Malaysia: Southeast Asia's Next Great Foodie Destination
Malaysian food mixes in so many cultures—Arabic, Chinese, Thai, Indian, and more—that you could never appreciate them all in one sitting. So bring your appetite.
There are dozens of these places spread around town, so finding an expert guide—of either the human or digital variety—is a must. Each center has its own operating hours and signature dishes, but they all share a common protocol: Customers place orders at individual stalls, wait for the food to be brought to their tables, and pay when it arrives. A new, free Penang Street Food app (for iPad and iPhone) launched by the local tourism board describes 12 essential dishes and narrows down the best vendors to a mere 38. For more targeted advice, Rasa Malaysia, a company run by Bee Yin Low, the author of a top Malaysian food blog, can set travelers up with private tours ( penangculinarytour.com, half-day culinary tour $66; full-day $115). Rasa Malaysia's guides often begin outings with a spin through the bustling morning Chowrasta Market, a fixture since 1890. Its paths take in glistening piles of fish, towers of tomatoes and red chiles, trays of colorful kuih (sweet rice cakes), and suspended cuts of grilled meat. Vendors are happy to chat up curious travelers—and to hand out samples of pork jerky or five-spice pork rolls (Penang Rd., pork jerky $10.50 per pound).
Six blocks away, the Street of Harmony underscores the diversity seen throughout the country: An Anglican church, a Buddhist temple, a Hindu shrine, and a mosque all share the same short stretch of road. The street also cuts through the center of Penang's Little India, where Bollywood tunes blare from doorways and outdoor stalls dispense Indian sweets and a drink called teh tarik. The name, meaning "pulled tea," refers to the age-old technique used to create its signature frothiness: Pour condensed milk and hot black tea back and forth between two cups, holding one high above the other.
There's plenty to see in George Town itself, but if you venture farther out, you'll find more to explore, particularly in the city's outlying hawker centers. Bee Hooi, 15 minutes away by car, is known for its oh chien (oyster omelet), hokkien mee (egg and rice noodles in a prawn-and-pork broth, topped with water spinach, boiled eggs, sliced pork, prawns, fried shallots, and chile paste), and char kway teow (wok-fried rice noodles with garlic, prawns, Chinese sausage, and cockles). (Corner of Jalan Burmah and Lorong Pulau Tikus, char kway teow from $1.15)
After the chaos of the hawker centers, retreating to a well-designed hotel is a welcome reprieve. The 10-room, Australian-run Straits Collection is a boutique hotel built in a handful of converted shop houses in the historic quarter. It has an on-site library as well as a restaurant/cinema, Kopi Cine, that screens movies every night at 8:30. The guest rooms are decorated with antique wardrobes, stained glass, and well-chosen vintage prints of Penang cityscapes. It's the quintessential balance of luxury and scruffiness that's so typical of this global crossroads of culture—and taste ( 47-55 Stewart Ln. and 89-95 Armenian St., straitscollection.com.my, doubles from $138).
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