Monday, August 6, 2012

Quest for authentic Penang street food

IF you were to ask me where you can find the best nasi dagang in the country, I will say in Terengganu. At the risk of being accused of bragging about my home state, I will also add that if you have tasted Terengganu nasi dagang, you will crave for no other.

Don't get me wrong. There is also the Kelantan nasi dagang, which comes pretty close to the Terengganu variety in terms of taste, but I still think Terengganu's is still better. The secret is in the rice -- Kelantan uses brown rice while Terengganu uses long grain white Siamese rice.

Steamed to perfection in coconut milk with fresh shallots, ginger and halba (fenugreek seeds) in a special steamer that can only be found in Terengganu, the nasi dagang has few equals. And once you have taken a whiff of the steaming hot rice just brought out of the steamer, you will remember it for a long time.

If you have eaten it with gulai ikan aya (local tuna) cooked with belimbing besi  Terengganu-style, I think you will not want to waste your time with other nasi dagang variants. In fact, I would be terribly offended, just like the Penangites were a few weeks ago, if someone were to tell me that Terengganu nasi dagang is not the best.

Did you read about's ranking of  Penang in its Top 10 Best Street Food Cities? Its placement of the Pearl of the Orient, third after Bangkok and Singapore,  had ruffled quite a number of feathers in Penang. Even feuding Penang politicians have put aside their differences to defend their gastronomic pride.

But I agree with Penang people that the state has few rivals where street food is concerned. If it does not claim top spot, no one should. Really, it doesn't take discerning palates to acknowledge Penang as the region's street food paradise. The fact that you can find Penang food from Alor Star to Johor Baru --and some say even in Ho Chi Minh city --   is testimony enough. After all, how many  countries can lay claim to its indigenous dishes like Penang?

You don't hear many types of Singapore food being sold outside Lion City, do you? Save for Singapore beehoon (or Sing Chow Mai in Cantonese for  vermicelli fried with beansprouts and tomato sauce) and the Singapore rojak, I have tasted no other bearing the Lion City brand in Klang Valley hawker centres.

But visit any food court here and look for Penang assam laksa, lor bak, char kway teow, pasembur, or nasi kandar, and chances are that you will find one or two stalls professing to be from the island or Prai. If this is no indication of Penang's fame for street food, what is?

Penang's only problem, I think, is the popularity of its street food. There are so many Penang assam laksa, char kway teow, and pasembur these days that my taste buds are beginning to lose track of how the original, authentic ones tasted like anymore.

So these days, when I frequent the so-called Penang food stalls, I test to see if the food is sold by an authentic Penangite.

I will casually ask: "Loo see Peneng lang?" (You are from Penang?) and if I get answers like: "See la, gua Poolau Tikoos lai!" (Yes, I come from Pulau Tikus) or "Gua tua tsua khar lai" (I come from Bukit Mertajam), I will know that I am on the right food trail. But again you can't tell.

Last week, a "Penang lor bak" stall operator in a Kepong hawker centre surprised me when I threw the test question. The Chinese-looking lady responded in perfect Penang-Hokkien -- that she came from Medan.

Apparently, Hokkiens there speak a similar sounding  dialect. She was in fact manning the stall for a chap from Balik Pulau in Penang

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