The Only Way to Survive Penang Is to Eat the Ice
Wandering the streets of Penang isn’t as pleasant as strolling through Paris, because the Malaysian city is hot as the pits of hell. To cool myself down, I decided to investigate its regional icy soup desserts.
All photos by the author.
You probably already know that Penang is one of the greatest places on Earth for eating. I was lured by the city's culinary lore, and by the time my ferry docked at George Town I was more than ready to eat my weight in local delicacies.
But this is Southeast Asia, and I went during a time people call "hot season."
Wandering the streets of Penang isn't as pleasant as strolling through Paris—not because the culture or character is missing, but because the Malaysian city is hot as the pits of hell. The weather puts a damper on one's edible exploration of street food, hawker centers, and restaurants.
I quickly learned that in order to survive in Penang, I'd have to get down with its regional icy soup desserts.
Yes, you read that right. I'm talking about a bowl of shaved ice drizzled with palm sugar syrup (), coconut milk, and other colorful toppings. There are two equally cooling options from which to choose.
The first is , or ais kacang, or air batu campur. While every vendor will make their ice kacang differently, you're probably going to get some combination of shaved ice, colorful fruity syrup, coconut or condensed milk, sweet corn, kidney beans, jelly cubes, and lychee. Sometimes a scoop of ice cream gets added on top.
The second variety is cendol, or chendol, or chendul. More times than not, your bowl (or bag, if you're taking it to go) of cendol is going to be loaded with wiggly pandan noodles, coconut milk, kidney beans, and palm sugar syrup.
Even though a lot of travel guidebooks may steer you away from eating ice in foreign countries, it's so insanely scorching during Malaysia's hot season that you're going to want to ignore that advice (and carry a bottle of Cipro oral in your bag in case of emergency).
My first step toward trying these potentially noxious, definitely chilling delights was finding some.
A hawker near the Chew Jetty who made my lunch wrote down a list of cendol suggestions that looked more like a math equation. "(Penang Road) (Famouse) (Road Side) (Stall)" and "(Komtar Wark) (Penang) (Komtar)."
Heeding his tips, I headed to Komtor Walk only to find the place closed. I dragged my heavy feet—swollen from the climbing temperature—down the road until I found his other recommendation, Penang Road Famous TeoChew Chendul.
There was a swarm of people around the (Famouse) (Road Side) (Stall). Eager customers queued up for classic cendol and other variations, like cendol white coffee and cendol durian.
I opted for the less crowded cart across the street with a sign claiming their cendol was also famous and "smells good."
A woman in wooden sandals was working at breakneck speed to dole out bags and bowls of cendol and ice kacang. Her sous cleaned and stacked bowls, and grabbed more ice blocks from their large cooler to help keep things running smoothly.
Customers walked up on foot and rolled up on motorbikes to place their orders.
I requested a bowl of cendol and grabbed a plastic stool next to the cart. I had a front-row seat to watch the woman do her thing.
She started by shaving down ice blocks with a hand-cranked machine, then she ladled sugary goodies over the mound.
Palm sugar syrup came first, then kidney beans, then wiggling pandan noodles with coconut milk. She shoved a metal soupspoon into the bowl and handed it over to me.
There's a trick to eating these iced desserts. You want to shovel it in fast so you enjoy the ice before it melts—plus, it's delicious. At the same time, you also want to eat it slowly, because brain freeze. Inevitably, it will get soupy, hence the spoon.
Once I set down my spoon, I realized something beyond my belief. I wasn't pouring out buckets of sweat as I had been moments before. The cendol's magic worked according to plan. I felt relaxed, and, more importantly, not miserably hot.
I lingered for a while to watch the master at work before walking home.
The cendol continued to do its thing for the first ten minute of the walk, but suddenly a wave of nausea came over me.
I stopped in the street, looking down at the sewage rushing through the gutter. Was I about to barf in that very gutter?
After a breather, I eventually made it back home and immediately got into the shower (another clutch way of cooling down in Southeast Asia). Within a minute, I was throwing up not only cendol, but my spicy, savory lunch. What a time to be alive!
Maybe it was the street ice, maybe it was the stir-fried lunch, or maybe it was just the heat. Who knows. I didn't let the experience turn me off cendol and its frozen peers.
On a very empty stomach, I walked to the Red Garden later that night for dinner. Apparently Anthony Bourdain had been there once and liked it, causing a barrage of angry reviews in the Google Maps comments section. Had Bourdain not visited, would people be as critical of the hawker center?
Faux leafy vines and red paper lanterns dangled from the sheet metal ceiling. A colorfully lit stage was positioned in the center of the open-air compound. People of all ages and nationalities watched live karaoke performers from the comfort of their plastic tables and chairs.
I got some a stir-fried oyster crepe-y omelet delicacy, and a giant Tiger beer. (You know, post-nausea light eating.)
A young woman was belting Adele on stage when I finished my food. I ordered an ice kacang with ice cream, all the while dabbing the sweat from my generously glistening forehead.
Minutes later, my bean-covered, jelly cube-laden bowl of ice kacang hit the table.
Am I really eating corn and bean ice soup right now? I thought to myself. Yes, yes I am.
The swirls of pink and magenta ice darkened as it began to melt. The ice kacang completely took the edge off. I stopped sweating. I could sit back and enjoy the karaoke. Balance had been restored.
And I even managed to keep all of it down.