Day 3-5: Penang
My mother-in-law looked pale as she made her way to the arrival hall of Penang International Airport. She still didn’t feel very well but decided that she couldn’t bear to stay another day in bed. Also she didn’t like the idea of us leaving them alone in Singapore, so she mustered all the strength she had to journey on with us.
Chris and his dad went to look for ATMs to withdraw the local currency from while I sat with my mother-in-law on a cracked vinyl seat. My mother-in-law is lovely soft-spoken woman who looks young for her age. She could easily pass of as Chris’ older sister if you didn’t know any better. Here she was, however, looking out exhausted and weary. All the excitement that she harboured before coming was completely wiped out. I felt sorry and concerned for her. Penang is one of my favourite cities in the world but I wasn’t sure if she would enjoy it in her condition.
She was the one who wanted so badly for the trip to happen. It wasn’t easy for them to make a trip outside their comfort zone but after listening to me wax lyrical about the food in Southeast Asia, she thought perhaps it’ll be worth the trouble.
“Are you scared?” I’d asked her before leaving for the trip.
She admitted she was. “But I’m sure it’ll be a memorable trip!”
Memorable it has been so far, but just not the way we’d wanted it to be. We’ve now landed in the mecca of street food, where almost every street is paved with good food. If you’re in Penang and can’t eat, you’re missing the whole point.
It took a while before Chris and his dad appeared again. They shook their heads. Apparently all the four ATMs that were there were out of order. I shook my head in frustration. This wasn’t the kind of first impression that I wanted them to have of Penang.
Surely there must be at least one ATM working in this whole airport. This time, I told Chris to come with me. Eventually, we did find a row of working ones. It just wasn’t at the arrivals floor but rather at the departures.
Now armed with cash, Chris bought a local sim card. Within minutes, it was activated. He downloaded the GrabCar app and found a driver in a minute. He chuckled. “That’s more like the Malaysian convenience that I’m so used to.”
“Come on, let’s go!” I yelled when we got back to where his parents were waiting for us. “Our cab driver is here.”
“Wait, what, already?” spluttered my parents-in-law.
This was how they were introduced to Grabcar. It was a concept entirely new to them.
TO SEE PENANG IS TO EAT
It was definitely much hotter in Penang, though not as humid as Singapore. Our hotel was right smack on Lebuh Armenian, one of the most visited streets around old town Penang. Crowds of tourists were ambling around when we arrived. The afternoon sun beat down on our backs as we dragged our luggage to our hotel.
We’ve never stayed on this street, despite our many visits to Penang. There is a grand Hokkien clan temple (Hock Teik Cheng Sin) in the corner, a smattering of murals plastered across the now decaying walls, including the famed “Children on Bicycle” by Ernest Zacharevic and rows of souvenir shops and hawker stalls.
The buzz in the area was palpable. There was non-stop action from dawn till late evening. For the first time during my travels, I didn’t mind staying in a touristy area. Every sight and attraction would be a stone throw away–perfect for my in-laws!
There was only one thing left to do when evening came: to eat!
I decided to play it safe this time. For our eating destination, I picked a restaurant that came highly recommended by netizens on Google. It was an unusual choice since Chris and I would just normally pig out at the closest hawker stall. It doesn’t matter what, as long as we’re indulging in the activity of eating. In Penang, there is no need to look for best places to eat because the chances of consuming something bad is slim.
But I had my German in-laws with their equally delicate German stomachs (maybe more my mother-in-law) to think about. Easing them in would take some time. Besides, what we had in Singapore weren’t great examples of street food cuisine. By now, my mother-in-law was already feeling a lot better by now but still, I proceeded with caution.
On the way there, my mother-in-law strolled beside me.
“You know what, I’m starving. I can’t wait to eat!”
I never thought I’d hear her say that.
At 6 p.m., most tables at Tek Sen restaurant were already occupied. We were lucky to get one outdoors without waiting for long.
Tek Sen is a popular ju char restaurant, offering patrons Hokkien style dishes to go with rice or noodles. Due to its popularity, the restaurant might have undergone some renovations, thus making the coffeeshop looking like a million bucks. It retained its old school kopitiam charm, but without the grubbiness. Foreigners–those looking for local food but still hesitate to try the stalls right on the street– may find this restaurant right up their alley. Fans hummed over the din as the waiter handed us menus. In English. Well, that was unexpected.
I ordered the house special, the Double Roasted Pork with Chili Padi, a fried chicken dish, an omelette with shrimps and dish of egg tofu covered with shrimps and chives.
My in-laws looked on expectantly when the food came. Because they weren’t the try-everything-type, I didn’t dare to over order like how I usually do with Chris.
Silence reigned the table as everyone ate with gusto. Only utensils clanged around and seconds of rice were ordered. Between mouthfuls of pork and rice, my in-laws murmured in appreciation. There was a certain shine to my mother-in-law’s eyes that I hadn’t seen for a long time. I took that as a good sign.
“Wie schmeckt’s euch? Lekker?”
Delicious, they raved and beamed. Absolutely delicious.
In fact, the meal was so satisfying that they wanted to go back there again on their own tomorrow. Because we had to attend my cousin’s wedding and they’d be left to their own devices, they didn’t trust themselves to hunt down the fine food like we could. Or rather they thought, not being able to converse in English may hamper them from getting the good stuff.
That night, they even got me to write down all the dishes we had, so that they could just show it to waiter the next day.
“Don’t you want something else?”
My father-in-law shook his head. “That was the best meal that we’ve ever had. Why would we order anything else?”
