One of the great secret things you may find around town is the edible garden. In our complex, most of these plants are hidden behind decorative ones in the landscaping – not sure if it’s for aesthetics or to keep the secret of free ingredients! If you have a little space to plant, or even some pots, consider putting in some of these ingredients for a fresh spice to your dinner.
Being from Michigan, an American state with a cool northern climate where the distinctive four seasons “come in like a lion and go out like a lamb”, I moved to Penang and noticed little difference from one month to the next. Where I used to say: wait five minutes, the weather will change, if you wait 5 minutes in Penang it will still be hot and muggy, maybe a bit wetter with the perspiration accumulation on your clothing. In short, I didn’t think Penang had seasons. People talked about hot and dry times, but that seemed like grasping at straws to put a name on it. However, after four years here, I can appreciate the gentle swing of seasons. Here’s my (very non-scientific) take on it.
In mid January, the rain stops, the sun comes out and Penang dries up. If it’s like last year, it really dries up – we went 13 weeks without a drop of rain. The normally green island turned brown at the edges and there were even some unfortunate forest fires on Penang Hill. Days can be so hot you wouldn’t want to walk around my pool barefoot for fear of burning your feet, and jumping in offers little reprieve from the scorching days as the water’s been heated up too! Your friends are posting pictures of mountains and snow, go ahead and make them jealous of the bright sea and swaying palms. This is summer.
April-June: Little Rainy Season
April rolls around, and one day large fluffy clouds gather on the once dusty horizon. Everyone holds their breath, and the rain falls. Once it starts, that’s the shift, and the next 2-3 months are my autumn. That perfect time when the trees drop their saffron flowers and clog the storm drains, and overnight the verdant green returns to every edge of the island.
mid-June – August: Hot Haze
When it dries up eventually in Penang, it also does on our neighboring landmass of Sumatra. This is traditionally the time farmers and corporations clear land for planting using a slash-and-burn method. (Educate yourself before pointing fingers in this atrocity) Indonesia is on fire, and the smoke crosses the straits of Malacca and covers Penang and western Malaysia in Haze. We pray for wind and rain to clear the skies, and eventually they come sometime around the end of August to beginning of September. This is a winter for me, more like the dirty slushy time instead of the Christmas white. Nice for staying indoors with your air filter.
September-December: Big Rainy Season
Spring! The rain comes, and comes, and comes. There are gorgeous sunsets and magnificent cloud formations. While it rains often and often fiercely, but the patches of sunshine in between are glorious and never allow me to lose sight of the tropical island we live on. The pool goes cold from rainwater, and you might even break out your long pants if you are headed somewhere with air conditioning. Soak it up, Chinese New Year is right around the corner…and that means hot dry!
We spent nearly six months in Penang. I mean, we slept every night in our apartment, had breakfast at our table, and swam away the afternoons and weekend in our pool or the pools of our friends and neighbors. We’ve been expats here for four years, and it was the longest we had spent continuously in our home away from home. For many expats out there, you’ll appreciate the magnitude of that record. As you’d gather from the GO section of this blog, we are pretty regularly on the move: planes, trains & automobiles. So, when we decided to sit tight for a bit, I was surprised at my reaction.
I didn’t get itchy feet, nor did I spent my evenings trolling TripAdvisor and WikiTravel.Org, pining for time away. Time slipped past and I got jaded. Annoyed at things that “weren’t like home”, procedures and bureaucracies that didn’t make sense. Frustrated with traffic and air conditioning and my house being invaded by insects and the things that eat insects. Daily Penang under scrutiny was looking a lot less like the overseas adventure we’d signed up for, and more like, well, life. And those things I missed from home? They loomed large under the microscope.
Apparently, I needed a ten thousand foot view. Or 17,000 as it would be on a Firefly flight to Koh Samui. We had a great time at a different waterfront property on a different tropical island in a similar summer monsoon pattern. Eating delicious but similar food, swimming in a different pool. All those experiences revived me, and upon landing back in Penang, I metaphorically kissed the ground we landed on as HOME. It took leaving to know what we have here, and to enjoy the quiet urban life Penang offers. It was a sweet homecoming.
