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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.