The best street food destination you never knew
Penang likes a variety when it comes to street food, the cultured city remains high up on the street food index in the region thanks to the unique blend of traditions and its diverse culture. The complexity of its local dishes has distinct influence from its rich heritage of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Peranakans flavors.
George Town – the city’s capital award as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique architectural, cultural and townscape. With direct flights from neighbouring capitals, Penang is a popular weekend escape for city dwellers looking for to slow down and indulge in affordable eats and cultural scenes.
Penang is inexpensive by Southeast Asian standards and is popular among culture seekers and foodies on their quarterly food-pilgrimage
What do locals eat and what is it called?
If you’re new to Penang/Malaysian food, try not to get caught up in what’s “best.” Quality is generally good and options are plenty, you will not find many locals in an overcrowded stall. Food portions are small and usually made in small batches, 1-3 plates at a time. And the best part? At $1.00 – $2.50 each portion, you’ll be spoilt for choice.
Hokkien Mee | Prawn Noodle
Similar variants are found in other parts of Malaysia and Singapore, Penang’s version often sports a more generous flavor, and is enjoyed by locals from breakfasts at 7 am to after hour suppers at 3 am. Hokkien Mee is a hot, spicy, and savoury sweet bowl of prawn broth in a bowl of noodles topped with generous amounts of garnishes.
Asam Laksa | Spicy Fish-based Soup Noodles
One of the most labor-intensive dishes to make, Asam Laksa is one of Penang’s most popular dishes and is ranked 7th CNN’s the world top 50 best food. However, this flavor bomb can be an acquired taste, some find its concoction of stewed fished soup and prawn paste too overpowering, but for those who know, it is like being in an insiders’ club
Char Koay Teow | Fried Flat Rice Noodles
This is often high up on many itineraries, Char Kuey Teow can be found throughout Malaysia and Singapore, but the Penang version reigns supreme. A great Char Kuey Teow beckons you from blocks away; the tempting aroma fills the air and lures diners in from afar. If you can take heat, a little chili will really brighten up the flavor.
Wan Tan Mee | Springy Noodles with Dumplings
A delicious serving of noodles in either dry or soup form topped with boiled and/or deep-fried dumplings and a side of greens. The soup traditionally comes with chicken or pork broth, while some hawkers would have their own variants, from hand made noodles to beef briskets, wan tan mee is a crowd-pleaser not to be missed.
Mee Goreng Mamak | Indian Fried Noodles
A straight forward and satisfying dish, but only a handful stand tall among the local tastebuds. An Indian Muslim variant, the dish is cooked over high heat to bring out luscious flavors fresh seafood, egg and yellow noodles in a concoction of chili and tomato base, finished with a wedge of lime.
Satay | Grilled Skewered Meat
Found across Southeast Asian and a staple in many other cultures, its hard to go wrong with skewered meat heartily seasoned with local spices, grilled over charcoal, flambé over its own fat. Quality and flavour differ store to store, in Penang satays are served with a side of diced onions, cucumber to add crunch and spice.
Nasi Lemak | Fragrant Rice with Chili
Considered the national dish of Malaysia, Nasi Lemak is a fragrant rice dish cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf, pair with a small side of protein, sambal (local chili). Often for breakfast, Nasi Lemak is easily recognized by its pyramid-like banana leaf wrap, commonly found in makeshift stalls and Malay eateries.
Mua Chee | Glutinous Rice Nuggets
A traditional chewy snack made of glutinous rice balls spun in a generous bath of peanuts and sugar, cut into bouncy bite-size chunks, eaten with a toothpick. Try it out!
Char Hor Fun | Stir-fried Flat Noodles
Char Hor Fun is a lovechild of fried wide flat noodles (hor fun) and treacly gravy, ingredients aside, wok-hei is a crucial element that makes or breaks this delectable dish. The popular variant is one with mixed with vermicelli and slithers of egg that transforms the dish into a silky slurp that traps the beautiful charcoal aroma in every bite. HOW TO ORDER: Yin Yong Wat Dan
Koay Teow Th’ng | Flat Noodle Soup
A beautifully “simple” dish, Koay Teow (flat noodles) served in piping hot broth, fish balls, slices of lean chicken/duck and a dash of fried garlic. Carnarvon Street silently became an unofficial KTT hotspot with at least 5 popular KTT stalls within a 300m stretch, each with their own specialties. Most of the stalls will also do a dry variant that is unique to Penang, it changes the dish completely and it’s just as amazing.
