Amidst the humid air, the delicious aroma of different types of foods being simultaneously prepared behind the stalls wafted through the night. At one of Penang’s pasar makanan (hawker centre), it is absolutely normal to hear the sizzling sound of raw ingredients meeting hot oil and to witness the chef furiously beating the ingredients in a gigantic steel wok on the roaring fire of a gas stove. Arriving 2 days earlier and driven by my father’s never-ending curiosity, my parents have scoured the area for hawker centres and have spoken with the locals regarding what kinds of food they should eat while they are in Penang. I sat patiently as my father walked around, putting his gathered knowledge to use and ordering all things foreign yet best-ever (as he claimed) for us: He walked to the seafood stall and used his expertise to choose a fish to be grilled (he LOVES fishing in the ocean), continued to order a plate of char koay teow, made a beeline to the auntie selling claypot chicken rice, and lastly, he ended at the drink stall to order a batch of refreshments (Hello, watermelon juice, es teh tarik, and starfruit juice!).
Pulau Pinang, better known as Penang, is an island off the coast of peninsular Malaysia by the Strait of Malacca, and was founded by the British Captain Francis Light in 1786 as an exchange for protection for Sultan Abdullah of Kedah from his enemies (the Burmese and the Siamese). During the British’ reign, Penang enjoyed a trade boom in the early 19th century, making it an attractive place for Chinese business men and European planters to invest and build their mansions as well as send their children to schools in its capital, George Town. Because of this and the heavy British influence on the architectures, George Town parades beautiful, colonial buildings on its streets and it has been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Moreover, being one of the most multi-cultural provinces in Malaysia, it also carries a wide variety of food to offer to both locals and travelers alike.
Be sure to have these dishes if you ever have the chance to go:
Char Koay Teow
You can’t go to Penang and not have a plate of this flat rice noodle stir-fried with bean sprout, egg, shrimp, and Chinese sausage, and flavoured with soy sauce, fish sauce, salt, pepper, and a variety of other spices. Rumor has it that the best one (also the most expensive one) in Penang is from Kafé Heng Huat on Lorong Selamat.
Considered to be the national dish of Malaysia, Nasi Lemak is served at any time of day. The rice is soaked in coconut milk with pandan leaves before being steamed, thus giving it its famous fragrant aroma. It is commonly served with a variety of accompanying side dishes, such as stir-fried kangkung, sambal belacan, hard-boiled egg, meat curry, and salted peanuts.
Claypot Chicken Rice
Being the Malaysian equivalent of bi bim bap, it’s basically rice with pieces of chicken cooked in a clay pot and adorned with Chinese sausage and green onion. The best one we had is from the hawker centre at the corner of Gottlieb and Scott.
Of course this has to be on the list! Nasi goreng (fried rice) is ubiquitous throughout South East Asia and is served in countless ways. Often garnished with deep-fried (and crispy!) shallots and a couple of slices of cucumber, it’s remarkable how delicious such a simple dish can be.
Because of a thriving Indian population, some of the best Indian fares can be found here. Head over to Little India and sample the freshly made roti canai. For a more intense olfactory experience, also order a bowl of curry and use it as a dip for the roti. Ah-mazing.
Perfect for those of you with a sweet tooth (or two), ice kacang is a type of dessert consisting of canned sweet corn, palm seed, red bean paste, sweetened gelatin, and grass jelly, topped with a mound of shaved ice and drizzled with sugar syrup and condensed milk.
Made to order and served icy cold, this was, hands down, the perfect tonic for Asia’s humid, tropical weather. It was pretty much all I drank for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between.
Red dragon fruits, papayas, white melons, pomegranates, you name it, Penang probably has it.
I don’t claim this to be a comprehensive list of all the foods Penang has to offer – heck, with only a week-long stay, it was barely enough to even scratch the surface. Nor do I claim myself to be a food enthusiast – it’s very easy to satisfy me as long as the food tastes good to my liking. But, with low prices of such scrumptious food, how can you not eat to your heart’s content and stuff yourselves silly when you’re in Penang?