Saturday, July 18, 2009

Road Trip Day 0 / Filling up on Penang

As you may have noticed, I like to plan – make lists, gather maps, color-code, and cost-calculate just about everything. So when it came to my road trip cross-country, I needed to know just when we would leave and go, where we would stay, what we would eat, for an entire 10 days. I printed out maps and directions a couple of times (my reliance on Google maps was probably a bit too trustworthy, in the end), and made countless contacts with friends and family dotted along interstates 70 and 80. In the end, my sister and I did a pretty good job staying on track – getting lost only once, and only staying slightly behind schedule most of the way.

Part of my plan was to stuff ourselves with good eats before getting on the road, because you never know what you’re going to find on the road. And I had to get in one meal at my favorite Malaysian restaurant before taking off. So my family and I ventured out Buford Highway to Penang.

One thing you have to understand about my family and Penang is that we have certain set dishes. We go there so infrequently, that by the time we sit down, we all know exactly what it is we crave. Much of the time, we invite friends just for this reason – more people equals more dishes equals more chances to squeeze in an extra new dish amongst the roti canai and char kway teow. This time, there were only six of us (my immediate family and grandmother), so we only tried one new dish – a fried fish with “Thai sauce.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We always start with the same three appetizers:

Roti Canai, a griddle-fried pancake, made with lots of butter and served with chicken curry. This dish is always a crowd pleaser. The bread is airy and only slightly sweet, with alternating pockets of air and chewy, buttery bits. It can be enjoyed on its own, but is awesome in the curry. Because we usually share these between two or three people, my siblings and I used to fight over who got to eat the potato and who got to eat the bite of chicken (always a random, unidentified piece of dark meat, usually with skin and bone attached – my parents used to describe watching the chicken butchers in Singapore hack away at the birds until no more than small cubes – nothing like supermarket chicken in America). We always save the leftover sauce to pour over white rice with the rest of our meal.

Satay (one chicken and one beef), Malaysia’s version of meat-on-a-stick, served with peanut sauce (except for me), cucumbers, and red onions. My dad has come up with his own version of satay, which we have served at a couple of dinner parties over the years. It’s surprisingly tricky to recreate the marinade, and many restaurant versions, in my opinion, just aren’t up to par.

Achat, pickled, jullienned veggies, covered in peanut sauce and sesame seeds. I’ve never eaten this (warning, don’t give me peanuts unless you are skilled with an Epi Pen and know the fastest way to a hospital), but it’s one of my brother’s favorite dishes.

Following the appetizers, we pretend like we don’t know what else to order for a few minutes, close our menus, and recite our standards:

Pork Fried Rice, for my increasingly less picky sister, which, in Penang’s Malay version, has little seasoning other than oil, and a smattering of carrots, peas, and red onions to go with the char sui pork. About 5 or 6 years ago, Penang added a menu insert of “daily specials” that actually never changed, including the memorably misspelled Pineapple Friad Rice. Entertained by the comedy of it all, we would order this instead, until finally growing tired of the overwhelming sweetness of the pineapple added in.

Char Kway Teow, a fried rice noodle dish, with seafood, egg, and a few vegetables. Traditionally, the dish is very spicy, but at Penang it varies from visit to visit. This particular night, it was one of the hottest things that we ordered. Regardless of the varying intensity, char kway teow is one of the few dishes we have ordered every single visit. It is one of my favorites, and I crave it regularly. My mom tells me this is because she ate it constantly while she was pregnant with me, and so I’ve had it in my blood since before I was born. Maybe this is true, or maybe it is just delicious.

Kari Sayu, a vegetable curry, served in a coconut broth. We first ordered this dish a couple of years ago on a whim, and it is now in regular rotation, partially due to the abundance of green in the bowl, and partially due to my mother’s obsession with lady fingers (or okra, in the south). This curry manages to walk the line between creamy and crunchy, and it only slightly spicy – a nice contrast to our other dishes, like –

Crispy Golden Fried Squid, a spicy calamari, covered in some kind of chili powder and served with beautiful slices of bell peppers and onions. This was the first squid that I ever enjoyed – it is never chewy, always crisp – and it’s painfully addictive.

As I mentioned earlier, our guest dish of the evening was a deep-fried whole fish (we were thinking red snapper, but the menu just calls it fish) with what they called “Thai sauce” a mysteriously red lemongrass sauce that makes an appearance on many of Penang’s seafood. The fish was flaky and moist, just as it should be, but the sauce stole the show. I found myself scraping it on to rice too many times to count. More Thai sauce, please!

After stuffing ourselves with spice, we always end our meal with Ice Kacang. As my parents explained to me at a very young age, successful, stomachache-less Malaysian meals need both heating and cooling elements. As our entrees are almost always hot and greasy, our desserts must always be cooling. An ice kacang does just that. Extremely sweet and strange the first few times you eat it, the snow-cone like bowl of awesome gradually grows powerfully enticing. At this point in my eating career, I can’t imagine anything better to end a meal, and I find myself wanting them every time I eat spicy food. What makes it so strange, though? At first glance, it seems innocent enough – a towering pinnacle of shaved ice with syrup on top. But this syrup is not your average artificially colored high-fructose corn syrup mess. Instead it is a combination of rose syrup, palm sugar, and sweetened condensed milk. And hiding underneath the tower is a collection of agar agar jellies, atap seeds, corn, and beans:

Sound weirder? It took me several years to get up the courage to try the treats hiding underneath, but it is now my job to eat up the bottom. I don’t know why it tastes so good, really, but it is. Awesome.

Stuffed and happy, we left the restaurant and headed home to finish packing, organizing, planning. I was still full the next morning when Sally and I jumped in the car at 8 am and headed to St. Louis.

Tomorrow: The long leg of the trip, across the Midwest, though the desert, and into the west coast. Stay tuned!

Penang on Urbanspoon


  1. Hey Kate--
    I was just catching up on your food adventures when I saw the jellies pic and laughed. A big thing here in Cambodia, and I too found them ominous, but they seem to mostly taste like watery nothing. Remind me and I'll send you a pic of a desert plate I assembled out of only gray foods at a buffet the other day.

  2. Oooh gray dessert. Sounds, um, good?

  3. I came across this posting about Panang AFTER I had been to Panang for the first time. I live in Las Cruces NM and I was in Atlanta visiting an uncle and he took us to Panang. Everything we ordered was outstanding (two out of the four dishes we ordered are mentioned in your post; Vegetables in Curry Sauce and Fried Squid). I can highly recommend the Seafood in Black Pepper Sauce because we all agreed it was the best dish of the four ordered. My sister-in-law who lives in Gainesville, GA eats there as often as she can because it is one of her favorite resturants. I will not hesitate to return on future visits to Atlanta.