Penang photos!
My Favorite Restaurant

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      By my calculations, I've eaten 50 billion meals in my adult life, give or take two or three, I've been to nearly 100 countries and I am morbidly obese, so I think that my opinion about the world's best restaurant is a qualified one that carries weight. (Stay with me; it gets better.)
      Presenting Sri Ananda Bahwan in Little India, Georgetown, Penang Island, Malaysia. Nominally a southern Indian banana leaf restaurant, where a banana leaf is used as a plate and your right hand is your utensil--never the left hand, (this gives some logic to the sign that says, "WASH HAND") they also do tandoori and work magic with all kinds of meats. I hasten to add that they aren't stretching themselves too thin, unlike in America where you see "Chinese Food-Pizza-Donuts-Sushi" and somehow it all tastes the same.
      Local standards are high, as this is Malaysia, food capitol of the world--I will not argue this point--and Penang is widely known to be the pinnacle of good eating. Naturally I love Penang. Here is a slapped-up page of photos.
      Aesthetically the restaurant isn't much to appreciate and avert your eyes if you don't want to see rats outside. A huge shade tree is across the street and in the evening tables and chairs are set up in front, close enough to traffic that you can touch the cars as they pass.
     A large part of Sri Ananda Bahwan's attraction is the spectacle of the place. There is a lot going on. It feels like 500 guys are working there at any one time and accordingly there's always shouting, chaos and order mix-ups. It's lively and busy, but all comes to a halt and all the guys stop and stare whenever a ravishing, dark-skinned, lithe, long-limbed, elegant Tamil girl with bewitching eyes appears (Did I mention that I like Penang?) and then they overly fuss while pretending not to.
      At the entrance to Sri Ananda Bahwan on big outdoor griddles are its superstars, K. Boominathan on roti canai and Murukesh on dosai (also spelled "dosa" and "thosai"). These two are absolute masters of their craft as they show their skills with self-confidence, flair and panache. They always have big bright smiles that belie their hard work. A manager said to me, "Basically, they are from India." I think this is shorthand for "They're enslaved here." Roti canai is hard to do well but K. makes it look easy. In the video he demonstrates flawless throwing technique while looking at me filming. Roti canai can be heavy and greasy in the wrong hands, but K. deftly makes them light and airy.
Roti canai on banana leaf Roti canai on table
      I've seen roti canai most of the time described as an Indian pancake, which is so off the mark that every time I see it I'm enraged enough to hurl my monitor through the nearest window. So what are roti canai and dosai? Actually, dosai is closest to a pancake, a very thin, unsweet one that can have a savory filling or the dosai itself can be dipped into several different sauces. Roti canai is...hmmm, what is it? It's a lightly flaky, slightly doughy concoction...uh, um, "roti" does mean bread in Malay...heck, I can't explain it. Let's just move on...
      I wish I had sound for Murukesh's dosai video. (I also wish I knew how to have it be less than 6MB--and how can I rotate the roti canai video so you don't need to lay on your side for 45 seconds to watch it? Help, anyone?) The ambient restaurant clatter mixes in nicely with the virtuoso performance. The water that's thrown on the griddle to sizzle, the ordering and barking. It looks like he's hamming it up for the benefit of the camera, but he tosses the dosai to the waiting servers as a matter of course.
K. Boominathan video (1.8MB) Murukesh video (6.6MB!!!)
      I could sit and watch these guys work all day like Iíd watch Michael Jordan shoot baskets. On trips abroad they should be feted and given red carpet treatment as if they were royalty because their talents are so sublime and unparalleled. They command my respect. I'm working on life size papier mache models of them as I write this.
Quick validation: I was hitchhiking on Penang island when an Indian man picked me up and we started discussing food. When I mentioned my fondness for Sri Ananda Bahwan he nodded knowingly and looked me over again with new eyes, my homeless appearance belying my knowledge of fine local food.
      I've been coming here for years and it never disappoints, which in this day and age is saying something. I would suggest avoiding lunch as breakfast and especially dinner are the times to see the masters in action. On the other hand, it is instructive to see the work of a lower rung dosai guy compared to the great Murukesh. I just hope he doesn't call the immigration police on Murukesh in a fit of jealousy.
     Roti canai and dosai are the anchors that mesmerize everyone and involuntarily suck them into the restaurant, but once inside you discover the myriad of possiblities, among them the incomparable "vegetarian chicken" which is nothing less than Allah's gift to Malaysia. The faux chicken, I don't know what it is. Textured soy? Rice flour? However they do it, it's the best. I had a German couple try it and they couldn't believe it wasn't chicken. The spicy tofu is a favorite. It overcame me so much I couldn't hold my camera still.
The vegetarian chicken Shaking with emotion at the sight of spicy tofu
      Mango lassi (a sweet yogurt drink), teh tarik (literally "pulled tea", a milky chai that's poured back and forth until a froth forms on top), and teh ais limau (ice lemon tea) are common drinks done well. I never have room to try the desserts, though I've been tempted by the yogurt donuts that look better than they sound.
      I fret that Sri Ananda Bahwan's future looks bleak. For one, it's in the Lonely Planet book now. I see foreigners there more often. Thatís never a good sign. Its popularity propelled it to expand next door. Even the microscopic publicity my little website is giving it worries me. They put a flashy new sign up. In the good old days there were two signs with two different spellings of the name. How great is that? There's even a Chinese guy working there now. What is this world coming to?! I'm very racist about this. Heís too efficient and he doesn't even try to do the great Indian head roll/swivel/dip/wobble. It's egregious! Prices are creeping up, US$2-3 for a large meal, which by backpacker standards is pushing it, but my enthusiasm isn't flagging. My biggest complaint is that I can never buy a Sri Ananda Bahwan staff shirt. I would wear it all the time with pride. Actually, Restoran Sup Hameed (gotta love the name) on the other side of town has a better designed shirt but it's bright pink and I have to stay loyal.
      So there it is. Now you know my Penang routine: I stagger away from another full meal at Sri Ananda Bahwan and into the screeching shrill of Little India, already counting the hours and conjuring things to do until it is time to eat again.
      Evening Directions: Find the loudest intersection in tiny Little India where video stores out-blast each other with movie soundtracks and walk one block north to the next corner. Look for the big tree.
      Morning Directions: 55 Penang Street, corner of Lebuh Penang (donít confuse with Jalan Penang) and Lebuh Gereja.

     I don't want to clutter up my spellbinding text too much on this page so I am putting the rest of the photos here. Most of these pix are from a visit 2 years ago. Recognize K.?
By day By night

2005--see the signs with different spellings? 2005

The "O" means without milk One dollar = 3.8 ringgit      
The boys also find time to chat
when a pretty Korean girl shows up
Tandoori man ready for action Chili cauliflower

Roti canai on the grill K. on fire

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