After the amazing dives in the Sipadan, I flew back to Kuala Lumpur where I ran into my German-Turkish friend Sarah (her favourite food is falafel), and then to the cold hills of the Cameron Highlands.
The Cameron Highlands are a somewhat between Kuala Lumpur and Penang, but being up on a hill, offer some of the best weather in Malaysia (~15 degrees centigrade when I was there). They are home to the ‘BOH’ tea plantations of Malaysia… who knew tea plantations could be so beautiful?
From there, it was onto the island of Penang. Now, having travelled Southeast Asia for so long, I have eaten some amazing food. Thai food is undoubtedly my favourite Asian cuisine, and I even thought I had eaten the best Indian food of my life in Kuala Lumpur. And then Penang comes along and knocks all of the other places out of the park.
Going in, I knew that Georgetown in Penang was food heaven. People I’d met while travelling told me it was their favourite food spot, and I even read articles online calling Georgetown the food capital of both Malaysia and Asia. But even with my expectations set that high, Penang managed to exceed my expectations. If you ever decide you want to try some of the best Asian food of your life, go here.
Malaysia has a large immigrant population and a lot of the dishes are a hybrid of Asian food and Muslim / Indian food. I simply cannot go into detail and write about all the dishes I ate, but I will write about my top 3 dishes (this was a really hard process):
Dish number 1: Roti canai
This one is simple, but so so delicious. I don’t understand why it hasn’t made its way to other places outside Malaysia / Singapore and parts of Indonesia. It’s a simple roti (more like a paratha) with some curry / dal to dip your roti in. A cheap breakfast staple, but also perfect for the mid-day hunger pangs. Some variations include adding toppings to the roti like egg, meats or cheese. The price for a dish like this? An enormous 25 cents!
Dish number 2: Nasi lemak
Considered Malaysia’s national dish, this one is rice with dried pandan leaf, peanuts, sambal, egg and fried chicken or a lamb curry. It’s delicious, healthy and like every other dish in Malaysia, at an absurd price of around $2!
Dish number 3: Nasi kandar
Saving the best for last…
This tastes like heaven! It’s similar to the nasi campur from Indonesia, where you have a pile of rice and you select the sides dishes for your meal from a whole bunch of options; only that this one is curries and not side dishes, and also tastes a million times better. This dish originated in Penang and is supposed to be of Malay – Indian origin.
You start out by selecting your rice: regular or biryani
You follow this by selecting your meat: you usually have an option of a lamb curry, a few chicken curries, and some fish curries, including fish head curry (Malaysia’s favourite!).
You then select your curry: you can stick to the curry of the meat you chose, or mix it up. I was recommended, and then usually selected a chicken leg with ‘mix’ curries – which means he puts a little of all the curries on offer. The end result is something so delicious, I have half a mind of booking a flight back to Penang right now.
The plate is probably 2 meals worth, but I was regularly eating one of these for lunch, and another for dinner! Price, you ask? $2!
Now that we have the food highlights out of the way, I can talk about the rest of Georgetown.
It’s the second largest city in Malaysia and the first spot where the British settled in Malaysia. It’s tremendously historic and there’s a buffer zone in the city which is UNESCO World Heritage certified.
To mark this, the Malay government has set out 52 iron caricatures throughout the city that express a little of each area in Georgetown where they are placed. It took me a while, but I walked to all 52 of them. Some were insightful, some funny, and some not. But I’ve always maintained that the best way to explore a place is on foot, and just walking through the streets trying to find these caricatures took me to all these hidden ‘local’ spots and restaurants.
In addition to the iron caricatures, Georgetown is full of street art, and even though maps will guide you to the more famous ones, you find something fun and unique around random bends on the streets.
To sum: GO TO PENANG!