BUKIT MERTAJAM, Feb 22 — Much has been said and written about the wonderful array of hawker fare on the island of Penang but very often, the other side of this northern state is forgotten.
Though it is just across the bridge, or a 20-minute ferry ride away, the mainland side of Penang that borders Kedah and Perak are seldom the focus of attention, whether for hawker food or for tourism.
So, we decided to take on the challenge of hunting down some of the notable street food available on the mainland side of the state and guess what, it wasn’t that hard after all.
We discovered that there is good food to be had all over the housing estates and small satellite towns across the three main districts of Seberang Perai – north, south and central.
Each place we found is unique due to the slightly different way of cooking here so be prepared for something less famous or well-known and yet be full of flavours.
Sadly, it would seem mainlanders (as islanders like to nickname those living on the other side of the state) tend to call it a night early. So, except for 24-hour nasi kandar restaurants and a Teo Chew porridge place, we are only able to provide an hourly eating guide from 6am to 1am.
Now, gather your GPS, fill up your petrol tank and take a drive to Seberang Perai for another street-food eating adventure.
Note of warning: Be prepared to drive along dusty narrow lanes, park on roadsides, eat in makeshift shacks by the roadside and have a helluva time filling your belly with food of all flavours different from that you find on the island.
Duck soup noodles at Kuan Nan Coffee Shop, Chai Leng Park
Business hours: 6am--5pm
The early hours of dawn, when the air is still crisp and cold, is the best time to savour a warm bowl of duck soup noodles. What’s so special about this stall’s duck noodles is that the soup is double-boiled in its own individual little bowls of five spice, wolfberries, ginger, herbs and pure stock. They don’t only have duck soup but also chicken soup and pork. Each bowl of soup goes perfectly with the soft, silky smoothness of boiled rice noodles.
Ah Khoon Lor Mee at Jalan Kampung Gajah
Business hours: 7am–2pm
This is another noodle dish but of an entirely different consistency as this is a bowl of noodles in a rich, fragrant thick dark gravy with a spoonful of sambal to spice it up. The gravy or lor is what makes it special as it is thickened with corn flour and flavoured with stock and just the right mix of sauces so that it is not bland or too salty.
Yam rice with salted vegetables pork soup, Jalan Raja Uda
Business hours: 9am – 3pm
After the light but warming meals of soup and noodles, time to try out a different kind of meal – Teochew stye. This is a meal that pairs the fragrant rice cooked with yam with a sourish soup of pork and salted vegetables. The yam rice is fluffy and so tasty, you can eat it as it is but why not make it interesting and add on a few dishes especially the salted vegetable soup that is bound to add some zest to the meal. And if you love pork knuckles, they have pretty good braised pork knuckles in vinegar.
Nasi kandar, roadside stall near the junction at Jalan Permatang Nibong
Business hours: 7am–3pm (Closed on Fridays)
Next, take a drive to Kubang Semang to join the queue for some home-cooked kampung style nasi kandar that is popularly known as Nasi Kandar Tok. The stall doesn’t have any official name or signboard so you can only identify it from the long line of people and yes, it is the only nasi stall here. What’s so special about this stall is that you will get food that is cooked fresh first thing in the early hours at the break of dawn and all its ingredients are fresh from the nearby farms.
Chai Kueh at Soon Lee Hou Coffee Shop, Sungai Bakap
Business hours: 7am – 1pm
It is time to leave central Seberang Perai and head on south for some specialties that you can only find in Nibong Tebal. Chai Kueh, also known as Koo Chai Kueh, is a purely Teochew delicacy. It is actually steamed glutinous rice dumplings filled with Chinese chives, more commonly known as koo chai. Why come all the way here just to eat steamed Teochew dumplings? Well, it is not easy to get the perfect balance of a not-too-squishy nor too chewy skin wrapped around stir-fried Chinese chives that is seasoned with just the right amount of sauces so as not to overwhelm or cover up the taste of the vegetables. This dim sum place also offers two other different fillings; with jicama (mangkuang) or pumpkin.
Prawn curry at Tanjung Berembang, Nibong Tebal
Business hours: 11am–6pm (Closed on alternate Wednesdays)
Still within Nibong Tebal, you take a drive to another side of the district to a little coffee shop right next to a bridge by the river. This is where you get to enjoy freshwater prawns cooked in a thick fragrant curry and served with either soft steamed bread to soak up the deliciousness of the rich curry or rice, if you like. A note to those new to this area, don’t take the Jalan Atas bridge as it only allows pedestrians so take the longer route along the main roads to reach this place.
Ikan Bakar Din at Jalan Butterworth, Kepala Batas
Business hours: 10am–4pm
After visiting the south, time to head north to Kepala Batas for some grilled fish at a roadside restaurant famed for its wide variety of ikan bakar and also grilled squids. The restaurant only offers grilled seafood of several types of fishes, squids and prawns that are best enjoyed with their special mixture of spicy sambal sauce.
