There's fresh crab, live from the tank, and bowls of miniature clams ready for frying in a spicy sauce with garlic and lime. The air smells of...

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PENANG, Malaysia — There’s fresh crab, live from the tank, and bowls of miniature clams ready for frying in a spicy sauce with garlic and lime.

The air smells of roasted ducks and skewers of charcoal-grilled chicken. One stall sells herbal soup; another grills seafood on a stick.

Welcome to the Red Garden Food Paradise, our neighborhood hawkers center.

“Hello Dolly” plays on the boom box. We hear it from our hotel room next door. Might as well stop by and see what’s going on.

Claim one of the white plastic tables and take note of the number on the side. Then go from stall to stall, giving the cook your table number and ordering in small, medium or large portions — clams, the oyster omelet, fried rice, stuff eggplant, chicken satay.

Sit down and put in your drink order to the guy in the red shirt in charge of cleaning off the tables. Try the lime juice spiked with a sour plum to wash away the heat. Then wait for your food to arrive. Pay when it does — maybe the equivalent of $10- $12 for everything, including beer.

Malaysians seem to be constantly eating. Miss the street food here and you miss a nightly movable feast that takes place on street corners and outdoor food courts like this one called hawkers centers.

Books have been written about Penang’s hawkers. Most started out as traveling pushcart vendors hawking their food from portable kitchens with stoves powered by gas canisters.

Lately things became more organized with licensed vendors operating permanent stalls in centers like Red Garden where hygiene standards are high.

Locals seek out their favorite hawkers for the best oyster omelets or laksa, a noodle soup of fish, tamarind juice, pineapple and mint.

Red Garden is a fairly new center with a fun atmosphere, but it’s geared more toward tourists in the surrounding hotels than purists.

Real foodies would probably be happier at a local spot such as New Lane Hawkers Centre — crowded and chaotic — with tasty duck meat noodle soup ($1) and wet spring rolls (also $1) stuffed with tofu and turnip.

Eating this way is an easy way to meet local people. Our favorite place so far for this is the bright and clean Espalande Food Centre on the seafront at Fort Cornwallis in the old British colonial district.

Malay Muslim families and students from a nearby school gather here in the late afternoons for snacks and drinks.

When I asked one family if they minded if I took their picture, they invited us to sit down with them and sample their Singapore duck.

Penang has good restaurants, and it’s nice to relax in the air conditioning, so sometimes we combine a meal with a street stop for tea or dessert after.

We’ve become regulars at Bala Murugan’s drink shop in Little India where we go for 25-cent cups of hot tea sweetened with condensed milk, and nasi lemak, triangle-shaped packets of banana leaves stuffed with rice, coconut and fish.

Searching for dessert after dinner one night along the Gurney Drive seafront, we stopped at a cafe specializing in Indian cooking, called nasi kandar, a combo of Malay and Indian cuisine.

The concept came about when nasi (rice) hawkers would balance a kandar (a pole with containers on both ends) on their shoulders and sell their wares.

The Pakistani owner waved us in. He hoped we’d order dinner, of course, but all we wanted was the honey ice cream we saw advertised on his sign board.

What we got was a thin pancake filed with warm bananas and topped with ice cream drizzled with honey.


Carol Pucci: