Georgetown, Penang tasting tour with chef Alfred Wee
The island of Penang, Malaysia, lies strategically between two economically important regions of Asia and was once a bridge between the continent’s impressive kingdoms and the expanding European colonial powers of yesteryear. Today, Georgetown in Penang is widely considered one of the street food capitals of Asia and visitors wax lyrical about the food, a mixture of Chinese, Malay, Indian (mamak and South Indian) and Peranakan cuisine.
Chef Alfred Wee, head chef of Blanc at Macalister Mansion, grew up in Dungun, a district in the state of Terengganu in Malaysia, which is famous for its beaches. “My family have been running restaurants since my great-grandfather started his first coffee shop in the 1920s. I suppose the cooking genes have passed down through generations, as both my grandfather and my father are chefs. I grew up helping out in my father’s seafood restaurant as a kid and started in the kitchen from age 13,” he says. At the age of 20, Wee decided to work abroad and spent time in kitchens in Singapore, Macau and Europe for six years before returning to Malaysia. Now, he calls Penang home.
“I’ve lived in Penang for almost two years and it has similarities with my hometown as it is also by the sea but it has developed rapidly into an internationally-known food haven which is the major attraction. This is on top of its rich cultural heritage.” Wee explains that the food at Blanc is “essentially French and seasonal”. The difference, compared to a classic French restaurant, he says “is that we incorporate a lot more Asian flavors and the composition of texture and taste caters more towards an Asian palate.” The setting, he adds, lends itself to a special occasion or date-night venue.
Wee says: “Penang is known to have the best street food in Asia but to me it has great potential to be much more. The culinary scene is evolving at a very rapid rate and hopefully one day Penang will be a gastronomic destination not only limited to street food but fine dining too.”
Wee adds that Penang’s food scene has grown to be very competitive in the last couple of years, “with the opening of all sorts of cafés, eateries from casual to fine dining and even bubble tea shops.”
These are a selection of chef Wee’s best bites in Penang.
Start the Day Right
“I’m not a breakfast person so I usually skip it and go straight to lunch. However, a local favorite for breakfast is kaya toast. Kaya is a jam made with eggs, fresh coconut, sugar and pandan leaves, and toast spread with the jam is served with soft boiled eggs and local coffee,” Wee says. “This can be enjoyed in most local coffee shops, but I would suggest Toh Soon Café".
For the Traditionalist
“Malaysia is best known for curries, herbs and spices. There are many dishes that are worth mentioning but I think the gulai tumis, tamarind fish curry with shallot, galangal, lemongrass, candlenut and shrimp paste, is must-try. A very good location for this would be Nyonya Breeze.” Wee says. He also suggests assam laksa (hot and sour fish and noodle soup) and char kway teow (fried broad rice noodles).
Penang Air Itam Laksa
“Penang Air Itam Laksa is famous for its aasam laksa and you can find char kway teow at markets everywhere. My personal favorite is a roadside stall in Lorong Selamat sold by a guy whose trademark look is his black sunglasses.”
Astaka Taman Tun Sardon
If you want to try a range of Malay food, Wee recommends the stalls at Astaka Taman Tun Sardon in Gelugor. “They are famous for [the rice dishes] nasi lemak, nasi lemuni and local serabai, a traditional pancake made with rice flour and served with thick palm sugar or even with durian paste,” Wee says.
Medan Selera Tanjung Bungah
For lunch, Wee suggests a nasi campor stall for fresh fish head curry, prawns, crab and rice at Medan Selera Tanjung Bungah in Tanjung Bunga. “The simple yet traditional Malay flavors and dishes at these two local joints are what make them my favorite spots.”
Dining with Company
His personal favorite is a casual restaurant called Tek Sen in Georgetown. “They serve the most delicious Malaysian Chinese cuisine and are always packed from day to night,” he adds. You might want to try the aasam pedas (fish curry soup) or the fried clay pot tofu.
According to Wee, the local Peranakan (a mix of Chinese and Malay) cuisine is his pick for dining out with groups of family and friends. “I love the heritage setting of Seven Terraces [a refurbished heritage hotel] but Nyonya Breeze serves more traditional and authentic Peranakan dishes. I think Penang’s Peranakan food is the most delicious compared to other states and is definitely something unique,” he says.
Take It Home
“I like to go the wet market in Batu Lanchang, Cecil Street and Pulau Tikus. I go regularly and make my visits to the fishmongers to find out what’s available. In Malaysia one should look out for local spices, pastes and freshly-made coconut cream,” Wee advises.
For foodie gifts, he suggests local biscuits called tau sar piah (baked flaky pastry filled with sweet or savory filling made from ground mung bean). “It’s been an essential souvenir for all local and overseas visitors. Him Heang is one of the most famous shops and their bakery is at the back of the shop and usually by afternoon most items will be sold out,” he says.