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Pre-war  shophouses

When George Town is mentioned, Washington D.C. comes to mind. But there is another George Town closer to home in Penang, Malaysia.

Posted by Jennie

Still doesn’t ring a bell? It didn’t for me too until I actually set foot in George Town and was immediately charmed by this compact, quaint, crumbling, hot, hip and bohemian capital of Penang.

A British colony for over 200 years, George Town gets its named from King George of England. The colonial footprint can still be felt in its buildings, street names and  architecture. But more than buildings and monuments, establishing George Town as a port city in 1786  brought an influx of trade from India, China, Portugal and the Middle East. These traders brought with them not only their wares but their traditions, their religion and their cuisine. This unique identity forged over centuries of cross cultural interaction plus the over 4,000 pre World War 2 shophouses has given George Town Unesco World Heritage Status.

George Town is going through a revival of sorts spurned largely by the Unesco listing. Shop houses that were once left to decay are being transformed into restaurants, boutique hotels, bars and cafes. Street art is a big thing in George Town and hip murals painted on crumbling buildings have become an attraction in itself.

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Little Children on a Bicycle by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic

But perhaps the most amazing thing about George Town is the street food. Penang has always had a reputation as Malaysia’s food capital and George Town confirms it. Again the uniqueness of the cuisine can be traced back to decades of cross cultural interaction. There’s Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and Thai influences in the mish mash of food offered hawker style in all parts of the city.

The iconic Penang Asam Laksa is a tamarind based fish soup that is spicy, pungent and sour. It’s a much beloved local dish with a lot of flavours and takes some getting used to.

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Sometimes called the soup of 100,000 ingredients. Lakh is the Hindi word for 100,000

Char Kaoy Teow, is my favourite noodle dish. It is a delicious mix of shrimps, egg, bean sprouts, Chinese sausage and chives fried with silky Kaoy Teow noodles in a wok over very high heat using pork lard!

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Char Koay Teow, fresh off the wok

Then there’s Nasi Kandar, an Indian meal you can’t find in India because it’s a Malaysian invention. Nasi Kandar is a messy plate with three kinds of gravy, thick, thicker and thickest that you slather your rice in and eat with your hands with either fried chicken, fried fish, lady finger or okra and whatever else is on display. I was told the Malaysians make excellent fried chicken and it’s true.

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Nasi Kandar. Pots of gravy that go on your rice. Messy but tasty!

Satay or bbq skewers is grilled while you wait, so what you get are sticks of hot, charred meat fresh off the coals that is absolutely delicious.

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The sweet, smokey aroma of charred marinated meat

There are like a gazillion things to eat and places to eat but if I were to chose a hawker centre, I would chose New Lane. For the variety of food stalls, for the vibe and large seating capacity. Price is not an issue because hawker food in George Town is cheap. An average meal would cost RM8 or less than P100.

How to dress. It is extremely hot and humid until about 5pm, so bring light, cotton clothes or you can always head to Sam’s Batik House and get some loose batik garments. They’re really made for the tropics!

Where to stay. There are tons of places to stay but, to get the full George Town experience ditch the chain hotels and stay in a refurbished shop house. The production team of Curiosity Got the Chef stayed at Spices Boutique Hotel.

We also found a lovely home stay loft on AirBnB where we filmed the show. Both Spices and the homestay are original shophouses renovated for modern living.

I hope you meet Fred who co-manages Spices and Sharon who owns the home stay. They are both lovely Penangites who know their city well and will go the extra mile to make you feel welcome in George Town.