SINGAPORE - For the past three decades, I have indulged in the wonderful food of Penang a few times a year. I did not even have to visit the Malaysian island state, though I would make a trip there once every few years to savour dishes like char kway teow and prawn mee soup at well-known stalls.
My cravings were satisfied at home at York Hotel, which since 1986 has been flying in some of the best hawkers from Penang for a long long-running buffet that draws epic queues.
The Covid-19 pandemic has put a stop to buffets and such. But there are other places with good Penang fare that will keep me happy until the hawkers return or travel to Malaysia resumes.
Here are six worth checking out that cater to different budgets and moods.
The hotel buffet
Copthorne King's Hotel Singapore, 403 Havelock Road, tel: 6733-0011; open: Tuesdays to Sundays, noon to 2.30pm, 6 to 10pm. Closed on Mondays
This popular Penang buffet restaurant reopened after the circuit breaker with an a la carte buffet, priced at $46 for adults and $23 for children.
While the selection is slightly smaller than the previous spread, there are still almost 30 items to pick from.
The prawn mee soup now comes with a lobster option, at an additional $4 a serving. That's a steal for the meaty Maine lobster.
Other items not to be missed are the kueh pie tee and the peppered pig stomach soup. Make sure you leave room for the Nonya kueh and chendol for dessert.
The no-pork place
PENANG PLACE RESTAURANT & CATERING
02-314 Suntec City Mall West Wing, 3 Temasek Boulevard, tel: 6467-7003; open: 11.30am to 2.30pm, 6 to 9.30pm daily
This no-pork eatery offers an a la carte buffet at $32.90 a person, but there are a la carte options for smaller eaters too.
The Penang Char Kway Teow ($10.90) lacks the rich aroma of lard, so I'd skip that. But you won't notice the absence of pork in the Penang Hokkien Mee ($10.90), which boasts a rich prawn broth.
You also get good Lobak ($12.90), with chunks of chicken meat replacing the traditional diced pork that is wrapped with pieces of yam in beancurd sheets and deep-fried.
The Penang Assam Laksa ($10.90) is good too. The judicious use of tamarind means the delicious fish flavour in the broth shines through.
The al fresco newbie
GEORGE TOWN TZE CHAR & CRAFT BEER
81 Boat Quay, tel: 6535-6277; open: noon to 11pm daily
This two-month-old eatery named after Penang's capital city serves zi char dishes by the Singapore River.
Not every item on the menu originates from up north, some are Singapore favourites but given a Malaysian spin by the Penang-born chef. There is chilli crab ($40 for 500g) for example, minus ketchup in the egg-thickened gravy and more spicy than sweet.
There is also Thai Curry Fish Head ($28), a hybrid of Indian curry and tom yam that is a reminder of the Malaysian island's proximity to Thailand.
My favourite is the Penang Thai Style Squid ($15), which is battered and deep-fried calamari doused with a tangy and spicy sauce. It's tender under a crispy coat and the sauce is so appetising.
The economy version
PENANG PRAWN MEE
711 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 8, 01-3501; open: 9.30am to 11pm daily
This nondescript stall tucked away in a corner of the S11 hawker centre in Ang Mo Kio Central sells lor mee too, but almost everyone guns for the Prawn Mee ($4.50 and $5.50).
The dish is not at all Instagram- friendly, with toppings of prawns, fish cake and pork slices half-drowned in broth.
But its full-bodied soup transports you immediately to Penang, especially when you stir in a dash of chilli paste to amp up the spice level. Its only fault: a tad too sugary.
Tone that down and this may well be the Penang prawn mee to beat in Singapore - and one of the cheapest too.
The chic choice
INDOCAFE - THE WHITE HOUSE
35 Scotts Road, tel: 6733-2656; open: Tuesdays to Sundays, noon to 2.30pm, 6 to 10pm. Closed on Mondays
This black-and-white bungalow in Scotts Road serves up Penang and Singapore Peranakan dishes, along with a classy and romantic ambience. You can enjoy dishes like Kari Kapitan and Inchi Kabin in a tastefully furnished dining room, which used to be a colonial sitting room.
Prices are reasonable, considering the substantial serving sizes. You can get a good meal for less than $50 a person.
Penang Peranakan dishes generally feature less coconut milk and are less sweet than the Singapore version. And you do not find buah keluak, which comes from Indonesian islands in the south.
Instead, there is often more acidity from tamarind or lime juice because of the influence from Thailand. The result is therefore lighter but no less tasty.
Kari Kapitan ($21) is a chicken curry with a thick gravy that looks like a rendang, but has a slight tanginess from tamarind.
I like that it does not feel overly rich because of the acid.
I enjoy the Ikan Masak Merah ($28) too, where pieces of pan-roasted fish are cooked briefly in a sweet and spicy sauce so that even as they pick up the flavours, the fillets remain crispy.
The marinade for Inchi Kabin ($14) may be too subtle after the spicy dishes, although if you eat the fried chicken on its own, you can inhale the fragrance of galangal and lemongrass.
The old school zi char
PENANG SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
32 Aljunied Road, tel: 6841-3002; open: 11am to midnight daily
Despite the restaurant's name, the menu offers only four dishes under its Penang Specials, with the rest made up of zi char fare like fried sotong with salted egg and volcano chicken ($48).
I tried three Penang items and all were good.
The Penang Assam Laksa ($6) looks a hot mess and is missing the bright garnishes of julienned cucumber, onion, pineapple, red chilli and sprigs of mint. Instead, everything is covered in a brown blanket of boiled fish meat and a swirl of inky prawn paste.
But do not judge it by its appearance. Taste it and you find a beautiful medley of sour, spicy and savoury flavours with the distinctive moreish umami of prawn paste. There's lots of crunch from vegetables too, even though they are hard to make out under the mush.
Penang Kway Teow ($6, $9 and $12, above) is characterised by a soya sauce that is salty, not sweet, and the restaurant gets it just right. There is good wok hei in the fried noodles and the richness from lard and slices of Chinese sausage is balanced by a generous amount of crunchy beansprouts.
The Shrimp Roll ($12, $18 and $24) is chunky pieces of lor bak that are battered and deep-fried. Lor bak is the Penang equivalent of ngor hiang, except the pork is diced, not minced. Here, there are pieces of crunchy prawns and water chestnut too, which add sweetness and provide a delightful mouthfeel.