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A week in Penang, Malaysia


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It's that time of year again, for a KennethT SE Asian adventure.  This is our first trip to Asia since COVID.  We'd been looking to go to Penang for a long time - it's nickname has been the Pearl of the Orient since colonial days, but more recently it's more commonly referred to as one of the street food capitals of the world.

 

In order to get there, we flew non stop from NY to Singapore, detailed here:

We had a few hour layover in Singapore, where we had dinner.  Terminal 4 of Singapore's airport is relatively new and smaller than the other terminals, but they have a hawker stall type of food court with a lot of different choices.  To get in the Malaysian mood, we decided on a place that makes nasi lemak - coconut rice with a lot of stuff with it:

 

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Chicken curry with spring roll, ikan bilis (small dried fish with peanuts), sambal, cucumber and shrimp chips.  Requisite neon yellow "lime juice" - this was a barely diluted concentrate!  Yikes....

 

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Same thing but with sambal chicken which is a different sambal to the one they put on the side.  Both meals were pretty tasty - especially after sitting on a plane for 18 hours.  Our flight to Penang (about an hour or so) got in around 10PM, so there was nothing else until the next morning.

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Breakfast was included in our hotel rate and this hotel had quite a good breakfast buffet - lots of Western choices and a lot of local choices as well.

 

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Made to order roti canai with chicken kapitan curry.  There's also a little bit of a Indian style coconut curry (with mustard seeds) on the left.  Their roti was really good.  I was planning on getting photos/video of them making it near the end of the trip, but well, best laid plans and all....

 

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Beef rendang with coconut rice cooked with pandan, sambal and ikan bilis, with some pandan and cassava cakes.

 

This cute monitor lizard was a slow moving companion for a while, as well as the relentless crows!!!!

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After breakfast, we went to wander around George Town, the main city of Penang and a UNESCO world heritage site.

 

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Stopped to get a drink, a Mountain Dew type drink that we've had in Singapore before:

 

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Penang is a fascinating mix of cultures - there's Chinese, Peranakan (descendants of Chinese men who arrived in the 1800s and married Malay women), Indian, and more.

 

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What is this?  A very popular food in Penang is called Nasi Kandar - it's basically rice with a bunch of Indian style curries.  Most Nasi Kandar places are open 24 hours and are always busy.  This line is for the oldest NK place in Penang, called Hameediyah.  We wound up standing on line for about an hour and a half.

 

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Once you get inside, you see:

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The inside line, plus the guy making murtabah - which is roti dough stuffed with egg and other stuff, then fried.

 

The menu:

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Prices are in Malaysian Ringgit - around 4.50RM to 1 USD at this time.

 

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Many different curries

 

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Fried shrimp and cuttlefish

 

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Stuff to get on the side - vegetables, little fried crabs, hard boiled eggs...

 

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Biryani rice (you could get plain or Biryani rice - pretty much everyone got the biryani rice) with ayam bawang (chicken with onions) and rabbit curry, with basically all of the curry sauces dumped on top, plus some okra for vegetable.  The ayam bawang is one of their famous dishes - the chicken is fried and then buried under a pile of caramelized onions for at least 90 minutes.  Supposedly, this restaurant goes through 70kg of onions per day just for this dish!  The rabbit was a special (we saw a sign for it out front) - it turned out to be the most juicy, tender rabbit we've ever had!!!

 

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Awesome lime juice, not from concentrate.

 

The fallout from lunch:

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While we were out, we saw a fruit vendor and picked up some for the room:

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The pineapple was awesome - super sweet.  The mango, not so much.  It was juicy but completely flavorless.

 

By dinner time, we were exhausted (jet lag) so we decided to stay in the hotel and just get some snacks:

 

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chicken satay

 

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stir fried bok choy.

 

 

 

Edited by KennethT (log)
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Enviable food. Thank you for doing this - you've related the "best laid plans" issues.The variety of accompaniments in SEA cuisine to customize flavors is something I love. One question - I like cassave. The cakes you showed seem quite light. Can you describe? 

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10 minutes ago, heidih said:

One question - I like cassave. The cakes you showed seem quite light. Can you describe? 

They were basically sponge cakes - only mildly sweet.  The green ones were flavored/colored with pandan.  The yellow one was cassava.

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1 hour ago, KennethT said:

The menu:

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Prices are in Malaysian Ringgit - around 4.50RM to 1 USD at this time.

