This article was written by Milda Ratkelyte, the travel community manager at AsiaRooms.com. She is currently exploring Asia and capturing the best moments in stories, photos, and films.
Penang is a small tropical island connected to the northwest coast of Malaysia where, as one says, "the weather never changes so everyone talks about food instead." The island's fertile land and seas combined with a mixture of Malay, Chinese (mostly Hokkien with a smaller group of Cantonese and Teochew as well as the Straights-born Chinese known as Peranakans) and Indian cultures holds Penang as Asia's top city voted by CNN and the New York Times for street food for several years now. On top of that, Penang is also one of the safest places in Asia to try street food—the competition among the street vendors is so high that any dip in quality of the food is not tolerated here. During a recent trip to Penang, I rolled up my sleeves and hit the island's most famous hawker centers to find out for myself what all the fuss is about!
Char Kuay Teow
The ever fragrant, garlicky and rich Penang Char Kuay Teow holds a special place in the hearts of foodies all over the world. Apart from sourcing the right ingredients and using them in the right ratios, the essence of char kuay teow is in how it's cooked. Wok hei, a smoky quality that translates as the breath of the wok, is essential. To get it, the hawker has to be working the wok with one hand while manipulating the fierce heat of the gas burner with the other, and because the dish is served scalding hot the second it's finished, there's no opportunity to taste and adjust the seasonings. Flat rice noodles together with oil, minced garlic, fresh prawns, soy sauce, bean sprouts, egg, and chives are fried in an iron cast wok to achieve the smoky aroma. The last ingredient is the cockles. The big plate of mouth-watering char kuay teow costs between $2 and $3.
It was the Asam Laksa that launched Penang into stardom in the world of food. Ranked 7th in CNN's "World's 50 Most Delicious Foods" 2011 list. It is the only noodle dish in Penang to have a fish-based broth, which is made from pouched, boned mackerels stewed with lemongrass, chillies, and asam (tamarind). The rich broth is served with thick rice noodles, finely chopped ginger flower bud, sliced onions, cucumber, lettuce, red chillies, mint leaves, and prawn paste (har kao). The price for a bowl of heavenly laksa starts from $1.50.
A bowl of comfort Hokkien meal in Penang is eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. This dish of yellow noodles and rice vermicelli drenched in a think and spicy broth made of both prawn and pork is served with a garnish of water spinach and crunchy bean sprouts. It is usually finished off with a few slices of lean pork, boiled egg, prawns, and a sprinkle of fragrant fried shallots. To add more flavor, a spoonful of fried chilli paste is served along with it. This dish usually costs around $1.50.
This famous meal originates from Penang. It is rice served with a host of curries, meat, vegetables and other side dishes. What sets the dish apart is the variety of curries. My recommendation for beginners would be to order "kari campur," which means a combination of various curries. The curries range from chicken, fish, beef, prawn, lamb, and many more. The price range is from $1.50 to $3.
Chee Cheong Fun
This famous dish is made of rice flour that is steamed and rolled up to about 10 cm long, hand-sliced, and served with a mixture of chilli paste, shrimp paste, a reddish sweet sauce, and sprinkled with roasted sesame seeds. The shrimp paste creates a slightly spicy taste. A plate of chee cheong fun costs about $0.60.
The Roti Cenai is soft, buttery, and fluffy on the inside but crispy on the outside, very much like Danish pastry. The dough goes through an intense process of kneading before it is tossed and spun in the air until it becomes a very thin sheet. It is then fried on a hot iron skillet with lots of oil until the outer layers become golden. It is normally served with dhal, lentil stew, chicken curry, or anchovy sambal. Price starts from $0.60.
I must admit, I was not keen on trying cendol at first. The green, chewy noodle-like condiment made from rice flour and local herb "pandan" (which makes it green), palm sugar syrup, finely shaved ice, red beans and fresh coconut milk just seemed to be too much going on for one thing. But never judge by the first impressions, it turned out to be a very refreshing tropical delicacy, which is great in the heat Penang seems to always be in. One bowl of cendol costs about $0.60.
Let's not forget the crispy seafood poh piah, super spicy curry mee, springy noodle wan tan mee, the signature mee goreng, the crispy and sweet peanut pancake, refreshing and sweet ice kacang and so many more mouth-watering dishes. Here is a short directory on where you can find these delicacies:
- Red Garden Cafe Food Court: north Jalan Penang; open 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.
- Joo Hooi Cafe: 475 Jalan Penang; open noon to 5 p.m.
- Gurney Drive Esplanade: Persiaran Gurney; food served after 6 p.m.
- CF Food Court: 49-F Pengkalan Weld; open from 6 p.m.
With so much food to try it's hard to feel like I've even skimmed the surface here in just one visit. Penang establishes the benchmarks and resets your perspective on just how good hawker food can be. And I cannot wait to go back.