This is a story about the beauty of slow travel.
For me, slow travel is about wandering, meeting people you don’t expect, doing things you’ve never done. It’s about travelling at an unhurried pace to deeply connect with the local people, culture, food and music.
I used to be all about jam packing my itineraries to see and do as much as possible but this trip was different and life-changing. I met someone very special and for the first time in my life, I felt so seen by a parent-like figure. I kept in touch with Bob and Catherine for many years after this serendipitous meeting.
Malaysia is a nation that is obsessed with food. This is particularly evident in Penang where locals are so proud of the local food, that they go the extra step to make sure tourists get to see it in the right light.
Recommendations on where to get the best Penang laksa, har mee, or chendol vary from person to person based on personal taste.
What made my recent Penang trip so memorable was how an unlikely friendship formed. Let me take you back to the beginning –
I’m here at Prangin Mall, a large shopping centre which we stumbled into to get some temporary shield from the harsh humidity. Looking for a place to put our feet up (we had been walking from hawker stall to hawker stall for several hours this morning), we come across a massage place and are easily convinced that a foot reflexology massage is the way to go. I mean, who can resist a foot massage that costs RM25 (approx $8 AUD) for 30 minutes?
Not long into it, our friendly conversation with another massage customer gets onto the topic of food. His name is Bob and he’s a third generation Malaysian Indian, around 50-60 years of age. He’d been to Perth over 29 times, and had visited Sydney on several occasions! Coincidentally, his wife is a mix of Teochew and Hokkien and so there was this natural connection, with me being Australian Chinese/Teochew, and Zen being Australian Chinese/Hokkien. It was like a chance meeting. (I won’t mention the rest of his details to respect his privacy)
After the massage, and having run all of the food tips I’ve been receiving from friends past him and the masseuse, Bob is adamant to share a fantastic spot for laksa and chendol, that is just downstairs!
I think he was amused by how I was travelling to eat!
Within minutes, we learn that the “just downstairs” description is such an understatement as he soon takes us on a maze walk, weaving in and out of entrances that only locals would know existed!
Out of nowhere, we reach these stairs that lead to Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol, on the lower ground floor of the other side of Prangin Mall. Unlike the original stall on Penang Road, this one is air-conditioned and tables and chairs are aplenty. It’s definitely a local secret as many tourists would have just gone to the original location. Quoting Bob’s wise words, “you can enjoy good laksa and chendol here without getting all sweaty outside“!
So we all have a bowl of laksa, but his order, with extra belacan. The soup is fiery and tangy, it’s incredibly delicious. It’s a fairly small bowl in comparison to the serving portions in Australia, but every element is just perfect, and it’s bloody cheap (RM 3.50 which equates to just over $1 AUD).
Don’t confuse Penang laksa with the coconut-based curry laksa. You may not have heard of the term Penang laksa because the dish is often referred to as assam laksa in Sydney. What makes Penang laksa distinctive is the mackerel and tamarind broth. The fishy perfume is enhanced with the sourness of fresh pineapple, the sharpness of fresh mint, the spiciness of chopped chillies, and the pungency of belacan (shrimp paste)! Hot, salty, spicy and sour – I absolutely adore the richness of this noodle soup.
To wash down the laksa, we finish with bowls of cendol (RM2.50), which Bob orders for us in Chinese.
I wish I had recorded some video footage of him! Seeing a dark Indian man speak fluent Chinese better than I do, is beyond mind boggling! But that’s what I love about Malaysia – it is such a cultural melting pot.
The cendol is gorgeous and it is definitely served up with pride. The worm-like strands of pandan flavoured jelly noodles are the focal point. Beneath them is a bed of shaved ice and kidney beans, drowning in coconut milk and palm sugar. I love the caramelly taste that the palm sugar adds to this dish. Cendol is light and refreshing and is most certainly one of the best icy desserts ever invented!
Bob and his wife Catherine became dear friends by the end of our Penang trip.
Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul
Lower ground floor somewhere, Prangin Mall
Other branches at:
Penang Road (off Lebuh Keng Kwee), Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia (head stall)
Komtar Walk, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Burma Road (junction of Macalister Lane & Burma Road), Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Island Plaza Food Court, Tanjung Tokong, Penang, Malaysia
Giant Food Court, U.S.J. Subang Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia
Giant Food Gourt, Permata Melawati, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Pelentong Giant Food Court, Johor Jaya, Malaysia