Indian Food in Penang

There are three major cuisines here in Penang: Malay, Chinese, and Indian. In addition, there are two of what I consider “fusion” cuisines: Nyonya (Chinese +Malay) and Mamak (Indian + Malay). Of all these, Indian is the definite favorite in the Carlin household. Interestingly, two of the three Indian restaurants we frequent are vegetarian.  But I guess we could claim to be regulars at all of these places.  The servers recognize us and some even remember our kids’ names.

Woodlands is my absolute favorite restaurant in Penang. It’s in Little India and happens to be air conditioned, although that’s not the only reason we find ourselves here on a weekly basis!  It’s not a large place; with only about 15 tables, it is frequently full at popular meal times.  And the shop employs a small army.  On my last visit, I counted no less than nine men in their high-collared brown uniforms, serving tables and hanging out at the cash register.  That doesn’t even include the cooks in the back.  For the patron-to-waiter ratio, service can be a little slow and the staff can be just a little stand-offish.  Oh, but the food.  

I like to go in the evenings, when they are serving all their wonderful bread-like products.  

Ghee onion rava masala dosai at the Woodlands. This reminds me of when we fry up leftover mashed potatoes in a skillet. It’s one of my favorite items at Woodlands.
Chenna batura, anotehr big poofy hollow bread, with a stew for dipping.
Paper dosai at Woodlands Vegetarian Restaurant. You break off pieces of this crispy, thin rolled bread and dip them in the sauces.
Some flavor of vadai from Woodlands. I’ve seen vadai called “Indian donuts” but they really have nothing in common with a donut beyond the shape. I think they could be better described as lentil fritters, as they are made with a batter of ground lentils and deep-fried.

We also frequent another vegetarian restaurant in Little India called Thali NR Sweets.  NR is really THREE! restaurants in one.  The regular food service is the thali featured in their name.  A thali is a plate of small dishes, and a popular Indian lunchtime meal.  You get some rice or some sort of bread product (chapathi, naan) in the center of your tray and little bowls of flavorful dishes around the edges.  Some are more of a curry soup, some are vegetable mixes.  There’s also sometimes a bowl with a yogurt drink and if you’re lucky, one of the bowls has a sweet Indian candy inside.
About that Indian candy… That’s where the “Sweets” part of their name is featured.  When you walk into the restaurant, you have to walk by these big display cases of sweets.  They are wildly, unnaturally colorful and very, very sweet.  And delicious, of course.  Typical ingredients include milk, ghee, coconut, and ground nut pastes (a bit like marzipan, actually).  I find it impossible to resist buying some little thing to try at the end of my meal.

Curiously, Thali NR Sweets leases a bit of space to another food endeavor, Vishnu’s Pizza.  That’s right.  It’s a pizza shop in an Indian restaurant.  I was curious, the first time we ordered.  Would they use a piece of naan in place of the regular pizza dough?  Would the topping be paneer (Indian cottage cheese) instead of mozzarella?  Nah.  It’s just a regular, American-style pizza.  But it’s pretty good and Simon really likes it.  And the guy who works at the Vishnu Pizza stall is really friendly, too.

Thali NR Sweets Cafe.
The Madras thali platter. This whole meal costs about US $2. Isn’t that incredible?!!
Indian sweets. The pink ones on the left are cranberry flavored. The pink ones on the right are coconut. The little apples are made from cashew paste, with a clove for the stem and a pistachio for the leaf.

The final Indian restaurant in our regular rotation is Indian Palace, which scores big points for proximity.  It’s on the first floor of Penang Times Square, the building where we live.  It is not a vegetarian place, so this is where we go for chicken tandoori, lamb, fish, etc.  By comparison, the portions sizes are a bit small and the prices a bit high (for Malaysia) but the food is always very delicious and the convenience of being just steps from our apartment is a dream to tandoori-deprived Minnesotans like us.  We pretty much always start with an order of either chicken tandoori or chicken tikka, and then we are slowly working our way through the menu of other dishes.  It’s quite an extensive menu.  Some of the dishes– spicy chicken vindaloo, creamy mutton korma–are familiar to us from Indian restaurants in America.  But we also enjoy trying new things. On one occasion, Joel ordered a fish plate, in which the cubes of fish were rolled in green herbs and spice, and it was unlike any Indian dish I’ve eaten before.

Indian Palace in Penang Times Square.
Indian Palace in Penang Times Square.
Indian Palace in Penang Times Square.
Interior of Indian Palace.


