Penang’s three main culinary influences are Chinese, Malay and Indian and although fine restaurants abound serving all three types of cuisine, one of the best ways to enjoy the food is to simply wander the streets, visiting various food stalls and local eateries within ethnic neighbourhoods such as Little India, China Town and Guerney Drive for Malay dishes. Penang was actually named as the city with the best street food in Asia by Time Magazine, so you’re guaranteed to find something that delights your taste buds.
Of course, with so much on offer, choosing a dish can be quite a bewildering task so it’s best to set out armed with a little information as to the flavours and ingredients used. Spices feature prominently in both Malay and Indian dishes, so be prepared for some fiery moments, but there are also some tasty local drinks on offer to sooth the palette. Below is a list of Penang specialities, all of which can be easily found in and around the main tourist centres.
This is the island’s signature dish – a tasty, fish soup served over rice noodles with tamarind, pineapple, ginger and mint leaves. The dish can be quite spicy but the flavour combination is a mouthwatering treat.
Char Kuey Teow
This Chinese influenced, stir-fry dish with wide, flat rice noodles as a base, comes mixed with egg and succulent, fresh prawns for a rich, authentic taste of the Malaysian coast.
A classic Asian noodle soup made with fresh shrimp and served with slices of hard-boiled egg, morning glory, pork, crispy fried shallots and a spoonful of chili paste.
An authentic Penang-style salad made with cucumber, jicama (yam bean), pineapples, jambu (water apple), bean curd pieces, and cuttlefish, all tossed with Hae Ko (shrimp paste), chili and topped with ground peanuts.
Popiah are fresh spring rolls filled with jacama (yam bean), diced bean curd, and crab meat wrapped. Moist and delicious, the deluxe popiah comes with real crab meat as opposed to the tinned variety used in regular popiah.
A fried omelette that comes from the Fujian region in China. Fresh oysters are mixed into the eggs during preparation. The key to this dish is Wok Hei, which means hovering the wok over a high flame while stirring and tossing the fresh ingredients to impart flavour without over-cooking them.
A spicy fish soufflé wrapped in banana leaf. Fresh fish fillets are coated with eggs, and daun kadok (wild pepper leaves). Penang Otak-Otak is usually steamed, while in southern Malaysia states, it is grilled. Both are equally delicious and make a great snack.
Meat rolls wrapped in bean curd skin and deep fried. At Penang’s Loh Bak stalls, you can also order prawn fritters (Heh Chee), fried bean curds, and other side dishes. Loh Bak are usually served with two dipping sauces in Penang: chili sauce and a starchy sauce flavoured with five-spice powder and eggs. Local people generally order a combination plate of Loh Bak, prawn fritters, and fried bean curd.
This is one of the Muslim Indian community’s most popular dishes. Light, flaky bread is cooked on an iron hot-plate with plenty of oil. The roti is then served with a bowl of curry (chicken, beef, lamb, fish, or vegetarian). Some chefs add fillings to make Murtabak, which is filled with onions and beef. Common variations include Roti Planta, stuffed with margarine and sugar, Roti Pisang, filled with sliced bananas and condensed milk and Roti Sardin, stuffed with sardine and sometimes mixed with tomatoe ketchup or sambal, similar to Murtabak.
As a dessert, Kacang is a very sweet, cooling experience. Shaved ice with red beans, sweet corns, seeds and jelly. Syrup and evaporated milk are generously drizzled over the shaved ice. This dessert is great after a spicy meal or a long day in the sun.