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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

A Penang Food Tour: Assam laksa, durian and Penang Road Famous Cendol

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.

Old Town White Coffee

Old Town White Coffee decor

Order forms

Order forms are not uncommon in Malaysia, and our indecision is evidenced by crosses and alterations with the provided pencil.

White coffee

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.

Pineapples at Air Itam Market

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.

Duku langsat fruit


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

Assam laksa assembly crew

Sugarcane juice and soybean milk RM1 (about AU$0.40)

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.

Durian - the king of fruits

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.

Opening our second durian

What was that about durian being addictive? Minh and Simon aren't fussed, but Billy and I need more durian. And now.

D600 bitter durian

The flesh of the D600 bitter durian

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

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.

View of the Chamber of Seated Buddhas from the top of the Pagoda

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.

Standing Buddhas

The Chamber of Seated Buddhas is impressive, especially the courtyard which is lined with standing Buddhas.

Standing Buddhas

Penang Road Famous TeoChew Cendol

Penang Road Famous 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.

Cendol packed up for takeaway

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.

Penang Lobak

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.

Seafood laksa

Char kway teow

Assam laksa

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

Ais kacang

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 fruits at the drink stall

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

Hokkien mee stall

Apam balik stall

Adding crushed peanuts to sweet corn apam balik Malaysian pancakes

There's no way we could have eaten any more today.

Apam balik 

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)

View Larger Map

No 2 and 2A Persiaran Tugu, Greentown Avenue, 30450 Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
Tel: +60 (05) 253 9876
Opening hours: Monday to Sunday 9am-12.30am

Pasar Air Itam assam laksa
Pasar Road (beside the Air Itam Market), 11500 Air Itam, Penang, Malaysia
Open 7 days 11am-8pm

Kek Lok Si 
Near Jalan Balik Pulau, 11500 Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Open 7 days 9am-6pm
Free entry - a small fee applies to enter the Pagoda

Penang Road Famous Chendul
21 Keng Kwee Street (off Penang Road), 10000 Penang, Malaysia
Open 7 days

New World Park
Swatow Lane (off Burma Road), George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Open 7 days 10am-9pm

Gurney Drive Food Court
Gurney Drive (Persiaran Gurney near the roundabout at Jalan Bagan Jermal), Penang, Malaysia
Open 7 days 6pm til late

> Read the next Malaysia 2010 post (Little India, monkeys and durian)
27 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 1/04/2011 01:47:00 am


  • At 1/04/2011 2:09 am, Blogger boo_licious said…

    Lovely pictures and now you're making my mouthwater for a trip to Penang. Even if we're locals, whenever we visit Penang it's a non stop eat fest for all of us. Glad you enjoyed it and hope u'll make another trip again to savour all our delights.

  • At 1/04/2011 7:20 am, Blogger Unknown said…

    Wow this is a really comprehensive post on food from the region. I have only just really discovered Malaysian food in the last year and it is something I am really enjoying!

  • At 1/04/2011 8:28 am, Anonymous Emily said…

    I am from Penang and so reading this from Australia made me tear up. I'm happy to say you have captured the essence of what makes Penang famous - hawker food. Anyway, it seems like the next appropriate thing to do after this is checking for flight costs back to Malaysia, haha!

  • At 1/04/2011 9:28 am, Blogger Choux Choux said…

    I LOVE PENANG! I went last year and we stayed at one of the hotels at gurney drive and the food court there was just the best! It was also the first time I had assam laksa and it was just amazing. All my best memories involve food :)

  • At 1/04/2011 10:09 am, Blogger Kate said…

    Yum yum yum yum yum yum yum...I'm booking my tickets right now....

  • At 1/04/2011 10:11 am, Blogger Simon Leong said…

    wow everything looks so authentic and delicious! :-)

  • At 1/04/2011 10:29 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    love the photos! my god - the durian! you had me at durian! love penang.. need to visit again shortly :)

  • At 1/04/2011 10:35 am, Anonymous kewpie said…

    ah, good old penang! my fatherland. u covered all the yummy food that i would eat when i am there, plus more! cendol's my mum's favourite. i love hokkien mee and apong balik! i feel happier now seeing all this yummy food. makes it just a little easier to get thru being back at work. happy new yr, Helen!

  • At 1/04/2011 10:38 am, Anonymous john@heneedsfood said…

    Assam laksa - mmm swampy goodness!

