A visit to the town of Bukit Mertajam in mainland Penang is not complete without experiencing its tantalising culinary delights, writes Loong Wai Ting
IT’S a national public holiday and most of the shops in Bukit Mertajam, Penang are closed. It is a rare sight to see the usually hectic and packed marketplace so quiet, that it almost feels eerie. I can hear the wind howling between the tiny slit of the windows. It’s almost like ghost town.
The wooden houses, some of them built during the pre-war years, stand on both sides of the town. The once-narrowed streets were widened recently to help ease traffic.
On a normal day, cars can be seen parked on both sides of the street. But today, as it is a holiday for most of the Chinese clans here, the streets are very quiet.
To demonstrate my point, I get my cousin to take a photo of me squatting in the middle of the road. Only a lone cyclist who rides past gives us a nonchalant look. It must be a regular sight on a quiet day like this!
Even the usually bustling-with-activity Pek Kong Cheng or Hock Teik Temple is unusually quiet. Set up by the Huis who arrived from Huizhou region in Guangdong, China more than 130 years ago, the temple marked the start of a so-called government for the local communities then, where its five-clan community members (the Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Haianese and Hakka) play important roles in town planning, welfare and education.
Despite rapid transformation in and around town, the market place and especially the temple remains untouched and unchanged by time.
OF CUP RICE AND ICED COFFEE
It is past noon and our tummies begin to rumble. As most shops are closed, we wander around the small town looking for something to eat. My aunt then suggests we go for the famous BM Cup Rice or gai fun. Not gai fun as in chicken rice, gai here means “cup” hence “cup rice”.
But we are disappointed as the famous one along the busy Jalan Dandy still has its shutters drawn, which means the owner is on a long break. Out of the corner of our eyes, we spot another stall selling the same cup rice with the same long queue. We decide to join the crowd at Hung Steam Cup Rice at Jalan Teh Cheoik Sah. While queueing to place our order, I strike up the usual conversation with my fellow hungry travellers.
One of them, like myself, is from out of town. Coincidentally, we’re back to visit relatives in this part of town. While my new friend says this particular stall has the best cup rice compared to the other, I can only nod and smile.
Then it is my turn to order. Recalling the fluffy steamed white rice drenched in the chef’s special thick sweet sauce and finely sliced chicken and roasted pork meat makes me salivate. Ordering a set for myself, I look for a place to sit inside the wooden shophouse. Just then, a woman comes forward to take our order for drinks. Every table around me seems to have ordered a cup of iced coffee and it piques my interest. I order the same thing.
Moments later, my order arrives. Sitting in front of me is the famous cup rice. Nothing has changed from the last time I had it. Still the same fluffly white rice and thick gooey sweet sauce slathered on top of the rice and meat. To complement the meal, the chef brings me a bowl of pipping hot cabbage soup, served in the tin used to steam the rice.
I can’t wait to tuck in. The first bite brings me back to my childhood when I would follow my grandpa on his motorbike as we went around town looking for food to eat. With the second bite, I let the rice linger on my tongue, savouring each flavour. A bite of the rice and a spoon of the soup... what a match.
I rarely have my rice with coffee but after my experience today, I think it might not be a bad idea to extend my coffee session to lunch.
My iced coffee comes in a plastic cup. It’s frothy, and thick with sugar and condensed milk and a hint of saltiness. After my first sip I look up and give the auntie who took my order a two-thumbs-up.
The next morning, I wake up early to join my grandma and the rest of the family on a shopping trip at the morning market in Taman Sri Rambai.
Rubbing sleep off my eyes, I offer to get us a seat at a coffee shop nearby while the women go shopping. But first, a short detour to my favourite putu mayam stall just outside the wet market.
This steamed delicacy or putu mayong as the locals call it, is made fresh every day by an Indian man and his wife. From six in the morning and some times until 10am, the husband and wife will continuously churn out fresh putu mayong as well as sweet apam for eager customers.
On days that are super busy, customers will place their order and come back half an hour later to pick up their food. However, I find the sweet apam at the market’s food court has better texture. Thankfully, Uncle Mayong, as I call him, has just started to make a fresh batch when I catch him. He complains about his backache and sore arms after having to work from six in the morning until nine-ish, without stopping.
What I like about the putu mayong from this particular stall is its soft and fluffy steamed rice vermicelli. Eating it with freshly grated coconut with a slight hint of saltiness and brown sugar is the best breakfast one can ask for.
It is half past eight in the morning when I finally make my way to the coffee shop. I get a table nearest to the chee cheong fun or steamed rice rolls stall. Unlike its cousin from Kuala Lumpur, the Penang version is eaten with a thick pungent mix of shrimp paste, sugar and sweet sauce and is topped with lots of sesame seeds.
Sitting close to the stall allows me to see the owner whipping up his signature dish. To make things even more interesting, the creative owner tries his hand at “chee cheong fun latte”, where he creates a beautiful rosetta out of the sauce. Surprisingly, the owner has no experience in latte art.
Next, I order the mee jawa with its irresistible thick, potato-ey sauce and prawn crackers. This plate of goodness probably does bad things to my body but whenever I travel, I keep reminding myself to “eat first, diet later”. And the mantra works.
PLACES OF INTEREST
Besides food, there are several places of interest that help put Bukit Mertajam on the map. One is the St Anne’s Church. Every year during the St Anne’s Festival, hundreds of thousands of Catholics from all over the country flock to this church built in 1888.
Although a newer church was built much later, the old one still sits on the higher ground within the compound.
For nature lovers, there’s also the Cherok Tok Kun forest reserve where locals go for a jog or have picnics. There is an ancient artefact here called the Batu Bersurat Cherok Tok Kun. According to historical record, the stone inscription was first discovered by Colonel James Low back in 1845. Believed to be Sanskrit inscription carved centuries ago, it is left largely unprotected and neglected.
If you’re keen on catching a stunning sunset, you can head over to Mengkuang Dam. The second dam built in Penang after the one in Air Itam, it is used as a water catchment area.
The park in the dam area is a popular spot among the locals for recreation purposes. Besides that, it is also one of the venues for the yearly Penang International Dragon Boat Festival.