drink made from honey, or perhaps a fruit) on ice.
I was replete. Never had I been happier, than to just sit back and watch the world go by.
The Power of Food
A steady stream of locals schlepped along the road. Occasionally one would wander in and take a seat. It seemed an unspoken rule that they were having the char koay teow, and it seemed mandatory that it would be a trade of few words and solemn faces.
My own expression, was one of boyish contemplation. People began to look at me and smile. I suddenly became paranoid. Continuously wiping my chin for fear of a stray noodle, or slither of chive. I wondered why I had been suddenly revealed from my dark corder at the rear of the coffee shop.
And then it dawned on me.
Having cheerfully consumed the char koay teow, and bihun goreng I was in the throes of Mini Syndrome. Suddenly, I was engaged in awkward eye contact with a gaggle of lunchtime diners, and I strained out a series of exaggerated smiles to appease my paranoia.
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*Kedai Kopi Sin Hwa is located at approximately 328 Jalan Burma (Burma Road), George Town, Penang.