Wesak Day

(Confession: I really hate blogging out of chronological order.  But eh, I’ve got a two-month-old baby and our class has had lots of adventures worth sharing!  So I’m blogging still, even if it’s out of order. Stay tuned–there’s a bit more to come still!)

May 21 was Wesak Day, an important Buddhist holiday that commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha.  The Gustavus students had their very last field trip of the semester, a trip to a couple of famous temples in Penang.

There was a little confusion at our first stop.  Joel, Penelope and I arrived a bit early.  We were soon met by our instructor, Wei, but no students could be found.  The students were to come from campus via minivan.  But we waited and waited, and they never arrived.  A few phone calls later and we had it all straightened out.  The USM drivers accidentally went to the wrong temple.  Because Penang is the type of place where you have to specify exactly WHICH Thai Buddhist temple you plan to meet at.

Anyhow, the students eventually made it to our starting location and we headed inside Wat Chayamangkalaram Temple, otherwise known in Penang as the Reclining Buddha Temple.  This temple was originally built by the Thai community in 1900.  It’s undergone extensive renovations, however, and as the Thai community in Penang is quite small now, it is primarily administered and visited by Chinese Buddhists.  The reclining statue of Buddha is 33 meters long, making it one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the world.  Different depictions of Buddha represent different aspects of his character.  Reclining Buddha is meant to depict the Buddha at the instant of his death and his final detachment from the physical world.

Reclining Buddha.
Eat your heart out, Jamberry.

Naturally, this would be a very popular temple on a day meant to celebrate Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death.  There were crowds assembling out front.  A small army of temple volunteers had set up large tents in the courtyard and were distributing free vegetarian food.  Highlights included cinnamon buns (colored green and flavored with pandan) and some sort of noodles.  

Because of the crowds, this particular temple does not allow the burning of joss sticks (incense) inside.  However, lotus candles are a popular devotional offering.  Candles represent light.  Light symbolizes wisdom; light drives away darkness.  For a small donation, devotees can purchase a bright pink lotus candle and add it to the many on the devotional tables.  We walked around the temple to see more detail. Behind the Buddha statue is a columbarium, where the ashes of cremated devotees are kept. Murals and paintings adorned the walls with stories from the life of Buddha.

Lotus flower candles.

Conveniently, two of the most famous Buddhist temples in Penang happen to be across the road from one another.  After we finished up at the Reclining Buddha Temple, we wandered across the street to Dhammakarama Burmese Temple.  This is quite a sprawling complex, with little rooms and free-standing temples dotted across the facility.  One highlight is the large standing Buddha.  

There were many lovely and detailed paintings in the main hall, depicting the life and experiences of the Buddha. I wasn’t familiar with most of the stories, but was admittedly amused by one titled, “The Buddha subduing the fierce, drunkened elephant, Nalagiri.”

Watch out, Baby Penelope!
In addition to the temple, there is also a monastery on site. In the corner of the main hall, Buddhist monks in saffron orange robes sat and offered prayers to visitors. Wei explained that this was not a blessing, but a prayer of protection for one’s mind. Several of us chose to receive a prayer while the monk dipped a leafy branch into a bowl of water and sprinkled it over their heads. Afterwards, they were each presented with a small yellow string bracelet, a physical reminder to remain strong against the challenges to one’s mind. Several students knelt for these prayers, and I took Penelope over as well.
Receiving prayers.

Everybody loves a man with a baby.

From there, we wandered outside a bit more.  Wei explained that there were many novelty attractions to entice visitors to come to the temple.  These were not necessary components of Buddhism, but just ways attracting attention, which will hopefully lead to more people being exposed to and embracing Buddhism.  For instance, there was a pond with rotating metal bowls featuring auspicious words (love, harmony, education, etc.).  Toss a coin into a bowl; win the prize.  It felt just like a carnival game, to be honest.  Many Gusties used up their loose change at that pond, although I don’t know if anyone was successful. 

The coin toss game. In the background, the mural depicts Prince Siddhartha as he abandons his life of royalty in seaerch of enlightenment. His distraught subjects beg him to stay.

The temple featured some other interesting statues.  In one corner stood two huge Panca Rupa, guardians of the world, and possessing the strongest features each of the elephant, lion, deer, fish, and eagle.  (These are not really a Buddhist symbol at all, but as with many religious sites, there is a blend of religious and cultural symbolism.)