 

 

Amazing chef, has to remember over a hundred recipes. 

 

dcarch

Edited by dcarch (log)
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10 minutes ago, dcarch said:

 

Amazing chef, has to remember over a hundred recipes. 

 

dcarch

Not really.  The right 2 columns are just drinks.  Most of the middle column is roti type stuff, which is done by the guy in the front.  So the cooks in the back are basically making 5 or 6 curries, the ayam bawang, and the vegetable sides - maybe 5 of those?

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Breakfast the next day....

 

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Roti canai with kapitan chicken curry and some South Indian coconut curry, some really good pineapple.

 

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Another Penang specialty - Prawn mee - prawn noodle soup.  This is a bit different than Singapore's prawn mee, which is basically a "dry" noodle dish of a combination of wheat and rice noodles, with bean sprouts and shrimp in a rich gravy made from the shrimp heads.  In Penang, it's a noodle soup - the broth is a really shrimpy broth made from the prawn heads, with some sambal (of course).

 

And now.... the beginning of the end!!!!

 

After breakfast, we went to visit a very famous tourist site, called the Blue Mansion, or Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion.  Cheong Fatt Tze was the wealthiest man in Asia and built this house for his favored 7th wife in the mid to late 1800s.  The house is now a luxury boutique hotel, but they give tours of the common areas several times a day to non-hotel guests.  It is also supposedly a model for feng shui.

 

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It was around this point that my wife, suddenly and out of nowhere, started to feel sick.  We were both listening to the guide who was very informative and was constantly throwing in little jokes here and there, like "How did Cheong Fatt Tze become the richest man in Asia? Wah.... he married the boss's daughter... wah!!!!"  (The wah is a common Penang expression, like Wah, this is really tasty).  Anyway, all of a sudden she has this thing hit her like a ton of bricks - she starts feeling nauseous and a bit light headed and crazy exhaustion.  We quietly make our way out of the room the guide is currently explaining to an area where it's quieter and sit her down to put her head between her knees.  At the time, we thought her blood pressure dropped suddenly - something that has happened many years ago, but hasn't happened for a long time.  After a while, she starts feeling a bit better and we make our way to the hotel's bar as they're supposed to have this fruit juice drink that is invigorating (and really tasty), so we thought it might perk her up.

 

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Pineapple, ginger and lime juice drink.  It was really refreshing.

 

After the drink she started to feel quite a bit better, so we decided to go to lunch.  We went to a local hawker center with a well known prawn noodle vendor.

 

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The entrance

 

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Inside.  This photo actually does a good job illustrating something we saw all over Penang.  Masks!!!  Everywhere!  On practically everyone!!!  Basically, any time you were inside, everyone was wearing masks.  Even many times outside people were wearing masks.  Every taxi we were in, the driver was wearing a major N95 mask, hotel staff, restaurant staff, everywhere.  It was really great to see.

 

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Prawn noodles (sambal in the soup spoon).  This was pretty good, but it definitely didn't blow me away.

 

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Pasembur - this is kind of like a salad - made from shredded jicama and drowned in a salt/slightly sweet sauce and of course, sambal.

 

When my wife is not feeling well, she craves fried food.  Serendipitously right in front of our table was the Vietnamese stall so I got some cha gio, spring rolls:

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No nuoc cham - served with a chilli sauce for dipping.

 

This food centre is also known for a popular char kuay teow vendor.  They had a long line and once I ordered, the woman told me it would be over a half hour for it to arrive....

 

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Personally, I felt like the Outram Park Fried Kway Teow stall in Singapore was heads and tails better than this one.  It was underseasoned and no cubes of puffed lard!  Instead, there were some slices of lap cheong - chinese sausage - which is common in the Penang version.  In fact, people there criticize any kuay teow that doesn't have the lap cheong.

 

Edited by KennethT (log)
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After lunch, we decided to go back to the hotel to relax for a while.

 

We decided to go out for an early dinner to a different local hawker centre - this one has a grilled seafood vendor that I had wanted to try.

 

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Menu with prices

 

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Fish selection

 

We also got some BBQ chicken wings from this vendor:

 

 

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Sambal Stingray - very popular in Malaysia - and no wonder... so tasty!!!!  The stingray was perfectly cooked. Juicy and gelatinous!

