You can always depend on a cabbie to keep your feet on the ground. When I told my driver the story about the young women in headscarves who rescued me at the ferry terminal, he responded, “Do you want one, lah?” and laughed raucously. No, I said, I want to see if I will find the same hospitality everywhere in Penang. How about a free ride? More raucous laughter.
This was Mahmud, who operates a Penang taxi service. He took me past the Little India section of town and kept up an entertaining travelogue, describing the racial mix of Chinese, Malaysian and Indian that make up Penang. Mohammad, on the train, told me that the local cuisine to try was Nasi Kandar, a mix of cuisines featuring different curries. I had showed him my picture of the Hanoi banana lady and he said “nasi kandar” translated as “hanging rice,” a reference to a person holding cooked rice in one flat basket and various types of ethnic toppings in the other. Street food.
Mahmud knew exactly what Mohammad meant and was excited to show me his favorite place. I made an appointment for him to pick me up at 6:45 then cleaned up at the Paradise Sandy Beach Resort, where the staff are comically deferential while at the same time slyly letting you know they are acting a Kiplingesque role of sorts. Think Billy Fish in The Man Who Would Be King.
We drove through the beachfront neighborhoods of George Town and Mahmud recounted the devastation that the 2004 tsunami caused in Penang. I told him I remembered it well, and thought that Americans, led by Bill Clinton, had contributed large sums to the relief effort. Things seem to be back on track with large resorts being built in the damaged areas.
We ended up in a place I could never find again. It has no sign and no name and can’t be seen from the street. We parked and walked down two alleys to reach the outdoor eatery. The food was carefully displayed and you had the choice of white or brown rice. Mahmud asked that I note how clean and bright the white rice was, which is his measure of the cleanliness of a place and probably a good one. They had about nine different curries, with side dishes and soft drinks. There were no menus and though you could get a fork or spoon, no knives are available. The tables are covered in aluminum. I asked for a variety of beef and chicken curries and wound up with four plates of extraordinary food, very unusual spices and rich dark fragrant curry sauces. There was a lot of lime in one of the best of them, with sides of cucumber and fresh tomato.
Mahmoud ate in the traditional way, using his right hand to scoop up the rice, curry and cucumber mix on his plate. He talked about his life and the difficulties of raising four children, one of whom was giving him fits. Although his kids are largely grown we both rued the fact that a father can never stop worrying about his kids. I changed the conversation to soccer and learned that his team is Chelsea and I told him I was related to a Bolton fan, who was slowly bringing me into the world of football. He likes football but is absolutely crazy for American professional wrestling, and the Undertaker is his favorite character. Historically, we both favor Brett Hart. Total cost of the meal: about $8 for the two of us.
I should note that the ambience of the eatery was about what you might expect of a busy back alley restaurant in Penang, and a big rat showed himself just across the way. The neighborhood tailless cats wanted no part of this beast. Mahmoud saw me notice the rat and said not to worry about it, again noting how snowy and pristine the white rice was.
On the ride back to the hotel Mahmoud, unprompted, launched into a discussion of polygamy. I loved to hear him talk because of the Malaysian tendency to end sentences with “lah,” which I remembered from Anthony Burgess’s great Malayan trilogy, The Long Day Wanes. It seems that if the first wife is thoroughly immersed in Islam and devout, she will recognize the correctness of plural marriage and sign the document necessary to permit her husband a second wife. How many wives do you have Mahmoud? “Only one, lah!” I said it didn’t matter how many times I got my wife to read the Koran, she would never sign that document and he laughed and said neither would his. I then realized that he was trying out his arguments on me in advance of another round of a long-running debate going on under his roof. Still I was impressed in a professional way with the argument that a wife’s devotion to Islam can be measured by her willingness to permit her husband a second (or third) wife.
If you ever find yourself in Penang and want to enjoy the terrific street restaurant mentioned, I have no idea where it is or how to get there. But I do have Mahmud’s number and he’d be happy to take you there. I am not recommending Mahmud for Team America at this time – he is too important to us right there in Penang.