In Praise of Penang Hawkers

21st Oct 2012.  By Hoo Ban Khee  –

When God created the Earth and provided us with all the fruits, vegetable and herbs for food, and later, meat, He did not, in his wisdom, give us only one recipe.

While other animals chew the grass and leaves, birds pecked at the fruits and seeds, God left it to us the human race to use our imagination and ingenuity to prepare our own food, much according to our taste buds and what is available in our local environment.

With time, man progressed in the use of cooking utensils as well as in the combination of different raw materials and thus we now have glorious food everywhere prepared by people of different cultures and localities.


Hawker food stalls at Gurney Drive

The glorious food, of course, includes our laksa and char koey teow that help to brand Penang as a food paradise. Yes, I am talking about Penang where you can get not only some of the best hawker food but also where you get the most ‘bang’ out of your ringgit!

I took a five-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur, crossed the bridge and went to the charming island with my family for a fantastic holiday recently and we vowed to make a come-back every six months, nay, every three months.


Hawker Stall

The reason?  To de-stress. To be exact, to eat, to look see and spend our money with that kind of satisfaction you can’t do it anywhere else in the Peninsula.

Oh yes, the traffic is getting worse especially in the afternoon when schoolchildren spill out of school. I agree too that too many luxury condominiums are hugging the beaches and too many cheap-looking apartment developments are stripping the hills bare.

But the mouth-watering hawker food, yummy, yummy, they are still fantastic. And the price? They have not gone sky-rocking to wipe the smile off your face after enjoying the food.

We went to our favourite laksa stall in Ayer Itam. The operators are still doing a roaring business after so many decades and that shows how good their laksa is. Some imitators in Kuala Lumpur may shout their lungs out that their laksa is authentic Penang fare. But the real thing is different and you don’t need a laksa aficionado to tell you the little differences that give you the extra ooomp!

Penang – Food Paradise

Another favourite food haunt is in Island Glades. You are simply spoilt for choice at the variety of local fare offered by different stalls in the coffee shops there. Besides char koey teow, noodle and beehoon fried or in soup of different kinds, the spread of kuih kuih and muih muih there is fantastic.


Assam Laksa

Call me a cheapskate, what I like most are the prices. They don’t burn a hole in your pocket and leave a bad taste in your mouth after seeing the bill.

The local tells me not to go to Gurney Drive as the hawkers there cater more for tourists and prices are high. I still find it reasonable, considering that the food come together with the therapeutic sea view and the balmy breeze which I am quite sure that many Penang people have taken for granted for a long time.

Penang food is irresistible and it is not too difficult to see why. Besides their traditional recipes, almost all food stalls are owner operated. That way, they are able to keep their prices affordable and their standard constant.

Have we not been to food courts or even coffee shops in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya, and seen most stalls manned by foreign workers, whether they are Indonesian, Burmese or Bangladeshi?

These foreigners do the cooking and serving while the owners are somewhere else doing other business. They only appear to take the day’s collections.

Some of these foreign workers learn fast and are good cooks but they do compromise on quality, not to mention the level of hygiene. And they add on to your cost.

For sure, when you pay for your small plate of char koey teow, you also contribute to the salary of the foreign workers who serve you! That may explain why food prices have gone up over the years faster than your pay rise in the Klang Valley.


Penang Char Koay Teow

Some hawker stalls in Penang are still keeping their price below RM3 for a small bowl of laksa or char koey teow. No doubt the portion is a bit small for a big eater, but that’s good news for tourists like us because then we can order different varieties to share among ourselves.

And best of all, most Penang hawkers now understand and speak Cantonese so I don’t have to twist my tongue to place my order!