Photo: Yee Heng Yeh
The Hawker Spaces of Penang | 2,282 words
The first time I tried dry bak kut teh, I was in the midst of getting my heart broken, though I didn’t know it at that time. Grief often works like that—it lays quiet, heavy, coiling in your chest like a serpent, until one day, it bursts out without warning, surprising you by the monstrosity of its size.
I had stumbled across Lucky Eatery Food Court Centre by chance, having meant to visit the more well-known Spice Pisa Café, which is right next door. What drew me to take a chance on this less-established establishment? The name of the food court beckoned in neon, framed in Carlsberg green.
Perhaps I was feeling in need of a little luck myself.
It was 10pm, so most tables were empty, but this was the kind of hawker centre that served beer, so there were still a few lively groups of people. The tables were marked with numbers, so the hawkers knew where to find you.
The cheapest meal you could get was RM6 for the wantan mee or the porridge—wait, there was a stall which sold roti kosong at RM1.50. But most items were around the RM8–10 range. I often dither when it comes to choosing what to eat, but then I saw the bak kut teh stall. I’d been wanting to try the dry version for some time. This was a good way to remind myself that, like it or not, the world would always have some new experience to offer.
In a hawker centre, because of the open layout of the stalls, you can see your food being prepared—rice scooped up in one bowl, soup ladled into another, claypot lifted up with metal clips, so its lid can be placed underneath as a coaster.
Since this was dry bak kut teh, the pork was braised and served separate from the soup. It was pork belly instead of ribs, glistening and sticky with dark soy sauce, kept warm by the claypot. The meat was fatty, smoky, slightly sweet, spicy, and interspersed with small bits of lady’s fingers cooked to a mush. It left a velvety sheen of oil coating my lips. The soup itself was rich but not overpowering—in it floated a generous amount of bok choy and folds of fuchuk. The little saucer of minced chilli and garlic drenched in soy sauce was meant for the meat, but I ate it with the rice so that every bite had a sharp burst of flavour.
I was hungry. It was good.
Thanks to the hefty servings of meat and soup, I quickly began to feel full. I slowed down, paused longer between bites. But there was no rush. In a place like this, you can stay as long as you want.
Hawker centres, food courts, even certain kopitiams that offer more than one food vendor—what I think of as the Hawker Space is based more on vibes than any specific type of business licensing. (My apologies to MBPP, the Penang Island City Council).
Lucky Eatery Food Court Centre, despite its suitably auspicious-sounding name, does not exactly conjure up a picture of some precious intangible heritage, but no matter. The Hawker Vibe is not tied to any fastidious notions of traditionalism, not limited to only imagining places where people sip hot black coffee out of saucers and read the morning paper and call each other by name in a dialect that is slowly dying out. Though there’s nothing wrong with such places either—they, too, are a part of the DNA makeup of the chimera that is the Hawker Space.
The definitive element of the Hawker Experience is that it should be free of fuss. That means No Queueing. I saw a reel where a British guy joked that Malaysians, upon seeing a long queue outside a food establishment, would automatically join on the assumption that the food must be good, and thus worth the wait. Sorry to burst his bubble, but in Penang, only tourists behave in such a manner.
This is because decent Hawker Food is available anywhere. In theory, you can find another place of rivalling quality a stone’s throw away—in any direction you’d like to throw it. No food is so head and shoulders above the rest that it is worth sunning your head and bumping your shoulders against other sweaty people for more than five minutes. Queueing only means that it becomes an event, a spectacle, and not a pleasant one at that.
This is why, when people ask me for food recommendations, I always draw a blank. The names of such places seldom stick in my mind, unless they have some unique fare—like dry bak kut teh (in Lucky Eatery), or chee cheong fun with peanut sauce (in Genting Café). Just go to any hawker place, I want to tell people. Instinct will tell you what to pick. It’s not that such foods are forgettable, but that they’re so prevalently available you can take them for granted. After all, we all do that with the things we love. To take something for granted is to have faith that it will go on being part of your life. How else can love be built if not upon such a faith?
Sometimes I worry that by this definition the Hawker Space will not survive in the age of viral video marketing. I read an article that examines how, thanks to TikTok, many food places now focus on gastronomical presentation that presents well in short videos. Hawker Food doesn’t capitulate to that; nor does it rely on catchy interior design or perfect lighting for that Instagram shot. Good Hawker Food is not about being Penang’s No. 1 Best or attracting the right VIPs or becoming terpaling viral. So what if it loses its edge in this competition?
But then the point has never been about having an edge. The point is consistency and accessibility. Hawker Food is not an elusive holy grail that requires a hero’s journey to obtain, but something that is there when you need it. That is why people return to it.
Therefore, the traits of Hawker Food are that it is not just affordable, but also ubiquitous, unassuming, and utterly ordinary. Good enough is good enough.
The Hawker Space also welcomes people from all walks of life. This includes aunties who come in selling tissue packets or cheery groups of choristers and a guitarist who, after disarming you with a song, will ask for donations for an orphanage you’ve never heard of. This includes mainland Chinese tourists and white begpackers. This includes the husband-wife duo who’s been running their stall longer than you’ve been alive, and the group of young friends starting a business selling homemade Indian food. This also includes the various migrant communities from Vietnam, Thailand, Nepal, who don’t fly in high-grade ingredients from their home countries (the way big international chains purport to do for the sake of replicating a specific recipe), but instead use what local ingredients are available to create an approximation of their home dishes.
