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Thursday, November 23

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When I first moved to Chicago from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I heard rumors about an actual Malaysian restaurant in the city. Further investigation revealed that it was indeed true and that it was located in Chinatown on the South Side. Being absolutely clueless about Chicago's geography in those first few weeks (but quickly learning) I eventually made a trip to Chinatown to scope out the area. While I saw Penang, I didn't eat there, opting instead for Chinese. Admittedly, I was skeptical — would a restaurant that claimed to serve the food of my birthright be as good as it was in its native environment? I vowed to return. Months passed and I forgot about it until I heard that groups of Malaysian students would drive to Penang on Sundays from University of Michigan and Indiana University in Bloomington for a taste of home. I was now sold. I had to visit. And I did — quite a few times.

When the subject came up at a different Fork It Over dinner (Staropolska) for possible places to go, I suggested Penang. And so this past Thursday Alice, Andrew, Jes and I met up there in the evening. The space at Penang is large, and is somewhat divided into two areas: a lower main floor dining room suited more for large groups and a smaller platform area, three steps up, that gave everyone a view of street. At the end of that area is a sushi bar. A bar area near the door is where the many traditional non-alcoholic drinks and desserts they offer are made. The main kitchen is hidden away in the back. Dressed in sort of a tropical Tiki style vibe with lots of bamboo rods here and there, the space is open and wide.

Since this was the food of my country, the rest of the troops left me in charge of the ordering. Most of the dishes are family style, which serve two to four people. Jes had called saying she'd be late and requested that we go ahead and order, but wanted a vegetarian dish if possible. The menu is lengthy and there are no page numbers; instead you navigate it by dish number, which got up way past 100. They're broken down by food type — seafood, poultry, beef, vegetables, tofu and pork.

Rendang is ubiquitous in Malaysia — served in many different styles in restaurants, hawker stalls and home. It's a hybrid curry and stew that's been thickened and dried out a little, but there's no shortage of moisture here. The meat (usually beef or chicken) is melt-in-your-mouth tender since preparation calls for a long cooking time. The Beef Rendang is quintessential Malaysian and thus ordered. I also suggested the Sizzlin' Chicken — satay-style marinated bits of white meat served on a sizzling platter. For the vegetarians in the house and Jes, I ordered the Chili Tofu. It was a dish I'd never had but it sounded good on the menu. An appetizer was also ordered: Penang Rojak — a tropical fruit salad (think pineapple, guava and mango) topped with crushed nuts and a thick black sauce that's both sweet and spicy. This is also one of those have-to-get dishes. Everyone also ordered drinks — Jes and I both ordered the soy bean drink, hers with glass jelly (thin black gelatinous strips much like the tapioca found in bubble tea) while mine was plain. This isn't like the kind of soy milk you find in the US, made to taste like cow's milk. This is the earthy, sweeter and real soybean flavored drink which is known in Asia as soya.

The Penang Rojak arrived first — everyone grabbed a fork and aside from me, proceeded with caution as to what to expect from a fruit salad with such a dark sauce. Alice was pleased, Andrew satiated and Jes wanted to eat the sauce alone. She agreed when I said that many do. I actually did. If I wasn't in a public place I would have licked the plate clean.

Our entrees, served with a big bowl of rice for everyone to share, arrived one by one. The Beef Rendang was as I know it — tender and tasty. It's a slightly sweet and spicy sauce with earthy tones. Andrew liked its tenderness but caught a few tiny pieces of cartilage which might bother some, while I didn't. I got lucky I guess. It's a signature dish.

The Sizzlin' Chicken wasn't what I expected though I didn't know what to expect. It was the same kind of cubed white chicken bits they use for Satay (which you've probably had at a Thai restaurant) with the same marinade/flavor. Adorned with mango and sweet sauce — you guessed it, it was sweet and spicy. Alice liked it, saying it was light and flavorful while Andrew thought it was a bit dry. The chicken was definitely grilled and then placed in the sizzling pan with the sauce (adorned with bits of mango and onion) on top.

The Chili Tofu, the underdog, was what amazed us the most. Frankly, it wasn't much to look at — deep fried tofu cubes with pieces of onion and small chili pieces (cili padi as it's known in Malaysia) which pack a ton of heat and a very slight invisible sauce. Jes puts it best, "The tofu was some of the best fried tofu I've had, and I don't usually like fried foods. It was light, not greasy, had a deep flavor, like a long marinade, which was nicely set off by the chili. Its little orange peppers packed some decent heat!" I think everyone was amazed at how good the tofu itself was — it really seemed like they managed to make the oil vanish.

Malaysian desserts are a force in themselves. Despite their simplicity, they're much sought after anywhere they appear. I ordered three deserts that were representative of the best that Malaysia had to offer in the sweets department. The Pulut Hitam (which translates to Black Gelatinous Rice) is a warm dish that's colored purple from the combination of red beans and sticky rice in a milky broth. Ais Kacang (translated, in means Nutty Ice) is much like a tall shaved ice snowball. However, it's the other ingredients that make it unique: red beans, palm oil seeds, corn, glass jelly, evaporated milk and rose syrup. Last but not least and my favorite -- and, after a bite or two, everyone else's -- was the Cendol. This is the dessert that hawkers sell roadside in their traveling carts to hungry, tired and thirsty motorists looking for a refreshing and sweet pick-me-up as they drive home in intense traffic. A dish made up of more shaved ice, sweet coconut milk, a brown sugar syrup and, best of all, these small green flour bits that look sort of like small worms. I love them all (especially the Cendol) so I'll let you hear from everyone else:

Andrew: "The Pulut Hitam was soothing and warm, while the Cendol and Kacang were more sweet. The Kacang would probably be a little weird to less adventurous American palettes — most people don't think of corn or beans as dessert ingredients, despite their sweetness."

Alice: "My favorite was the first one -- the warm dessert that was a bit like tapioca or rice pudding (Pulut Hitam). But the iced desserts were also yummy, especially the one with the green pasta "brains."

Jes: "The green worm dessert was my FAVORITE. SO GOOD. I was fishing out the last of the green right when you said "and people will work to find the last of the green bits." then I wanted to drink the coconut brown sugar mixture."

A very satisfying way to end an amazing meal, though I may be biased so I'll leave you with this parting quote from Alice: "Overall, Penang is at the top of my list of all the Fork It Over dinners I've attended." She's been to just about all of them, so you can go ahead and trust her.

And coming from someone who's had the real thing, trust me, this is Malaysian cooking at its best.

Penang is in Chinatown at 2201 S. Wentworth. Call 312-326-6888 for more information or reservations.

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About the Author(s)

Fork It Over is the result of weekly dinners with members of the Gapers Block staff. This week's review was written by Naz Hamid.

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