Stopped off in George Town, Penang, Malaysia last week. A side jaunt on the way home from a long stretch. If you’re in the area, you can probably smell it. Like Singapore, it is a cultural crossroads. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, known for its Chinese villages built on jetties, its Indian section and colonial architecture.
At the urging of workmate, we signed on for a food tour. These are getting easier to find and more common, I think. TripAdvisor hosts them. As does AirBnB and others. They allow locals to cobble together a tour and match up buyers with vendors.
This one started at a coffee shop/hotel lobby in Little India during an afternoon monsoon. Open to the street, hot, damp air washed in and swished under the ceiling fans as we made our introductions.
Once the rain trailed off, we headed out into the streets. Sampling samosas and dosas, curries and stews. Down the street were pork belly or mushroom noodles. Topped off with black sticky rice pudding.
It was all fantastic, and so immersive, one certainly got the feeling that you were eating a dish exactly like it was prepared centuries ago. A recipe handed down from parent to child since oxcarts and coolees trod the streets, unloading ships and stocking up warehouses.
We watched a priest clean a Ganesh temple as priests had done since that particular Ganesh was reportedly found under that very tree half a millenia ago. From back before there were Indians. When there were Sikhs, and Pakistanis and Tamils.
Across the street, a powerful Chinese temple to the Goddess of Mercy grants wishes to the faithful. Down the street, a mosque was erected by a platoon of Scottish Artillery during some down time.
Along the way, past the street art and Chinese clan homes, we heard about how the British arrived and “discovered” the place, even though when they planted the flag, there were already thousands of traders already there making a living.
They didn’t really take over as much as administer the place. Clans of Chinese families really controlled what went on. But, they did bring in lots of labor in the form of brown people from south Asia. They didn’t much care about where they came from or their specific culture or language. They made up the word “chulia” and affixed it to all brown laborers regardless of their background.
We found Penang to be a seriously amazing place with lots more to explore. It is definitely changing. Rising rents and gentrification are pushing out the old shopkeepers and the old ways. One wonders how long Ganesh and the Goddess will last before they succumb to the tide of progress.
If you go, stay near the old quarter, if you can. There is a lot going on and things are easy to walk to. If you want a great food tour, contact Danny at HeritageOnAPlate@gmail.com. You can find out more from them on Instagram and Facebook. I highly recommend.