Updated: Jul 30, 2019
This weekend's mission, as with most, is food.
I'm currently sitting in George Town, Penang. The entire place is a UNESCO World Heritage site. If you haven't been here, book tickets. Now!
The old town consists of buildings from it's rich history as a Colonial and Chinese Merchant centre. Some gloriously restored to their former glory, but most in various stages of dilapidation. The most glorious are often totally decrepit, the near-total humidity having torn away the plaster, the jungle visibly bursting through the foundations.
I'm sitting here in one of the former, the beautifully restored Jawi Peranakan Mansion, using this article as an excuse to upgrade last night's hostel so to access peace (and good Wi-Fi).
I digress. This weekend is all about the food and, as with the rest of the region, it is bloody brilliant here! Talking to travellers, however, I've found that not everyone has found the quality so ubiquitous. Discussing this I realise that there are some techniques I use to make every trip as delicious as possible.
I thought it might help to share them.
Tip 1 - Come here
Whist it can be a challenge to find brilliant food, in Penang it is easy.
In a country famous for it's food, almost everyone will agree that Penang is king. The cradle of Peranakan/Nonya cuisine (that's Malay/Chinese mix for those who didn't see my 1st article) much of the food associated with Malaysia either originated or was perfected here. Laksa, Char Kway Teow, Curry Mee, Satay, Popiah at every corner. Accessible. Cheap. Delicious.
There was some recent controversy when the new Netflix series Street Food chose to cover every country around Malaysia, but not Malaysia. If you want to understand how passionate people are about food here then check out the Malaysian reaction on Twitter.
As much as I rate KL, it's Penang that should be really pissed-off about this. Especially as many of the dishes covered in the Singapore episode are even better here. Even Singaporeans know this. Most of the ones I met in hawker centres there would actually tell me that Penang was where they go for proper food.
Netflix hang your head in shame.
Tip 2 - Do Your Research
Unless you're a massive nerd (like me) you don't need to go building a library of cookbooks and travel writing, however a little research goes a long way.
Due to an overwhelming desire to be hospitable, there can be quite an annoying tendancy for locals to assume you want a certain type of food that fits with their idea of a western palate. This often means they'll push you towards an air-conditioned, spotlessly clean, entirely soulless eatery that serves watered down versions of local fare (and omelette and chips). It therefore really helps to have a background knowledge of a few interesting dishes you might like to try.
Ask for Mechoui in Marrakech, Babi Guling in Bali or Nyama Choma in Nairobi and they'll know you're not screwing about.
It's also important to do this for every area you are travelling to. It doesn't matter how much you love Pad Thai and Green Curry, ordering this in Chiang Mai is as weird as asking for Haggis in Brighton. Five minutes on Wikipedia and you've opened up a world of Khao Soi, Sai Ua and Larb, local food cooked by local people, that will s**t on any Pad Thai from that part of the world.
Kind of goes without saying that the best place to start your research is Google. Wikipedia will help you build a list of dishes, then look for specific restaurants/markets/stalls. Google Maps, TripAdvisor and Foursquare are OK, but take with a pinch of salt due to paid reviews. One step better is bloggers. YouTube is a really good resource (I've found Mark Weins and the Food Ranger particularly helpful), but local food-bloggers are even better (I imagine the big international players are largely "inspired" through these).
Tip 3 - Get to Know a Local
This is the most sure-fire way to ensure a direct line to the good stuff.
Travelling solo this is super easy/necessary, however even if you are in a big group 5 minutes talking to the hotel receptionist or a cab driver will improve your culinary adventure infinitely. Irrespective of how helpful Trip Advisor/Google Maps/Blogs are, local recommendations will always trump these.
This is where the research comes in particularly useful. As I said, there is a tendency to assume tourists are not interested in the actual good stuff. For the large part this assumption is entirely justified, however next time you're away mention a local delicacy to someone and take note of the pride that floods their face. Through this approach I've actually been driven across town, for free, to eat with cab drivers. If a Malaysian ever tells me in the UK they can't wait to try a Pork Pie, I will definitely return the favour!
In this day and age it's even easier to lay down the ground work to connect with locals ahead of your trips. My top 3 ways are messaging Instagram accounts, Couchsurfing and Tinder Pro (don't judge...)
Tip 4 - Throw Yourself into the Deep End
Once you arrive, immerse yourself into the local scene.
In almost every part of the world food is where life, real life, occurs. It can be a weirdly intimate situation but you really need to leave your reservations at the door and pull out all the stops to eat like a local. There are a few ways I like to do this.
NEVER eat in a hostel.
I cannot stress this enough. Hostel (and most hotel) food is a waste of calories. Even if you've been away 6 months and really just fancy a pizza for a taste of "home" it can only be disappointing.
The number of great meals had in hostels, globally, in the history of mankind, is zero.
Interestingly the main reason people seem to do this, other than laziness, is food hygiene. But if you think that Burrito you're eating in Udaipur isn't going to give you the s**ts, think again.
Hostels (and most hotels) are good for meeting impressionable young people and a crap night's sleep after too many beers.
ALWAYS go to markets.
Borrowing this one from Rick Stein, a market should be the first place you go.
Wet markets, fish markets, street-food markets. This is where you find proper food, cooked by real people. It might stink to high heaven, challenge your views on what is truly edible and completely disorientate you in it's variety but in some corner, in almost every market in the world, there is something delicious to be had. (Top tip: try a cooking lessons with combined market tour)
NEVER say no.
If someone offers you something, try it. Most of the world isn't trying to poison you or rip you off.
Obviously there are limits, don't take a bite of satay if you're severely allergic to peanuts, but push yourself to try as much as possible.
Hygiene should be considered momentarily, however also consider that the world's population is massively out of control and that it likely wouldn't be the case if everyone spent all their time on the squat toilet. To avoid riding the porcelain bus, look for queues (more likely crowds), where demand dictates that refrigeration is likely surplus to requirement.
IGNORE your cultural assumptions about manners.
If there is a massive crowd of people, seemingly shouting at each other to get their hands on something delicious, then join the scrum. If you get to the front and have no idea what to order, who cares! Do a Bourdain, point to what the last person ordered, hold up a single finger and shout "one please!" It will probably be the most delicious thing you eat all year!
Air Itam Laksa in Penang. Plastic stools - a universal sign of good food! (Sorry for the vertical video)
Another Monday, another Blog.
However this may be my last... Monday that is, not blog.
It seems obvious now, however considering weekends are usually the busiest part of the week (certainly now my notice period is being served) I've realised it's a useless deadline to adhere to. In the interest of doing this blog justice, Blog Fridays is now where it's at.
Apologies if you'd already cleared your next 6 months of Mondays to follow my progress (ha).