How does home leave factor in here? With two little kids, I’m reluctant to brave the flights/jetlag that come along with a journey around the world, and it’s been a while since we traveled home home. Meanwhile, memories of that place grow and change, reshape and polish in my mind. Comparing life on the ground in Penang to the picture I have reserved leads to a longing, and often Penang comes up short. What I have learned on every home leave we have done (five in the last four years), is that while those memories were shifting around in my head, I was changing too. Moulding to the land I lived and spent my days. Again, homecoming was always sweet, sinking back into the routine a comfort over a monotony.
If you’re an expat on the go, you can use these words for justification to book the next flight. If you are starting to nitpick at your days on this little island, use this as a basis to get up-up-up and book to a different little island. Or busy metropolis. Travel, and grow. And then, come HOME.
- The Georgetown Festival is coming to Penang in August, and tickets to events are on sale now! International acrobats at Circus Circus a major drum circle with The Kitchen look like highlights to me. Also interesting: Rhythmic Space and the Thai Puppets. This Trolley Dance troop looks amazing – and it’s free!
- It’s that time of year again when we obsessively check the air pollution index. Fingers crossed that we’ve been through the worst of it, but this “season” usually lasts through July.
- Home made, delicious sourdough bread in Georgetown! Check out Yin’s at 11 Pesara Claimant.
- Real Food at Straits Quay hosts an Organic Farmers Market the 3rd Sunday of every month. If you missed June’s, mark your calendar for July.
- My husband and I are loving the new whiskey bar on Muntri St. Mish Mash mixes up some impressive cocktails, try out the smokin’ joe for a show!
- Every parent who lives near the water or a pool needs to read this.
- Sam’s Groceria, soon coming to Strait Quay, also offers online ordering and delivery. While pork- and alcohol-free, this grocery chain has an impressive array of other items, including an awesome cheese deli, great ethnic ingredients and selection of whole wheat pasta. (It’s slightly sad that is exciting to me).
- Penang’s authentic French baker previously from La Boheme has joined the team at SiTigun and is filling the dessert case with all kinds of deliciousness! Creme brulee, petite fours and yes! Almond croissants!
Penang is a place of medical tourism, and that includes dental (although choosing to combine holidays with dental work sounds counteractive to the relaxation mode). For those of us living here, a trip to the dentist may be necessary in an emergency and prudent for prevention. Understand that there may be a difference in care compared to your home country (checkups most often would not include a cleaning or x-rays), and do not hesitate to look for a second opinion. Here are some of the offices visited by fellow Penang expats. Enjoy!
KK Ong Dental Surgery This is a classic favorite among expats, but folks have warned they have different experiences with the different care providers. Good response time and convenient hours.
Smile Bay With several locations around Penang, this is one of the big franchise operations.
Adventist Hospital It seems odd to head to the hospital for dental work, but several folks have been here with good results. Similar to most hospitals, you register and wait on a first come first served basis.
Leave your favorites or reviews in the comments!
Living in the steamy tropics, the cubic capacity of your freezer is almost as important as floor space in your living room. I remember assessing this feature in every unit we visited (after checking if the “oven” was not really a dish dryer in disguise). After you start to stock your pantry, you’ll soon find out why. What I typically considered “store cupboard” items in the cooler, dryer clime I came from slowly migrated to the fridge/freezer as they were defeated prematurely on the shelf – either by invasion or spoiling. After four years, the exodus has included all but the most sturdy of ingredients. So, Come along! On a tour of my freezer.
Flour. This is one of the most delicate ingredients on a steamy shelf. Prone to weevils, bugs and rancidity, you’d be hard pressed to keep it out longer than a week. This goes especially for any whole-grain variety, which can go bad very quickly due to oils. I’ve taken to only buying flour in sealed plastic (the paper containers are more susceptible in the shop), and my whole wheat from the baking store where he keeps it refrigerated.
Bread. Bread goes moldy on the counter and dry in the fridge. Slice it, stack it with the face of the slice down to avoid crimping, and put it straight into the toaster from the freezer for a week of fresh bread.
Nuts/seeds. The natural oils in these goods go off very quickly above “room” temperature, which likely your kitchen is hovering above day and night. Again, buy from places that have them refrigerated.
Rice. Fact 1: all rice has bugs, or at least the eggs of bugs that can soon hatch when you get home. Fact 2: the cold of the freezer kills the bugs/eggs. Unless you like to open a bag to a little family, in it goes straight from the shopping cart.
Frozen Fruits/Vegetables. Where else are you going to store frozen veg? Well, make sure you have extra room for those bags of peas and corn you purchased to get your salmon filets home from the shop when you forgot your ice packs. Also, Emborg spinach cubes (which will stealthily get leafy greens into any toddler), kilos of frozen wild blueberries and raspberries from Muthu’s for muffins and smoothies, and bags of edamame from the shop next to Bonjour Trading for healthy kid-snacks. And bananas ripen fast here – freeze the softies for “ice cream” (just blend in the processor), smoothies or baked goods.
Crackers/cookies. I completely understand why most crackers and cookies here come in individually wrapped portions. These guys get stale and soft almost instantly in a cupboard, even when air tight. When I have to open a big bag, I put them in a ziptight container and freeze them to dole out one at a time.
Meat. If I bring meat, chicken or seafood home from the shop or market and don’t plan to cook it within 4 hours, I freeze it. It just seems too fragile not to (based on past experience – I won’t elaborate).
Ice! Make sure you have a good ice system going in your freezer. If you haven’t noticed, it’s hot here! You can also freeze all kinds of things in covered ice cube trays for later: expensive minced fresh herbs in a bit of water, citrus juice for quick frozen margaritas, and cream which can’t make it a week in my fridge.
Some folks may use their fridge similarly, but I find the freezer to be a drier environment less likely to pass on smells and flavors. Also, Tiger doesn’t do too well in the freezer, and we need to prioritize space!
If you aren’t starstruck already, prepare to be – by yourself (or your husband). The filming has commenced for the British Series Indian Summers in Penang and they are in need of extras, especially of the Caucasian male variety. I went for a hair and costume fitting recently and it was super fun to see behind the scenes, plus to think of myself on TV…exciting!
Call or email San for casting: firstname.lastname@example.org 016 321 6999
- Live on Gurney Drive? This could be your new “seaview”.
- Three glasses of wine plus starters for 50++? Yes Please! Head to That Little Wine Bar Thursdays from 6:30-8pm for their weekly Soiree.
- FiT Malaysia is heading back to Penang in June for their 6-week Personal Trainer ACE Certification Prep Course. Perfect for anyone with a passion for fitness or looking for continuing education in the industry.
- Along with all the great things to be either delivered, or to obtain by drive-by, the bread bike is the best of both worlds. These guys are often roaming the streets like drones, perhaps ringing bells. They sell both home made bread by the loaf, pre-packaged bakery loaves or can whip you up a white-bread-and-planta sammie while you wait. Wave one over and try it out!
- A friend introduced me to what she reckons is the eighth wonder of Penang – Sin Nam Huat Chicken Rice on Burma Rd near Bagan Jermal. Open mornings through lunch, their taste and efficiency are pretty impressive. Be sure to shell out 2RM for the “spicy soup”, it’s heaven.
- We recently made the trek to the Talk Talk Wine Bar, and enjoyed a trifecta not often found: good wine, awesome Thai food and live music in one place! Definitely worth the drive south on a Saturday night!
- I drive past it every day, but just recently stopped for a completely shaded, flat grass track about 800m around – At the corner of Jalan Residenci & Utama across from the General Hospital. Honk if you see me there bustin repeats.
Malaysia has been a great place to begin raising our family. The weather is kid-friendly, especially for toddler nudists and potty trainers. There are pools around every corner. Our local park has monkeys. I couldn’t name a restaurant that is not accommodating to children, even snazzy Cassis has a white leather highchair. And the people love children. All the people – from security guards to the teen girls on their mobiles manning the hair clip kiosk at Gurney, old grannies and college age boys with guitars, taxi drivers to gardeners to the silent tai chi club. Kids are welcome, doted on, and bring smiles everywhere. And if your child happens to be exotic in any way, you’ve likely got a little celebrity on your hands, subjected to all the “special treatment” that comes along with it. Here’s what to expect, and some tips for handling it.
Paparazzi. I never really understood where all these photos of your grandma with my kid are going to end up – in a family photo album? In any case, my children (and me!) have been photographed on a very regular basis since landing in Asia. At times permission has been requested and granted, but sometimes it’s just a quick click of a mobile and our faces are immortalized forever. I was forced to put this in perspective on our recent trip to India. I stood on the side of the Jodhpur Fort, holding the hand of one very blond boy with a very blond girl strapped to my chest while my shutterbug husband waited a few paces away hoping for a brightly clad lady in a sari to wander through a doorway. Within minutes, my children and I were subjects of dozens of mobile snaps, the same people who may have been wondering what this white guy is going to do with the picture of their granny in her faded traditional dress. If your children get frustrated with people asking for their photos, encourage them to speak for themselves, and respectfully ask to not have their photo taken.
Kidnapping. Not real kidnapping, but it may feel that way the first time your baby is whisked out of her high chair by a waitress at a restaurant and paraded through the kitchen doors for show and tell to the chef. Before you panic about the whereabouts of your bloodline, understand that this too is quite normal. If your child seems OK with it, perhaps look at this as an opportunity for him to get used to different people and check up every 30 seconds on his whereabouts. If not, keep your eagle eyes open for a potential swoop and use your hand on your child to say hands off. Explain calmly and respectfully your child needs to stay at the table as he is eating, etc. and after you can bring him around to see what is going on behind closed doors.
Boy? The long red ponytail is tied up in a pink bow to match the tutu your daughter is wearing and the security guard smiles up at you and asks “boy?”. What may be obvious gender cues to Westerners do not particularly apply here, so don’t be offended for the mishap. Also understand that in many families it may be more desirable to sire sons, and they may have been actually wanting to avoid offending you by assuming your child was male. Smile and introduce your baby girl.
Yoo-Hoo! Over Here! There are lots of ways to get a child’s attention, and clapping in their face, pinching their cheeks and ruffling their hair are a few local favorites. There is not a great way to avoid this treatment, so you may need to go with approaching the situation with patience and grace. If your child is sleeping in a stroller, look out for the cheek-pinching granny approaching and clearly mime SHHHH! baby sleeping! Your tolerance and respectful body language will wear off on your kids and teach them to get out of the way, and help keep reactions in check.
Feeding Time. I recently took a visiting American friend and her 11-mo-old to my favorite Indian breakfast spot. As her son perched on the counter while we paid the bill, the Uncle taking our money popped a sugar cube in the tot’s mouth and clucked his chin. Now, this child had likely never had anything but organic veg puree his entire life and here he was with a refined sugar cube down his gullet! I could sympathize with my friend’s horror. Unfortunately, offering treats to children is very common. Teach your kids about eating food from strangers, and intercept whenever possible. Explain it will soon be meal-time and we can save it for later (in mom’s bag).
The theme here is responding respectfully. I have found there to be a wide cultural rift in the treatment and perception of children, and most of the time it is for families’ benefit here in Asia. People truly love children, and while the treatment may be paralleled with that of a zoo animal, it is all with the best of intentions. Keep your values safe, but maintain perspective, especially as you may photograph or report on some interesting cultural phenomenon you witness here.
For a future post: How children react when they move home and realize they are no longer the best thing on Gurney Drive.
Admittedly, I most often go to the hardware store to buy lightbulbs. While I am there, however, I notice what else is on offer and have picked up some things I knew I needed but didn’t know where to look. Check out these shops for your home project list:
Mr. DIY is one of my favorite everything stores in Penang. There is also a wide range of tools and household fittings that are perfect for patching up a rental (read: not the best quality, but cheap!). 2F, Island Plaza.
Chulia St Hardware Alley is a great place to visit even if you don’t need any tools. This alley way across from Rainforest bakery on Chulia St has several stalls selling every tool imaginable, as well as a good selection of knives (just had my kitchen knives sharpened there too!), hardware cloth, fittings, bike components, etc etc etc. I go to the guy in front, Ong Cheng Hock Hardware, 298 Chulia St.
Yong Tanjung DIY Hardware is a perfect stop along the road from Island to Gurney Plaza. You can pull right in and be out in minutes with exactly what you need. The owners are super nice and helpful and have a cute poodle too. Great selection of lightbulbs, random hardware and outdoor/landscaping needs, with higher end fixtures. 7-B Jalan Tanjung Tokong.
Parkson Gurney 3F stocks a decent amount of hardware stuff and light bulbs, plus basic tools and loads for the home. Conveniently right in Gurney, unfortunately can have Gurney sized lines at the check out on weekends.
Daiso stocks a lot of little random hardware items you might not find elsewhere. At only 5RM a piece you might be tempted to fill up your basket! Cash only, Gurney 3F and Paragon LG.