The best street food destination you never knew
BEFORE YOU ARRIVE
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Penang likes a variety when it comes to street food, the cultured city remains high 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 a distinct influence from its rich heritage of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Peranakan flavors.
George Town – the city’s capital awarded 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 to slow down and indulge in affordable eats and cultural scenes.
Penang entered the Michelin Guide for the first time in 2023, it’s generated much buzz among traveling foodies and mustered a respectful selection of local gems, all of them an absolute treat in their own rights, but Malaysians are split on the Michelin Guide’s recommendations. Thankfully, here’s an actual Insider Street Food Guide that is guaranteed to hit the spot.
Penang is inexpensive by Southeast Asian standards and is popular among culture seekers and foodies on their quarterly food-pilgrimage
Now first and foremost, where to eat what?
Here’s a Penang street 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.
PRO TIP On your smartphone, click the icon in the top right to open the map in your Google Maps app and all of the markers will load up.
Top 20 foods to try in Penang
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, as Penang’s street food scene becomes an open secret, crowds and queues become a common sight in some of the more popular stalls. While many hawkers have perfected their food kung-fu and plating hot bowls of flavour bombs in Bruce Lee speeds, they do cook the orders in small batches of 1-3 portions at a time. And the best part? At less than $3.00 for each portion, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Here are Penang’s top 20 street foods to try!
- Hokkien Mee | Spicy Prawn Broth Noodles
Similar variants are found in other parts of Malaysia and Singapore, Penang’s version often sports a more generous flavour, and is enjoyed by locals from breakfasts at 7 am to after-hour suppers at 3 am. Hokkien Mee is a hot, spicy, sweet and savoury bowl of prawn broth in a bowl of noodles topped with generous amounts of garnishes, pork ribs, braised eggs, and more.
WTF Picks: Old Green House Prawn Mee (PM – Late) | Ah Koo’s Hokkien Mee (730am – 11am) | 888 Hokkien Mee (PM – late)
- Asam Laksa | Spicy Fish-based Soup Noodles with Torch Ginger Flower
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 fish soup and prawn paste too overpowering, but for those who know, it is like being in an insider club
WTF Picks: Ayer Itam Laksa (Weekends only) | Kim Seng Laksa (Lunch) | Lily’s Vegetarian Kitchen (All day)
- Char Koay Teow | Fried Flat Rice Noodles with Prawns and Bean Sprouts
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.
WTF Picks: Ah Leng CKT Dato Kramat (Lunch)
- Wan Tan Mee | Springy Noodles with Dumplings in Dark Soya Sauce
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 straightforward 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 Coconut Rice with Chili
Considered the national dish of Malaysia, Nasi Lemak is a fragrant rice dish cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf, paired with a small side of protein and most importantly, sambal (local chili). Often for breakfast but available throughout the day, Nasi Lemak is easily recognized by its pyramid-like banana leaf wrap, commonly found in makeshift stalls and Malay eateries for less than $1.
- Mua Chee | Glutinous Rice Nuggets
Think Mochi but Malaysian, Mua Chee (As pronounced in Hokkien) is a traditional chewy snack made of glutinous rice balls spun in a generous bath of peanuts and sugar, roughly chopped into bouncy bite-size chunks, and eaten with a toothpick. A wonderful warm peanut dessert for any time of the day, just be sure to consume it fresh!
- Char Hor Fun | Stir-fried Flat Noodles in Egg Gravy
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 mixed with vermicelli and slithers of egg that transforms the dish into a silky slurp that traps a beautiful wok hei aroma in every bite. HOW TO ORDER: Yin Yong Wat Dan
- Koay Teow Th’ng | Fish Ball 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 its 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-for-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 with hints of orange peel 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 is 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, but 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 culture and kitchen, a unique blend of cooking styles and spices from Chinese and Malay. Nyonya in Penang is a little different from the 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.
WTF Picks: Lily’s Vegetarian Kitchen (All day)
A handful of OG still exists – wok masters and legendary broth guardians, many of whom have been in business for more than 50 years
Penang is 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, and 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 of whom have 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. When it comes to street food, Penang is a city worth traveling for.