Assam laksa. An aromatic swamp of mackerel, tamarind, pineapple, chilli and mint, I was determined to overdose on it as much as I could in Malaysia.
But first, we needed breakfast before we could hit the road to Penang, where their version of assam laksa is said to be the best. In the quiet town of Ipoh we found a dearth of places open at 9am, eventually settling for the ever-present Malaysian coffee chain Old Town White Coffee.
Order forms are not uncommon in Malaysia, and our indecision is evidenced by crosses and alterations with the provided pencil.
Ipoh dry curry mee RM6.3 (about AU$2.40)
I love a cooked breakfast, Asian-style, but in Malaysia I have but one weakness...
Kaya and butter toast double RM2.70 (about AU$1)
The scraping of kaya is thin, but the toast is super crunchy and two corrugated planks of butter make breakfast especially tasty.
It's about a two hour drive from Ipoh to the island of Penang, crossing one of the longest bridges in the world, the 13.5km-long Penang Bridge.
We opt for an early lunch before some sightseeing and Billy takes us to the famous Pasar Air Atam laksa stall, said to serve some of the best laksa in Penang.
Pasar Air Itam laksa stall
The humble street stall here does a roaring trade, helped in part by its proximity to the tourist spot Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple in South East Asia.
We don't have to wait long for a stool, parking ourselves at a rickety table and waiting for the laksa chef to assemble our bowls. The noodles and vegetables are placed in a bowl, and then the assam laksa soup, a thick slurry that is an ominous orangey-brown, is poured in, drained, poured, drained and continued until the chef is confident that the noodles are now sufficiently warmed by the hot soup.
Assam laksa assembly crew
The heat is relentless and stultifying, the humidity sapping our energy and rendering us sticky. We seek relief in plastic tumblers of sugarcane juice and soybean milk, scooped from an ice-filled plastic display at the street stall by our table.
Assam laksa RM3 (about AU1.15)
At last our assam laksa arrives. We poke our chopsticks beneath its muddy surface and slurp down the slippery rice noodles greedily.
Assam laksa noodles
Hot, salty, sweet and sour - our lips tingle, our taste buds rejoice and our bellies sigh with content. The stock is fishy with mackerel, sour with tamarind and sweetened by shredded chunks of pineapple. It's a riot of flavours with slivers of red onion, lettuce, cucumber, birds eye chilli, pink ginger flower buds and refreshing mint.
The laksa is one of the best we've tried, although oddly enough we agree it isn't quite as intense as the one we found in the Cameron Highlands.
There's never a sense of closure until you have dessert, and a sideways look from Billy is all the encouragement I need to nod eagerly at the prospect of durian. The durian stalls consist of a man, a knife and several spiky durian hanging by plastic twine.
Cutting open the durian
If you've ever tried opening a fresh durian before, you'll know it's no mean feat. Without using gloves or even a cleaver, the durian stall owner makes a few neat cuts a its base with a small knife before pulling open the fruit to reveal its fleshy pods.
Ang sim (red heart) durian
We order the ang sim (red heart) durian which is sweet and fleshy. Durian often gets a bad rap, but like all strong flavoured foods (blue cheese, oysters, red wine, dark chocolate), once you get the taste for it, you cannot stop the cravings. Its scent is intoxicating, like super ripe tropical fruit, and the flesh is buttery and sweet, like an avocado crossed with custard apple, lychees and summer peaches.
What was that about durian being addictive? Minh and Simon aren't fussed, but Billy and I need more durian. And now.
We try the D600 durian which has a bitter, almost savoury taste that reminds me of coffee. There are an incredible number of durian varieties available - I used this helpful Penang durian identification chart which is impressive. I'm determined to hunt down the bak eu pork fat durian or the red durian from Sabah one day.
Kek Lok Si against the mountainous countryside of Penang
Eventually we make our way to Kek Lok Si which means Temple of Supreme Bliss. This is the largest Buddhist temple is Southeast Asia and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Penang.
View of Penang
No shade in the midday heat
Billy making a wish at the temple
Daschund benches in the sculptured garden
Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas
The Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas is an impressive seven-storey structure that is noted for its Chinese octagonal base, Thai middle and Burmese peak, an acknowledgement of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism.
We decide to work off lunch by climbing the stairs of the pagoda to reach its peak, an act we start to regret as we ascend the narrow winding stairs but worth it when we reach the top and appreciate the views.
