Kuala Lumpur to Penang is about five hours by bus. It’s quite a nice bus, with reclining seats and meal service and an onboard toilet, so it was an easy trip, but the scenery outside was surprisingly monotonous. The U.S. Midwest has this kind of consistently scrubby grassland landscape, and this was kind of the tropical version of that. But hey. Penang. And Penang food.
Penang street food is like the best street food times a zillion awesome. The island might be this tiny part of Malaysia, but its regional cuisine is known throughout the whole country.
So there’s a lot of different dishes, but mostly, we ate noodles. Noodles are kind of a thing of mine. They’re quick, filling, and come in infinite variations.
But to call out two famous specialties of the area –
Hokkien mee is kind of like hot dogs in America, in that everybody disagrees on what the toppings should be, but in Penang it comes with these tiny little clams, the size of your thumbnail, that are sweet/salty nuggets of juiciness, and enough heat so that you should just breathe in really deep before you start, and try to breathe as little as possible until you’re done. That breath after the food is all gone is going to hurt, but at least you got to savor the food first.
Assam laksa is a fish-based noodle soup, and might probably be the most complex thing I’ve ever eaten. People go on and on about Mexican mole and wine bouquets, but this soup had this intense sourness that you just chased around and around in your mouth with your tongue, plus a strange coolness–thanks to plentiful mint–at the same time that the chiles set your tastebuds on fire. And the fish (and some dried shrimp paste, I’m guessing) is cooked into this soft, flaked, ultra-meaty paste. Basically, it was good. And the lychee drink was, I think, literally lychee juice with a couple whole lychees and ice cubes, which was super-simple and perfect to pair with the laksa.