Duck rice at Jalan Raja Uda
Business hours: 11am–2pm (Closed on Mondays)
From flavours of the sea, time to move on to something a bit gamey – roast duck. Another road side stall along one of the busiest roads in Butterworth famed for its row of hawker food stalls, this duck rice stall has crispy roast duck served in a special blend of sauces that is spicy with a tinge of sweet to balance out the duck.
Mee Jawa at Jalan Raja Uda
Business hours: 2pm–5pm
Next up is a light meal of noodles in a tomato-based gravy served with crunchy prawn crackers and a dollop of sambal to spice it up. Their portion is just nice as a snack. You literally have to eat this by the main road under a makeshift roof and do go early as they sometimes finish by 4pm.
Tau Fu Fah at Jalan Kampung Benggali
Business hours: 10am–4pm (Closed on Sundays)
Imagine silky soft tau fu fah (tau hu hwa in Hokkien) or beancurd pudding that is so smooth, it slides down your throat. This stall serves cold or hot tau fu fah and if you prefer, soya milk drinks too. The perfect dessert after the heavy meals in the morning.
Laksa Melayu at Jalan Pekan Darat, Butterworth
Business hours: 11am–6pm
Time to jazz up your tastebuds with something tangy and spicy and here’s where you can try a Malay-style laksa of thick spicy fish stock broth served with rice noodles. Unlike the Penang island famed assam laksa, this style has a clearer soup base and doesn’t have a strong fish flavour so it is a great balance of salty-sourish goodness.
Hj Mohd Tokun Mee Kuah Ketam at Jalan Kulim, Bukit Mertajam
Business hours: 9am–6pm (Closed on Fridays)
Mee sotong may be a common thing everywhere but this stall takes it a step further with mee kuah ketam (crab gravy noodles). We are talking about rich, tomato-based gravy made from crab meat and each bowl of noodles is covered in the spicy fragrant gravy that has all the taste of crabs without you needing to dirty your fingers to peel them.
Rojak cucuk at Jalan Berjaya, Bukit Mertajam
Business hours: 4pm–7pm
Another roadside stall where you get to stand and pick what you want to eat, dip into the sauce and bite. No tables and no frills, this little stall on a motorbike offers fruits and small bite-sized pre-cooked food on sticks which you dip into a thick rojak sauce of shrimp paste and eat. Be careful that you don’t drip the sauce all over yourself.
Chicken porridge at Jalan Raja Uda
Business hours: 3pm–10pm
After all the rich flavours of spicy, sourish meals and thick, pungent shrimp paste, time to clear your palate with something clear, hot and light. This traditional style chicken porridge is thick and yet tasty with just shredded chicken, ginger and some sauce.
Tom Yam at Jalan Raja Uda
Business hours: 7pm–11pm
Located within a small coffee shop, this tom yam stall has a choice of clear soup or tom yam so those who can’t take the heat of its spicy tom yam can still opt for the clear soup. The best part about this stall is you can choose what you want in your soup, from pork innards to minced pork to seafood.
Lok lok at Lebuh Kurau 5, Chai Leng Park
Business hours: 5pm – midnight
Chai Leng Park is also known as wai sek kai (glutton’s street) where stalls of hawker food are lined up along the whole road of Lebuh Kurau 5. The lok lok stall has the widest range of raw and some cooked food skewered on sticks. Here, you can choose ﬁsh on sticks, chicken on sticks, even vegetables on sticks and take it to a table where there’s a hot pot of boiling water and cook the sticks of food you have chosen. Each table has more than six different types of sauces you can scoop onto your plate to dip your food in.
Mee Udang, Medan Selera Sri Tambang, Pengkalan Tambang, Permatang Pasir
Business hours: 12pm to 12am
For the longest time, the mee udang in Pengkalan Tambang has been famous – noodles cooked in a tomato-based gravy with prawns. A Malay-style dish, the plate of noodles is slightly spicy and is served with large prawns and bean sprouts.
Cup rice at Jalan Danby, Bukit Mertajam
Business hours: 9am – midnight
Imagine individually steamed “cups” of white rice which are then up-ended on a plate, covered in shredded pork and chicken before a thick sticky gravy is poured on it. It is your typical all-in-one meal of meat, rice and gravy with a thick porky flavour for the pork lovers out there.
Teo Chew porridge at Jalan Pasar, Bukit Mertajam
Business hours: 24 hours
Midnight is the best time as any to enjoy a bowl of plain Teo Chew porridge with side dishes of your choice. This place is one of the few 24-hour Teochew porridge places on the mainland to try especially if you are craving for a bite at this time of the night.
Adam Fried Koay Teow at Jalan Permatang Pauh
Business hours: 5pm – 3am
Finally, we end the food journey with a signature Penang dish – char koay teow. This is Malay-style char koay teow and though the method of preparing it is not much different, this stall’s char koay teow is the basah style where it has some gravy , unlike the usually dry Chinese-style fried koay teow on the island.
Time to head on back to sleep after 19 hours of Mainland Penang eats.
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on February 21, 2014.