This is food that adapts and grows, that influences and is influenced. You can trace Malaysian cuisine back to similar roots. By my definition, the Hawker Space should also welcome foreign cooks, as long as they can pass muster enough to survive the invisible hand of the market. Or the invisible mouth, in this case. Shouldn’t Penangites themselves be the best judge of whether something is authentic enough?
For these reasons, I generally don’t consider indoor food courts in shopping malls to be Hawker Spaces. They seldom succeed in cultivating the necessary vibe. For one, the food served is often soulless—below average by Penang standards, with the cooks merely following some cut-and-paste template. For another, these places exist as a strange void, a temporary stop where you’re served adequate nutrition so you can go on traipsing through the next million square feet of shop lots. There is no pattering rain, honking cars, barking stray dogs: these occasional but vital elements of the open-air Hawker soundscape. (For the same reason, tapau-ing food to eat at home doesn’t have the Hawker vibe, though the food may still be excellent.)
Speaking of soundscape: thanks to hawker centres, the first few words of Hokkien I picked up were not cuss words, but food-ordering words: huan jio (chilli), jit kor pua (one ringgit fifty cents), juak (hot), tua eh (big portion). Whenever people find out I don’t really speak Hokkien despite being a Penangite, they joke, “Well, you know enough to order food, right?” That this is the bare minimum is not surprising considering the relationship Malaysians have with food. It is a cliché at this point, but after all, a cliché is only a truth we’ve grown to take for granted.
The earliest phrase of Hokkien I remember learning is “kopi si peng mai liao”: iced coffee with evaporated milk, no sugar. My father’s default beverage of choice. He ordered it so frequently that us kids could parrot it chirpily, which we would do with gusto if he wasn’t at the table when the waiter came to take our drinks order. Our voices singsonged as we glanced at our mom for confirmation. She always delighted in this. In the same vein, each of us would take a liking to certain dishes until we became associated with them. I went through phases of being identified with hokkien mee, ee fu mee, fried rice, Ramly burger … Even at that age, we knew there was joy in understanding someone. Predicting their predilections, their little regularities. That, too, being love.
George Eliot once wrote, “We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it.” There’s no running away from it. The Hawker Space is a space of memory for me. Back then, every other day or so we would all go out, as a family, to eat. I said previously that the Hawker Vibe must expressly be Not An Event, but memory doesn’t always agree with the present. For each trip, as a kid, was like a mini outing. I always enjoyed the brief periods in the car—the drive there, deciding with slow anticipatory pleasure what I would order (I told you I’m a ditherer), and the drive back, full and happy, without a worry in the world, lulled to sleepy satisfaction by the car’s gentle rocking, the rows of golden streetlights running like a reel outside the window.
Nothing wrong with indulging in a little nostalgia now and then. But here’s a quick tug of reality: you could still order a bowl of noodles for RM3.50 then. Now RM5 is considered cheap. Nothing escapes economics. Nothing escapes time.
I visit Lucky Eatery again.
Some things have changed: the dry bak kut teh is RM13 instead of RM11, and the pork is no longer served in a claypot, but a plain white ceramic bowl, which is a much poorer retainer of heat. Initially, the portion seems smaller, too, but as I eat I begin to feel as stuffed as I did the first time around.
I look around. Two men are laughing loudly. One gets up to man the stall that sells deep-fried snacks. The other pulls out his phone, sets it upright on the table, and watches a Chinese soap opera in portrait mode. I know what he’s watching because he has leaned back in his chair, one arm resting on his head, exposing his screen to any and all passers-by.
Further away is a family of six, their table laden with plates and cups. A little girl fiddles with an iPad nearby while her parents close up their noodle stall. Elsewhere, a man sits by himself with a beer can and a beer bottle. He drinks from neither, but stares at everyone, listlessly. I watch him watch them. A cat yowls somewhere, unseen. I think to myself: if I were lonely, this would be a good place to be.
Back to my dry bak kut teh. Okay, so it’s not as amazing as I remembered. But it’s still decent. Good enough. And memory can never be trusted. Perhaps the first time I had it was skewed by a rose-tinted breaking heart … I had needed something that was both comforting yet exciting, novel yet familiar. Maybe the world only ever gives you what you need—exactly that, and nothing more. You’d get greedy otherwise. You’d start hungering for only extraordinary moments—pinnacle of joy, rush of discovery—forgetting that a lifetime needs to be sustained, too, by the ordinary.
I think about what the future holds for these Hawker Spaces. If they will have to end up co-opting food fads, after all. If the younger generation is at all interested in running these businesses, learning the craft. Whether these stalls might survive longer if they were reduced to carbon copies in a franchise—though maybe that is not a survival worth living for.
As it turns out, the great power of good Hawker Food is not that it transports you back to a shining memory from the good old days, but that it takes you out of your head and back into your body.
This moment. This bowl. This no-longer-broken heart.
Mary Oliver was right. Everything will be gone at last, and too soon.
But while you’re here, you breathe.
© Yee Heng Yeh
Commissioning editor: Anna Tan