Penang being the culinary capital of Malaysia and a foodie’s paradise, while eating locally it is difficult to come by a bad meal. Maybe some are not as good as others, but bad… I don’t think so. Everywhere you go in this colonial city good eats can be found. It’s just a matter finding where the people are crowded or sticking your nose in the air and catching the wafts of something delicious around a corner (don’t step in one of the many pitfalls in the street especially hazardous to the drunkard, you’ll know what I mean as soon as you go for a walk). If for some reason this doesn’t work for you, just ask. Everyone seems to have a suggestion on where to go. Myself, I created a list of things I needed to try, followed by things I wanted to try just so I had my priorities straight.
Laksa – First on my list and a Penang classic, one that locals say is the best here although found elsewhere. A fish based soup with a sourness from tamarind, it’s a must try. I’m not going to say much more here other than eat your fair share and get at least one bowl from Penang Road Famous Laksa located o Lebuh Keng Kwee. For more on Laksa, I wrote a separate piece dedicated to it. Malaysia Eats – Laksa
Char Kway Teow – Another quintessential, must try dish of Penang found nearly anywhere people gather for food. Look for one person wiping sweat from their brow standing behind a wok with a roaring flame beneath and the smell of pork lard emanating from it. You’ve probably found it. Known as being quite unhealthy due to its high fat content is reason enough to try it… must be good, right? A thick rice noodle stir fried traditionally in pork lard with blood cockles, shrimp, egg, Chinese chives, beansprouts and crispy croutons of pork lard. While the ingredients can vary, this is what was in my first and most memorable Char Kway Teow. It’s a dryer sauce just coating everything consisting primarily of a dark soy and a bit of shrimp paste. Cooked at a very high heat the charred flavour of the wok is also imparted into the dish, so the older the wok the better the flavour.
Satay – This one really doesn’t take much explaining. Marinated skewers of meat, grilled over charcoal that’s being gently caressed by the winds of a manual fan sending the flames up to kiss the meat. Carefully rotated to prevent too much charring, while cooking it just enough to remain juicy. Served up on a plate with raw red onion, cucumber and a dish of peanut sauce. Can’t go wrong with a half dozen of these to kick start the appetite.
Hokkien Prawn Mee – a dish like many which changes dramatically from place to place. Three distinct versions exist sharing the name, noodles and prawns, but past that they aren’t comparable. The Penang version here is what matters though. While viewing the street art of Georgetown, I felt my stomach cringe with lack of fuel so I began the search for a random Hawker center that was full of local patrons. Hokkien Prawn Mee was the first stall I came across, making my decisions easy.
A prawn based broth with a duo of noodles (egg and rice), layered thinly sliced roast pork, fried shallots, hard-boiled egg, simmered greens and of course some baby prawns on top. Each item arranged with its own section split up like the spokes of a wheel. The spoon resting over the side with a dollop of sambal ready to be mixed in to your liking. Of course it should all go in with a squeeze of lime and you’re set.
Nasi Kandar – Originating in Penang, it’s a dish of many tastes in one. The main component ‘nasi’ or rice is piled onto the plate while a large selection of side dishes is there for your choosing. An obvious Indian influence in the food, the sides are a multitude of different curries. Between whatever it is you choose about half a dozen curry sauces are then layered on top, amalgamating to create something that may not necessarily look the most appealing, but works unbelievably.
For this I went to Nasi Kandar – Line Clear. My sides were chicken curry, squid egg curry and okra with all the sauces on top. Open 24 hours, you can get this plate of unexpected genius anytime.
Oyster Omelette – This one was a bit odd for me, but it wasn’t the omelette or oyster part. I’ll explain. Watching her make this on a small flattop, she first ladled a thin batter of tapioca and rice flour onto it. Pouring the beaten eggs overtop, she began chopping it up like a rough scrambled egg, which then resulted in large chunks of egg with a glutinous layer throughout (which was the odd part for me). The omelette moved aside the oysters were then fried in a sauce and placed on top. The oysters were smaller than I’m used to, but were soft, creamy, subtle and the saving grace for this dish. Garnished with Chinese chives it’s definitely worth a try, but not necessarily my favorite egg preparation.
Rojak – Another odd one, but strangely addictive as I tried to figure out what it actually was. Even after eating it all I was still a bit unsure, but here is my conclusion. As with most of these dishes differing from place to place, here there is Rojak Penang. A fruit/vegetable salad (chunks of rose apple, pineapple, jicama, cucumber), pieces of Chinese style fritters and random tentacles of squid. This all mixed with a thick sticky sauce that’s sweet, sour, savoury and spicy. Topped off with crushed peanuts, it was one of the most interesting ‘salads’ I’ve ever had.
Popiah – This was one I just happened to discover while checking out different stalls still hungry after my Wan Tan Mee. A mix between a fresh roll and a spring roll, the wrapper was a thin crepe made from wheat flour and from there each stall stuffs it a bit differently. Mine was lathered with a hoisin based sauce and chili sauce, a leaf of lettuce laid down as a bed before being stacked with steamed jicama, fried shallot, chopped tofu and egg. Rolled up finishing in the size between a burrito and a fresh roll, it was better than both. I was shocked with how delicious this actually was, I immediately got another set.
Wan Tan Mee – The place to get this is the well-known stall along Lebuh Chulia near Love Lane. I don’t know the name of it, but just look for the line that forms as night falls. Able to order both soup and dry versions, I opted for the soup. Noodles submerged in a light broth garnish with Chinese kale, thinly sliced char siu (barbeque pork) and light fluffy pork stuffed wontons.
The dry version is everything on a plate instead of broth, dressed lightly in a soy based sauce. A small bowl of broth on the side.
Ais Kacang – A famous Malaysian dessert also known as ABC and popular in Singapore as Ice Kacang, it helps beat the heat, temporarily at least. A bowl of shaved ice, red beans, sweet corn, grass jelly and palm seeds placed on top with evaporated, condensed or coconut milk and a red rose syrup drizzled over it. Like a few of the dishes here in Penang it’s an odd combination, but works well apart from its refreshing aspect. Some places have gone wild with the idea introducing ice cream, fruits and many different toppings to add to it.
Cendol – The other of the shaved ice desserts, cendol refers to the worm-like green rice flour jellies that float amongst the ice and coconut milk. The best place to try either or both of these is Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul, which is actually also located on Lebuh Keng Kwee just down from Penang Road Famous Laksa. Perfect for after your bowl of laksa, but be prepared to wait in a line.
Seafood – Penang, being the island it is, the seafood is something that can’t go uneaten. Fresh seafood always has that higher price point, which often deters me regardless of my love for it. Comparatively to home it may be cheap, but while on the budget I usually am it’s above the normal cost of a meal for myself. That being said there is a time and place worth splurging on it and Penang is one of those places. Bali Hai is an extremely well known restaurant with dozens of tanks with nearly anything you could want to choose from. Local and imported. At least four types of lobster, multiple varieties of fish, mollusks, crab and the most surprising to me was Canadian geoduck. This though, being the establishment it is brings the price up even more. More affordably, locally caught and fresh seafood can be found at nearly any hawker center waiting to be grilled up.
Hawker centers – If you are unsure where to eat in this paradise of new and exciting foods a hawker center is an easy choice to find a selection of nearly anything of offer as well as other cuisines. Red Garden is probably the most popular among foreigners, while I prefer Gurney Drive where it seems a bit more local, people and fare. Ultimately these can be found just about anywhere and can be a goldmine for good eats. They become the place to be once darkness sets in and dinner time is upon the city, great for socializing and soaking up some culture and cuisine.