cuisine is best savoured where it is served – from the hawker stalls of
to the humble noodle shops in old
. Lim Bee Chin’s myPenang (www.mymalaysiabooks.com) is a slim
guidebook that tells you what to eat and where to find it. Between your
five meals a day, you may even find time to build an appetite exploring
’s many other attractions.
Cuisine is the result of culture, and
this is where Lim begins the tour. A potted history takes us from
Penang’s origins as
through British colonialism and the developments of the 20th century. An
important, and lasting, influence came from the Chinese Peranakans. Also
known as babas and nyonyas, these predominantly-Hokkien immigrants have
assimilated many Malay elements into their speech, dress and cuisine. The
result is a singularly-recognisable culture that has left its stamp on the communities along the Straits of Malacca.
The early Chinese immigrants introduced
the clan or “kongsi” system, with their spectacular clan buildings such as
’s Khoo Kongsi. The clan system translated the Confucian values of
familial responsibility into practical measures, such as scholarships,
financial aid and community support.
Lim guides us with a historian’s eye,
from the charming streets of colonial
to the breathtaking Kek Lok Si temple in Air Itam, to the newer tourist
sights at Batu Ferringhi and Teluk Bahang.
The “What To See” section is loosely
organised according to neighbourhood and complemented with a set of
clearly-marked maps. With notable exceptions for especially significant
landmarks (such as
, the first British settlement in
), Lim's descriptions are light on detail. A perfunctory bibliography will
hardly satisfy the curiosity of history and culture buffs about these
Fortunately, the guidebook is filled
with numerous engaging photos that convey the charm and detail of each
attraction. MyPenang is one of the best-illustrated guidebooks that
I’ve used, surpassing many better-known ones in bringing to life the
immediacy and local colour of the island. Some pictures capture such
intricacy of detail that they would not be out of place in a coffee-table
book. Others have the warmth of vacation snapshots.
The photos are particularly effective
in representing the various culinary treats of the hawker stalls. Foreign
tourists will find them exceedingly helpful in identifying the aromatic
mysteries encountered on the streets.
During a recent trip, I lent
myPenang to a fellow hotel guest from
. The old gentleman, who had allergic reactions to certain ingredients,
was delighted with Lim’s photos and descriptions of local dishes. He took
copious food notes from the guidebook, and experienced an epiphany about
the contents of pesembur and otak-otak.
Even if you can tell the difference
between your mee jawa and mee rebus, Lim will tell you where
to get them. A Kedahan who lived in
for years, she provides an insider’s list of places to satisfy one’s
gluttony. Some of the establishments that she mentions have fed happy
customers for generations.
For example, the sisters at 185,
are renowned their for tasty char kuey teow. Their secret lies not
simply in quality ingredients (such as crab meat) but their mastery of
wok hei or the powerful heat of the wok to produce a deliriously
fragrant dish. At the other end of the spectrum, the refreshing ice kacang
adds fruit and ice cream topping to this traditional shaved-ice dish.
The book’s numerous maps are invaluable
for uncovering these delights.
As unfortunate travellers know, eating
one bad plate of rojak can ruin an otherwise wonderful vacation.
Given its emphasis on food – especially hawker food – myPenang
could have included some hygiene tips. Often, the tastiest dishes are not
the cleanest, but by following some basic guidelines, a tourist of
reasonable constitution should be protected from an excruciating session
at the porcelain bowl.
Another local danger that’s not
apparent (until too late) is the prevalence of snatch thieves. Most
Malaysians are sufficiently alert to this menace, but first-time visitors
should be forewarned.
Lim shows her bias for authentic street
food with a cursory list of upmarket restaurants; there is also little
’s nightlife. Partly due to their transitory nature, popular nightclubs
are not listed and backpackers won’t find help navigating the seedy bars
. However, golf courses and other outdoor recreations are represented in
the guide, as are nearby attractions in Langkawi and Kedah. A survey of
’s colourful festivals rounds off a truly engaging tour.
For many Malaysians,
is more than a place, it’s an adjective:
loh bak. With culinary flair, Lim has cooked up a concise, attractive and
useful guide to the eating capital of the north.
Augustine Wong is working in New York .