The island of off the northwest coast of the Malaysian peninsular punches well above its weight when it comes to food. The reason behind this is its location, which has allowed it to be an important trading port over the years, as well as destination for people from a wide variety of cultures.
These migrants have included the Chinese, Indian and Thais, all of whom have wonderful cooking traditions. These influences have bound together to produce an island where everything from Taiwanese to Nonya cuisine is on offer and locals and visitors make the most of this variety.
While Penang and its principle city Georgetown boast some brilliant restaurants, the best place to sample the delights of the area’s food is on its streets. Hawker stalls crop up anywhere that there might be business and delicious fresh ingredients are cooked up in front of waiting customers for food that is hard to beat.
One of the best approaches for those who are uninitiated in street food is to head to an area where there are lots of hawker stalls to choose from. Among the most popular are Gurney Drive, New Lane and Presgrave Street. Take your time perusing the wares, before deciding on your meal. Here are some of the classics that you should try at least once during your stay in Penang.
There is nothing more typical of dining in Penang than tucking into a steaming plate of nasi kandar, because this is where the dish originates from. As with all the best street food, there are variations as to how it is cooked, but the general principle is that nasi kandar is a portion of steamed rice served with a series of curries and side dishes.
Typically, there will be beef, chicken, fish, prawn and squid curries on offer, as well as the occasional crab or fish roe variety also found at some stalls. A mild lamb kurma is also very popular as an addition to nasi kandar and therefore widely available. Ask the proprietor for kari campur when ordering and you will be treated to a selection of each of the curries made that day.
Penang assam laksa
Laksa can be found throughout , but this particular variety has become synonymous with Penang, where it is prepared in a specific way. It is a noodle dish, but unusually for the cuisine of the island, it is swimming in a fish broth made from stewed mackerel, lemongrass, chillies and tamarind, to give it a rich flavour.
Added to this are the thick rice noodles, with everything from ginger flower, onion, cucumber, lettuce and mint leaves use to add extra depth. Topped off with a generous helping of prawn paste, every mouthful is different.
Char koay teow
If you are a seafood fan, then char koay teow should be on your list of dishes to try in Penang, as it has become so popular that eateries that serve it up all over the world often refer to it as Penang char koay teow. Think flat rice noodles with egg, bean sprouts, soy sauce, minced garlic and chilli, fried in hot oil to give them an additional crispy texture and smoky flavour.
The crowning glory, however, is the combination of seafood that is then added. This usually consists of huge succulent prawns and a sprinkling of cockles. Some hawkers will add pieces of pork lard or sausage for even more decadence.
When contemplating ordering this noodle and dumpling dish, decide whether you want your wanton mee dry or in a clear broth and between thin or thick noodles. These options can make a big difference to the overall taste and texture of your meal, with the dry version often coming with a dash of soy sauce instead. The egg noodles make wanton mee very different to many of the other dishes that can be found in Penang and the wantons or dumpling, usually filled with pork or shrimp only add to this effect.
Expect slices of barbecued pork laid gently over the top of your noodles, as well as mustard greens and spring onion. The diner can then add their own condiments to taste, with pickled green chillies being a good accompaniment.
Travellers with a sweet tooth are not neglected in Penang either, with several options available for dessert. By far the most popular is ice kacang, which consists of shaved ice, flavoured with red bean paste, creamed sweet corn, palm fruit and dried nutmeg. Jelly sweets in sugar syrup and rose syrup are also added to ramp it up a notch.
Sometimes evaporated milk, ice cream, fruit, peanuts and raisins are also added to this delicious dessert. The level of sweetness may mean you only try one portion during your visit to Penang, but it is certainly worth experiencing and a good antidote to the chillies that populate many of the other dishes on the island.