The Kek Lok Si temple is a huge complex that sprawls across ten acres, with a number of car parks dotted around the site for accessibility.
The Chamber of Seated Buddhas is impressive, especially the courtyard which is lined with standing Buddhas.
Penang Road Famous TeoChew Cendol
Climbing pagodas sure makes you thirsty. This is what we say to ourselves as we drive to Penang Road Famous Cendol. Malaysians are unashamedly food obsessed, and a good street cart is as highly regarded as any fancy restaurant.
Customers at the Penang Road Famous Cendol cart
We find the cendol cart at the end of a dusty street just off Penang Road. The queue of patrons is constant, a hubbub of locals wandering up with their shopping, businessmen stopping by and impatient motorcyclists blocking the road for a takeaway fix.
The staff work fast and without hesitation, tying up bags for takeaway or dispensing cendol into bright coloured plastic bowls for on-site consumption.
Scooping cendol and coconut milk
Penang Road Famous Cendol RM1.80 (about AU$0.70)
Oh cendol. Is there anything sweeter and cooler than cooked red bean and silky pandan noodles, languishing in a lake of palm sugar laced coconut milk.
New World Park
Keuh pie tee
We settle into the Tunes Hotel, a new and modern building that operates strictly on a user-pays system, right down to the number of hours of air-conditioning you opt to pay for (turned on whenever you insert your room key). We pay a little extra for towels and toiletries and make use of the free internet downstairs.
Dinner is light, and we head next door to New World Park, passing an assembly of locals vigorously participating in a community aerobics sessions.
Everyone buys a dish and we pile everything into the middle of the table to share. I love the kueh pie tee which translates as Top Hats, crisp deep-fried shells holding similar ingredients to popiah: grated jicama and carrot covered in deep fried noodles, red shallots and chilli sauce.
We feast on Penang lobak, a mix of deep-fried fish balls, fish cakes and prawn cakes served with dipping sauces, seafood laksa and char kway teow.
I can't resist a second bowl of assam laksa. It's nowhere near as good as the one at lunch, with a watery consistency.
Assam laksa RM3 AU$1.15
Drinks double as dessert, bowls of ais kacang made of sweet corn, cooked beans, sweet corn and grass jelly covered with shaved ice, ice cream and a drizzle of rose syrup.
Fresh dragonfruit and jackfruit
We finish with fresh dragonfruit and jackfruit, piled on a plate and smothered with shaved ice to keep it chilled.
Guiling gao herbal jelly RM2.50 (about AU$0.95) and soy milk RM1.2 (about AU$0.45)
Yes. It's not until you travel with food bloggers that you realise exactly how much food you can eat when an enabler is by your side. Exactly how much can a food blogger eat in one day? A lot.
We end up at Gurney Drive Food Court for supper, a huge open area filled with a myriad of hawker stalls. This is like the Paddy's Market of food courts. It sits on the esplanade facing the sea, a contrast to the five-star luxury hotels up the road.
Ais kacang RM3 (about AU$1.15)
Unfortunately the onset of rain has meant that many stalls have closed already by the time we arrive but we still manage to scrape together a supper of snacks and dessert.
Bobo chacha RM2 (about AU$0.75)
I settle down to a bowl of bobo chacha, a traditional dessert of steamed taro and sweet potato served with shaved ice, coconut milk and tapioca pearls.
Cendrol RM2 (about AU$0.75)
Penang lobak RM13 (about AU$5)
We finish with Penang lobak, more deep-fried goodies of fish cakes and prawn cakes which we jab at with toothpicks.
The best food spots in Penang? I think we managed to cover many of them - all in one day.
Motorcyclist in Penang
Apam balik stall
Adding crushed peanuts to sweet corn apam balik Malaysian pancakes
There's no way we could have eaten any more today.
Ok, maybe just one peanut pancake. And a sweetcorn version too.
But my favourite photo from our day in Penang wasn't something we ate. It was something we didn't.
Bee Hoon anyone?
> Read the next Malaysia 2010 post (Little India, monkeys and durian)
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Penang Road Famous Chendul
21 Keng Kwee Street (off Penang Road), 10000 Penang, Malaysia
Open 7 days
> Read the next Malaysia 2010 post (Little India, monkeys and durian)
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1/04/2011 01:47:00 a.m.