A Baba Nyonya Farewell

Saturday night was the farewell dinner for the Gustavus 2016 Semester in Malaysia at Universiti Sains Malaysia.  It was a swanky affair–held a the Equatorial Hotel Ballroom.  There was a delicious meal, dance and musical performances, and a few speakers.  

It was incredibly humbling to see just how many people were involved in this endeavor.  There were the administrators, the IMCC staff, the module coodinators, the lecturers, the Buddies… A whole lot of dedicated and thoughtful people made our stay in Malaysia so incredible.  

The theme for the night was Baba Nyonya.  Baba Nyonya is an informal term for the Peranakan or “Straits Chinese,” the descendants of Chinese immigrants who retained their native religion and traditions but adopted the Malay language and clothing.  Their culture and history is a unique fusion of different regions, and perhaps a beautiful symbol of the partnerships that USM’s International Mobility and Career Center creates with its students all over the world.  Far and near.  Old and new.  Comfort and adventure.

We had so much to celebrate: new friendships, new knowledge, and wonderful memories.  Yet the evening was bittersweet, for we all knew that goodbyes were looming; the first of the Gusties left the airport the very next morning.  The official program is over but the friendships have just begun.  How lucky we are, to live in an era where we can still stay in touch from opposite sides of the world.  

Penelope was sleeping soundly at the end of the meal…
…when the Buddies took the stage with a dance routine…
…she was a little startled by their performance.
Dr. Hafizal & Keishi
All the Gusties took turns sharing their favorite memories from the semester.

Athirah always has a calming effect on Penelope.

There was a costume contest. Carl won “Best Dressed Male.”
Ai Chan and Keishi.
Hannah takes part in the flower tossing fun.

Penelope’s Blanket

It’s started. The first of our Gusties has boarded a plane and left Malaysia. I’ve been so honored by the opportunity to travel and explore alongside them this semester, and so grateful for the kindness they’ve shown my family.

When Penelope was born, the Gustavus students presented us with the most incredible gift; one I will treasure it always, both as a memento of our time in Penang, and also as a symbol of their generosity. In secret, the students arranged with a local batik shop to make a special baby blanket for Penelope. All 10 students participated in painting the blanket, which was as well outside the scope of what Rozana’s Batik would normal create. They presented the gift to us on Easter Sunday, the first time we brought Penelope to USM.

Thank you, Annika, Carl, David, Emma, Helen, Jen, Jenna, Lily, Sam, and Zack.  See you on the other side of the world!




Butterworth Ferry: Little Trips Make for Big Adventures

Our family stayed close to home this weekend.  Thanks to a certain tiny human who likes to stay awake all night, Joel and I have been very tired lately.  But even when we stay home, Simon has grown to expect at least a little adventure everyday.

I came up with a big hit.  It was good for an afternoon adventure and it cost us a sum total of RM2.40, less than a US dollar.  Long before the Butterworth Bridge connected Penang Island to the mainland, people had to get back and forth on a regular basis.  Their only option back then was the ferry, and it still runs today.  

The ferries are double-deckers.  Vehicles can drive onto both the top and bottom levels.  There is seating for pedestrians on the top level as well, and you are actually permitted to roam around the whole boat.  Most of the pedestrians appeared to be daily commuters, although I spotted a few Asian tourists as well. 

Vehicles on the lower level.
Many people got out of their cars during the voyage.
Simon and I climbed from the upstairs pedestrian area to the downstairs vehicle deck.

The ride across the channel takes maybe 20 minutes. We saw a few other vessels while we were on the water–tiny fishing boats painted in bright primary colors as well as big, drab barges.  

We disembarked in Butterworth and didn’t even leave the ferry terminal–just looped back around for the return ride.  The trip is quite affordable.  You only have to pay one direction (Butterworth to Penang).  Adults pay RM1.20, kids are half-price, and children under age 4 are free.  But beware: you must pay in exact change, coins only, and the money changer operated at the pace of a tree sloth.  Seriously, you only have one thing all day: people handing you one-ringgit bills and asking for coins.  You could probably anticipate their needs, wouldn’t you think?  But the guy seemed to need to have an elaborate conversation to ascertain the needs of each passenger, and the boats don’t wait for exact change.

As usual when we get out of touristy areas, Simon was the center of attention.  On the return trip, we sat next to a group of young Indonesian men.  One guy had an electric blue guitar and all the guys were singing.  They thought Simon was adorable and they kept trying to coax him to hang out with them.  He refused.  

Simon’s fans.

