If the best way to explore a city is on foot, and if the best way to learn about it is through the stories that aren’t in the Lonely Planet guide, and if the best way to know it’s people is through their food, their religion and their history, then surely if you put it all together you can begin to get an understanding or sense of place. And that’s why we booked this tour with Mark from Simply Enak. Food, stories, history, sights and some walking, all rolled into one very entertaining, and very delicious, morning.
We’d booked this walking tour for our second day in Georgetown and, as a result, had already seen some of the sights that Mark intended to show us – namely the Clan Jetties, Cheah Kongsi and the street art in Armenian Street (see this post). Rather than covering old ground he quickly adapted his route to take in some different clan houses – including that of his family. Settle back and grab a cuppa…we have a lot to get through.
Mark told us about how the clan houses served as quasi embassies for new arrivals to Georgetown. You’d be affiliated by family name, the region in China that you’d travelled from or your trade.
The clan houses were, however much more than that. Their dealings were also very much like those of the more modern day mafia. They controlled the rubber, tin and opium trades – and more besides. In essence, they’d been given free rein by the British East India company who didn’t care terribly much how they came by their supplies – as long as they were able to provide what the trading company needed. The heads of these families were given the titles of Kapitan – or Captain. It reminds me of a story I heard about how Kapitan Chicken or Ayam Kapitan got its name. The Chinese cook was asked what was for dinner and he replied “chicken, Kapitan.’ Or something like that. But I digress.
Back in the day, Georgetown was pretty much run by five major family groups – the Khoo, Cheah, Lim, Yeoh and Tan families. Unsurprisingly as each group tried to build bigger fortunes, a larger share of the trade and more opulent clan houses, hostilities inevitably broke out between the families with sometimes violent consequences. Mark told us how the well that used to be behind Khoo Kongsi had a direct route to the sea and was therefore used to, shall we say, send the bodies of those who crossed the clan “back to China.” There was another behind the ancestral hall adjacent to the Peranakan Museum. He also showed us the “secret” exits that people could use to escape the clan houses in the case of unexpected and unwelcome visitors.
Mostly the clans, or “secret societies” as they were known to the British were left to govern themselves, but in 1867 the tussles between the clans exploded into riots and the British were forced to intervene using cannons from Fort Cornwallis.
The ancestral halls themselves are both a place of prayer and a place of remembrance for ancestors. The tablets at the back of the hall denote both a memorial and a family tree of sorts. Names of family members both in Penang and elsewhere appear on these boards behind the altar.
Chim or Fortune Sticks
In the Goddess of Mercy Temple, Mark pointed out some people using chim or fortune sticks. I have a set of these at home that I bought a number of years ago in Hong Kong. Essentially you think of the question you need answered and shake the box that the sticks are in until one falls out. The number on that stick corresponds to a fortune. To check on the veracity of the fortune oracle stones are thrown. If they land the opposite way – ie one top-side up and the other top-side down – the fortune is true. If they land the same way – like if you toss two coins and they both land with the heads up or with the tails up – you need to shake for another stick.
Once you finally have a stick that is supported by the oracle stones, you take it to the pigeonholes off to the side to receive your fortune. If it’s favourable you can go away happy – or at least satisfied. If not, you can appeal to the deities of the hall to intercede on your behalf.
Mark explained that this is a little like if you have IT problems in the office. You can call first level support – in this case, the chim sticks. If that works, great, you’re operational again. If not, you might need second level support – and that costs. This is where it all becomes a business transaction. Each of the papers in the pic below corresponds to a person for whom support is required. Depending on the problem the querent may request (and pay for) daily prayers for a period of time. And, as for all support of this nature, there is no guarantee of success; but you are stacking the odds in your favour.
This tour was the perfect blend of walking, talking, eating, walking, talking, eating…and repeat. Mostly though it was all about the food. Mark knows food and he knows flavours. he can also talk through how the food is prepared. This makes him the perfect person to guide us through our Georgetown food odyssey.
Georgetown is about three cuisines – that of the Hindu Indians, that of the Muslim Indians, and that of the Chinese. These groups came to Georgetown as merchants and traders. The Malays tended to live outside Georgetown as farmers and fishermen.
Each of the three main groups might have practised different religions to each other but had one thing in common – they’d come to Penang and, specifically Georgetown, to make their fortunes. Because the town grew up around the religions it also fostered religious tolerance. Mark said that it was one of the factors that assisted with Georgetown receiving its UNESCO listing.
First up was Hindu or Southern Indian at Woodlands. This cuisine is vegetarian and you can tell whether a shop is owned by Hindu Indians by the turmeric stains on the pavement out the front.
Here we had a ghee onion rawa masala dosa, vade (savoury donuts), a dhal and assorted chutneys. To go with it was a fresh ginger tea. Dosa, Mark told us, is mostly eaten in the morning and in the afternoon – when you’d normally drink tea.
Next in the food stakes was Tajudin Hussein, or Muslim Indian. We sampled chicken ros (chicken curry in thick onion gravy), mutton (goat) korma, briyani rice, spinach with lentil and dry chilli and iced calamansi (citrus) tea. I checked out some of the prices for the food on offer. A bowl of briyani would set you back 3RM, a murtabak was 3.50RM, roti canai (fabulous roti with gravy) just 1RM. Given that one aussie dollar currently buys you 3RM, you get an idea of the cost.
On our walk through Little India we stopped for a samosa (as if we needed more food by this stage)…
and some photos of the fabulous colour in this neighbourhood…
Our final food stop was for Chinese at Ping Hoo Cafe where we sampled Char Koay Teow (fried noodles), loh bak (deep fried pork in bean curd sheets) and had a nutmeg drink that was remarkably different and remarkably refreshing.
- If possible book this tour for your first day in Georgetown.
- Skip breakfast or at the very least resist the hotel buffet – you will be eating heaps!
- Ask Mark anything and everything that you might want to know about Georgetown and it’s history, culture and food. He knows so much and seriously it’s like chatting to an old friend.
- If you need some pointers regarding where to eat in Georgetown, you guessed it, ask Mark. He knows his food and he knows where to find it.
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