Finding the best places to eat in a foodie town is one of the most satisfying aspects of being a Lonely Planet author. My technique in most cities is to ask those in the know, then check out the places that get mentioned the most. Then I go and eat. A lot. But in Penang, Malaysia my system went awry. Enter the hawker stall.
What is hawker food?
Penang is known as one of the world's greatest hawker capitals; the best food isn't found in restaurants but at literally thousands of food stalls that usually serve one signature dish - often a recipe passed down through generations.
Penangites are taken to eat at these stalls from the time they're infants and usually adopt their family's favourite spots from a young age. As they get older they branch out - everyone is on the lookout for the places that add a twist to old flavours, say making a particularly crispy oyster omelet (an egg omelet with tender fresh oysters) or using eel balls instead of fish balls in their wonton mee (noodle and wonton soup). Ask any local food connoisseur in Penang where their favourite food stalls are and every one will give you vastly different answers.
'Some stalls are known as the best simply because they've had that reputation for years,' I was told by Chris Ong, foodie extraordinaire and hotel owner. 'When you try the food it might not be better than other places, but locals want to think it's great because they've been lining up for it for years.'
How to choose your favourite stall
So how do you go about deciding on your personal favourite? The one you'd recommend to out-of-towners? Here are some tips to find your signature stall:
Cleanliness: Different cultures have different perceptions of cleanliness. As I dined at food stall after food stall (risking the size of my thighs for my career) I saw very few non-Asian faces. Surprisingly, many visitors to Penang don't eat at food stalls (something akin to not going to the Louvre while in Paris) and the most popular excuse is lack of hygiene.
'If the wok stays hot and the food is fresh there's very little chance of bacteria,' my friend Joann Khaw a local walking tour guide told me. 'People never get sick from busy food stalls. You're more likely to get something from a restaurant.'
Tip: If a place looks just too grungy or is located on a traffic-clogged curb, perhaps give it a miss.
Eat, eat and eat some more! After sampling so many dishes, I had to admit I never knew I had the capacity to eat so much. Fortunately four to five meals per day of char kwey tiaw (fried noodles in soy sauce with egg and various additions), asam laksa (Penang's famous, indescribably good curry noodle soup), rojak (fruit and veggie salad in a sweet dark shrimp paste) and much, much more, goes down a lot easier than heavier Western foods.
Tip: Don't be scared you'll come home the size of a bus. Back at home my bathroom scale hadn't moved a notch. Perhaps it was because I was walking and sweating all day while searching down good food but I'm pretty convinced that the fine fresh ingredients of Penang cuisine makes it one of the healthier diets of the world.
Eat up the latest guide to Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei