Jan 28, 2013

Winter break: Hawker centers

Let the eating commence!

Hawkers by the Clan Jetties
Late lunch at a hawker center by the Clan Jetties
Kuta BaliKuta BaliKuta BaliKuta BaliNasi LemakBamboo chicken at Kuta BaliBamboo chicken at Kuta BaliPeter eating Nasi LemakFilled pancakeSome dumplings
Above: Just a small photographic taste of the delicious excitement of Kuta Bali Cafe.
Hong Kong Cafe was also nearby, but our heart belonged to Kuta Bali
Hong Kong Cafe was just a stone’s throw from Kuta Bali, but we pledged our allegiance early on.

In Penang, eating at its most basic and cheapest is done at hawker centers, collections of food carts assembled around a large dinning area where people gather late into the night. The mood is festive and lively — we’re eating, hooray! — and sometimes there’s karaoke or dancing. Despite it’s simplicity, It’s a place where a meal is an event.

In general, the food from these humble carts is cheap, but no less than absolutely delicious. It’s a point of pride for some of the hawkers that their cart and their dish has been in their family for generations. Every kind of cuisine is represented: Indian, Chinese, Malay … even western — though, to be honest, none of the western food looked all that enticing to us.

There are a few famous centers around Penang that are listed in all the guidebooks, but take a walk and you’ll find one. We had three good ones on our block alone. We came to be quite attached to the Kuta Bali Cafe, a large and lively dining hall just a short walk from our hostel. We ended up there pretty much every night, for a meal, a drink, a late-night snack, or just to get one more taste of that wonderful dish we tried the night before. Going from cart to cart every night, we soon had compiled a long list of favorites.

Emboldened by his discovery of the 牛肉面, Peter’s vegetarian strategy for this trip was to not worry about meatlessness, but instead look for dishes where the meat could be pushed to the side, or moved over to my plate. (I felt a little Jack Sprat and his wife on more than a couple occasions.) He found a couple of tasty treats this way, but even more amazingly, we found that we could actually ask the cooks to dish up their dish meat-free. Because they speak English in Penang! And understand vegetarianism! Peter even got a chicken pita sandwich, hold the chicken.

On average, our food costs would be between 10-20RM [or US$3-7] — the beers would add another 40RM [or about US$13] — which made eating this way very attractive. But it was also a super fun atmosphere. Sitting out in the clear tropical nights with a bucket of iced beers and plates piled high with our new favorite foods — you really can’t beat that. It’s like the best summer BBQ you’ve ever been to, catered by 50 chefs who are all experts in their cuisine. We were in heaven … and so were the locals, to whom this is an everyday experience.

We didn’t know exactly, when we set out, what we were looking for our of our Penang experience, but if all we did was eat a meal at Kuta Bali, that would have been enough.