Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Rediscovering Penang Part 2: Ten Thousand Buddhas, Lots of Chinese Cookies and One Killer Assam Laksa

When visiting Georgetown in Penang, a must-do is going up Penang Hill on the furnicular railway. You'll see the city in all its glory (provided it's not a misty day like when we went) connected to the mainland by that famous bridge, currently the fourth longest in South East Asia. If titles are what one is after, Penang sweeps the floor clean with the Kek Lok Si Temple - the largest Buddhist temple in the region.

If you take the route that the guidebooks advise (Bus 204 from Komtar Bus Station to Air Itam, for the Kek Lok Si and Penang Hill), you cannot miss the gargantuan Kuan Yin statue that dominates the skyline over Air Itam town. And that is just a prelude to the thousands of celestial beings and Buddhas all over this place of worship.

The main pinnacle of the compund is a multi-tiered tower with yellow tiles and Buddhas on each level and you pass many more in each chamber. The entire place is also embellished by what seems like every possible Buddhist deity. Joss sticks and candles smoulder whilst many say silent prayers.

Once you descend from the tranquil temple back into Air Itam town, you may find a different type of enlightenment. This time in the form of a steamy bowl of Assam Laksa.

This smiling chappy is your angel as it is he who dishes up another cornerstone of Penang cuisine. One of the many noodle dishes unique to the Straits settlements, Assam Laksa consists of springy, thickish rice noodles bathed in a sour and fishy soup. We are enveloped with tangy aroma as we walk past the stall.

In Hokkien (the Chinese dialect commonly spoken in Penang) the Kek Lok Si translates into the Temple of Supreme Bliss. That was my exact experience with these noodles. The layering of flavours in a laksa is incredible: hot and sour from the tamarind, chilli and belacan, piquant from the raw onion and cool from the mint and cucumber. Tinned sardines are shredded into the broth, adding texture and coating the noodles as you dangle them from bowl to spoon.

I do wonder how long that soup has been boiling for! 

Located on the main road that bends round, this stall also partners with a cendol and drink stall owner who kindly orders Assam Laksa for us, and upsells us a bowl of cendol. It's an extention of our blissful lunch. Pandan flavoured rice flour noodles swimming in gula melaka (palm sugar) and coconut soup with aduki beans and laden with ice cubes may sound strange but trust me it's divine. And precisely what you need after climbing steep hills and temple stairways in humid Malaysia.

We wrapped up our morning by wandering around the Chinese biscuit shops, famous for tau sar pneah (round pastry filled with green bean paste) and during this time of the year, mooncakes, for the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. Rather different to Western cookies, I find Chinese biscuits are generally crumblier and even the sweet ones possess a prominent savoury element. In they went into my bag for an afternoon tea snack.

What a wonderful way to find nirvana. This Assam Laksa sent me to heaven and back. Quite possibly the numero uno dish on this trip!

Next time: The beautiful Cheong Fat Tze Mansion, Kopi Peng and Tandoori Chicken

Assam Laksa
Main Jalan Air Itam stretch, look out for a smiling man who's only too happy to pose for a photo!
Next to a cendol and popiah stall that curves round the road, and has a large "Laksa" sign in red.

Choy Kee Confectionary (for lovely Chinese biscuits)
No. 9 Jalan Pasar Mk. 16
11500 Ayer Itam, Pulau Pinang

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Sean said...

paying only RM3 for that bowl is quite a miracle, isn't it (though i think it might have been RM1.80 in the late 1990s, heheh). talk about getting a bang for your buck ... could we buy anything as tasty for RM3 in KL? :D

Kay said...

..well have to say thank you..for someone from kl to show me (staying in pg) how kek lok si is now?..not been there for >15yrs...

>still prefer the laksa at pg road..

Hungry Female said...

Sean - isn't it an achievement? Even the parceled otak-otak is RM4 these days!

Kay - there's a lot of work being done to the KLS but I really enjoyed my visit, haven't been since I was tiny! I will remember your tip on Penang Road for next time:)

Raelene Loong said...

RM3 for a bowl? Bliss. Penang is my next destination when I get home.

Hungry Female said...

Rae - let me know when you go, your mum is the Penang-lang anyway:)

Mr Noodles said...

I'm so bloody jealous.

Baby Sumo said...

The huge Buddha statue was still under construction when we visited Kek Lok Si but it was damn impressive. Both the assam laksa and cendol looks really good.

Kay said...

try the ckt & laksa at the pg road (the shop beside the famous pg road chendol)..kill 3 birds with one stone....

Hungry Female said...

Oh Mr Noodles! I wish I could send you a bowl of Laksa right now!

Yen, yes it is really impressive and proud they seem to be doing alot of conserve and reconstruct it.

Kay, I so missed out Penang Road didn't I?!