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April 10, 2017 | by  | in Food | [ssba]

Little Penang

Little Penang on Dixon Street is perhaps Wellington’s favourite Malaysian restaurant. Showcasing the cuisine from the state of Penang in Northwest Malaysia is either the easiest path to success or perhaps a reputational burden that would leave even the most mundane patron disappointed.

Penang, after all, has been heralded as the food capital of Southeast Asia by renowned chefs and writers. Officially set up as a trading port by our familiar British colonials, Penang was said to be a “convenient magazine of trade,” sitting on the Malaccan Straits between China and India. To be sure, plenty of trade and mixing had occurred long before Francis Light made his new territorial discovery. In fact, the first Chinese settlers had moved to the region as early as the 15th century. Known as the Peranakans, or Straits Chinese, this group either fully or partially integrated into the customs of the local indigenous communities. As such, the Peranakan community is a fascinating nod to the notion of existing between cultures, and forming new ones. This integration occurred within the realm of cuisine too. The owners of Little Penang, coming from a line of Peranakan heritage, tell this story through their food.  


During the lunch hour the service is always prompt and genial. The atmosphere is created by the plates mimicking banana leaves, contemporary Penang styled paintings on the walls, and the douse of fresh sunlight from the wall to ceiling windows. While staring with reverie at the numerous, luxurious gravies simmering in the bain-marie at the counter, selecting a dish can be quite a challenge. But this is just a testament to the consistency and quality of the food — it leaves you spoilt for choice. Be it the Kapitan Chicken or the Masak Merah, a treat is bound to ensue.

From the menu, my safe-solid pick (as with many other people I know) would be the mee goreng. I’ve dedicated a large part of my life to eating many plates of mee goreng, and as such my opinion here is especially informed. Unlike many other mee gorengs on offer in Wellington, this one is unique. Not sloppy or drenched in soy sauce, it is savoury and not heavy. The tartness of tomatoes is met with the fresh crunch of greens. Then, inexplicably, a sweetness emerges right at the end. With a stickiness, the texture of honey, this mee goreng is served with a tall pile of crispy vegetable fritters.

The gourmet quality of Little Penang’s offering of the humble fried noodle is reflective of the finesse that this restaurant is known for, which distinguishes it from every other Malaysian restaurant in town.

Another signature dish Little Penang offers is the Assam Laksa. This dish is a North-Western regional variation of a Laksa dish, which, while still a noodle broth, is nothing like the hegemonic Malaysian staple Curry Laksa with its distinctively rich coconut cream broth that we are well acquainted with. True to its name and geography, Little Penang only serves Assam Laksa, which is commendable alone, this being a dish with deliciously dank fish broth and spritely tamarind cut. Perhaps something for the more adventurous eaters among us. However, as a life-long Assam Laksa enthusiast, it must be noted that Little Penang’s version falls far short and in many ways pales in comparison to their rival PappaRich’s offering. Culinary shortcomings such as this remind us that Little Penang are yet to fulfill the heights of praise heaped on them.

Little Penang offers us a little taste of what happens in Penang. The task of showcasing the all-encompassing heterogeneity of the state’s cuisine is perhaps something they never promised in the first place, which is why it is still a restaurant that, at least in Wellington, can stand tall among its competitors. Fused and forged, Little Penang is certainly one of Wellington’s charmers.  


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