We’d purchased a bag of knock-off M&Ms as a treat.  After eating a few, he shared one with me.  And one with Joel.  And one with the man sitting next to us.  Then he just started going down the line, handing out M&Ms to everyone in our section of the ferry.  I kept directing him to the Indonesian guys, but he was shy around them.  At least they were good sports and laughed about it.  Eventually, Simon made his way to the next batch of seats.  Suddenly, little old ladies with grocery sacks and businessmen trying to read the newspaper each had a little hand stuff a candy in their faces.  They were less amused than the people near us who’d been watching Simon’s charity unfold.
By the time Simon ran out of candies, we were just getting back to Penang.  The ferry terminal is also, reasonably, one of the main bus terminals in Penang.  But we wanted to get home a little faster.  We called an Uber and headed back with a happy three-year-old, content that he’d had his daily adventure. 

Neighborhood Snacks

People in Penang rarely stop talking about food.  It’s on everyone’s mind, all the time.  And there are just so many places to buy food!  One of the benefits of living in Georgetown is that there is a lot of food in close proximity.  There’s the fact that we live in a mall–so all of the restaurants and the food court are available without even going outside.  But if you step outside the confines of Penang Times Square, and wander up and down our street, Jalan Dato Keramat, there are a couple of special snacks within short walking distance.  I’m going to talk about sweet treats and desserts because who are we kidding?  That’s what I live for.

But first.  Have I ranted about sidewalks lately?  Can I rant some more?  The people who run this food stall set up at about 2:00 every afternoon.  They erect their tent and tie it down across the entire sidewalk, so that you have to sort of shimmy through their stall, taking care not to clothesline yourself on their tie-downs or burn yourself on their hot plates.  Or you can just walk in the street against oncoming traffic.  I was so taken aback by this when we first arrived.  During my early walks to the Gama grocery store I was in pure survival mode, trying to navigate the traffic and the poor sidewalks, and so I never actually stopped to wonder what this obstacle was, just that it was an obstacle.

Pretty much taking the whole sidewalk, aren’t you?

This guy opts to walk into the traffic. The key is to walk confidently and believe the cars will swerve for you.
Eventually my curiosity got the better of me.  One day I asked what she was serving.  She lifted the lid to show peculiar white noodles.  I still had no idea, but said I’d take one.  It was only later, through a Google search, that I learned that this stall is actually quite famous around Georgetown.  They sell just one thing: A Tamil treat called putu mayam, otherwise known as “string hoppers.” Putu mayam is made by steaming rice noodles (they look a lot like vermicelli) and then sprinkling grated coconut, finely crushed peanuts, and palm sugar over the top.  As I said, it’s the only thing they serve, and a single serving (actually enough for Joel, Simon, and I to share) is 2 ringgit–about 50 US cents.

Each layer of the steamer baskets is filled with rice noodles. The small bowls at the bottom hold the toppings.

I think putu mayam was originally served in pandan leaves, but newspaper is now used.

When you open up the little parcel, you get a stack of rice noodles with sweet condiments on top.
The noodles are essentially flavorless, so they are really just a medium for the toppings. And while I see people buying from this stall all the time, it’s always take-away, so I have no idea how you are meant to eat this. With fingers? A spoon? I use a fork to stir it all up and then eat it that way.

If you successfully navigate the traffic past this stall, you’ll end up at Gama.  This is a Chinese-managed supermarket and department store at the infamous “Magazine Circus” intersection, where five major roads intersect.  It’s just a few blocks from our apartment, so we shop there for everyday groceries. If you take the elevator all the way up to the sixth floor of Gama, there’s a small food court.  The best option is kaya toast.  Kaya butter is coconut jam.  Doesn’t that just sound heavenly?  Kaya toast is a classic Malaysian snack, simply a sandwich with kaya butter in the middle, often eaten at coffee houses for breakfast.  But I find it makes a good snack to refuel after grocery shopping!

Jalan Dato Keramat, the road we walk to get to Gama, after you’ve passed the putu ayam stall.

Kaya toast and a glass of lemon-sour plum juice. The tartness balances the sweet kaya butter.
Across the street from Gama is one of many Mamak restaurants in the area.  Mamaks are Muslim Indians who have a particular cuisine of their own, different from Hindu Indians.  (For starters, Beef: yes. Pork: no.)  My favorite option at these restaurants is roti.  Now, roti just translates to bread.  But in these restaurants, it refers to a big, soft flatbread. The most common use of roti is roti canai, where a piece of this flatbread is served with curries for dipping.  But it can be served  in all manner of savory dishes (eggs! sardines!) or sweet dishes (banana! condensed milk!). It was here at the restaurant at Magazine Circus that I first tried roti tisu.  The roti is rolled out extra-thin, fried and served crispy, rolled into a cone.  And while I suppose you could eat it with any condiments, it’s best when drizzled with sweetened condensed milk.

