Penang is the food capital of Malaysia, with many visitors specially visiting just to spend the weekend eating from morning to night. Malaysian cuisine, including in Penang, is highly varied, due to the multi-ethnic make-up of society, with the cuisine combining Malayan, Chinese and Indian influences. One of the best ways to sample a wide variety of food is to visit one of the many hawker centres (such as the famous Gurney Drive Centre, but there are also many more scattered around George Town and elsewhere) or the street markets that pop up in the evening. Here are five must-do cheap eats in Penang you should try, including the specialities of the island.
1. Roti Canai
Found throughout Malaysian and suitable for eating any time of day, roti canai is an Indian-Muslim style flat bread. It’s known as “flying bread” due to the process of tossing and spinning used to create it before it is fried. Buttery and soft on the inside, crispy and flaky on the outside, it’s usually served with a spicy curry such as a chicken curry or lentil stew
My Pick: Restoran Kassim Mustafa, 12 Lebuh Chulia (near Little Indian), George Town. Open 24 hours, anytime is a good time to buy a roti canai here. About 2 ringgit ($0.45 USD) for a generous sized serve including a side of chicken curry.
2. Penang Assam Laksa
A speciality of Penang and one of the most famous Malaysian dishes worldwide, assam laksa stands out due to the sour flavour of the copious amounts of assam, or tamarind. Its the only noodle dish in Penang to have a fish-based broth, which is made from poached, boned mackerels stewed together with lemongrass, chillies and assam. Thick rice vermicelli is then added, along with a garnish that may include ginger flower buds, sliced onions, cucumber, lettuce, red chillies and mint leaves. It’s usually served topped with a thick draw paste known as “hae ko”.
My Pick: My Own Cafe, 2 Lebuh Cannon (just off Lebuh Armenian), George Town. Open 10am to 5pm daily, a bowl of assam laksa is 4 ringgit ($0.90 USD). If you’re feeling adventurous, also try some of the durian coffee, served hot or iced.
3. Char Koay Teow
Char Koay Teow is one of my favourite dishes from Penang, due to the rich and garlicky sauce of this stir-fried noodle dish. Wok-fried flat rice noodles are combined with fried garlic, large prawns, soy sauce, bean sprouts, eggs and chives, although there are multiple variations, usually with the option to choose between different meats. Cockles are often added. It’s said that the secret behind it is the heat of the wok, with the higher the heat the tastier the char koay teow.
My Pick: Peng Kooi Kopitiam, corner of Lebuh Carnarvon and Lebuh Melayu, George Town. This cafe has multiple food stalls, including one serving excellent char koay teow including cockles at 5 ringgit ($1.15 USD) per plate. Don’t forget to order a drink to eat here.
4. Penang-Style Desserts
Usually when I think of Asian cuisine I’m not a big fan of the desserts. However, in Penang there are multiple, excellent options that you should try to cool down from the heat, with most costing no more than 3 ringgit ($0.70 USD) per serve:
- Ice Kacang is made from finely shaved ice, topped with sweetened red bean, creamed sweet corn, palm fruit and colourful jellies, then drizzled with palm sugar syrup and evaporated milk.
- Cendol is named after the chewy noodle-like condiment in the dish, coloured green from the ‘pandan’ herb. The noodles are served with finely shaved ice, red beans, panda flavoured palm sugar syrup and fresh coconut milk.
- Durian Ice Cream, available from most convenience stands, is less pungent than I was expecting. Be prepared for it to be served rock hard!
5. Night Markets
One of the most fun ways to dine in the evening is by visiting one of the night markets that pop up around Penang as dark falls. Just buy a drink from the drinks stand that usually owns the space, then choose from a variety of small food carts serving different dishes, all at excellent prices. One evening in George Town my partner and I had a watermelon juice and 5 different albeit small plates for only 15 ringgit ($3.50 USD).
My Pick: One of the best spots is along Lebuh Chulia, near the intersection with Love Lane. This is also a popular area for many of the bars aimed at backpackers, a great spot to grab an alcoholic drink before or after your dinner. Just be quick to grab a seat when one becomes available!
Tip: Look out for the Penang Street Food map at your hotel or information centres!
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