Malaysia: Culture Club

By Kate Shuttleworth

Kate Shuttleworth meets the many faces of Malaysia in a tasty tour of Penang

Lanterns at Kek Lok Si Buddhist Temple, Air Itam, Penang. Photo / Getty Images
Lanterns at Kek Lok Si Buddhist Temple, Air Itam, Penang. Photo / Getty Images

Chiko is confused - we're not Australian, but he insists on singing the first verse of Cheap Charlie a song famous among Australian soldiers serving in the Vietnam War, as two intrepid journalists slide their bums into the sticky blue vinyl cycle rickshaw seat that's really only one-and-a-half seats wide. Chiko, our cycle rickshaw pedaller, sings it to the tune of a children's marching song and ends up giving us what we agree is the best tour on our trip.

If Chiko is culturally confused, so are we, listening to his story as he chauffeurs us around Georgetown in Penang, a chorus of constant loud laughter framed by the horns and traffic in the background.

Chiko sits behind us, pedalling from behind, a floral umbrella shading him from the oppressive heat. He's thin, muscly and sports the largest piece of bling I've seen in a long while, a giant pearl ring. And he claims he's a sailor.

"I've been around the world, because I'm a sailor - I worked on a Greek ship and lived in Europe for six year," he tells us.

His near-perfect English makes his story pretty credible and when he slips into French and says he's lived is Paris we believe him more.

"I've been on the road for a long time - 35 years," he chuckles showing off various missing teeth.

It's an interesting journey. Before the tour has even begun we're parked outside a cafe and offered an opportunity to buy a cooling fruit drink in a plastic bag, while he quips he's off upstairs to grab some vodka.

At one point we're driven on the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic.

We cycle past street art that would rival Banksy - Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic has painted the town alive with interactive street art. One work called Little Children On a Bicycle captures my attention. A cheeky older girl tows a smaller boy on the carrier of an old bike. The children are painted on an old Georgetown wall; the bicycle is real. I jump out and have my photo taken pushing the pair; the ingenious Zacharevic knows how to get travellers interacting with his art.

Like rebels, my food editor colleague and I delight in getting Chiko to take us to the one place our guide Paul told us wasn't worth a visit - the Penang Peranakan Mansion.

We bump into Lillian, the manager of the mansion. She's been waiting all afternoon for a group of New York journalists and although that's not us, she's pleased to give us a personal tour. The mansion is a restored 19th century Peranakan house and Lillian is fifth generation Peranakan, or Nyonya Baba - a term describing the descendants of late 15th and 16th century Chinese immigrants in the British straits settlements of Malaysia. Nyonya is the term for women, Baba men, and Lillian's dress is close to what a Nyonya would wear - a wraparound batik sarong in bright red, delicately pinned with an elaborate belt and a black embroidered jacket.

The fusion of British and Chinese culture is evident as Lillian shows us around - there is a collection of Victorian vaseline glass epergne that looks like a glass version of elaborate sea coral.

Near the end of our tour we bump into a bride and groom having their photographs taken, making the most of the beautiful building.

We reunite with our guide Paul and twist his arm to take us to the heart of where it all began - a slice of this culinary capital's history - the clan jetties.

Because of its strategic location on the straits of Malacca, Penang was an important trading port for traders such as the British East India Company on the spice route linking Europe and Asia.

The stilt-house jetties alongside Georgetown, which were settled by Chinese immigrant clan groups and contain pre-war heritage houses and religious monuments, are now classified a world heritage site by Unesco.

The two largest jetties are those of the Chew and Lim clans. Paul tells us the clans don't cross over to each other's patch, unless they want to encounter physical violence. But our experience is less confrontational: on the Chew jetty we're treated to a dance-off, as a 2-year-old boy showcases his Gangnam Style moves while his grandfather beams.

Despite Penang's rich mix of ethnicities, I don't get a sense of any one of them being marginalised; Chinese, Indian and Malay culture coexist closely. In Georgetown's aptly named Street of Harmony you can find St George's (the oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia); the Taoist Goddess of Mercy temple, built for the Chinese settlers; a mosque, a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple and more Chinese shrines.

All this cultural diversity has helped turn Penang into Malaysia's culinary capital and a visit here must include a laksa stall at the Air Itam market.

This place is famous; Ang Kok Peoh has run the family business for more than 60 years. It was started by his mother Lee Lay Hua and is now run by the extended family and has 16 staff.

His nephew Ang Kar Leong studied chemical engineering in the US, but is helping out on the day we visit.

There is a steady stream of people, but we've come in the early afternoon, after the lunchtime rush, and we're lucky to score a table.

The smell is alluring. The four of us sit down and devour our laksa. It's a tangy noodle broth that is sour, spicy and sweet. It has tones of mackerel and is topped with fresh shallots, garlic and a variety of chillies to complement the noodles.

The secret, according to Ang Kok Peoh, is to strike a balance in the flavours.

"My father always said you have to know what people want and have a general taste so that everyone can have it. The soup's not really that spicy." And he's right, the blend is perfect and leaves a lasting craving. What's more it cost just RM3.50 ($1.36).

To round off we sample two of the most unusual desserts we're likely to try in our lives - cendol and ais kacang. Cendol is made from a base of worm-like green rice jelly, coloured using the pandan leaf; shaved ice, red beans and coconut milk. It is sometimes served with palm sugar or creamed corn. It sounds disgusting and frankly it looked more than intimidating, but it was cooling and delicious.

Equally weird, ais kacang is even more colourful and sits like a tower in its dish. It's made of shaved ice, red beans, sweet corn, jelly, and ice cream topped with evaporated milk. Again, it's delicious.

And with their mix of unusual, yet harmonious flavours and colours, these two desserts capture Penang on a plate.

WHAT ELSE TO DO

• Visit the Spice Garden, and be taken on a tour up a hill among the monkeys as you learn about plants like nutmeg and clove.

• Take a cooking class to learn the art of Malaysian cuisine.

• Go to Chowrasta: a market place with stalls selling fresh herbs, spices, fruit and vegetables.

• Eat at Line Clear food alley: Muslim Indian food, run by Zainul Halam Abd Hamid, and famous for being visited by Anthony Bourdain.

• Visit Gurney Drive hawker food market: eat as many different types of food as you want while the sun goes down.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air Malaysia flies six times a week from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur.
Where to stay: Penang is rich in cultural heritage, and home to great beaches and exquisite accommodation. Rasa Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa is on Batu Feringgu Beach. The grounds are lush and green with swimming pools and restaurants. The rooms are luxurious. Just down the road is a street food hall and a market selling imitation goods, like knockoff Jimmy Choo bags.

The Eastern and Orient Hotel, a major part of the heritage of Penang, is in the centre of Penang near Georgetown. Its rooms are furnished with antique furniture and have views of the straits of Malacca.

The new ultra chic and stylish G-Hotel on Gurney Drive, is steps away from the hawkers' market and the clan jetties. The hotel has a Scandinavian feel with contemporary architecture and interior design.

* Kate Shuttleworth travelled as a guest of Tourism Malaysia.

- NZ Herald

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