It was early in the morning when our flight from Kuala Lumpur touched down at Penang International Airport. All along the coastal highway, commuters zipped by on their motorbikes. Colorful silk hijab fluttered under women’s shiny helmets. In the distance, the Penang Bridge stretched out across the strait, connecting the tiny island state with mainland Malaysia. I suddenly felt miles and miles away from home.
The oldest British settlement in Southeast Asia, Penang’s capital city of George Town briefly rose to prominence as a thriving free port. Trade had already been well underway along the Strait of Malacca, but the arrival of British colonists expanded its reach, resulting in an influx of people to the island. Although Singapore later eclipsed George Town as the pre-eminent regional trade hub, Penang remained a diverse, eclectic community with its own distinct fusion of East and West. Street names reflect the varied peoples who made their mark on the island: Malay, Chinese, Indian, British, Acehnese (from Indonesia), Arabs, Armenians, Germans, Jews, Thai, Portuguese, and countless others.
Whereas Singapore’s harbor has dramatically transformed into a sweeping sci-fi vision, George Town’s historic center remains walkable and has a shabby, slightly dilapidated charm. A notable exception is the modern eyesore that is the KOMTAR mall. Located just outside the heritage zone, it has the one benefit of serving as a orienting landmark in this low-slung, colorful part of town.
After 30 long hours in transit, the plan was simple: get acquainted with the UNESCO Heritage Site of historic George Town, following the trail of now iconic street art. Many of these well-known works were created by Penang-based Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic for the 2012 George Town Festival. These spots are incredibly popular, especially on weekends, with visitors waiting to ride along with a pair of painted children on their bike.
After some selfies, the next goal was to eat some delicious food—in this case, at Chinese-Peranakan specialist Tek Sen 德盛飯店, where we dived into double-cooked roast pork with chili padi (sticky, sweet, spicy, porky) and fried homemade tofu, piled high with egg whites and seafood (tender, savory). Unplanned: falling asleep after lunch until the next day.
The next morning kicked off the first full day in Penang. We started bright and early at the steps of Campbell Street Market, where we met up with photographer David Hagerman. Together with his wife, writer Robyn Eckhardt, they form the award-winning duo behind the blog EatingAsia. When they aren’t globetrotting on assignment, they’re at their home base in George Town, where they occasionally conduct private tours.1
After meeting at Campbell Street Market, our first stop was down the block to Masjid Kapitan Keling. As evidenced by its name2, this place of worship was built by the area’s local Tamil-Muslim community.
Down the street from the mosque, at the corner of Lorong Stewart, sit two more vibrant places of worship. First, the Hindu shrine of Sri Varasithi Vinayagar, which is dedicated to the elephant-headed god Ganesha.
Directly across Lorong Stewart from Sri Varasithi Vinayagar is the Taoist temple of Kuan Yin Teng (Hokkien: Kong Hock Keong, or Goddess of Mercy Temple), dedicated to Guanyin.
Religious tolerance and pluralism were always cornerstones of the George Town colony’s establishment. In fact, you can walk further down Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling—just one block down from Sri Varatsithi Vinayagar and Kuan Yin Teng—to stumble upon the white edifice of St. George’s Church, one of the oldest Anglican churches in Southeast Asia. Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, Christianity: all on the same stretch of road.
We then returned to Campbell Street Market and explored more of George Town’s streets and back alleys, often ducking into the welcome shade of a roof to beat the heat—and meet the acquaintance of a hard-working, friendly Penangite.
After wrapping up our photo walk, Dave suggested foods to try later on our own: the curry mee at Campbell Street Market, char koay kak (fried radish cake) and apam balik (peanut pancakes, also called ban chang kueh) on Lebuh Kimberley near Cintra, grilled dried pork from Lai Yoke Kee. Robyn was kind enough to share a list of additional places (and dishes) to eat.
A busy morning meant time for a big lunch, so after parting ways with Dave, we trekked to one of Robyn’s recommended lunch spots: Restoran Nasi Padang Minang, a busy food stall at the Kedai Kopi Hotel International coffeeshop. In contrast to the popular nasi kandar stalls (such as Line Clear) that owe their origins to the local Tamil-Muslim community, the owners of Restoran Nasi Padang Minang claim roots in West Sumatra. The late founder, born in Padang, Indonesia, married a Malaysian man and set about creating dishes that paid homage to their combined heritage.
There are plenty of dishes (at least 50!), all ready to pile onto a plate of steamed rice: ikan bakar (charcoal-grilled fish), beef rendang, and fried tempeh (fermented soy bean cake) with green chili and dried anchovies. It all got washed down with a frosty glass of limau ais (calamansi juice), a welcome refresher on a balmy afternoon. All around us, the clientele at this bustling food stall was a mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and more.
Nasi Padang Minang, then, like many other meals found throughout Penang, typify the region’s multi-culti mix—on both sides of the plate.∎
Want more? Check out the rest of the images from the Penang photo walk.