Tag Archives: food

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.


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.

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.

Bananas and Baby Sea Turtles

As part of their Tropical Ecology class, the Gustavus Living Diversity program traveled to Malaysia’s Terengganu State and Pulau Redang this past week. Pulau Redang is an island off the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia, and it’s well known as a beach paradise and snorkel/dive hotspot.

We all met at the USM campus late on Tuesday night.  Our charter bus departed at about 10pm and the plan was for us to sleep on the bus and wake up at our destination the next morning.  The good news is that both kids slept quite readily.  As Penelope had cried through the past two nights, I’d been a bit stressed that she would  keep everyone awake.  She didn’t.  In fact, she slept soundly and barely made a peep all night.  I had a harder time falling asleep.  Our bus continued to climb up mountainous slopes and careen down the other sides, the driver frequently straddling the middle line, only to slow suddenly when oncoming headlights appeared.  I think most of us adults were awake.  Sometime after midnight, I finally fell asleep.  Penelope was on my chest, in a baby carrier, and we both had a good sleep like that until morning.

In the morning, we ate breakfast near the mangroves and the students went on a boat tour.  Joel and Simon accompanied them, but the professors warned that it would be too hot for a baby.  Penelope and I checked into our hotel, the Pandan Laut Beach Resort and waited for their return.  The hotel was a simple place with rustic free-standing cabins.  I think our group were the only guests, as we nearly filled all their rooms.

Penelope and I met up with the gang at lunch time.  Some local ladies appeared and taught us the fundamentals of their style of weaving and (of course) offered the products (placemats & baskets) for purchase.

Next stop was the Pink House, a womens’ conservation cooperative.  It was started about a decade ago with assistance from Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Nestle.

Nestlé funded a survey of the socioeconomic needs and existing conditions of communities in key villages in Setiu. The survey identified the local communities’ capacity building needs. Emphasis was put on the women because, as mothers and co-income earners, they had an important role to play in the area’s long-term development in a sustainable manner. The project entailed equipping local women with the skills needed to develop cottage industries, including training on basic entrepreneurial skills, adopting clean “green” practices in food processing, marketing and branding as well as environmental awareness.


The organiational chart looks a little different in a woman-owned conservation cooperative.
Simon plays mancala on the steps of the Pink House.
Local paper crafts.

By all the measures, the venture was successful.  The original funding for the program has expired and the women now work to make the Pink House financially self-sufficient.  The women there showcased some other handicrafts and taught us how to make the regional style of banana chips.

You start with very green bananas…
…peel them with a sharp knife…
…slice them thinly…
…and fry in oil until they are crispy, golden brown.

I’ll admit.  I was a bit worried about everyone walking away with their fingers intact.  Using a mandolin slicer without your fingers–no grip–is a bit scary.  But we were OK.   And the banana chips were addictive! The ingredients were: very green, hard bananas, oil, and sugar. So simple; so tasty. Almost everybody walked out of the shop with a few bags to go.

I needed my hands free to chop bananas. Fortunately, there were plenty of women available to help me with that.

Our last stop of the afternoon was at the turtle hatchery. Around the world, sea turtles are at risk because their eggs are harvested and consumed by local people, who often view them as a delicacy or believe they hold special medicinal properties. Because of this, it has become a routine practice for conservationists to patrol beaches at night, identify sea turtle nests, and relocate the eggs to a safe spot until they hatch. Joel and I saw a nearly identical set up when we visited Petatlan, Mexico, in 2012. The biologists explained that while other species used to nest in this part of Malaysia, they’ve all been extirpated except for green sea turtles. Much to our surprise and enjoyment, one of the nests erupted and baby turtles started crawling out of the sand as we watched. Even better yet, we were told that we could witness the turtles being released that evening at the beach by our hotel.

Each red stake represents a relocated nest of turtle eggs, which has 60 to 100+ eggs. The location is guarded around the clock and the fence is sunk into the sand several feet to keep predators out.
Nets prevent the hatchlings from wandering too far before the biologists can take them directly to their home beach, where their mother laid the eggs.
Petatlan, Mexico, March 2012. A nearly identical set-up.
These turtles actually emerged from their nest while we were watching.

Hanging out at the beach at Pandan Laut, where we would release the baby sea turtles a few hours later.

At about 10:00 that night, we all gathered on the beach. We were instructed to turn off all lights and stand completely still and quiet. One of the sea turtle biologists uncovered a box full of baby turtles and tipped it over. The little turtles skittered towards the sea. It was so dark we could barely see them, but they crawled along, occasionally bumping a foot or crawling right over. (Yes, it tickles!) No photographs, because the flash would be terribly disorienting to their sensitive eyes. But everyone agreed that it was a highlight of our trip to Malaysia so far.

