Penang’s finest show their mettle with dishes we all know and love.

SO how was your Christmas? Apart from being hot and humid, I hope you had as busy and enjoyable a time as I did! Apart from wrestling with the turkey and a houseful of family from abroad and KL, not to mention preparing and packing for a move which, by the time you read this I shall have (hopefully) got over with, I also had to find time to pop down to Penang Times Square, where the very first “Battle of the Penang Hawker Masters” was being held.

Yes, I was honoured to have been invited as one of the judges in the competition which saw hawkers from all over the state taking part. There were five categories, starting with Assam Laksa on Day 1 (Dec 20), followed by Char Kuey Teow, Mee Goreng, Hokkien Mee, Satay and, last but not least, Teh Tarik. It was quite interesting because although I have judged quite a few cooking competitions now, some of which had “Char Kuey Teow” and “Teh Tarik” categories, this was the first official “battle” of our famous street food.

A large crowd showed up daily to take advantage of the great deal: for just RM5 per person (RM10 on the last day), they didn’t just get to sample food from every stall, they also received free gifts – an offer a canny Penangite just couldn’t refuse. This resulted in the proverbial bun fight: queues for tickets started from as early as 10am, from the young to the elderly, including an 80-year-old woman who waited gamely in her wheelchair for the Char Kuey Teow tickets. Unfortunately, a few arrived too late, resulting in some heated “discussions” over why they should be allowed in.

The daily panel of three judges had 80% of the say, with public votes making up the last 20%. It’s amazing how many ways there are to make one dish. My first job was judging Mee Goreng; it was a bit disappointing that some did not have the requisite wok hei (fragrance) that used to accompany this traditionally mamak specialty – maybe because, interestingly enough, many of the contenders were not mamak!

Self-proclaimed Hokkien Mee (Har Meen) aficionado that I am though, I was delighted to judge that category too. I’m old enough to remember what the dish used to be – a delicious combination of prawns, lard and the all-important euchang (onion fritters), and I felt a few of the stalls tried too hard, adding extra ingredients like jumbo prawns and too much meat, thereby changing it to an almost different dish altogether. Fellow judge Goh Hong Bee, assistant chief editor at Kwong Wah Yit Poh Press, agreed with me. “I still prefer my Hokkien Mee the old-fashioned way,” she said. Perhaps this adulteration is a result of a more affluent society.

It was a grilling last day for me trying out 12 different types of satay, and I’m glad to say that Penang’s own version of Batu Maung Satay, aka Satay Bohong (false satay), where the sauce is marinated into the meat before it is skewered and grilled, was the most popular.

Altogether, almost 80 hawkers took part, although it appeared that quite a few of the more well-known stalls had declined to participate. This was put down to various reasons. “The really good ones won’t take part because they are worried about losing,” was one comment I heard. Understandably, some could not afford to lose their daily income, it being one of the busiest periods of the year, and others just preferred to stay out of the limelight. All valid reasons, I’m sure, but sad nevertheless, as I would have liked to have seen more participants.

However, as Anne Tan, corporate communications manager of competition organiser Ivory Properties Group Berhad, said, “This is the first time we have held it, so some were a bit uncertain. However, we plan to make it into an annual event, so hopefully next year more hawkers will want to take part.” Chief operating officer Datuk Ooi Chin Loo said that the response had been “overwhelming”.

Apparently the brainchild of Datuk Low Eng Hock, their chairman and group CEO, the event had been organised to “groom ordinary hawkers into celebrity hawkers through the award of a Masters title”. Hmm … I wonder if this may not backfire; after all, we know what a bit of celebrity can do: standards have been known to drop, and prices rise commensurate not with the quality and taste of the food so much as the fame of the person dispensing it. That’s just my humble opinion. The good news is the organiser hopes to take it a step further and make it a regular event in Penang’s already packed tourism calendar.

D7FBC674DACE4587B969030DA076EC1FA lot of the Mee Goreng did not have the much desired ‘fragrance’ that usually comes with this mamak specialty. 

The event culminated in the Grand Finale on Christmas Day itself which, sadly, I had to miss. It attracted some 600 people, local and tourists, all eager to try food from the three finalists from the preceding days’ heats. A worthwhile effort by all, and certainly about time too, as we acknowledge Penang’s unsung heroes. I look forward to going back for this year’s round. If you think that your favourite stalls should take part, do encourage them to participate by contacting Ann on ☎ 04-210 8000 ext 811 or e-mail ann@ivory.com.my.

In the meantime, a Happy New Year. Made any resolutions? I have – to visit more food outlets for EATS!

Winners

Laksa – Lee Ee Quen (opposite Penang Chinese Girls’ High School)

Char Kuey Teow – Thong Cheng Poh (Bamboo Catering)

Satay – Azian Abdul Aziz (Chik Satay, Simpang Empat, Balik Pulau)

Teh Tarik – Syed Khaidir Al-Attas (Juara F&N Raja Tarik 2000 & 2004)

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