 

It typically is served with:

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Sambalified stir fried wing beans (I think that's what they were)

 

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Chicken wings.  Delicious.  Perfectly cooked.

 

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Stir fried lettuce with garlic

 

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Blurry lime juice

 

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Our seating area.  Even though it's open on the sides, here and there are some air conditioners (on the right).  A cellulose pad with fan is mounted over a tank of ice water.  The water is pumped over the pad to saturate it and the fan blows through it, blowing cool air.  They had these all over.  It was really comfortable in there.

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12 hours ago, KennethT said:

A cellulose pad with fan is mounted over a tank of ice water.

We call those swamp coolers around here.  Ronnie has one in his garage/shop that he uses all summer.  Really does help with the heat.

 

Aaaaaannnnnd, now I want chicken wings.  Not the ones I make.  I want those wings that you had.

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10 minutes ago, Shelby said:

We call those swamp coolers around here.  Ronnie has one in his garage/shop that he uses all summer.  Really does help with the heat.

 

Aaaaaannnnnd, now I want chicken wings.  Not the ones I make.  I want those wings that you had.

Yeah, I always called them swamp coolers also - that's the common name for them when used in greenhouse cooling but I didn't know if anyone else would know the term.  I also saw this here and there in Vietnam - that was the first time I ever saw anyone put big blocks of ice in the reservoir!

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Breakfast the next day:

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More roti canai with chicken kapitan curry, and pineapple

 

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More prawn mee - but this time I added some greens and bean sprouts

 

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Beef rendang with coconut rice made with pandan (hence the greenish color), ikan bilis and sambal

 

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Indian style appam with coconut cream

 

We had a big breakfast because we were headed off to the Tropical Spice Garden - which is about a 40 minute drive away in the middle of nowhere and we didn't know how long we'd be there or when we'd get to have lunch.

 

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The garden has lots of different kinds of plants, but as the name says, many of them are spices or herbs used in cooking.  On the left, by the water's edge is pandan - commonly used in SE Asian desserts (kuih) and also can flavor rice, among other things.

 

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I really liked this calathia (with the pink stripes), but planted all around it (and all over the garden) are wild betel leaves (also known as la lot in Vietnam - used in bo la lot - beef with betel leaves, and is also common in Northern Thai food as well as many others).  I think I'm going to try to grow the betel leaves at some point soon!

 

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Look at this lemongrass hedge!!!

 

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I love walking through a nicely taken care of jungle!

 

At the end, we sat down at a little cafe they have for a drink.

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Some sort of lemonade with butterfly pea flower

 

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Lime juice and mint

 

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Our view of the beach across the road from the cafe (which is right near the entrance/exit)

 

We finished up with the garden in time for a late-ish lunch.  There was a laksa place I had read about in a suburb of George Town that was in between where we were and our hotel, so I figured that it was a good time to go there.  The Grab taxi app and Google Maps both had the location wrong and we unknowingly passed the place as the maps led us on a wild goose chase through some residential neighborhood.  Luckily, the driver was super nice and helpful (as they all were we found) and were able to find our way there.  I gave the driver a few Ringgit extra for all the extra time and driving he had to do and he didn't want to accept it, but I insisted after which he thanked me like a thousand times. 

 

Here was our destination:

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Penang laksa is very different from Singapore laksa.  Penang laksa is a sour fish broth based noodle soup, with pieces of mackerel, pineapple, mint leaves, pieces of pineapple, torch ginger flower and a thick round noodle, kind of like udon.  It's sour from tamarind.  It's served with a spoonful of a syrupy shrimp paste.  It's quite addictive - this place was worth the hunt!

 

The full menu:

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Keep in mind that it's like RM4.50 to 1 USD, so quite inexpensive.

 

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Our haul - the laksa, some spring rolls and two types of kuih - kuih talam which is a pandan custard on top of salted coconut custard, and a kuih kosui which are little cups made from some kind of pandan starch which you fill with salted grated coconut.

 

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The interior of the laksa

 

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The seating area

 

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Kuih talam closeup

 

Here's some video of me adding the grated coconut to the kosui.... look how fresh that coconut is - you can see how oily my fingers were!  They were delicious!

 

 

By the time we got back to the hotel, my wife was starting to feel exhausted again, so we hung out in the room for a while and then stayed in the hotel for a snack for dinner so we could go to bed early:

 

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Kuih pie tee made with duck.

