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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dining Out In Penang, Malaysia: Georgetown's Gurney Drive

by Stephanie McCreary

When you love to travel and you love to eat, a lively outdoor food market is one of the highlights of any trip overseas. Asia has some of the best of them, offering cuisine that is often spicy and exotic, yet healthy and fresh.  With a seemingly endless variety of snacks, entrees, and desserts in every color, portion size, and flavor imaginable, they are pure pleasure to the palate, On a trip to Malaysia last year, I discovered Gurney Drive in Georgetown, the capital city of Penang Island. On the day I dined there, I ate a filling breakfast and a very light lunch anticipating that whatever I feasted on would be the star of the show. I spent the afternoon walking around the city center, brightly lit by the fiery golden sun. I popped into a Chinese temple and relaxed in its cool interior decorated with mirrors, a big gold Buddha, and a table full of candles. I walked past a mosque and did some window shopping, working up an appetite along the way. 

The sky soon grew dark and I had to find a way there. I found a three-wheeled rickshaw owned by an old, weathered man with leathery brown skin. I told him I needed to get to Gurney Drive. He said it would cost me thirty ringgits. I thought it was a bit much but climbed onto the seat anyway. The driver, weary and fatigued even before he started pedaling, churned his way through both quiet and busy streets, his breath heaving in puffs and starts until finally, after about thirty minutes, we arrived at our destination. There was a large shopping center with a Starbucks next to it and when the glittering lights of the food carts winked at me in shades of red I almost jumped from the rickshaw with excitement. It had been a long time since I had been to a food market like this. I tipped the man an extra five ringgits for his hard work before I got out and followed the glowing lights into the market.

A Malaysian Canadian friend of mine told me about Poh Piah, a type of spring roll, so I thought I would try that one. But first came the task of choosing which vendor to buy from since there were at least half a dozen of them. I casually walked by all of them before I made my selection. A very serious, almost stern looking man stood behind a cart. I smiled at him hesitantly, and he looked up warily for just a brief second as if to say, "If you're not buying, I'm not smiling". He looked away and focused again on the work of preparing the rolls.  This guy must know what he’s doing, I thought. After ordering I watched him fill two paper thin egg roll wrappers with finely crumbled tofu, red chili sauce, fresh lettuce leaves and steamed turnips. He then cut them into quarters before putting them into a small paper container and into my hands The result was a light and fresh vegetarian appetizer that only set me back about three ringgits, or one dollar. 

What would I have next? I walked in between two rows of hawker stalls, all selling equally delectable looking foods. There were people sitting around plastic tables, wooden chopsticks in hand, chatting with one another between bites of yellow noodles swimming in rich, dark sauces sprinkled with dried chili flakes or chili garlic sauce. I could hear the joyful, shameless slurping of the broth of wonton soup. I took it all in, waiting for my entree to call to me. I walked past more diners and more carts, until I saw a woman eating what looked like a large, blunt triangular piece of fish, grilled until golden and smothered in red spices. I walked over and asked her what it was.

                "It's stingray," she replied.
                "Where did you get it?" I asked, practically salivating.

She pointed in the direction of the vendors. I thanked her and ambled over toward a husband and wife team. The husband manned the grill, his face damp with sweat while the wife tended customers.  A huge open freezer displayed giant tiger prawns, crabs, and stingray, all lying atop a bed of big, glittering ice cubes. I waited patiently behind two people standing in front of me.  When it was my turn the woman looked at me and nodded in acknowledgment.

               "I'll have the stingray, one piece, please."
               "Twenty!" she shouted, her voice thin and raspy.

I handed her the money and she told me to come back in fifteen minutes. I strolled through the night, relishing the cool ocean air, watching people as they ate and drank. Twenty minutes later I returned to cart number fifty-seven. The lady gave me the plate, loaded with the massive piece of fish, smothered and marinted in red chilli sauce. My mouth began to water and I couldn't find an empty seat fast enough. As soon as I did, I ripped off the paper on my chopsticks, broke them apart and tore a long piece off the top of the fillet. The fish was light and the flavor peppery. At first I could handle it, but after awhile the heat proved to be too intense. I took the small pack of tissues I purchased earlier out of my handbag and dabbed my forehead with one. Soon I was breathing fiercely, and my packet of tissues was empty. I ate some more, resting in between bites until I finished the fish, which cost me about six dollars.

Noodles are a staple all over Asia so I decided to browse the hawker stalls for my last course of the evening. I saw a lot of people eating curry mee. Also called laksa, this is a spicy soup with either chicken or shrimp, sprouts, noodles, sliced boiled eggs and a spoon full of chili sauce. I ordered shrimp curry mee for six ringgits, or about two dollars. I took one sip and put just a little drop of the sauce in before getting rid of the rest. It provided a comforting, soothing end to a stimulating evening of eating and people watching.

If you're in Malaysia and you love food markets, don't miss Penang's Gurney Drive. Even if you don't eat anything you'll have a great time enjoying the atmosphere and if you do, you won't spend more than $10-$15 to taste a variety of great local foods that might be hard to get back home.

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