  • At 1/04/2011 11:21 am, Anonymous chocolatesuze said…

    HAHAHA "There's no way we could have eaten any more today." lol but there's always room for more in a food bloggers stomach! and mmm durian

  • At 1/04/2011 11:27 am, Blogger Mel said…

    omg! they all look so delicious! i miss all of them so much. haven't eaten a durian for ages..

  • At 1/04/2011 12:04 pm, Blogger Unknown said…

    Assam Laksa is also one of my favorite. So far I haven't found any good Assam Luksa here in Sydney. Great blog.

  • At 1/04/2011 1:32 pm, Anonymous Hannah said…

    Overwhelmingly magnificent post, Helen. So much utter, utter deliciousness that I want to lick the screen a little bit. Does Apam Balik taste like plastic and dust? Because that's what I'm getting.... :D

    P.S. I've moved onto peanut butter and kaya sandwiches... I mix together heaping spoons of pb and kaya, then toast and butter bread, spread 'em on and chomp down. :D

  • At 1/04/2011 5:34 pm, Blogger Nuttymeg said…

    Crying... tears of joy! Want to go home NOW!

  • At 1/04/2011 9:14 pm, Anonymous Wendy @ Obesebaby said…

    So hard to find a decent Assam Laksa in here, but in Malaysia is everywhere. enjoy the food and have a lovely trip and happy new yr Helen!

  • At 1/04/2011 9:31 pm, Anonymous sara @ Belly Rumbles said…

    Wow Helen, what an awesome foodie adventure. I want a peanut pancake, looked so awesome and crispy.

  • At 1/04/2011 10:33 pm, Anonymous Julie said…

    Will be going to Malaysia later this year and i am taking notes already! Can't wait! The Assam laksa looks so drool worthy!

  • At 1/05/2011 12:38 am, Blogger shaz said…

    I am so, so, so jealous. You taunt me with assam laksa, then durian, then cendol, then lobak!! Argh! DO you know what this does to a homesick Malaysian?? Seriously though, great post. Been ages since I've been to Penang, must make a trip there next time we head over, and eat at all these stalls. Thanks for the great recommendations.

  • At 1/05/2011 1:50 am, Blogger Christine Ho said…

    Aw, fabulous foodie adventure in Malaysia. Glad that you posted the price in AU dollars. Unbelievable that you can have all these delicious foods at such low prices. I have to twist the arms of my hubby and travel to Malaysia. Finger crossed.

  • At 1/05/2011 9:00 am, Blogger Gourmet Getaway said…

    I am so jealous!! The most delious food and so cheap! So much delicious food!

    Wow! I need a holiday! Nevermind a little Getaway I need a HOLIDAY Malaysian style!

  • At 1/05/2011 1:46 pm, Blogger Anna said…

    Looks like quite the foodie adventure! Wonderful photos, Helen... oh, and I have decided I must have a dachshund bench in my garden in future.. seriously cool!

  • At 1/05/2011 1:49 pm, Anonymous Iron Chef Shellie said…

    Oh Helen, you never fail to make me hungry and wanting a trip to Malaysia with your posts!

  • At 1/05/2011 2:25 pm, Blogger sugarpuffi said…

    ahhh!! always so much great food during ur malaysia trips! the cutting up of the durian is so mesmerising...especially when it just have a small opening revealing the fruit *drools*

  • At 1/05/2011 4:59 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I tmayb b like 40 degrees here but I really really want some laksa right now... and some chendol to help it go down mmm

  • At 1/05/2011 5:21 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    omg so many new things for me and what a fabulous price! I have to go! First thought I'm committed to a very special trip to Vietnam next yr. How good do those lychee's look!

  • At 1/06/2011 5:03 pm, Blogger Unknown said…

    You got a few famous dishes from the right places but there're HEAPS more Penang-centric dishes I hope you get to try, Helen. Penang is one of the best ethnic food stops in the world. It's a full on feast.

  • At 1/09/2011 1:22 pm, Anonymous Honey @ honeyandsoy said…

    Helen, what an amazing post! I feel so nostalgic after looking at your brilliant photos... All my trips to Penang have been eating trips. Haven't been back for many many years now, last time was a family trip when I was still in school! Some part of me is still there... left behind when I had my first taste of assam laksa. I totally admire your stomach capacity to have eaten all that food in one day!


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