Yesterday a non-Malaysian asked me: What’s a food court?
Fortunately, I seem to have developed some precognition powers, because a couple weeks ago I was in one, and I somehow felt like snapping some photos. So food court it is today.
A food court is… well…
You know we have loads of street food in Malaysia right? Actually the entire Southeast Asia and some parts of the rest of Asia too. A food court is basically a place set up to house many street food vendors (or what we call hawkers) under one roof. Usually the food court is owned by one person/party. The owner would set up many booths (we call them stalls) and then rent those stalls out to prospective hawker tenants for a price. The owner would typically keep the beverages business for himself because selling drinks is infinitely more lucrative than selling food. Ironic, but it’s true.
Food courts come in various forms and sizes. Some smaller ones operate out of a shop lot, housing only a few different types of food. But the bigger ones are typically standalone structures constructed out of steel bars and aluminum roofs. Like this one:
This one’s called Sungai Ara Food Court. Sungai Ara is the name of a place in Penang. It is also quite close to where I am currently staying in.
I actually didn’t know this place has become a food court. It used to be a dim sum place many many years ago. I guess I have not been to this place for at least 3 years, so I’m not sure when this food court started operations.
Anyway, back to explaining food courts…
You know how most visitors come to Penang/Malaysia/Asia spend most of their time hunting down the best street food A/best street food B/bla bla bla? Thing is, usually the best char kway teow is located in one corner of the city and the best laksa is in the opposite corner of the city and sometimes the best seafood is located in the outskirts of town. Sometimes it can be a pain in the arse to hunt them all down, especially if you have limited time and stamina.
You see, I always tell the tourists, especially if they are not from Malaysia or Singapore: You don’t need to have the best char kway teow or laksa. You probably wouldn’t know why they are best anyway. Just like I wouldn’t know the differences between steaks from Applebee’s and Chili’s. What you need are just decent versions of these local delights that at least taste authentic.
This is where food courts come into the picture. Usually, food courts are places where the locals really eat. You think we have time to brave an hour of traffic jams to hunt down a bowl of laksa and eat it beside a smelly drain on a frequent basis? No… we’re not idiots. We’ll just look for a food court near where we live/work that sells a decent version of it. This means more often than not, you WILL get authentic tasting local delights in a food court that tastes decent enough.
And you get to dine in a relatively comfortable environment, with proper tables and chairs and ventilation. Ventilation is very important in a country like Malaysia, because it is freaking hot and humid here, 365 days a year!
Examples examples… let me show you what you can get in Sungai Ara Food Court. There are more than 20 different stalls here selling different food items, so these are just the tip of an iceberg.
Char Kway Teow 炒粿条, fried rice noodles, probably the most famous Penang delight of all times. This one’s plenty good. Look at the prawn!
Sour and Spicy Fish Fillet Beehoon 酸辣米粉汤, this one used to operate in another shack just down the road. It is pretty famous among the factory workers here. Ask any engineers in Penang about Sungai Ara Spicy and Sour Beehoon and they will most likely know what you’re talking about. Yeah, they have moved here. Bihun means vermicelli, in Hokkien language.
No… wait a minute. I think my char kway teow picture is kind of misleading. Looks pretty huge portion, isn’t it? Here, let me zoom out. Compare with the glass of iced coffee.
Penang is famous for serving street food in tiny portions at a slightly cheaper price compared to KL. They claim the tiny portions is so that we can sample more variety, but I think that’s bullshit. I think they’re just trying to justify being kiam siap (stingy). You get 40% less food at 20% lower price, so in the long run, you spend more money…
By the way, this is really a decent plate of char kway teow. After zooming out, let me now zoom in instead.
See that piece of brownish thing in the middle, sitting above the prawn and beansprout? That’s a piece of pork lard. You will only get pieces of these in a Chinese char kway teow. The Malays and Indians don’t eat this thing (factual statement, not racist statement), their versions of kway teow have different things to make the dish tick.
It’s bad for your health. Pork lard is also sometimes called the cancer booster among the hearty char kway teow eating fraternity (boosts your chance of getting cancer). But it has got absolutely wonderful fragrance. It is what makes a plate of good char kway teow become great. Actually, pork lard makes almost everything great.
And hey, if we talk about cancer boosters, the same can be said for fast food. If we have been eating McRonald’s for ages, a few more pieces of lard would not hurt much more. Right?