If there’s one thing we Malaysians love, that’s our pasars (markets); they have been dispensing fresh food, cheap clothes and knick-knacks to us since long before the advent of hygienic but personal-less, air-conditioned supermarkets.
There’s something very lau juak (cheerful) about these noisy, bustling places, whether you go in the early morning, afternoon, or night. Sweaty bodies aside, there’s some great camaraderie and entertainment to be had as you jostle with the rest of the punters, wondering amongst the stalls with your bakul (basket), picking and prodding, haggling and rejecting.
Although we have many in Penang, there’s none so well known as our famous Chowrasta Market, situated in Lower Penang Road. Derived from an Urdu word meaning “cross roads”, it was (and still is by old timers) referred to as “Kelenga Bansan”, Indian – or to be more precise Kalinga – Market, as many of the original traders there were from southern India
. It’s actually it is divided into three main parts.
The front portion which faces the Lower Penang Road is the most well-known, as everyone knows that this is where you go if you want to pick up any of the local food products that Penang is famous for. Pickled nutmeg, biscuits, durian cake, dodol, preserved limes, black prawn paste (hey ko), belacan, or a myriad of locally-produced oils and balms which are supposedly cure-alls for any ailments you may have.
Every stall also has a large section of yellow, red and even green sweet and sour pickled or preserved fruits: papaya, mango, buah salak (Indonesian snake fruit), the ubiquitous nutmeg, plums – you name it.
Penang is of course also well known for its sweet/salty tambun biscuits (tau sar peah) made with bean filling, and you’ll find a large selection available here.
Directly behind is the huge, dark, covered wet market, where housewives from nearby neighbourhoods congregate every morning, and which is one of the few places left where you can get bottled raw perut ikan, the preserved fish stomach and intestines which is a prerequisite for making the popular nyonya dish of the same name.
Take a walk upstairs - it’s a bit like stepping back into the 1960s, so little has changed. There are shoe shops, clothes shops, coffee shops and right at the back, bookstalls which are filled to the brim with shelves upon shelves of second-hand textbooks, comics, magazines, novels, books, catalogues, in English, Malay and Chinese, with many more stacked outside in haphazard piles. It’s wordsmith heaven.
There doesn’t appear to be any formal cataloguing; things are done here the way they have been since the year dot - it’s a matter of browsing around until something catches your fancy.
At the back, on Kuala Kangsar Road which runs parallel to Penang Road, the open-air market third section comes to live every morning as stallholders of every description come to hawk their wares. It heaves with bargain hunters all intent on picking out the choicest morsels for their evening meal.
From kopitiams (coffee shops) selling tasty local dishes to seafood which has come in straight that morning, to chicken and meat, from plants to cakes and fruit, clothes and accessories, bags and shoes – they are all there, cheap and plentiful. Tucked away in little nooks down the warren of tiny side streets are some ancient shops selling all manner of goods like preserved fish and clothes, many of them quietly servicing Penang’s population for the past half century or more.