Tan Twan Eng Writes About the Street Food Stalls of Penang Island in Malaysia
His most recent novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. In this evocative article Twan recalls a visit to a char kway teow stall with his aunt, who brought her own eggs to be cracked into the noodle dish – a practice Twan does not recommend unless you are willing to risk the wrath of the stall owner.
You won’t notice it immediately on your first visit to Kuala Lumpur, but after a few days exploring the streets you’ll start to wonder why the signboards of so many street food stalls offer ‘Penang assam laksa’, ‘Penang char kway teow’, ‘Penang popiah’, ‘Penang wan-tan mee’, ‘Penang curry laksa’, ‘Penang nasi kandar’, ‘Penang mee goring’. Asking around, you’ll discover that it’s common for these hawkers to have only the most tenuous link to Penang, an island less than four hours’ drive from Kuala Lumpur. Suspecting (rightly) that you have been eating diluted, unauthentic versions of the real thing, you realize you have to go to Penang, the best place to eat street food in Malaysia.
The most pleasurable way to arrive in Penang is neither by air, nor by driving over the bridge, but on one of the double-decker ferries plying the narrow channel between the island and the peninsula. Cars and motorcycles pack the lower deck; commuters on foot head for the upper deck where they sit on wooden slatted benches. Warm sea wind salts their faces when the ferry starts moving, and on a bright, cloudless day the sea is a herbal green, scratched white in the wake of fishing trawlers.