Roti tisu and a cup of teh tarik.
Down the street, on the other side of our apartment, is a little shop called Joez Coconut. It can hardly be called a restaurant; it’s really just a little food stall and there’s not much of a place to sit.

Joez Coconut.
Once again, it’s a shop that special lives in just one type of food, so you can bet it’s going to be good.  They sell coconut treats and their specialty is coconut jelly.  I don’t know what their magical technique is, but you can buy a whole coconut, open up the lid, and the coconut water inside has been turned into jelly.  It’s like eating coconut-flavored Jello, but it’s lighter than Jello and just melts in your mouth.  On a hot day, it’s a refreshing treat for under RM5.  Cold and smooth and jiggly.  Yum.

The original Joez Coconut.

After you eat the jelly, you can scrape out the white coconut flesh too.

A Sleepy Stroll Through the Christian Cemetery

Penelope doesn’t like to sleep during the day and the best bet for calming her down is to walk, walk, walk.  This is a child of the tropics; the hotter it is, the better.  So we’ve developed a new weekday routine where I slide her into the baby carrier and go exploring Georgetown on foot.  She falls asleep as long as we keep walking and while we both end up sweaty, it’s the best way for me to maintain my sanity when the two of us are alone.

The other day, I decided to visit the historic Christian cemetery.  There are two sections, one half Protestant and the other half Catholic.  The earliest burials date to the 18th century and the last burial was in 1892.  The site has suffered from neglect over the years and many tombstones are toppled, cracked, and illegible.  Perhaps the most extensive damage occurred during WWII, when Japanese bombs obliterated both the north and south ends of the Protestant Cemetery.

Empty space at the ends of the cemetery, which were damaged by Japanese bombs.

It’s actually a beautiful place for a stroll.  Tucked into a city with so little green space, it feels like a park.  
Plumeria trees arch over the main pathway to create a shady arbor​ and muffle the noise of the nearby traffic.
I saw more species of birds here than anywhere else in Georgetown.  A bright blue kingfisher perched in a tree and watched me for quite some time.  Several mynas perched on gravestones and followed behind me.  It was dramatically cooler inside than out on the street, but the recent rains had contributed to the number of mosquitoes inside.  

Lovely place for a stroll.
Many graves have been damaged by time.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am interested in historic names and naming trends, so I’m always on the lookout for interesting and unusual names.

Fenella. I actually know a little Fenella, but I’ve never seen the name in a cemetry before.

Some of the names were a little harder to read.
Old tombstones that had been separated from their graves were embedded in the wall between the Protestant and Catholic cemeteries.
Reading old tombstones can remind us of the hardships of life in previous centuries. Of the legible stones, the majority were under the age of 50. Quite a few were young men in the 20s, and there were many children and babies as well.
Especially hard to read while carrying my own baby daughter.
Causes of death were occasionally listed, and I saw several shipwrecks and drownings. Perhaps the most unusual was the Jackson family: Lt. Col. Gregory Jackson (55), wife Matilda (59), and son Gregory (21). 

“Both Parents expired on the Morning of 

The 1st April 1855, and their Son 

The previous afternoon from jungle fever. 

One of the notable graves belongs to Thomas Leonowens, a British civil servant.  Poor Leonowens is best known for his death, for he was the husband who died and widowed Anna Leonowens, the governess of “The King and I” fame.

As I strolled along, I came upon a worksite. A tarp was installed above one particular tomb and tools were strewn about.  Nobody was around, but clearly work had been going on recently.  I assume that the site was being used by preservationists, who were perhaps trying to restore the inscription on this gravesite.  Or perhaps it’s the site of some very fastidious tomb raiders!  In a show of sheer practicality, the tarp was tied down on the edges of other tombstones.  A box of sterile gloves was perched on the arm of a nearby cross.  I guess if you spend enough time in cemeteries, you probably stop thinking of them in such sacred terms.  Simon’s babysitter, Thiva, tells me that the cemetery is a popular place for Chinese couples to have their wedding photos taken.  I’m not a particularly superstitious person, but I was surprised to hear that.  

Travels with Susie, Joel, Simon & Penelope