James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

In the Land Where You Can Go Anywhere and the Food Is Good

In the Land Where You Can Go Anywhere and the Food Is Good

Nasi Ulam in Penang

I got to the Palau Tikus market at roughly 6:30 am to find that “Madame Khaw” hadn’t shown up yet. After a curious cup of milk coffee and half an hour of dumb stumbling through crates of vegetables and icey-eyed fish, Khaw’s bicycle-mounted restaurant sailed up onto the market’s northwestern sidewalk.

A small, round woman hopped down onto the pavement and set to work. A tiny brass abacus dangled from round her neck as she leaned forward and to pull plastic off metal bowls overflowing with technicolor curries, stewed snails, and chicken feet, delicately fried and braised until the meat fell off the bone.

Khaw had cooked a whole wedding feast in her apartment and brought it out for breakfast.

Khaw flipped on a small fan jerry-rigged to a motorbike battery, dropped a stool at her side and passed me pieces of lompok pork roll, pickled eggplant, chili-soaked cucumber. The flavors here had an intimacy; the food one only finds at a grandmother’s house.

My heart nearly seized when she filled a plastic container with nasi ulam—heavenly rice tossed with slivered herbs and pungent rhizomes.

One person who’d failed to find her at the market heard that Khaw had emigrated to Canada to live with her daughter.

“Ha, no!” Khaw said. “I was just visiting my sister in Vancouver! She took me on a holiday to Miami. The beach was beautiful, but there’s nothing there. The food … was nothing. No spice.”

Khaw found Disney World equal parts big and boring.

“Four days and nothing to see there. And too hot!”

Khaw, who insisted I call her “Dolly,” couldn’t imagine leaving the island.

“I like Penang,” she said. “Because I can go anywhere and eat and I know it’s going to be good—the taste is going to be right.”

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The Noodle Master of Penang

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