A true melting pot Penang on a plate

| February 6, 2013

James Innes Williams travelled to Penang in December. Here he shares his thoughts.

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There are, more or less, just two things to do in Penang, and one far outdoes the other.

The modern history of this island, which lies off the north-west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, began when Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah leased it to Captain Francis Light, an English trader and adventurer working for the East India Company, in exchange for military protection. That promise was later reneged on and though the sultan tried to recapture the island he was unsuccessful. At this point, shortly before the turn of the 19th century, Penang was established as a free port, enticing traders from nearby Dutch trading posts.

Incorporated with Singapore and Malacca, Penang was the seat of the Straits Settlements, an extension of the British Raj, which in 1867 became a crown colony. Colonial Penang thrived. Trade in pepper, spices, Indian piece goods, betel nuts, tin, opium and rice was bountiful. While Singapore later came to prominence, owing to its better position and ability to service steamships, Penang remained one of the most important ports; most notably for China, India, Siam, Sumatra, Java and Britain.

But what does this mean for today? Well, it means there are some beautiful old colonial buildings in the capital, Georgetown, and a beguiling mix of cultures rubbing up together, hunkered in, cheek by jowl. But more importantly, it means the food is to die for.

I stayed at Clove Hall, a delightful colonial building with only six guestrooms, all featuring fine colonial antiques, four-poster beds and en suite bathrooms. Breakfast – fresh fruits followed by a choice of western staples or local delicacies – is served in the main hall or outside in the garden overlooking the pool; one of the most simple and exquisite pools I’ve yet encountered. It is a perfectly romantic setting, a little outside the Unesco world heritage area of Georgetown, where everything is just so, and the owners and staff friendly but not overfamiliar. George should be marked out for special praise though. He’s everything a traveller could want in a host – always pleased to see you, possessing a calm and reassuring manner, full of energy and yet also laidback. He’s also a rather lovely chocolate Malaysian poodle.

What Clove Hall doesn’t do though, and with good reason, is lunch or dinner. Because after you’ve visited the sites of Georgetown – churches, mosques and Hindu, Buddhist and Chinese temples by and large – it’s all about the food. The mix of cultures has created a true melting pot – a cliché perhaps, but nowhere is it more true. To find the same wide variety of food on any other holiday, you’d need to travel to several countries.

On my first day in Georgetown, after pounding the streets from St George’s Church (Anglican) at one end of Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling to Khoo Kongsi (Chinese clan house) at the other – by way of the Temple of the Goddess of Mercy (Chinese), Sri Maha Mariamman Temple (Hindu) and Kapitan Keling Mosque (Muslim), all located within 600 metres of one another – it was time to explore the clan jetties, where homes are built on stilts over the sea. And so it was here, too, that I ate; trying at first a roadside pancake filled with corn, and then settling in a street cafe, wolfing down delicious chicken and rice, with a pork bun on the side. All for less than £2.50. Street food for lunch, then, was clearly the way to go.

In the evening, after an adventurous ride on a rickshaw taking me far away from my intended destination, it was time to sample nyonya cuisine – a combination of Chinese, Malay and other influences, and a Penang speciality. I headed to the family-run Mama’s Nyonya Cuisine on Lorong Abu Siti, favoured by local boy Jimmy Choo. It’s a simple affair, aimed at locals rather than tourists, where it’s all about the food, not about the decor. It’s easy to order too much, you’re only here once after all, but you won’t regret it. The nyonya classics of tau eu bak, purut ikan come highly recommended…

The next night I headed to Little Shanghai, a hangout for the city’s savvy students. Here, it was time for a steamboat – whereby each table has its own gas hob holding a bowl of soup, spicy or mild, around which tinfoil acts as a grill. Diners then cook their own meats and fish on the tinfoil, while noodles, corn on the cob and other veg can be dropped in the soup. It’s an all you can eat affair, slow, but wonderful – and a great way to spend Christmas Eve.

On Christmas Day, it was time to visit China House. Set up in three buildings, this latest venture from hotelier Narelle McMurtie of Bon Ton and Temple Tree Langkawi fame, is part exhibition space, part performance space, part lounge, part wine bar, part restaurant, all vintage cool. Christmas dinner here was something similar: part English, part Australian (McMurtie’s birthplace), all Penang. A visit here is simply a must.

On my final day, I travelled up Penang Hill on the funicular railway to take in the superb view, and found another gem. Avoiding the commercial David Brown’s restaurant, I headed to the old Bellevue hotel. They have on average just one guest a night. Sitting on the veranda with Georgetown sprawled below was to step back in time: such a wonderful atmosphere of faded, eccentric, colonial glory.

And come the evening, having done so well with the nyonya and steamboat restaurants close to Clove Hall, I stayed local, this time heading to Isaribi Japanese Restaurant. Put simply, the sushi is something else. But what will stay with me longer is the range of ice cream. When was the last time you had a scoop of wasabi, a scoop of black sesame seed, and a scoop of blue cheese?

View Cox & Kings' holidays to Malaysia.

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