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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Dining Out In Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

By Stephanie McCreary

In the sticky heat of the late afternoon I hear the sound of high-pitched Hindi music blasting in invisible swirling coils from crackling speakers of old radios. I see softly strung silken necklaces of yellow and orange marigolds decorating hawker stalls selling everything from DVDs, to jewelry, to handbags to Indian desserts. I am walking through the cobblestone streets of Little India in Georgetown, the capital city of Penang island in Malaysia, checking out Indian restaurants.  Kapitan has the best tandoor breads, Restaurant Meena is South Indian, and Woodlands Restaurant is strictly vegetarian.

The potent aroma of chilies, curry leaves, black peppercorns and cardamom overwhelm my senses, yet I hesitate to eat Indian food here. I live in Oman where it is chock full of Indian expatriates and Indian food. But to eat this cuisine in Malaysia is immersing oneself in an integral part of Malaysian culture. Malaysians of Indian descent make up a sizeable portion of the population of the country, the other two groups being ethnic Malays and Chinese. Many Malaysian Indians are second or third generation and call Malaysia home, much the same way I am an American of African ancestry.

I choose Woodlands Restaurant on 60 Penang Street, well known for its bargain banana leaf lunches. I walk into the cool, dim, air-conditioned establishment and see a space decorated with mirrors framing the perimeter and artwork depicting women dressed in deep purple, red, and fiery orange saris in between each one. I sit down at one of the tables and listen to metal clanging, echoing throughout the room, like bells signaling thali lunchtime. Thalis are metal trays with five or six different compartments for entrees. At Woodlands they are round and deep with a banana leaf cut into a circle that fits perfectly inside accompanied by several small metal bowls.

After perusing the menu, I order the Madras thali unlimited banana leaf meal. About ten minutes later, it arrives at my table looking like a rainbow of healthy vegetarian food.  In the center of the leaf is a heap of white rice, surrounded by an arc of bowls that contain spinach garam dal, puriam, sambar radish, tomato rasam, kulumbu, sundakai onion mix, buttermilk and yogurt with coriander, and payasam.

The spinach garam dal is stewed with yellow lentils and seasoned with garam masala, a mélange of black peppercorns, coriander, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, chilies, and turmeric. The ingredients of garam masala vary by region but in South India, it is often made into a paste with either coconut milk or vinegar, and in North India, it is pure powder. The golden lentils temper the heat of the rich green leaves that although cooked, have retained the slightly crunchy, vibrant taste of fresh spinach. Puriam is a dish made of carrots, green peas and green beans with a peppery zing. All the vegetables are perfectly cooked, but a challenge to eat without biting into a peppercorn. Black pepper is used liberally in many South Indian dishes as Kerala; a state in the southwest of the subcontinent is famous for pepper production. The other dishes in the thali possess varying degrees of flavor from cumin, fenugreek, coriander and cardamom, and the buttermilk and yogurt with coriander is a welcome and cooling accompaniment to smother the fire of the piquant dishes.

Dessert is a sweet, warm soup called payasam with cashews and tiny tapioca balls that float like iridescent pearls to the surface. Spiced with cardamom, the taste is subtle yet festive. To add to the sweet decadence, I order a masala chai and Mysore pak. Most of the time chai is drunk simply as black tea with milk and sugar, but masala chai is for special occasions, and contains some or all of the following: cardamom, black pepper, ginger, cloves and cinnamon. But it is too foamy and more spicy than sweet. The Mysore pak, however, is like a little block of edible gold and doesn’t disappoint. This treat made of chickpea flour, clarified butter, and sugar, is believed to have originated in the town of Mysore, in the South Indian state of Karnataka. Soft, perfectly moist, and just a little crumbly, it melts in my mouth.

The entire meal comes to RM (Malaysian ringgits) 15, about 5 USD. Entree prices range from RM2-10, and both North and South Indian vegetarian food like palak paneer, channa masala and masala dosas rub shoulders on the Woodlands menu. There are a wide variety of hot and cold beverages like hot lemon and ginger tea, rose milk, and pineapple lassis that will only set you back about RM 3. Woodlands is a quality, inexpensive, meat-free place if you’re on the go and seeking a healthy and satisfying meal in Georgetown.

Woodlands Restaurant
Hours: 8:30am-10pm
Address: 60 Penang Street
Fax: 04-261-1868


  1. This article was so deliciously descriptive that though I am a long distance from Malayasia and living in New York City, I am going to dine at my favorite Malaysian restaurant here tonight! Until I can get abroad, this will have to do! Thank you Stephanie for that wonderful window into the world of food, the one cultural necessity that connects us all!

    1. Thanks, Crystal! It makes me happy that this post inspired you to go out to eat and travel abroad again. :)

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