We're just going to come out and say it: George Town is the best food city in Southeast Asia. Locals have been in on the secret for years, but so expertly has Penang's capital blended flavours and cooking styles from across Malaysia, China, India, Thailand and beyond, that it is fast emerging as a pilgrimage site for any serious foodie.
Ranging from shophouse-bound 'cafes' to open-air conglomerations of mobile stalls, George Town’s legendary hawker centres offer a cheap, informal introduction to the local cuisine. Perhaps most importantly, the quality's also there, assuring that that cheap, delicious dish you had at the side of the road will most likely be good. Read on for ten top dishes worth sampling, and who does 'em best.
Quite possibly Penang’s most famous dish is this local take on laksa, Malaysia’s national noodle, made with thick rice-based noodles and a hearty, fishy, tart, herbal broth. A renowned version is available at the hawker-style Joo Hooi Cafe.
This sweet, odd-but-refreshing mixture of fine noodles made from green-bean flour dough, coconut milk, Melaka's famous palm sugar and shaved ice, is available across the country, but the vendor at George Town’s Joo Hooi Cafe pulls a fanatical fan base.
Char kway teow
Silky rice noodles stir-fried with plump prawns, briny cockles, chewy Chinese sausage, crispy sprouts, fluffy egg and a hint of chilli make up this beloved street food staple. Easily the most famous vendor in Penang is Kafe Heng Huat, one of a strip of vendors at the Lg Selamat Hawker Stalls.
This dish unites two types of noodles – hearty wheat-and-egg and thin strands made from rice – in a coconut milk-based curry broth with deep-fried tofu, prawns, cockles, cubes of pork blood and a generous dollop of spicy chili-based paste. Try the version sold at the morning market at the Pulau Tikus Hawker Stalls on Jl Pasar.
Chee cheong fun
Simple yet delicious is this dish of rice noodle rolls, steamed and served drizzled with shallot oil, a dressing made from local shrimp paste, a dollop of chili paste and a garnish of toasted sesame seeds. Cheong Kok Choy, operating out of the Lg Baru (New Lane) Hawker Stalls, is one of George Town’s more famous chee cheong fun vendors.
Love a deep-fried snack? When it features seasoned pork wrapped in tofu skin, prawn fritters, taro, tofu and two types of dips, it’s hard not to. A good introduction to this dish is the version dished up at legendary street food vendor Kafe Kheng Pin.
Not technically a dish, nasi kandar is more a style of eating, one associated strongly with George Town. Kandar is the name of a wooden pole formerly used to carry vats of curries by mobile vendors. Today, the vendors are stationary, but the rich, meaty Indian-Muslim-influenced curries they used to carry live on. Nasi kandar-style dishes are available at several places in George Town, including Hammediyah, allegedly the oldest nasi kandar restaurant in Malaysia.
One of George Town’s more popular Nonya (also known as Peranakan) dishes is this curried fish ‘custard’ steamed in a banana leaf. Try the version sold at Nyonya Breeze Desire, a mall-based Nonya restaurant.
You might think you know spring rolls, but the version served in George Town will throw you for a loop. Here, they’re generally served fresh, not deep-fried, and come filled with lettuce, julienned jicama braised in crab broth, tofu and spring onions, and a savoury bean paste. The Lg Baru (New Lane) Hawker Stalls are a good place to try them.
Take some of Malaysia’s tastiest fruits – crunchy rose apple, tart pineapple, crispy unripe mangoes, fragrant guava – mix with preserved squid and croutons of crispy deep-fried dough, bury under a thick, savoury/sweet/salty dressing, garnish with crushed roasted peanuts and you have George Town’s take on rojak. We like the version served at Ho Wei Jeng at the Esplanade Food Centre.