Back to George Town, Back to School

As you may have picked up in the last blog, we are finding Malaysians to be simply some of the friendliest people on the planet. From the charming ladies at George Town Tourist Information to our ‘Workaway’ host Krish and his liberal top-ups of whiskey in the Cameron Highlands. Krish, a retired bank manager, bought De Native as a place to meet travellers and enjoy their company with his buddies, Velu, Cochi and Kannan who together make up an outstanding collection of ‘older men behaving badly’… They loved a glass or two at the fire and now and again would get the munchies. Some delectable curries and surprising dishes resulted. On one memorable occasion a friend drove up from Kuala Lumpur with an icebox full of blue crabs and ray wings. The barbeque was lit at 1am and an early morning feast ensued.

One of Malaysia’s greatest passions is certainly food and the national cuisine is a fine mish-mash of Malay, Chinese and Indian with jollops of everywhere else thrown in when it suits. Malays talk about food the way the English talk about weather. The main topic of conversation for Malays at breakfast is nearly always ‘what’s on for lunch!’ On our way back to George Town we took a break from Workaway for a few days in the city of Ipoh. Before leaving De Native we asked Velu for some recommendations on what to see and do at Ipoh. “Try the boiled chicken and beansprouts, Ipoh’s famous for it” was his reply, “Oh, and the Soybean milk…” This was the entrée to a rather splendid little city, one of those places we’d never previously heard of and now we wonder why? With a compact city centre and easy sprawl streets lined with more of those five-foot walkways and yet another art trail to meander, we quickly settled in for the next installment of this phase of our adventures, which we have now entitled “Om, nom, nom; munching our way through Malaysia.”

The boiled chicken looked distinctly unappetizing; pasty-looking whole chicken boiled in a watery broth, carved up and served with a side of equally pasty-looking stir-fried beansprouts. Our noses said otherwise and the final tasting was delectable to the point that we wondered would they really think we were greedy gannets if we ordered another plate or two? Honestly, even sitting here writing about that simple repast has set my taste buds flowing. Ipoh yielded other culinary surprises including biscuit shops selling a delectable peanut brittle and another Ipoh specialty, chicken biscuits named after a cook at the Chengzhu Restaurant in Guangzhou, China, called Siu Fung, which means ‘Small Phoenix’ (stop sniggering at the back there…). Apparently, in Cantonese, Siu Fung is also the slang term for a small chicken, hence his name was applied to his very own biscuity invention. The flat crispy biscuits are typically made from lard, ‘nam yue’ (fermented beancurd), maltose, sugar, candied melon, 5-spice powder, and sesame seeds, all seasoned with a pinch of garlic and salt and bound together by egg before baking and not a chicken in sight. The result is a sweet and savoury treat that went quite well with a cuppa back at the hotel.

Much as we could have lingered in Ipoh to explore its many options for expanding our waistlines we had that appointment with Nazlina back in George Town, where our next ‘Workaway’ experience awaited, as we became little helpers in her world-famous cookery school. The ‘Spice Station’ located in the heart of the old town, next to Campbell Street wet-market has been operating for the past seven years. Nazlina Hussin was waiting to greet us and bid us welcome to her school. The bikes would live downstairs, safe and dry in this monsoon season behind roller doors while we moved in to the small bedroom upstairs adjacent to the school with free use of the kitchen to cook in the evening on the odd occasion when we were not stuffed to the gills from the days activities. Nazlina lives on the other side of Penang so we received simple instructions on how to set up the class for an early 7:30am start the following morning.

Cookery School Day 1: The smell of fresh roasted Penang coffee pervaded through the school, the floor was swept and mopped, the workstations were gleaming and everything was ready to go… Enter Peter Van Der Lans, a giant of a Dutchman and warm-up act for the day. Initially Peter seemed a bit gruff and his size can be a tad intimidating but, over breakfast, he set out the itinerary for the day and was quickly into his repertoire of great George Town tales. Breakfast itself consisted of freshly made Roti Canai (pronounced ‘chennai’); a stringy Indian flatbread served with a side of dhal brought in from a little stall across the street. Peter then led the students on a tour of the daily market, which runs from around 5 to 11am every day of the year. We have walked through these same markets alone and in ignorance, perhaps a little intimidated by the sheer amount of unrecognizable and unfamiliar produce on display, reluctant to waste the stall holders time asking inane questions about things we will probably never buy just to satisfy our curiosity. Walking through the market with Peter is an act of illumination making the weird familiar as we filled in the gaps in our lexicon of Asian market produce. We can now identify a whole gamut of fruit and veg from jackfruit to galangal, banana flower to ginger flower, lotus root and pandan leaf. We can spot an ‘old’ cucumber from a ‘new’ (old ones are orange and make good soup), well know the merits of your stinky bean and pick the choicest of four-angle beans for the days salad.

Meanwhile back at the school we cleared away the breakfast dishes and then helped Nazlina equip the workstations for the class ahead occasionally nipping out to shop for last minute ingredients, a sheer joy with that market right on your doorstep. We welcomed the prospect cooks back from their market tour with a chilled glass of water and then Nazlina sat everyone down to run through the dishes for the day, which were customised to cater for any allergies or special requests. Nazlina is an outstanding cook and teacher. Small, with a round face permanently beaming that huge smile, she took the class effortlessly through the intricacies of a table full of fine fresh ingredients as the education begun at the market continued and the ‘whys and wherefores’ of each recipe were fully explained; then it was time to cook. On a normal morning we prepared around five dishes ranging from Malay classics like Nasi Lemak and Beef Rendang to more hybrid fusion plates such as Beef in Black Curry Sauce. We also cooked fish and seafood; Barramundi steaks, just caught, bought and fileted at market that morning, coated in salt and turmeric, deep-fried and topped with freshly made Sambal. We learned the craft of de-inking and preparing fresh squid to make a simple dish of fried squid tossed with tomatoes, garlic and ginger all drizzled with lemon juice. Exotic yet simple salads were crafted from those four angle beans, sliced and tossed with shredded ginger flower, lemon grass and Belachan (fried shrimp paste). Each plate was a dish of sheer delectation in its own right and the lunches that followed left us pleasantly filled for the rest of the day. As the guests left we said our farewells and then set to cleaning up to make ready for the next class.

We stayed with Nazlina for a whole mouth-watering month and in that time only ever witnessed delighted customers leaving the premises. Whilst performing our ‘Workaway’ obligations, we got to know the people at the market from the many fishmongers with their individual special catches to the crowd of Indian guys who spent all morning processing coconuts and where we obtained fresh milk and grated flesh. At the rear of the market was a poultry stall with freshly slaughtered chicken and duck, the meat still warm from the animal’s body heat. Nazlina has made numerous guest-appearances on British and Australian TV cookery shows. Indeed John Torode, of BBC ‘Masterchef’ fame, visited recently to make a pineapple curry with Nazlina as part of his TV series on Malaysian cooking. You can view the full episode, which also contains glimpses of more fantastic George Town street-food on YouTube at

After class we had long chats with Peter who also offers guided tours of the island. It was Peter who recommended we visit the Crag Hotel way up on Penang Hill. The hotel, sadly now abandoned, was the location for the fabulous UK Channel 4 drama ‘Indian Summers’, where it provided the setting for the Royal Simla Club. We spent a hot sweaty day hiking along the route of the world’s steepest funicular railway that runs to the summit of Penang Hill. It was worth it for the magnificent views and also for the hour or so that we spent wandering around the abandoned hotel. We sat on the same porch where Julie Walters, playing the thoroughly dislikeable character of Cynthia Coffin, lorded it over all and sundry in the series set in the twilight days of 1930s India under the Raj. Sadly Channel 4 axed the series, which was originally due to run for 5 seasons, after the second season following a drop off in the audience figures between season 1 and 2. The Crag Hotel has since fallen into abandonment and disarray but the signs proclaiming the Royal Simla Club are still there along with an assortment of TV show props abandoned around the place.

Another day took us on a ramble around the Kek Lok Si Temple complex with its spectacular views over George Town but by now our month at the school was coming to an end. Sadly our 90-day Malaysian visas were due to expire so we had to make a run south to Singapore to exit the country for a while. There were big hugs and sad goodbyes to both Peter and Nazlina as we dusted off the two motorcycles downstairs and took once more to the road. We left having gained a wealth of experience both in the realms of Malaysian cuisine and in town life in this wonderful little city of George Town that we had grown to love. Malaysia however, had one more surprise in store for us. Back in the Cameron Highlands we met a gentleman by the name of Peter Yoong, in the middle of his cycling trip from Penang to Kuala Lumpur on a little Brompton folding bicycle. Peter runs a guesthouse in the city of Puchong, not far from Kuala Lumpur and is preparing to cycle around the world. He invited us to stop by on our way south. But this is Malaysia so it our visit became yet another foray into fabulous food. Within seconds of rolling up at the door we were hailed by the time-honoured Malaysian greeting ‘have you eaten yet?’ It doesn’t really matter if you have or not as a feast is invariably standing by… in this case a luscious dinner of Tilapia fish steamed in Miso paste accompanied by a delicious battered pumpkin dish drizzled with Soy Sauce. We will forever remember our Malaysian days by neither name nor date but simply by what we ate. The following morning we visited a local market for an Indian breakfast of Roti and Dhosas and later dined at a clay-pot chicken stall for an ambrosial chicken and rice stew. Peter and Alice were excellent hosts throughout and we left wishing our two-night stopover could have been longer. However the time on those Malay visas was fast running out so there was nothing else for it but to head to Singapore…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Ipoh and George Town


George Town and the Highland Way

If we found Langkawi lacking in the way of a true Malaysian experience, then George Town, on the island of Penang, was a more than just compensation for this deficiency. They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. It didn’t take much; after the first lunch I yielded my heart willingly to this beautiful old colonial gem. The British established the town as a trading post at the end of the 18th Century when the Sultan of Kedah accepted an offer of ‘protection’ against neighbouring Siamese invaders made by a Colonel Francis Light, illegitimate offspring of an unknown father, from Woodbridge, Suffolk. Light set off to earn his fortune with the East India Company and was sent to Phuket from where he travelled down the coast and recognised the strategic and trade potential of Penang. Local legend tells how, in order to clear some jungle to make a stockade for his base, he had a ships cannon fire a load of silver coins into the area. He then told the natives they could keep whatever they found and so the ground was quickly cleared for what eventually would become Fort Cornwallis. This developed into George Town, which soon became a major port and naval base serving British interests in the region right through until Malayan Independence in 1957.

Francis Light was a fascinating character. He was unusual for his time in that he mastered both Thai and Malay languages, which gave him a lot of advantage when dealing with native rulers. He had no authority to make any kind of offer on behalf of the British Government with any Sultan; this was just a ruse to get his foot on the island. When the Siamese invaded, the forces of Kedah faced them alone with no support from their ‘new’ ally. Once the dust had settled on the war with Siam the Sultan decided to teach the British a lesson and sent an invasion fleet of Sampans against the fort, which were utterly destroyed by a few broadsides from warships at anchor there. Eventually a formal treaty was drawn up whereby the British agreed to pay the Sultan a sum of 6000 Spanish Silver Dollars per annum for the island of Penang and this fee is still paid today by the government in Kuala Lumpur. Light married a Eurasian lady of Portuguese / Thai parentage called Martina Rozells and had a brood of children with her. As she was Catholic, the marriage was not recognised by the authorities of the day so when Light died in his early fifties from malaria one of his friends moved in and took over all of his property leaving Martina penniless. She soon married another gentleman of wealth so there was a reasonably happy ending. One of Light’s offspring would become the first Surveyor general of Western Australia and founder of the city of Adelaide.