And Now, Some Nature

Brandy had been in Penang for a couple of days at this point, and she still hadn’t seen much nature.  It’s just so hot here, and with a newborn baby in tow, it’s hard to get out of the A/C. Still, we wanted her to get to experience some of Penang’s nature along with all the food and culture we’d been able to show her so far.

One day, Brandy and I accompanied Simon on a trip to the Botanic Garden.  Simon was able to give Brandy a clear description of proper monkey protocol: don’t carry food or the monkeys will steal it!  But in addition to monkeys, we saw some other really cool wildlife.  And Simon was the first to spot much of it: he was the first to see the salamanders on the path to the lily pond, probably because he was at a better angle to peer into the underbrush.  And while Brandy and I were staring at the mostly empty lily pond, Simon called out that he saw a beautiful red bird.  At the time, Brandy and I both agreed it must be some sort of bee eater.  But having done a little investigating (erm, “googling”) I now think it was a crimson sunbird. Brandy, what do you think?


Somebody else’s picture of a crimson sunbird. Photo credit: Ariefrahman, s.r.arief@facebook.com
In addition, we saw TWO monitor lizards–one climbing a tree and one warming itself in a sunny patch of grass.  I’ve long considered Komodo dragons to be one of the most terrifying animals on earth.  These guys are relatively close cousins to Komodos, and seeing how well that big lizard climbed a tree reinforced my fear.

He’s a bit camoflaged, but there’s a monitor lizard in this tree. You see it yet? He’s close to a meter long.

On another morning, Joel and Brandy took a hike at Taman Negara, Penang’s National Park.  Simon stayed with our babysitter, Thiva, and Penelope and I had doctor’s appointments.  It sounds like it was a hot, humid climb but they were rewarded with some more wildlife sightings.  The highlight was probably the mudskippers.  Joel and I saw mudskippers once in Zhuhai, but I think the ones here in Penang were a little more actively skipping mud, as mudskippers are wont to do.  


When they were done hiking, Penelope and I took an Uber to Batu Ferringi to meet the hikers and we all had lunch together at a little place called the Living Room.  I picked out this place particularly for its beef rendang, which is a Malaysian specialty.  It’s slow-cooked beef, flavored with coconut milk, lemongrass, ginger, and garlic.  Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?  Yes, and it tastes even better.  Best of all, those are all ingredients that are easy to acquire in the U.S.  I envision perfecting a crockpot version of this recipe when we get home.  

Happy Birthday, Brandy!

Wednesday, which was the exact middle of Brandy’s Malaysian adventure, was also her birthday.  She and I spent the day together and wow, it was a whirlwind.  We (Brandy, Penelope, and I) started off with breakfast at a swanky coffee shop that looks every part of a hipster shop in the U.S.  It’s called Macallum Connoisseurs and I only happened to know about it from happening past it while Ubering around town.  It ticks off all the boxes for the hipster coffee shop: and old converted warehouse space with high ceilings and an industrial feel; the interior is painted all black with industrial accents; a coffee menu with source notes and tasting profiles.  We ordered breakfast, and it was nice to have a big, western-style breakfast.  I also ordered one of the most expensive drinks on the menu, the chai latte, with freshly grated spices.  It was good–in the U.S. I’d say it was excellent–but with our proximity to Little India, my chai tea standards have raised dramatically.


Macallum Connoisseurs
From breakfast, erm, brunch/lunch… With the lovely A/C, we lingered a bit…we sent shopping.  We visited Sam’s Batik, which is supposed to be one of the best (and certainly biggest) local shops to buy batiks, silks, and other lovely clothing.  We ended up selecting a few Indian embroidered tops for ourselves and as souvenirs for Brandy’s family.  The staff were quite attentive…it’s quite common for salespeople to hover over customers here in Penang, which can be off-putting to us Americans who are used to shopping in peace and anonymity.  But the staff here were actually quite helpful.  They offered us bottled water and tea.  When it came time for me to try on some shirts, a female staff member was flagged over to be a baby holder for the duration.  Later, when it was time for Penelope to nurse, they set us up in a nice, private dressing room.  

After we left Sam’s, it was time for Part 2 of our batiking adventure.  A few of the Gusties have been taking batik lessons at a local shop called Rozana’s.  She’s a really lovely lady who offers walk-in classes at a very reasonable price.  We met the students, Lily and Annika, as well as Joel, for a hands-on batik lesson.  Each of us selected or drew an image, which we then traced onto a framed cloth.  Then Rozana helped us apply hot wax to the traced outline.  After the wax set, we used dyes–essentially very dilute water colors–to paint the fabric.  I think I mentioned this in my last blog post, but Gusties really are a talented, artistic group of people!  It was a lot of fun and I definitely got the hang of the technique about halfway through my piece.  I’m quite tempted to go back and give it another go, as I understand the coloring process much better now.