Nasi Kandar | Curry Rice and Dishes
Another Penang heavyweight, Nasi Kandar is an Indian Muslim comfort food originated in Penang, now found 24 hours a day all year long. The experience starts with a mountain of rice, followed a tempting display of curried, gravied, fried meats, vegetables, eggs and more, finished with a generous serving of curries. HOW TO ORDER: Kuah Campur (a bit of every curry) / Kuah Banjir (flood the plate)
Char Kway Kak | Fried Rice Cakes
A cousin of Fried Kway Teow, this dish uses chopped rice cakes instead of flat noodles, which makes it a more difficult dish to do well. while a well-balanced seasoning is a must, not many hawkers are able to fry the flavour into the thick rice cakes which can make it rather bland, but you’re in luck – Burma Road Kway Kak has been doing this for at least two generations, it is the only stall I go to for Kway Kaks.
Chendol | Shaved Ice with Jelly and Syrup
An iced dessert, Chendol refers to the signature green noodle-like flour jelly, served over shaved ices doused in gula Melaka (palm sugar syrup) and coconut milk with optional red beans. A simple, thirst-quenching, bang of buck cooler for sunny afternoons. While one famous stall off Penang Road claims the spotlight, many other stalls do them just as well without the fuss and queue.
Tao Hwa/Tao Fu Fa | Tofu pudding
A Chinese pudding made with very soft tofu, have it warm or cold, with a choice of simple syrup (white) or palm sugar syrup (black), an easy crowd-pleaser.
Bachang | Rice Dumpling
A 2000-year-old dish, a rice dumpling filled with a variety of ingredients; namely mushroom, chestnut, salted egg and pork, wrapped in bamboo leaves. Bachang is popular in many Asian cultures and several varieties exist in Penang alone. This is a filling treat, personally I would recommend pairing it with a bowl of warm red bean soup for contrast.
Bak Kut Teh | Herbal broth with pork
Despite sharing the same name with a pepper soup version in Singapore, in Malaysia Bak Kut Teh comes in a dark herbal broth with deep flavors. The broth made of a medicinal herb base, filled with pork ribs, mushrooms, innards and belly. A popular go-to for breakfast and suppers. HOW TO ORDER: Simply point to the ingredients you prefer to the hawker, and add a side of fried dough (Youtiao)
Kway Chiap | Dark Broth with Meat, Offals and Rice Noodles
A tea-like broth served with springy rice noodles and ultra-soft duck and pork bits topped with a hard-boiled egg, fried garlic and coriander. Braised over long hours, the laborious efforts are evident in every slurp – the proteins are so tender the entire dish can be had with a spoon. The strong meat-based flavors might take some getting used to, once you like it, you’ll understand why people travel to Penang for this.
Orchian | Oysters Omelette
A local favorite – Orchian is a fried oyster omelette with corn starch that gives the egg a slight gooeyness. This a little harder to come by these days, a good orchian is when the fresh oysters and fried together with the egg to combine both flavors. Outside of Penang, many often add pre-cooked oysters after the egg, which is unfortunate.
Nyonya / Peranakan Cuisine
One of the region’s most unique cuisines, Peranakan cuisine marries both in culture and kitchen, a unique blend of cooking styles and spices from Chinese and Malay. Nyonya in Penang is a little different from ones you find in Malacca and Singapore, influenced by Thai ingredients, Nyonya dishes in Penang generally have more tamarind and sour elements.
Vegetarian / Vegan
Vegetarian meals are reasonably easy to come by in Penang, with several Chinese eateries and restaurants that specialize in vegetarian dishes, Many Indian restaurants also carry vegetarian options. Vegetarian street food is harder to come by but Lily’s Vegetarian in George Town does several street food dishes impressively in vegetarian.
Now most importantly, where ?
Here’s a Penang food map containing pinned locations of street food stalls, hawker centers, and restaurants I frequent having spent 20 years in this delicious city, this is by no means an exhaustive list and there are certainly many other great ones not covered here. Penang is one of those cities that are blessed with food, and food is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
If you’re using your smartphone, just click on the icon in the top right to open the map in your Google Maps app and all of the markers will load up. Then, as you walk around, you can see whether you’re close to something significant and you can go and have a look at it.
A handful of OG still exists – wok masters and legendary broth guardians, many whom been in business for more than 50 years
The best street food city in Malaysia
Street food to Penangites is like a child with too many toys, customers are picky and often critical, slight changes in flavor or cooking style can drive customers away. While much of the scene has evolved over the last couple of years due to the combination of old age and the lack of succession, a handful of OG still exists – wok masters and legendary broth guardians, many whom been in business for more than 50 years, with just as many stories to share.
Street food is hard work – stalls are usually open for 4-6 hours a day, and prep time takes up to 10-12 hours. Their hard work is noticeably translated into the complex flavors that carry Penang’s traditions and street food reputation on its weathered backs and shoulders. Malaysians and Singaporeans are passionate about street food, social media often explodes over debates about who did it first, but never about who does it better for Penang is the region’s rough diamond definitely worth traveling for.