Today Fort Cornwallis is still there at the tip of a low-lying headland, surrounded by a network of cosy-snug streets lined with old Chinese shop-fronts that make up the ancient quarter of a town that oozes with atmosphere, yet on arrival it looked anything but. We rode across the magnificent Penang Bridge, one of two modern constructions that join the island to the mainland, to be confronted with a modern skyline replete with a concrete jungle of skyscrapers and apartment blocks that are home to half a million people in the greater metropolitan area of modern George Town. We soon spilled off the four-lane highway into the maze of narrow old-town streets that eventually led us to the Sovereign hotel and a warm welcome from a lovely lady named simply ‘V’.  First stop was a trip to Tourist Information down by the Fort where the two lovely smiling ladies who worked there quickly had us festooned with maps and advice on how best to tackle the city delights.

George Town is an epicurean paradise and rightful food capital of Malaysia. On emerging into the street, ones nostrils are gently forked by wafts of food being cooked, demanding you follow those luscious vapors whilst mouthing the war cry of the gastronome over and over; ‘Om Nom Nom…’ The trail threads through byways choked with food vendors operating from little handcarts and motorcycle restaurants where the entire apparatus to cook and serve scrumptious food is strapped to a ‘wee’ bike, mainly the ubiquitous Honda C70. Each vendor seems to specialise in one dish only and all over the city there is an astonishing variety of rice (Nasi) and noodles (Mee). Our favourite was one of the most ‘Om Nom Nom’ breakfast dishes ever; Nasi Lemak; rice boiled in coconut milk served with a topping of cucumber all pimped with roasted peanuts and a spicy anchovy / chili paste. This is made into a little pyramid and topped with a boiled egg before wrapping in banana leaf to seal-in all those juices and flavours. It makes every breakfast like a birthday with a little present to open and, while the ingredients may be the same, the combination is different making for a new food sensation at the start of each day.

But just to wander the labyrinth of narrow streets of George Town is bliss in itself hugging the merciful shade of colonial five-foot walkways. These are a British innovation, whereby all shops had to be fronted by a covered sidewalk with a minimum width of five feet across to provide pedestrians some relief from the sweltering sun (and frequent downpours during Monsoon season). Their stylish archways and stunning tiled pavements make it a photographer’s paradise. Once suitably gorged on foody goodies you can walk the calories off by following the extensive art trail, including a number of inspiring and interactive murals by Lithuanian born artist Ernest Zacharevic (check out his ‘Boy on a Motorcycle’ in the photogallery). Small wonder this place is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were absolutely delighted therefore to secure a ‘Workaway’ place at the world famous Nazlina Cookery School providing us a great base to further explore the city and an opportunity to delve deeper into its cuisine, but that will be for the future; we met Nazlina and agreed to return here in October, when she will be back from a trip to Europe…

Before that we had arranged another ‘Workaway’ up in the Cameron Highlands at a place called the De Native Guesthouse in the little mountain town of Tanah Rata. We left George Town early on a Sunday morning and rode south along the east coast of Penang to exit the island by the second of the two bridges; the grandly titled and utterly spectacular ‘Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah Bridge’. Why ‘spectacular’? Well the bridge is a whopping seventeen kilometers / ten and a half miles long, as it snakes across the sea to reach the mainland. It even has a dedicated motorcycle lane all cordoned off from the rest of the traffic. In fact Malaysia, is one of the most motorcycle friendliest places we’ve ever been. All highways are toll-free for bikes and there are purpose built shelters and pull-offs under bridges for when it is raining, so you can either wait out a heavy shower or pull in to get some wet-gear on. Rejoined with the mainland we rode south and then turned inland and east to ascend into the Cameron Highlands, reaching an altitude of around 1200m, which promised a cooler environment for sleeping than we’ve been used to of late.

The highlands themselves are full of more echoes of empire; quaint cottages with mock Tudor-beam facades, Victorian hotels festooned with wrought iron work and a number of tea plantations complete with tearooms offering afternoon tea complete with scones and strawberry jam. As with places like Darjeeling and Shimla in India, the area was a popular hill-station due to those cooler climes and the sons of empire settled here in their droves. Sadly today a lot of the landscape has been marred by the awful greyness of poly-tunnel farms. Whilst they grow a rich variety of everything from tomatoes and cabbages to tasty strawberries, in places they have despoiled entire vistas. The road network is small and winding making for our first serious congestion in a long time so it was with some relief that we spotted the sign for ‘De Native’ immediately on entering Tanah Rata.

We followed a narrow, twisting road for a short distance and then tackled the sheer drive up through densely jungled hillside to our new home. On past the gateway we passed a small shrine to Babaji with beautiful views over the town below before riding into the parking area where we disturbed a number of sleepy dogs. Off the bikes we were soon surrounded by wagging tails and friendly smiles as we shook hands with Krish, the owner, and met Steph and Daryl, a young couple from Cornwall / Fareham, our working buddies for the next few weeks. Duties were fairly easy, just keeping the place tidy and making up vacated rooms so they were ready for the next guests. De Native has three largish mixed dormitories and half a dozen fully en-suite, ‘glamping’ style, bamboo chalets. There is a bar and a fire pit where staff and incumbents gathered around the little bonfire in the cold evenings for a beer and a natter.

De Native was brilliantly placed as a jump-off point for a number of spectacular jungle trail-hikes in the area. Our first was Trail 9, the start of which was only a ten-minute walk from the guesthouse. A small path chased an old water pipe out to the quite beautiful Robinson Falls and then meandered on along the edge of a valley through dense jungle. At times the way seemed blocked by fallen trees across the path but a quick scramble up and over soon had us on our way. Eventually we found our way out of the bush into a small farm nestled along the bottom of the valley where they were growing gourd, cabbage and onions.   A few days later, Trail 1, was a much more challenging prospect as it climbed out of the nearby town of Brinchang to ascend Gunung Brinchang, a 2000m peak that overlooked the town. Again a well-marked trail through dense jungle but this time with a steep ascent most of the way, in places so steep that knotted ropes had been installed to aid climbing some of the more challenging sections. It was also very muddy due to recent rains and took around two hours to make it to the top, followed by a three-hour descent down a winding mountain road that led us through the Boh tea plantation for a deserved cuppa and mouth-watering cheesecake taken at the beautiful restaurant that overhangs the tea plants. These jungle trails were well marked and easy to follow for the most part so there was no repeat of our getting lost as happened at Khao Sok in Thailand. The foliage and form of the riotous plants with their glossy pointy leaves was soothing on the eye and here and there brilliant coloured flowers shone out from the greenery like little jewels. Running ones eye from the path to the heavens scans an ascent of monster tree-trunks reaching ever skywards, with here and there the slash of some fallen trunk propped up against his neighbours like a drunken giant, the lot draped and hung in jungle finery of vine and runner like a ghost-ships graveyard with a tattered disgrace of masts, spars and rigging.

Back at De Native in time for dinner: we generally cooked and dined with our ‘Workaway’ buddies and supped on discount beer courtesy of Krish who looked after his crew well. Then back to the fire to meet the days new arrivals followed by a round of the day’s tales and the ear of a friendly mutt to rub. We spent three weeks at De Native but looking back it seems much longer as it was one of those places where one could really unwind and watch the trickle of the grains of sand slow in their downward fall through the hourglass of life as if magically retarded by the company of good companions… So why would you leave such a place? Well, every time we sniffed the aroma of food in the pan, the haunting refrain of “Om Nom Nom” would rise and remind us we had an appointment with Nazlina in George Town. Time to go back to school…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed at George Town and the Highland Way