I have been a professional writer for five years.

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Penang on My Mind

If you have an expectation to read an in-depth article of Penang and its psyche, you can stop reading now. However if you are anything like me: food lover, Epicurean worshipper and old building admirer, do read on. To tell you the truth, I didn’t meet any locals and have a conversation with them about what it is like to live in historic food paradise. My encounter with the locals was so touristy and limited to shop keepers, concierge, waitress, tour guide and occasional locals on the street who gave us directions. I only had 3 days and 2 nights with more than a dozen dishes to try and old building to explore. I got no time for chit-chat.

Off we went, Miss K and I. Two similar minded culture vulture/foodie in our serious mission of eating our heart out in Georgetown. Two hours and a half later, we arrived in the tiny historic city, a living breathing, and fine example of post-colonialism study. There was a decaying Fort Cornwallis with rusty canons jutting out, British named streets like Lebuh Carnavon or Lebuh Macallum, a monument tribute for Queen Victoria. You know, the usual array of colonialism leftovers. Public transportation is quite well connected with free bus and shuttles inside the central Georgetown. We checked in our touristy well valued hotel, Cititel (mind you, location is very well situated and breakfast buffet does has its own appeal) then immediately took off so not to waste the rest of our time.

It’s so easy to walk around and get lost in Georgetown. Just make sure to keep dehydrated and use sunblock since the sun was quite unforgiving. I can keep on rambling about the beautiful harmony and the “Truly Asia” houses of faith: Goddess of Mercy temple, Kapitan Keling mosque, Maha Mariamman temple and St. George’s Cathedaral. All located close to each other plus the delightful and well presented Penang State Museum. However my favorite building as well as UNESCO’s was The Blue Mansion, Cheong Fatt Tze. If there’s one building I could gush about for hours, it would be this amazing private residence owned by an extremely rich merchant/minister/consul named Cheong Fatt Tze, Ph.D (Seriously. Read here for the complete biography). Part of its charm would be the guide, nay, Madame that took us through its past splendor. The tour lasted about an hour and was one of the funniest, most informative guided tours I’ve ever joined. The Madame joked, teased, explained and cajoled us with such a sweet charm about the mansion and what you could do with it (it’s a hotel and function hall), you wouldn’t mind the marketing. I learned so much about feng shui, Chinese architecture, the meaning of number 8 and the man behind the legend, the “Rockefeller of the East”.

Our first food was Nasi Kandar. A Moslem Indian delicacy consisted of fragrant biryani rice and assortment of meats, vegetable and soup rich in spices. Tasty, earthy and heavy: it’s perfect for lunch. Now, would it be terrible to say that we spent our nights not going around town but sitting prettily in dark theater watching movies? Because that’s precisely what happened. We were film tourists, desperate for culture and entertainment, being starved by crazy film taxation problem back home. Between Johnny Depp playing pirate and a Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest hilarious film, we sneaked out to eat in one of the most famous Penang’s hawker center: Gurney. The Asam Laksa was superb and worth a try.

Second day was spent in a half day tour booked through AirAsiaGo. It’s packed, well valued and gave us, two direction blind travelers in tight schedule, plenty of time to relax for the rest of the day. Tours included Penang Peranakan Mansion (another fine example of Chinese influenced mansion, similar to Cheong Fatt Tze), the majestic clan temple Khoo Kongsi and ehem, offers to visit chocolate gallery, pewter shop and batik shop. Special mention need to be made for es cendol at the back of the mansion, it was lip smacking delicious and worth a visit for its own sake. We refused the pewter and batik offer but curious about the chocolate gallery (which apparently an Asian version of Mr. Wonka’s factory if only he loved durian, mango and chilly chocolate). Take a stroll there if you’re a durian lover, since I’m sure you wouldn’t find chocolate with durian filling as good as that anywhere else.

We asked him to drop us in Chinatown. It is truth universally acknowledge that if there is a bunch of Chinese people together in one place, there will be good food. There between street stalls, plastic chairs and alumunium tables, we found the reason we came to Penang on the first place. Savory char kway teow, fried with crunchy pork fat, oyster and fresh shrimps. Hokkien Mie, a richly spiced seafood noodle with fish broth. Oyster omelette, perfectly beaten eggs with onions and juicy oysters, so soft it melts in your mouth. We didn’t talk in the next fifteen minutes, Miss K and I. We might have produced orgasmic grunts, since neighboring tables seemed to look at us weirdly.

To close our brief trip, later that night (after two films), we went to our last food center recommended by two person. Red Garden was the name. It sounds a bit whorish but we decided to give it a try. Upon entering the gate, we were welcomed by a young Chinese singer who wore bikini with a big ribbon on her butt (aha, hence the name). Old horny uncles drinking Heineken and slurping noodles was her audiences. I didn’t intend to make it sound so seedy, it was not that kind of place after all but never in million years I’d imagine myself eating while being entertained by a half naked girl, surrounded by horny uncles while there were kids running around. She was losing her voice by the time we nibbled our grilled stingray. When I swallowed my siu may and ha kaw, she was replaced by an older woman in tiger skin legging, short pants and see through tops, who half moaned her songs. I almost spurted my ha kaw from my nose when I heard it. It was that orgasmic. And folks, that’s how we wrapped our short visit.

I’d definitely be going back. I’ve dreamed of all those food ever since and trust me, once you tasted those collection of food in your mouth, there’s no going back. Penang has bewitched me with its old charm, intoxicated me with its historically rich flavor and aroma. She’s like an old hunchback Auntie who could snap a chicken’s neck and at the same time, made you a mean noodle soup in an old kitchen with gray walls and black stove. You can’t help but to miss it and asking for more noodle.

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