I was alone in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia, and was eating my way through a list of street foods. While I had tried classic dishes like laksa, I had yet to delve into the Chinese side of the cuisine. As it happened, a highly rated dim sum restaurant was close to my hotel, so one morning I ventured out to whet my tastebuds.
The restaurant was situated on a busy corner, steps from Lebuh Kimberly, one of many bustling food hubs of Georgetown. The door of the whitewashed building was open, and the clinking of plates and rumble of conversation spilled out welcomingly. I attempted to ask for a table, but as is often the challenge in local spots, no one spoke English. With gestures and hungry glances at the dim sum carts, I was placed at a small table against the wall, and no amount of waving would make anyone notice me. Frustrated, I contemplated making my way through the crowded maze of people eating to serve myself, when I heard a gentle “Excuse me.” Turning around, a middle-aged man, in broken English, asked me to join his table of older men, already happily munching away.
Space was made and a chair was found, and so I joined a weekly lunch group. Only the first man spoke English, and asked what I wanted to eat. “Everything” I replied. He was doubtful at first, but as we progressed through the meal, he took pleasure in ordering more traditional dishes, challenging me to decline, and the whole table beamed when I continued eating with gusto. From congee with wontons and century eggs, to seafood dumplings, and many dishes whose names were lost in translation, the food kept coming, until finally, drowned in tea and stuffed to the brim, I bowed out.
As we finished, I rummaged through my wallet, and the man, whose name I never learned, placed his hand on my arm. With a smile that shone through his eyes, he paid for the most delicious dim sum meal of my life, and strode off to begin his day.