LIKE A HINDU goddess, the scrawny old cook seems to have multiple arms. In no time flat, she's fried the prawns and the orange curry paste and is hurling noodles into her enormous wok. She splashes in a dark-coloured sauce and pumps up the flame. Two eggs fly through the air; shells break on the side of the wok; the contents land in the middle of the noodles. Bean sprouts, spring onions and three squirts of liquid follow. An assistant stands by with a plastic plate covered with a banana leaf. Then a cloud bursts overhead and rain starts drumming on the tin roof. The cook doesn't seem to notice; she's already halfway through the next order.
All the Chinese of Penang know what you mean when you say you're going to eat char kway teow at the Sisters'. ‘They're so old now,' the driver who drove me to their restaurant said, and sighed. For more than fifty years the two women have been preparing the same dish alongside the same busy roundabout. In the morning, the thin one does her conjuring act; in the afternoon, it's the plump one's turn.
I sit down, wait until they bring me a plate, then raise a mouthful of creamy noodles to my lips; the sauce makes me think of the sea and fishing ports.
That afternoon, I let lunch settle in my hotel room, a tenth-floor eyrie from which I can see the ferry that brought me here last night tracing a line across the bay. Gleaming below are the red-tiled roofs of the old town.
George Town, the capital of Penang Island, is like the China I know only from yellowed postcards. Wide bamboo blinds in front of shop windows protect wares from the scorching sun. The façades are hung with loud vertical banners with advertisements or Chinese characters. Trishaw riders pedal down the streets, and every corner has an old-fashioned restaurant that serves the dishes Penang is famous for. That's why I've come: to eat.
In the course of the afternoon, I descend and cross the street to try some lorbak in the Kheng Ping Café. A few groups of people, young and old, are sitting at the round tables on bentwood chairs with tall glasses of fruit juice in front of them. At a small wheeled kitchen, a cook in a white hat deep-fries pieces of pork wrapped in sheets of tofu and serves them to me with a dark plum sauce. I press my arms against the cool marble tabletop. Even with the ceiling fans on, the heat is almost unbearable. White light glares in on all sides. My plans for the rest of the day evaporate. ‘Why aren't the restaurants air-conditioned?' I'd asked Mr Yap, who had given me my first tips in this culinary paradise. ‘Because the owners live off a big, rapid turnover,' he had explained. ‘They don't want you hanging around. It's eat, sweat and go.'
I HAD MET Mr Yap that morning. He is the distributor for a Chinese printer's that I had mistaken for a bookshop and entered in search of a cookbook. Mr Yap hadn't any, but I was in luck all the same. He had a delivery ready for the city's largest bookshop and was happy to give me a ride; there they would be sure to have one. On the way he pointed left and right: ‘In this alley you can get a good sotong kangkung rebus in the morning – something with squid. Left there and straight ahead, they do a Penang rojak that's not bad, fruit with a very special sauce. That woman there has good chai kuih, pastries.' Penang is a labyrinth with delicious snacks for orientation.
‘Food seems to be the most important thing around here,' I remarked. ‘And prayer,' Mr Yap corrected me. That brought us to the touchy subject of the city's ethnic contrasts. Many Chinese had left Penang, Mr Yap said, because they felt discriminated against in Islamic Malaysia.
Nowadays some of them were returning from overseas. ‘With a lot of money sometimes,' according to Mr Yap. ‘They buy run-down houses in the old centre and do them up.' I had noticed homes like that. They had gilded doors with magnificently restored woodcarvings. When they opened you saw floors of antique Portuguese tiles and inner courtyards with luxuriant palms.
The houses had originally belonged to prosperous Chinese merchants. ‘But in the last few decades, many poor families lived together in those mansions,' Mr Yap said. Old Penang had gone into decline and lost its charm for him. Like others, he had moved to Air Itam, a new suburb in the hills where the flats were modern and the air fresh. Mr Yap pointed out a Muslim Mamak restaurant where nasi kandar is served. ‘That is very good, too.' ‘So the different ethnic groups don't necessarily eat apart?' I asked. A broad smile appeared on his face. ‘The Malays don't come to our restaurants, because we use pork and dripping. But at theirs we can eat everything!'
WE HAD ARRIVED at our destination: Gurney Mall, with its view out over the sea. The bookshop was on the fifth floor. Mr Yap led me to a shelf and pointed out Famous Street Food of Penang: A Guide & Cook Book(Star, 2006), which had recently been published. Before parting, I asked him, ‘Would you say that all this delicious food makes the people of Penang happy?' Mr Yap thought for a moment. ‘No, it's like anywhere else: people complain that they are always stuck in traffic and everything is getting more expensive.'
I leaf through my new guidebook in my hotel room, with the air-conditioning humming. ‘A well-known curry mee stall can be found in the evenings in Chulia Street, just before the junction to Lorong Cheapside. Hawker Tang Twa Chait has been selling curry mee for over thirty years,' I read. ‘His recipe was passed to him by his father-in-law, but he has since improved on the taste of the chilli condiment.' Chulia Street is close by; my evening menu has been decided.
The next day I get up early to make the morning market in Kuala Kangsar Road. There are stalls with fresh fruit and vegetables, and others with pans and shoes. It is busy in the Soon Yuen coffee shop. Women with large shopping bags are waiting for kway teow th'ng, noodle soup. I go up to a stainless-steel stall and order one with extra duck from a cook in a baseball cap. The owner, I read in my new guidebook, inherited his collapsible kitchen from his mother, who started the business in 1957. I discover that the stock is perfect, the bean sprouts crisp and the fish balls deliciously salty. Then, with my stomach full to bursting, I take a taxi to the botanical gardens. It's time for a long walk.
Behind a moon-shaped gate, a path leads up a steep hill. Within a few steps, I find myself in a tropical rainforest: wide, dark-green leaves unfold; crickets make a deafening racket. A climb of more than an hour brings me to the top of Penang Hill, where I settle down on the terrace of the colonial-style Bellevue Hotel. Dark clouds appear. I drink English tea with milk while veils of rain pour down, blurring the view of the distant bay. When it is dry again and I am descending the hill on the funicular railway, I realise to my great relief that I can already detect the first pangs of hunger.