Earlier this year, I spent two months in Asia starting from Bali, then going to Jyogyakarta in Java, Gili Air in Lombok and finally in Malaysia. My husband Sandy joined me for the last leg of the trip and so we flew to Malaysia together. Our first stop was the wonderful and exotic island of Penang.
Ever since my short, but truly memorable trip to Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo a few years ago, I have been wanting to visit return to Malaysia. In particular, I wanted to visit Penang, an island off on the northwest coast of mainland Malaysia, dubbed the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ and the “world’s best food destination” (Lonely Planet 2014).
Georgetown, a World Heritage Site
Sandy and I spent four full days in Georgetown, the capital of Penang and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town centre is fairly small and easy to get around on foot, bicycle or taxi (tip: use the Grab app). Sure, we could have covered the old streets and historic landmarks in two days (Armenian Street, Cheong Fatt Tze Blue Mansion, Chinese jetties, Queen Victoria Clock Tower, etc.), but we were happy to have planned extra time, so we could do things slowly.
First of all, because Georgetown is HOT. Even after spending two months in Indonesia, I was surprised by the heat and humidity of Penang! My advice: plan your tours in the early mornings or the late afternoons and evenings. During the hottest hours of the day, we either rested by the pool of our hotel (the wonderful Noordin Mews) or went to a coffee shop or shopping mall.
The second reason is that there were so many dishes I wanted to try in Georgetown that two days would not have been enough.
The Street Food in Georgetown
Penang’s food is impossible to fit in just one category, for it is rooted in different cultures and ethnicities: Chinese, Indian, Malay, Mamak and Nyonya. That’s what makes it special and unique.
There is no lack of great restaurants in Georgetown, from the more traditional ones such as Tek Sen, a Chinese restaurant on Lebuh Carnarvon (order the double-cooked glazed pork) to modern and fun places that cater for young crowds like Two Buns (great burgers). I’m also pleased to report that there is really good speciality coffee in Georgetown (Kraffmen, Bricklin Café, Black Kettle and Macallum Connoisseurs are the ones I had time to visit).
But let’s talk about street food. Hawker centres are undoubtedly the main attraction for foodies travelling to Georgetown.
With more hawker food stalls per square foot than probably any other place in the world, the island of Penang is a foodie’s dream come true. [Guan Chua, The Boy Who Ate The World]
When there are so many street food vendors everywhere, how do you choose where and what to eat? Well, with no knowledge of the city, the local dishes and the language, it is hard to find the best and most authentic dishes. That’s why we decided to book a food tour.
There are few companies offering food tours of Georgetown, but after reading reviews, comparing prices and itineraries, we decided to join the tour with Food Tour Malaysia. It was the perfect introduction into Penang’s history, culture and cuisine. You can also find more food tours of Penang here.
I thought the price was fair ($62 per person including transport and food) and I liked that in between stops we travelled by car. This way, we could explore different corners of the city and have brief moments of respite from the heat. Our guide Kevin, a former chef and restaurateur who’s lived in Penang his whole life, was very knowledgeable and friendly.
Quite fittingly, you’ll find some of the best food on Penang Road. There, I had a taste of three local delicacies: chendol, ais kachang and laksa. This street is very busy during the day up until around 7pm, afterwards everything will be shut (that’s the time when hawker centres get busy).Take a seat inside the restaurant and order from there to skip the long queue at the street food stall.
Penang Assam Laksa
Laksa (rice noodle soup) is one of the most popular dishes in Malaysian cuisine, but it will taste very differently depending on where you eat it. Penang Laksa is rich and spicy from the chilli paste, but also tangy and sour from the tamarind juice spicy and sour than other Laksa varieties found in the south of Malaysia which have a milder and creamier flavour. I wish I loved it, but Laksa is a little bit too spicy for me.
Cendol is a definite must-try dessert in Penang. It’s a bowl of shaved ice filled with green jelly noodles made from rice flour, red kidney beans, fresh coconut milk and gula melaka (brown sugar). It’s my husband’s favourite thing to eat in Malaysia and while we looked for it elsewhere, the best one we had was at Penang Road Teo Chew Cendol.
Ais Kacang is another traditional dessert: fill a bowl with shaved ice and top it with red beans, jelly, nipah palm seed (gelatinous balls), sweet corn, cubes of agar-agar jelly, drizzled with rose syrup and condensed milk. Like the cendol, it is very sweet but also very refreshing.
