Penang is a spicy potpourri of Chinese, Malay, and Indian ethnicities. But I didn’t realize how thick this gravy of cultural mix is until I went to Penang.
On my first day in Penang, I stayed in a Chinese guesthouse, ate rice and fish curry at a Muslim Malay restaurant, and my evening stroll took me to Indian food stalls proudly flaunting crispy samosas.
Wait. What was happening?
Indian Malaysians, who were mostly from South India, told me that many Indians were taken to Penang to work as laborers during the 130-years rule of British over Malaysia. Penang port was the main trade route for traders from China, Spain, Arabia, and India, and the British wanted their chunk of the trade.
A Malay Chinese whom I met while hiking the Penang hill cleared my doubts about the origins of Chinese Malays. He said that the Chinese sailed to Malaysia in the 18th century to trade and work as laborers.
Over time, all three ethnicities blended to form the current Penang.
While the Chinese relished the Malaysian coconut flavors, Indians used sweet-chili sauces in their curries, and Malaysians ate biryanis and noodle soups with the same fervor. Given the rich mix of the three cuisines that the island is blessed with, the question of what to eat in Penang and what to do in Penang can be more complicated than you think.
While admiring the street art in Penang, I felt that the cultural evolution of Penang had been pasted onto Penang streets in a raw and hilarious manner.