Penang, Not Bangkok: Crowning the Food Capital of Southeast Asia
Hot on the heels of Netflix’s release of Street Eats, many were perplexed as to why Malaysia wasn’t represented at all. And that’s such a shame because Malaysia (and definitely, Penang) occupies an integral spot in Southeast Asian cuisine above and beyond that hotly contested Chendol.
Malaysians would know that Penang practically has its own sub-cuisine of foods influenced by the population’s hyper intercultural links between the Hokkien speaking Chinese, the country’s predominantly Malay population and a large minority group: the Indians. It is this diversity that has given birth to Penang’s take on dishes like Assam Laksa, Char Kway Teow and Hokkien Mee.
Planning a trip to savour some of Penang’s famous street food? Look no further than our guide to some of Penang’s most famous foods!
For all to try, at Gurney Drive
Long berated for its ‘hyped image’ and predominantly touristy crowds, Gurney Drive still provides great food even if it comes at a slightly higher price. If you’re only on the island for a day and want to try all of Penang’s good food under ‘one roof’ - Gurney Drive is a great crash course into Penang’s cuisine.
The food centre is roughly divided into two, one halal section made up mostly of Malay and Indian food stalls that I hear, are no less excellent. The other section comprises the rest of Penang’s famous foods: from char kway teow to rojak. There’s even stalls hawking lok lok and nonya kueh, with taste profiles and a level of quality matching their counterparts. You’ll be spoiled for choice.
We recommend Gurney as a ‘first day in Penang’ spot as you’d likely be tired from travelling into the city. Some of Penang’s best food spots are found in unassuming places, only revealing themselves once you spend real effort (and lots of walking) trying to find them.
Apart from the food centre, Gurney Drive is worth a visit if you have the time. In earlier decades, Gurney Drive used to be a recreational hotspot for beach-goers and dragon-boat races, but these days only the eponymous Gurney Drive Food Centre remains due to an extensive (and ongoing) land reclamation project. The rest of the strip occupied by high end condominiums and two of the island’s ritziest malls - the Gurney Plaza and Gurney Paragon.
Sampling some of Penang’s culinary heavy hitters
You can find the foods you want to sample anywhere within Georgetown, but there’s always that one spot that does it the best. We’ve already profiled some of these culinary heavy hitters. Seek these out and you won’t be disappointed with what you find.
Assam Laksa - In Pasar Air Itam
Known the island over, the Penang Laksa at Air Itam market is a perennial favourite. Mixed in it you’ll find pieces of shredded mackerel, a copious serving of onions, and just enough chili padi to spice things up. Expect to wait around for seats to become available: this spot will remain crowded from opening to its closing.
Since you’re at Air Itam, consider heading up to Malaysia’s largest Buddhist temple: the Kek Lok Si Temple. Not only do you get an incredible view of the island, you’ll also be visiting one of Southeast Asia’s most important cultural sites.
Herbal Bak Kut Teh - Zealand Seafood Restaurant
Zealand is one of the best in the bak kut teh business in Penang though it only opens for breakfast and lunch, shuttering its doors by 2.45pm on most days. This no-nonsense spot has a healthy following of locals and tourists alike with its generous servings of pork, exceedingly good side dishes ranging from sambal kangkong to Thai style tofu: Zealand’s isn’t a one trick pony. A must visit for any Penang food trail.
Roti Canai - Along Transfer Rd
If roadside dining is what you’re after, there’s little choice but to head to the famous Roti Canai along Transfer Road. Eating here is a a great chance to experience how street food was like (somewhat) back in the 1980s, before governments forced hawkers indoors.
Ordering is pretty simple: stick to the roti canai with chicken and you can’t go wrong. The place is also however, known for its soft boiled eggs and toast which has been perfected.
Tze Char - Tek Sen Restaurant
Tze char is an emulation of the typical Chinese family dinner except without the fuss, meal preparation and clean up afterwards. But Tek Sen is more than just that, often mentioned as the island’s top dining spot for its excellent fare. The best picks are: their homemade tofu, sambal kangkong and their infamous roasted three-layer pork.
Don’t know what to eat in Penang for dinner? Tek Sen is a great option. Fair warning though: this restaurant is one of the city’s largest tourist hotspots (and for good reason too). Our recommendation is to go before dinner time in order to snag a table. Peak waiting times can climb to over an hour.
Nasi Kandar - Nasi Kandar Line Clear
Nasi Kandar, named after the kandar (a balancing pole for two baskets each with rice and curry) carried by Indian migrants in early Penang, is one of the best representations of multicultural Penang. Line Clear is easily one of the most famous locations in Penang garnering long queues of locals and tourists willing to brave the hot sun for a nice meal.
The centre of attention here are quite simply, the rice and the curry, with the meat and vegetables augmenting but never changing the taste profile of the dish. That being said, there’s a plethora of options available at the Line Clear main outlet along Jalan Penang with fish, squid, chicken, beef and mutton all available. Nasi Kandar Line Clear also has an outlet at the airport - by far the best food option at Penang’s airport, just head to the arrivals floor and skip everything else.
Char kway teow - Ah Leng Char Kway Teow
As one of Penang’s signature street foods, char kway teow can be found the island over and there are multiple vendors/chains that serve it. Head into any one and you probably won’t be disappointed. But if you must have a specific recommendation, Ah Leng Char Kway Teow is a good bet not only for its great taste but because the trade is being passed on to Ah Leng’s children. Extra points for culinary continuity.
Again, some Penangites have transformed the dish into something like none other this time by using duck eggs in their plate of noodles instead. As you’d expect, the wok hei is de rigeur.
The fine dining option - Kebaya Dining Room
If you’re on the look out for some fine dining in Penang, or simply willing to splurge a little for dinner, Georgetown’s Kebaya Dining Room is a great option. Its interior is decorated with wares from the island’s Peranakan heritage with the inspiration also extending to the cutlery and tableware used. Everything is housed in the award winning Six Terraces boutique hotel - an excellent spot for a culturally centred visit.
And that’s before we get to the food! Kebaya Dining Room serves one of Penang’s most authentic Peranakan 4 course meals with an appetiser, a protein dish, a vegetable and a dessert to end the meal. Here’s our recommendation: the otak-otak as a starter to prepare yourself for some spice, the tamarind beef to really experience the savoury flavours in Peranakan cooking, the Thai soft shell crab salad because of its sweet chilli tang, and really, any of the desserts (we had the pandan creme brulee and the tang yuen), but they all sound really amazing. This is our top recommendations for Peranakan food in Penang!
A callout to foodies
Sure, Penang might not have the hubbub of street food vendors lining the roads: after all, many have relocated indoors for a multitude of reasons. But that doesn’t mean that the food is any less tasty. Instead, the fact that Penang’s chefs have been able to continue serving flavourful dishes despite a huge change in their operations is indeed laudable.
And while Penang’s cuisine isn’t going away any time soon, do yourself a favour and book that flight soon.
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