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.
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.
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.