Having grown up in Singapore where street hawkers who sold their food along the roadsides were cleaned off its streets around the 1960s with a government initiative to spruce up the island, visiting Penang, an island off the northwest coast of the Peninsula of Malaysia, is like visiting a scene from Singapore’s past.
Penang, like Singapore, was a former British colony, the island was given by the Sultan of Kedah to the British East India Company in 1786, in exchange for military protection against the Siamese and Burmese armies. Their history is evident in the architecture of the older buildings that mostly reflect in its design, a colonial style of living with large compound houses along Gurney Road, and what used to be the suburbs of the city center. But as with most Asian economies, the face of Penang is changing radically, with skyscrapers now surrounding these older buildings from the 1700s, making the landscape quite eclectic in reflecting both old and new.
Despite food courts (a collection of food stalls that sell specific dishes per stall) becoming incorporated into the newly built skyscrapers in Penang, what remains a delight are the easily accessible food hawker stalls still found along the roadsides of this island that produce authentic local on the spot for their customers. Customers often either stand to consume their meal or sit on the metal foldable tables and chairs provided by the stalls, along the roadside.
It was at one such coffeeshop corner and street that I came across this man in a brightly coloured shirt, hawking goreng pisang or deep fried bananas in a sumptuously prepared batter. The locals in Penang eat goreng pisang as a snack or dessert and its variants can be found across Southeast-Asia, from the Philippines to Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. In Thailand for example, the fried bananas are often accompanied by drizzled caramelized sugar whilst in Malaysia and Singapore, goreng pisang is eaten on its own. In Sweden, one might find a variant of this dessert in Chinese restaurants, served with ice-cream, though in my opinion, the batter in which the bananas are dipped into prior to frying is slightly different in the Chinese restaurants found in Gothenburg, than the ones sold alongside the streets in Penang, Malaysia.
The man who sold these goreng pisangs had a simple hawker stall that was attached to his motorcycle. This gave him mobility and he could technically, place his hawker stall along any street corner he wished. In a basket attached to his motorcycle, he had other vegetable roots such as tapioca and sweet potato, which he would then dip into the same batter and fry. These are no less delicious to the tastebuds, though I personally prefer the deep fried bananas that melt in your mouth at first bite.
I couldn’t help but ask the man for his batter recipe, after my first bite into the goreng pisang. He gave a warm smile and said that there was no magic in the recipe; the batter is a combination of equal portions of flour and rice-flour, with a dash of cornstarch and some water. A pinch of salt and sugar are added and voila, the batter is done! Use some vegetable oil to fry the bananas in and you can serve this with anything from soft cheese to ice-cream. Well, I couldn’t wait to come back to Sweden to give this a try!
Generally, I found the people of Penang warm hearted and friendly, ready to share their local culture with visitors. When in Penang, the local food hawkers along the roadside will prove a worthy try and adventure since it is with these people, with recipes usually handed down from generations past, that one can get a true taste of the culinary delights of the place.
Street hawkers are a common sight on the island of Penang, Malaysia, where one can get authentic local food.
His hawker stall is simple, attached to his motorcycle, so that he is mobile and can literally park his stall anywhere along the street.
The frying process.
Apart from bananas, this man was also hawking deep fried sweet potatoes and tapioca, which he stores fresh in this basket attached to his motorcycle.
Cheryl Marie Cordeiro is a PhD student with Gothenburg University and writes about travel, food, fashion and lifestyle in her free time. More of her writings can be found at her website at www.cmariec.com/blog.