The Heritage In Our Dotage

Some say we are already in our dotage. Surely not, we may be in our sixties but we aren’t weak and in declining health, are we? Sigh, it’s all relative I suppose. When was the last time I dashed a hundred meters or jumped six feet high? My recent reunion with school mates from four decades and more ago was a stark contrast from distant days gone by. We wouldn’t be seen stark naked these days, we just don’t possess a physique that demands a first look anymore. We talked about health issues and wealth issues, no longer girl issues. Some of the grey ones amongst us are blessed to be doting grandpas, in dotage.

Upon my return to Penang, I was reminded of my hometown’s proud achievement in 2008. Georgetown, Penang’s capital city was listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. The oldest of the British Straits settlements, Georgetown is dotted with rows and rows of shoplots, many of which are still in desperate need of a good paint job. Gems are easily found hidden amongst these, some are exquisitely renovated and have been brought back to their former colonial glory. Retaining the island’s cultural and architectural heritage is admirable. But I think to be a world heritage site, it has to offer more than just these. As importantly, I think Penang’s famed food heritage should be equally cherished and protected. This precious heritage through the culinary gifts from so many faraway places in Asia for over two hundred years shouldn’t be taken for granted lest it is quickly lost. Broadly speaking, the incredibly vast menu of food including street food, also known as hawker food, mostly originated directly from China, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia whereas others are influenced by mixed cultures such as the Peranakan, a blend between Malays and Chinese. To simply say the foods are from China and India of course is to markedly devalue this culinary diversity that is Penang’s gift to the world. These two vast nations have over two hundred ethnic groups, each with their own uniqueness stemming from geographical, seasonal, tribal, and cultural influences, to name a few. China and India are in fact two major civilisations that pretend to be countries.

In the past 44 years, I have returned home for maybe five times. So, I think returnees like me may have a strong claim to know if a cherished dish has lost its original flavour. And if so, such dishes ought to be out of favour in order for Penang to retain its title as one of the street food Paradise on Earth. Yet, in every corner of Penang, the street food hawkers reign supreme. Many with solid reputations, enhanced by social media and food review “authorities” such as Tripadvisor are often disappointing to those who remember how their food tasted in their heyday. Is it social media that has socially engineered our food heritage? I suspect the hawkers are merely adjusting to the generally less discerning and therefore less demanding taste buds of tourists, and they get away with higher profits with less tasty ingredients. Why spend the monetary cost, effort and time using tediously prepared ingredients when they can simply avoid it and the affable unquestioning tourists will be none the wiser and still rate it with five stars? Food bloggers are usually younger and less discerning, they do not have yesteryear standards to compare with. To me, the issue here is the locals expect and demand street foods to be cheap. They mentally calculate how much a plate of Char Koay Teow should cost from its ingredients without attributing any value for the main ingredient, i.e. the skill and knowledge of the hawker. It is akin to a diner at a Michelin 3-star restaurant who does not expect to pay a stiff price for the chef’s culinary creativity and skills. No, that would not happen in the developed world, so why is this lamentable disgraceful slap in the face treatment for our finest hawkers be tolerated in Penang? Over time, our best food hawkers will simply die away or if we are lucky, their successors and pretenders will compromise on the quality of their output, since people do not put a value on their input.

Below are the only stand-out establishments I was lucky to have experienced last week. These are to me, Penang’s finest food destinations that have retained the high standards passed down from their fore-fathers. There hopefully are many many more that I have missed, a week in Penang is far too brief. I also acknowledge that one man’s treasure is another man’s trash, many will undoubtedly disagree with my opinion.

Penang’s Teochew cendol is a sweet delicacy which requires the best Gula Melaka and freshest santan (coconut milk). I have been suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms due to my chronic addiction to it. To soothe myself, I had one serving on my way to Penang. Kwong Wah in section 14, Petaling Jaya, any cendol will do I thought to myself. Surprisingly, Kwong Wah now has usurped the title from Penang’s legendary outlet in Lebuh Keng Kwee as best cendol in the land.

Penang Cendol, no longer the best
Best Cendol, from Kwong Wah

I had Penang’s most famous street food, Char Koay Teow, in four separate locations but none of them made my list. It is a disturbing trend that has to be arrested, or we lose what made us great.

Penang Road Char Koay Teow with Duck Egg
  1. 888 Hokkien Mee and also the Lor Bak at Lebuh Presgrave.
  2. 113 Duck Meat Koay Teow Th’ng 111 Lebuh Melayu
  3. Hokkien Rice Porridge (alternatively, with mee sua) at Hon Kei Food Corner, Kampung Malabar
  4. Hokkien Cha and Sar Hor Fun at Gou Lou Hong Kee, Campbell Street
  5. Jawa Mee at Bobo Cafe, Lip Sin Garden
  6. Nasi Ulam at Air Itam
  7. Chee Cheong Fun, served unfolded with Sesame, Hoisin and Hae-ko at Seow Fong Lye Cafe, McAlister Lane.
  8. Lor Mee, at Kheng Pin, Sri Bahari Road.
Lor Mee
Duck Meat Koay Teow Th’ng
Pork Mee Sua at Hong Kei
Sar Hor Fun at Gou Lou
Hokkien Cha at Gou Lou
Jawa Mee at Bobo Cafe
Nasi Ulam at Air Itam
Chee Cheong Fun, McAlister Lane

Apart from the above street foods, the fabulous Peranakan restaurant I had the privilege to enjoy is Winn’s Cafe @ Irrawaddi. It is Nyonya food close to its pinnacle, I reckon it easily rivals Violet Oon’s National Kitchen in Singapore. What sets Winnie Poh’s restaurant apart from the rest is her preparedness to trust and value her chefs’ culinary skills whilst honouring the traditional recipes of the Baba Nyonya. She adds a modern-day touch to her heritage in terms of high-end presentation in a classy air-conditioned environment. Impressive dishes in a large menu include Pie Tee and Lor Bak, Jiu Hoo Cha, Kiam Hoo Koot Gulai, Tau Ewe Bak, Perut Ikan, Nasi Ulam, Assam Prawns and Ikan Tumis.

Four Seasons including Pie Tee and Lor Bak
Jiu Hoo Cha
Perut Ikan
Tau Ewe Bak
Winn’s Nasi Ulam
Assam Prawns

Penang Lang, appreciate the skills of these finest hawkers, value them before they devalue themselves. They are our vanishing heritage in our dotage.