In my last post I mentioned Eating Asia's Robyn Eckhardt. We were lucky enough to take her walking and eating tour of Georgetown, and she passed on a slew of tips for places to eat on our own time. Our plan for the late afternoon was to potter around town and then try some Penang laksa. Robyn dismissed most of the supposedly “best” laksas in town and gave us directions to a far superior but unheralded hawker. This place doesn't open till the mid-afternoon, though, so we had time for some proper touristing first. And yes, we totally planned our day around the time the laksa stall opened.
As we wandered the historic centre, though, we began to notice something. Cats. Cats painted on walls. As a huge fan of the late Chris Marker, cats on walls are of particular interest to me. I knew that Georgetown had a bunch of street art but the cats were an extremely pleasing surprise. Suddenly, they were appearing everywhere, in small scale and writ large.
There were even cat sculptures, made aptly out of balls of wool, picking their way delicately along bamboo poles. What are the cats saying? (Marker is very clear that we need to listen to the cats.)
A banner beneath some of the kitties said Artists for Stray Animals: the cats are advocating for better treatment of strays in Georgetown – and Malaysia in general – where even pets are not always looked after especially well. There are the usual issues with stray populations, and we saw posters encouraging neutering of cats, but there are apparently also some religious and intercommunal politics involved, so it is all a bit more complicated than a simple spay-your-kitties campaign. Much of this I heard from other people, but the art campaign keeps it deliberately whimsical, appealing to the younger generation. I enjoyed this one the best…
…mostly because the sign below it articulated the exact thought I had when I looked at the image! Also, the kitten in the corner is adorable.
We were already taking to Georgetown. It's laid back compared to some of the other places we're visiting in Malaysia, and if there is a touristy side, it is easy enough both to escape and, sometimes, to enjoy. The cats are part of the city's annual festival, and although it's easy to look down on the street art, we found something really charming in the different uses to which the city's beautiful spaces are put. Cats are painted on walls and hawkers set up stall on street corners and in parking lots. What's not to like?
As the afternoon wore on, it was time for laksa. Penang, or asam laksa is different from the more familiar coconut milk curry version. I knew it was more sour, with a tamarind and fishy broth, and I had heard it was more of an acquired taste. Hmm. We followed Robyn's instructions, but we weren't quite sure if we were going the right way. The intersection specified didn't have a laksa seller right exactly there, but there was one just across the road. This had to be the one. We rolled up, asked the nice man for a laksa to share (we'd already had lunch and were planning dinner), and settled under the awning on the inevitable red plastic chairs.
The laksa arrived, a simple thing of absolute beauty. Just look at it! The broth was clear, the noodles hidden under a pile of carefully placed toppings, including several different herbs and a generous cluster of banana leaf shavings. We took our first spoonfuls and stopped to look at each other. OMFG. This is the best thing, the seriously best thing, ever. The broth was ambrosial, as complex as a curry but absolutely clear. It had strong tamarind notes but you would never describe it as sour. The sweetness and spiciness, saltiness and citrus flavours balanced the tamarind perfectly. We were transported. Suddenly, one bowl seemed like a foolish restraint. We considered ordering another, but barely stopped ourselves. We would come back tomorrow. I told the nice man it was delicious in butchered Malay, and off we went.
We left high on the happiness of truly amazing food, and on our successful laksa expedition. And then…dun dun DUNNN….across the road we saw another laksa cart. It hadn't been there just fifteen minutes or so earlier when we'd arrived. Was THIS Robyn's recommended laksa? Did we eat The Wrong Laksa? Clearly, there was only one way to find out.
Honestly, we didn't even have to discuss it. We looked at each other and knew we were crossing the road and ordering another laksa. This one looked quite a bit different, as you can see in the pics. It was thicker, the broth not clear but sludgy with fish, and redder too. The broth was also warmly complex – but perhaps not quite as divinely flavourful as the first broth – although this laksa had the benefit of more fishy substance. Plus, I think the toppings might have been better here. There was more banana flower, although less greenery, and I noticed the other table had a handful of sliced green chilies dotting their bowl. I suspect the laksa lady edited those out for the white people, which is a shame, but the overall effect was nicely spicy anyway.
So which was the better laksa? Mr Lemur and I still can't decide. Laksa #2 wins out on fish and possibly on toppings, whereas laksa #1 had that dreamy broth. Mr Lemur feels sure laksa #1 is better, but I wonder what would have happened if we'd tried #2 first? Its broth might have been equally good but just not as surprising in light of the first one. Regardless, they were both incomparably better than any other laksa I've tasted, of any type. As we pondered the optimal conditions for a double blind laksa tasting, it started to rain, a lot. The laksa lady shoed us under her umbrella, where we huddled with another happy customer, unwilling to abandon our bowls. In this Penang laksa-off, there are only winners.