 

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Mee goreng (fried noodles) with shrimp, a bit underseasoned.....

Edited by KennethT (log)
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When I see fresh betel leaf images I am always surprised at the gloss as I've only had them grilled with beef as part of Vietnamese  Bo 7 mon.  That laksa sounds delightful. 

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17 hours ago, KennethT said:

I really liked this calathia (with the pink stripes)

 

Is it also edible? Or just a lovely volunteer that popped up amongst the culinary plants?  🙂

 

Your wife is always so adorable! 

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2 minutes ago, FauxPas said:

 

Is it also edible? Or just a lovely volunteer that popped up amongst the culinary plants?  🙂

 

Your wife is always so adorable! 

I don't think calathia is edible - there are lots of other plants in addition to the edibles there - tons of different types of palms, strangler figs (I don't think those are edible either), aroids of all kinds, heliconia and other non-edible gingers, bromeliads, etc....

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2 hours ago, KennethT said:

I don't think calathia is edible

 

I agree. However, they do have a culinary use.  The leaves are used in some Thai villages to make containers to carry rice - a favourite souvenir for many.

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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

The Kitchen Scale Manifesto

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Breakfast the next day:

 

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Underseasoned char kway teow (no lap cheong in this one!)  But quite decent pineapple.  Preceded by yet another roti canai with chicken kapitan curry.  My wife also had some rendang and more appam.

 

The rest of the day was Peranakan day.  Similar to Singapore and some other parts of Malaysia, Penang has a large Peranakan group and long history.  There are some famous Peranakan houses, preserved from the late 1800s, still owned by the same family.

 

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Formal dining room

 

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Another formal dining room

 

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Old school kitchen

 

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The right hand wall with various bowls, kettles, tiffin, etc.

 

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Large assortment of dining table centerpieces to display flowers or fruit

 

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An even larger assortment of various plates, tureens, vases, etc.

 

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Closeup of tureen with classic Peranakan design

 

After walking around the mansion, we decided to extend the Peranakan (Nyonya) day by having lunch at a Nyonya restaurant called Nyonya Palazzo- probably the most expensive meal of the trip - just under $25.  We had wanted to go there because we have really gotten into having kuih on the weekend due to our proximity to Lady Wong, a Nyonya kuih/dessert bakery in the East Village in NYC, so we wanted to try it in it's natural habitat.

 

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Various sweet and savory kuih on display.

 

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Savory fried radish cake topped with dried shrimp served with sambal

 

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Ginger/lemongrass tea

 

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Chicken curry with mee siam, topped with dried shrimp and torch ginger flower (the pink strips)

 

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Chicken kapitan curry (a different chicken curry than the one above) with bundles of mee for dipping.

 

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Various sweet kuih.  The green/white are kuih talam - which is a pandan custard (the green part) with a salted coconut custard (the white part).  The blue/white is coconut sticky rice - the blue part colored with butterfly pea flower, and topped with a pandan cream.  Inside the banana leaves are:

 

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A chewy shell made from sticky rice filled with:

 

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Shredded coconut cooked in palm sugar - specifically, gula melaka - palm sugar from Melaka - an area famous for palm sugar

 

After lunch, we went back to the hotel for a bit to relax/unwind and digest.

 

For dinner, we decided to go to a different hawker center - right across from Chew Jetty, one of the jetties that people live on, but also sell a ton of tourist crap.

 

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If you walk far enough, it gets a lot less crowded, and no more crap

 

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Life on the jetty

 

Across the street from the entrance to Chew Jetty is the aptly named The Jetty food court

 

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Interestingly, in the mid 2000s, the local government built this food court as a way to try to draw in more tourists, but in reality, it's mostly locals who go here.

 

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The perimeter is hawker stalls with tables in the center.  There's also a stage where they have live music later in the evening (we were there pretty early)

 

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Excellent lime juice (not from concentrate)

 

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Stir fried sambal morning glory with shrimp

 

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lamb satay (served with a peanut curry) and grilled chicken wings

 

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Little fried crabs with Sriracha

 

We had actually ordered a claypot rice dish from another vendor, but they mistakenly delivered it to the wrong table (we didn't pay for it yet) and since it takes so long to make (about 20 minutes) and my wife was starting to feel exhausted, we just left - we still had plenty of food!

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12 hours ago, KennethT said:

Various sweet kuih. 

How did they compare with what you can get in New York City?

Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

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