The towering skyscrapers of George Town, the capital city of the Malaysian state of Penang, seem much like those of any other rapidly-growing Asian metropolis. They loom above the brilliant blue waters of the bay that made George Town one of the busiest ports in the east during the nineteenth century, attracting merchants from all over the world. But there is much more to George Town than its glittering skyline reveals at first glance.
A short walk away from the modern office buildings are the streets of old George Town, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city was founded in 1786 by the East India Company, which obtained land from the local Sultan of Kedah. The British established a free port in which people from every country were welcome to live and work. The population burgeoned as Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai and European settlers made it a centre for trade and commerce.
Today members of all the communities that first built Penang still live there, making it an extremely cosmopolitan city with a fascinating mixture of cultures and religions. Churches coexist with mosques and Hindu and Buddhist temples. Penang is one of the hubs of Peranakan culture, which refers to the ethnic groups that formed as a result of intermarriage between south-east Asians and people from other parts of the world. The largest group of Peranakans have Chinese ancestry, but there are also other smaller groups of Indian, Arab and Portuguese descent.
The Blue Mansion in George Town offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of the rich Peranakan merchants. This was the house of Cheong Fatt Tze, a wealthy businessman in the late nineteenth century. Built by craftsmen he summoned from China, it reflects the luxury that he enjoyed. Today it has been restored to its original condition and houses both a restaurant and a boutique hotel, so everyone can enjoy its exquisite interiors.
Penang’s street food is a kaleidoscope of the mingling of cultures and cuisines over the centuries. As British, Malay, Chinese, Hindu and Muslim traders settled here, they created a unique cuisine that attracts food enthusiasts from all around the world. Walk through the sleepy streets of George Town in the daytime and it is hard to believe that as soon as the sun goes down they transform into the setting for a moveable feast.
Vendors wheel out carts with sizzling grills and woks that they use to turn out seafood laksa (noodles simmered in a spicy coconut milk broth), fiery curries, pan fried murtabak (hand stretched flat bread) stuffed with eggs and meat, wok fried noodles, biryani, appams and dosas and every other delicacy that you could desire. The best possible way to experience George Town is to join the throngs around each stall and eat your way across town, as nobody seems to cook at home!
Char Kway Teow, one of the most popular street foods of George Town is easy to find all around the city. When you stroll out in the evening in search of a bite to eat, simply follow the irresistible aromas to the nearest food cart. Order a plate of Char Kway Teow, watch the vendor deftly stir fry the ingredients over a very high flame to give it the classic Wok Hei or ‘breath of the wok’ and savour the charred flavour and smoky aroma that is characteristic of this dish.
Char Kway Teow is very easy to make at home: use very fresh ingredients, keep the heat very high, and stir fry quickly to retain the crispness of the vegetables and the integrity of the noodles. Serve with Lamb Satay Skewers if desired.
Char Kway Teow (Fried Rice Noodles)
3 tbsp oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped or minced
1 cup thinly sliced red onion or shallots
1/2 cup thinly sliced sweet red pepper
6 large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 cups fresh bean sprouts
8 oz (1/2 lb) fresh flat rice noodles, warmed in the microwave to soften
2 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp each: rice vinegar, oyster sauce
1 tsp each: sugar, red chili sambal or hot sauce
2 eggs, beaten
2 green onions (scallions), thinly sliced
Warm 2 tbsp oil in large wok set over high heat.
Add garlic, red onions or shallots and red pepper. Saute for 2 min until lightly tender.
Add shrimp and bean sprouts, saute 1 min.
Add rice noodles, soy sauce, vinegar, oyster sauce, sugar and sambal. Toss with two stirring spoons or spatulas until well mixed, about 1 min.
Push noodle mixture around the periphery of the wok, creating a well in the middle. Add remaining 1 tsp oil to well, then pour beaten eggs onto it. Let eggs set for 30 sec, then scramble lightly by stirring gently.
Add green onions and bring noodle mixture back into the center of the wok, stirring and tossing to combine, about 1 min.
Serve right away.