Prawn Fritters and Loh Bak
Our tour continued with a visit to the Chinese jetties. Each jetty is over a century old and named after a Chinese clan. The homes around it are still inhabited today.
Tan Jetty Prawn Fritters and Loh Bak is the name of a small shack selling, as the name suggests, prawn fritters and loh bak, deep-fried strips of pork loin meat wrapped in beancurd skin. I loved the fritters, but wasn’t personally too keen on the pork.
Kedai Kopi Mei Heong
Kedai Kopi Mei Heong is an open-air hawker centre which I loved because it was off the beaten track and I would have never gone there if I hadn’t been for the food tour. It’s in a small back road surrounded by blocks of flats, a little bit out of the old town, so you’ll need a taxi to get there.
This stall selling all kinds of fritters, fried rolls and deep-fried vegetables was a dream! My favourite was the fried radish sticks, I was surprised by how delicious they were!
We walked over to a food cart where an Indian woman was pouring pancake batter over a cast iron pan. She was making apom manis: sweet, thin crêpes simply filled with brown sugar. So good!
New Lane Hawker Center
During the food tour, we also visited the food stalls in New Lane, one of the most popular destinations for street food in Georgetown. Sandy and I both loved it and we ate there two nights in a row.
New Lane is an open-air hawker centre and it really comes to life at sunset, from 7pm to around 9pm. You’ll notice many tables and chairs next to each food stalls: ask around which tables belong to which stall before sitting down. You can also sit inside the café on the corner and the food vendors will deliver to you (but make sure you order at least one drink per person from the café).
Char Koay Teow
Char Koay Teow is truly a Penang speciality and a crowd-pleaser. The traditional dish is made of flat rice noodle strips stir-fried with shrimps, cockles, eggs, bean sprouts and lap cheong (Chinese sausage) in a mix of soy sauce.
Curry Mee is also extremely popular in Penang: a coconut-milk based curry soup with egg and rice noodles, bean sprouts, prawns, cockles, cuttlefish, mint leaves, eggs and chilli paste. Like the laksa, it was a bit too spicy for me.
Wan Tan Mee
One of my favourite dishes was Wan Tan Mee, a Hakka and Chinese dish originating in South China. It’s available as a dry dish topped off with char siu (barbecued pork) slices or as a bowl of steaming hot broth garnished with shrimp or boiled pork dumplings.
Popiah are fresh spring rolls made with a thin wheat flour crêpe filled with an assortment of ingredients. Perfect for a snack on-the-go. The filling (veggies, eggs, fish or meat) is seasoned with a blend of sweet bean sauce, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, shrimp paste and sometimes chilli.
We stumbled upon this street vendor near Penang Times Square by chance, we recognised the dish from a street food guide we had read, so decided to give it a try. This Putu Mayong was one of the best things we tasted in Penang!
It’s a southern Indian dish, similar to string hoppers, made with a mix of rice flour and coconut milk, forced through a sieve to create fine, white vermicelli noodles. The Putu Mayong was topped with grated coconut and cane sugar and wrapped in newspaper to take away.
We can’t talk about Penang’s cuisine without mentioning Indian food, more specifically Mamak (Indian Muslim). These are just three of the most famous mamak dishes you will find in Penang.
Mee Goreng is a spicy fried rice noodles with a tangy concoction of tomato, chilli and soy sauce. Try the mee goreng tambah sotong at Hameed Pata Mee Sotong in Medan Renong Padang Kota Lama near the Esplanade and Fort Cornwallis.
Nasi Kandar is a dish of rice mixed with different curry-based meat or vegetable dishes. Brave the queue at Deen’s Maju Nasi Kandar for the best Mamak cuisine in town.
Roti Canai is a flat bread that is a favourite breakfast dish in Malaysia, served with different curries and chutneys (it reminded me of parotta in Kerala). We tried it at Sri Ananda Bahwan vegetarian restaurant in Little India.
Five days were not enough to explore all of Georgetown’s top street food joints to write a complete guide. I hope this post has given you an idea of how varied and special the food culture of Malaysia is. And maybe it has inspired you to visit Penang in the future, in which case I hope this post will help you choose what to eat.
You can find more information about these and other dishes on Penang Tourism official website.