South East Asia is a part of the world that I’ve very much fallen in love with… a region that is diverse in culture, food and people. From a luxury travel perspective, I’ve never experienced such incredible hotels, service and gastronomy that all come at such great value for money as I have in South East Asia. One destination that I’m yet to make it to is Malaysia, a country that has long been on my bucket list and still waiting to be ticked off.
Seeing the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Orangutans in Borneo and relaxing on the beach in Langkawi are all on the list but one place that wasn’t on my radar was Penang – until now. With the nickname, The Pearl of the Orient, Penang is an exotic island off the north-west coast of Malaysia and is known for having the best food in the country, incredible street art as well as a rich history. Now Qatar Airways have made it even easier to visit Penang with the launch of direct flights as of the 6th of February making the island the airline’s second Malaysian destination. Qatar Airways will fly three times a week from Doha to Penang in the luxury of a state-of-the-art Boeing 787 Dreamliner which features stylish and spacious Business and Economy cabins.
With my knowledge of Penang being limited, Qatar Airways invited me to collaborate with them to discover the wonders the island has to offer. It turns out I could find inspiration without even leaving London as I spent the day exploring Malaysian cuisine, culture and spa right in my own city. My day started (as all the best days do) with food! I headed to Penang (named after the island) in Westfield White City, a restaurant serving authentic Malaysian food. Now I wasn’t previously aware that Penang (the island) was THE place to visit for food and with the capital George Town being a mixture of Chinese, Indian and Malay people, the food is a diverse melting pot. Penang is known for street food in particular and that’s exactly what inspires the menu here at the Westfield restaurant.
I’ve tasted Malaysian food before when I was in Indonesia but I haven’t had it often and I’ve never tried it in London. As a big lover of Asian food, I had no doubt I would be a fan as my companion and I ordered up a feast, munching on seafood dim sim, chicken satays and prawn crackers to start. For main course we moved on to a super spicy prawn sambal for me and Szechuan chicken for her. Now, if like me you’d never had sambal before, it’s a hot sauce made with chilli peppers and has a huge kick to it – I love spicy food and was personally a big fan.
Known as Goreng Pisang, dessert was a Malaysian deep-fried banana served with ice cream, which apparently is also a common form of street food.
Next on my itinerary was learning a bit about the history and culture of Malaysia, and where better than to discover other cultures in London than the Victoria and Albert Museum.
You don’t even need to venture too far as the South East Asia exhibition is located right by the entrance. Turn left and look for exhibit 47a…
And you’ll see an outstanding gallery of South East Asian art, bronzes, golds, silver, stone, terracotta and textiles from all across the region.
The item at number 6 is a buckle dating back to 1800, it was used on a sash by Malay men to hold up a sarong. This piece is particularly elaborate and belonged to a noble man who was the Chief Minister of Perak.
The three little containers at 15 are betel nut boxes. Betel nuts are chewed with a mild stimulant effect and these boxes were used as storage but were also fashion items.
Next up it was a short distance to my most eagerly anticipated stop on the itinerary: Ushvani day spa. A Malaysian-inspired spa in the heart of Chelsea – it’s probably the closest you can get to the real thing! Personally, I’d never been to a spa quite like it. Located in a town house I was blown away by the beautiful wood panelling and grand staircases that felt both incredibly luxurious and relaxing at the same time.
Throughout the spa there is original artwork commissioned in Malaysia and a subtle fragrance of ginger, nutmeg and pandan leaves adds to the sense of place. The spa itself is the culmination of a dream by founder Usha Arumugam, a former city lawyer, who was passionate about bringing the Malaysian spa concept to London.
The spa itself has all the facilities to provide a relaxing and tranquil environment; there’s a spa pool and steam room, four treatment rooms and a yoga studio.
There’s also a gorgeous couples suite, named ‘Asmara’ the Malay word for love, kitted out as a spa within a spa with Malaysian furnishings and artwork.
The spa offers several different treatments from South East Asia but of course to fit with the theme of the day, I would be trying out the Malay massage. I settled comfortably on to the treatment bed and the therapist used long, kneading strokes for a full body massage. The pressure is much more gentle than the Balinese or other Asian massages and is known for its benefit in terms of relaxation, contouring and toning. Of course, I was falling asleep by the end and in a total state of zen. After I got dressed I was taken to the relaxation room where I enjoyed a hibiscus tea – hibiscus is the national flower of Malaysia so they’ve really thought of every detail here at Ushvani Spa.
The massage lasts around an hour and a half plus you’re encouraged to use the facilities to the full at Ushvani Spa so by the time I was finished I was ready for dinner. I was looking forward to another chance to sample Malaysian cuisine and this time I would be joined by my friend at Zheng Chelsea. Named after Chinese Admiral Zheng He who established what is today’s modern Malaysia as a centre of trade and commerce.
As I mentioned before, the food in Malaysia is the product of three cultures – Malays introduced local spices, Chinese gave their woks and sauces to the cuisine and Indians introduced rotis and curry. The food at Zheng represents that spirit of ‘mix and match’ with dishes from all these cultures. Chicken satays are popular street food in Malaysia and here they’re served with a peanut sauce and cucumber.
Salt and pepper squid had just the right level of spice and was perfectly crisp.
For main courses we shared a fiery chicken sambal that was extra spicy – I think sambal might be my new favourite thing! We also opted for a lighter steamed seabass with soya sauce, ginger and spring onions. Sides dishes of spicy stewed aubergines, mixed vegetables and rice finished off our Malaysian feast. I can’t believe that I’d hardly tried Malaysian food before, but I know it’ll be a regular occurrence from now on.
I honestly didn’t know how much the cuisine and culture of Malaysia could be experienced in London. A huge thank you to Qatar Airways for further fuelling my wanderlust and inspiring me to visit Penang.
- Qatar Airways has launched direct flights to Penang, the airline’s second Malaysian destination as part of a global expansion plan.
- Qatar Airways will fly three times a week to Penang in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
- Qatar Airways flies four times a week between London and Chiang Mai via Doha. Prices start from £425.
This is a sponsored post in collaboration with Qatar Airways.