First you draw your design.
Next, Rozana helped us trace over the design with a hot wax pen.
After the wax is set, you can fill in each segment with paint.
So talented.
You can use water to blur and blend the colors.

My design, start and finish.


Strangely, Rozana offers another service in her shop: a fish spa.  Basically, you dip your feet in an aquarium full of fish that like to nibble on dead skin cells, but won’t bite living flesh.  Yes, it’s weird, but it’s quite popular in Asian tourist destinations.  Rozana treated Brandy to a free fish spa session because it was her birthday and I joined her.  The sensation was somewhere in between a tickle and a pinch.  To be perfectly honest, I found it really uncomfortable.  It wasn’t painful, just…weird.  


Fish eating my feet.
Everyone in our party had a go in the foot spa.  And being a good sport, Joel even wore the accompanying flip-flop clogs.

Whew, you’d think that was enough, but our day wasn’t over yet!  We still wanted to go out to dinner.  It was Brandy’s choice, and of course, she chose Korean food.  Once again, our restaurant choice was guided by a former Uber driver.  (Sometimes I make polite small talk with Uber drivers.  Other times, I drill them for good restaurant suggestions–and I take notes on my phone!)  While driving through Tanjung Tokong one time, I mentioned to the driver that there seemed to be a lot of Korean restaurants in the area.  He agreed and started to rattle off some of his favorites.  And so it was that we made it to KO B.B.Q.  It is, as the name implies, a Korean barbecue.  We just handed the menu to Brandy and let her coordinate the dishes.  We ended up ordering a lot of food, and worrying about having too much.  But when the food’s that good–well, we ate it all.  We walked out stuffed, but very happy.


Each table feature a vacuum with a long copper hose to suck up smoke from the. barbecue. They retracted towards the ceiling and Simon thought the hoses were really cool.
We were really exhausted by this point, but as we headed home, I managed to pick up a tiny little birthday cake from one of the shops on the ground floor of our mall.  The shopkeeper even included candles; too bad I forgot we don’t have any matches!  So we sang the birthday song and Simon helped Brandy blow out the imaginary flames.  It was a long, full day.  Happy Birthday, Brandy!

Pretend candles.

Aunt Brandy Visits Penang

Right after Penelope was born, we had a very special visitor.  Months ago, our dear friend Brandy decided to visit us during the Gustavus spring break.  This would be her first transoceanic trip, and she was going to travel all the way from St. Peter, Minnesota, to Penang, Malaysia.  She’d arrive 16 days after the baby’s due date, and we were all confident that baby would be out of the hospital and the Carlin family would be adapting to its new routine by then.

Ha!  Little did we know how persistent this new little person would be.  I was still in the hospital when Brandy boarded her first flight from Minneapolis to Tokyo.  Fortunately (?), it takes a while to travel halfway around the world and our family was all settled into our apartment by the time she actually landed in Penang.  In fact, Penelope’s very first outing in this world was a cab ride to the airport to meet Brandy.

Because the baby was so very new, we had to moderate the amount of touristy stuff that we got to do with Brandy.  We compensated with lots of baby snuggles.  I think it was a fair trade.


Her first weekend in Penang happened to coincide with Easter.  I suppose it might seem strange to travel all the way to Malaysia to celebrate an American-style Easter, but that’s what we did! The USM buddies, coordinated through staff member Jumie, organized an Easter celebration at the Interational Office.  All the Gusties and many USM buddies met up that afternoon to dye Easter eggs.  And wow, we have a creative bunch. I was too busy holding a baby to get to decorate any eggs, but I loved seeing the students’ creations.


 But Brandy wasn’t even our only guest! Another Gustavus colleague was also in Penang for the week.  Mike has already been selected to lead the Gustavus Semester in Malaysia program in 2018.  So he was in town to meet with program faculty, visit the USM campus, and get a feel for Penang.  This was a bit of a special visit for us.  Mike taught at United International College in Zhuhai, China, several years before we went there.  I remember meeting with him and his wife at River Rock way back in 2012 as they described life in China to us.  Now, the roles were reversed and we were able to tell him about life in Malaysia.  I felt like I was repaying a favor, in a way.  

And Mike got to hold a baby, of course.
 The next day, Joel played tour guide in historic Georgetown.  


Khoo Kongsi, a Chinese clan house.
Joel and Mike on the steps of Khoo Kongsi.
The walls inside featured the large depictions of ancestors riding a variety of real and imagined ccreatures.
I’m not Chinese but if I were, I’d totally claim the guy on the qilin as my great-great-grandfather.


In 1910, Sun Yat Sen relocated his underground revolutionary society to Penang. The house where they held meetings in now a museum.
Sun Yat Sen