Our dinner at Tek Sen restaurant helped open up their palate to more. They were no longer conservative and cautious with their food choices. Over the next two days, they jumped on the opportunity to try my favourite dishes. Char Kuey Teow. Dim Sim. Freshly cooked seafood with rice.
My mother-in-law even found a favourite on her own: Baos.
These piping hot dumplings, filled with savoury ingredients like sweetened pork, shrimps and chives or chicken and boiled egg, or the sweet variety that comes with custard, lotus or red bean paste, delighted her like no other. Everywhere she went, when she saw one, she’d want one. It was amusing to see how our humble bao could steal her heart.
The only thing that didn’t sit well with the plan was our brunch at China House on Beach Street.
The breakfast hawker place we had intended to go to weren’t opened so we had to improvise. Thought my in-laws could use the downtime and eat something more familiar to their taste buds instead. Brunch at a café couldn’t go south, right?
As it turns out, our hunch was wrong. We had the most expensive meal of our entire trip and my in-laws weren’t even impressed. Sure they enjoyed their Italian coffees and gourmet sourdough sandwiches, but the bill came, it was as if we’d just transported ourselves back to Germany. Safe to say after that, we never stepped into another café with them again.
Our time in Penang interspersed with eating, some drinking, lots of walking, a brief beach stop and temple visits. I no longer felt the need to impress. Penang was doing a very good job at keeping them enamoured with its historical sites and well-fed. I initially thought that the traffic and crowds would put them off but they weren’t. They kept up with the change of pace and blended well, like seasoned travellers.
ANGMOH–WAS IST DAS?
Isometimes call Chris ang moh as a term of endearment. In the Hokkien dialect, it literally means someone with red hair but it’s usually a term assigned to Caucasians. Depending on how you use it, it may come across as offensive or with fondness.
In Penang, we used Grabcar to get around as it was more convenient with the four of us. Naturally, my in-laws were absolutely fascinated with the fact that you can tap in the destination you want and wait for your designated to turn up.
Initially however, our driver had a hard time looking for us. Getting them to pick us up from Lebuh Armenian was a hassle as it was a one-way street and we usually had to stand at a corner by the main road to make it easier. But considering the perpetual traffic and crowds, we weren’t that easy to spot (if you don’t know where to look). Thus, we considered providing the drivers a more obvious clue.
Once, a middle-aged Chinese woman came to pick us up after Chris requested for one. In the car, she asked me in Mandarin if I was the one who wrote the note. Curious, I shook my head. Why?
“Because hah, you put angmoh there in the note. You say, 3 Angmoh and 1 Chinese…so easy to find you mah,” she said. I told her it wasn’t me who wrote that but Chris. Then she roared into laughter. I joined her. I honestly had no idea that Chris would call himself that. She repeated the word again and again, as we chatted away in Mandarin. She was a talker. She asked me about my in-laws and about Chris, about if we enjoyed Penang and each time, in reference to Chris or to foreigners in general, she’d use the term angmoh. “This angmoh ah…that angmoh ah..”
She even addressed Chris directly. “Angmoh, you very handsome lah!” She was a friendly auntie after all but at some point I found it a little patronising. But Chris was a good sport and grinned.
Later as we got out of the car, my mother-in-law asked me.
“What’s this angmo thing that she kept saying? Is it some kind of local food?”
DAY 6-7: PULAU KAPAS
Pulau Kapas, or Kapas Island, to the English-speaking community, is every bit the paradise that we’ve imagined it to be. After all the madness, packing and unpacking every two days, flying from one country to another, bussing from one city to the next, Pulau Kapas offered us the respite that we badly needed.
Therefore, as much as I’d like to include the story here, I think this chapter is best handled on a separate blog post.
DAY 8: KUALA LUMPUR–AUF WIEDERSEHEN
Our arrival in Kuala Lumpur in the evening marked the end of our little adventure time together as a family. Chris and I would fly to Tokyo the next day at 8 a.m. while they would stay another day on their own before flying back to Germany the day after. It was a shame that I wouldn’t be around to show the city that I was born and bred in.
We spent whatever time left, sharing our thoughts and plans over food and beers. Within our short time together, they had a taste of what Chris and I loved doing: budget travelling. On their own, they would have preferred hotel packages and car rentals, but with us, they had a bit more insight to the local dining, public transportation and different kinds of accommodation.
We dared them to do more, to experiment more. They learned that going out of their comfort zone may not be necessarily a bad thing.
But still, to their credit, they were troopers themselves. They didn’t complain, they didn’t whine, and apart from food poisoning, they travelled well. They tolerated everything, from grimy squat toilets to basic chalets that were well-below their standards. They even took a local bus on their own around KL. Most people in KL don’t even take busses anymore but they did.
“Give us a few more days in Malaysia and we’ll practically feel at home,” said my father-in-law.
EPILOGUE: A MONTH LATER IN GERMANY
I was in my mother-in-law’s kitchen, chewing a piece of rhubarb cake that she’d baked while wrapping up our English lesson for the day.
“So, any plans to go back to Asia?” I said. It was already more than a month since we’ve been back but on occasions like this, we still find ourselves reminiscing our time spent together in Malaysia and Singapore.
“Oh yes. We would love to!” she said. “But you know what, there isn’t a single day that I don’t think about the food there. I mean, really. Now I can really see the Asian food we have here, is just…well, different. I would totally go back just to eat!”
Her eyes misted over as she relieved our eating scenes in Penang. Bonding with someone over memories of food can be surprisingly pleasant. Especially when it’s about food from home. My home.
For that very brief second, I felt I was home.
If you haven’t read Part One of this series, you can read it here.