Feeling Hunger Penangs?
Warning; don’t read on an empty stomach. lastminute lovely Nihal samples the street side delicacies of the food capital of Malaysia, Penang.
When in Penang, do as the Penangites do. That means, chowing down at your local street food vendor, or hawker stalls as they’re called here. Sure, Penang has some mind-blowing temples, cheap shopping and posh resorts, but the real draw card here has to be the multicultural culinary delights served fresh in the alleyway.
The cuisine on the island is just as unique and diverse as the people that live here. Throw in some Indian influence, a generous splash of Chinese, a peppering of Malaysian fare and a fusion cocktail of cuisine called Nonya. All delicious, all exotic and oh so cheap.
We head to George Town, the capital of Penang, and stroll the smaller streets on the prowl for hawker stalls surrounded by popular crowds. We find the streets of Lorong Selamat and Lebuh Chulia attracting a fair bit of attention. We watch with hungry eyes and empty stomachs as smiley hawker extraordinaires expertly manoeuvre their woks over incredibly high heat. They tease out the aroma of exotic spices, pungent pastes and fragrant herbs.
We left the ‘traditional’ restaurant scene in Sydney, but after dark, George Town transforms into clusters of buzzing make-shift restaurants. The waft of curries and sambal floods the main roads of Jalan Macalaster and Jalan Burmah. You can’t help but feel hunger pangs in Penang.
My Top Five Yums!
1. Char Koay Teow
This is an iconic Penang street food dish: a rich and garlicky noodle stir fry dish with fresh prawns, scrambled egg, bean sprouts and green onions. The slightly charred and saucy noodles really brings in the crowds. For as little as 4 ringgit (about one Aussie buck), it’s a flavoursome feast that will rival the fanciest restaurant dishes in Penang, minus the bill.
In George Town, Kafe Heng Huat off Lorong Selamat makes a mean Char Koay Teow with loads of juicy prawns. The trick is in the heat of the wok, the hotter the better! Basically if you see the wok smokin’, get your chop sticks pokin’.
2. Mee Goreng
Think noodles, rice, crispy tofu cubes, shallots and a rich, spicy gravy balanced with the freshness of lettuce and lime. Not one for your low carb diet, but it’ll definitely make you smile on the inside. For 4 ringgit at Pelita Samudra Pertama near Lorong Selamat, you can’t go wrong. The friendly waiters were happily to explain the dishes and recommend we add chicken (Mee Goreng Ayam) for an extra few ringgit to make it a hearty meal.
Across the road from this fine dining establishment is a local juice station. Not quite like Boost Juice, but just as charming.
Using our best sign language, we gesture for two juices;, one papaya and pineapple, the other watermelon. The old man cuts the fruit in his tiny shack and puts it through a manual juicer that may pre-date Penang’s colonisation. Nonetheless, the juice is perfectly refreshing in the 30 degree humidity.
3. Nasi Kandar
This dish is a fine example of Indian influence in Malaysian cuisine. Nasi Kandar is fast becoming one of my faves because it allows me to sample loads of different curries along side fluffy rice. If you’re keen on spice, ask for ‘Kari Campur’ and you’ll get a combination of curries – hot, mild, chicken, fish, lamb and more.
Do yourself a favour and grab a Roti Canai on the side. This delicious Indian flat bread is the perfect vessel for mopping up any remaining sauce on the plate. Trust me, you won’t want to waste a skerrick. This flavour explosion costs around 10 ringgit.
A hot spot for Nasi Kandar is Restoran Kassim Mustafa on Lebuh Chulia.
4. Penang Laksa
Not all Laksas are created equal. The Penang Laksa is king and no trip to Penang is complete without a bowl of this hearty soup in its crowning glory. Basically, it’s South East Asia’s answer to a comforting bowl of chicken noodle soup. But what sets the Penang Laksa apart from others is the Hae Ko. This is a deliciously salty prawn paste that’s drizzled on top. Delicious bowls of comfort can be picked up for about 3 ringgit anywhere in Penang. But do yourself a favour and try the Laksa at the Gurney Drive Hawker Centre – deeelish!
5. Hokkien Mee
Brekkie for Malaysians doesn’t mean whipping out the weetbix and milk. Here, brekkie is not dissimilar to lunch, dinner or supper. We decide to pass on the delicious hotel buffet brekkie for the morning (crazy I know) as we opt for a more authentic start to the day. We take our usual bus to George Town in search of an open eatery – not all are early risers here.
On Jalan Burmah, you’ll find a number of cafes. We step inside the Green House and order two Hokkien Mee dishes. We are served bowls of fragrant broth, topped with thick yellow noodles, small prawns, spinach and hard boiled eggs. The soup is served with a few interesting condiments to add taste and texture such as sambal, crispy shallots, bean sprouts and anchovies.
Other interesting brekkie options include chicken porridge (congee), Roti Canai and deep fried money bags! Aaahhh the breakfast of champions.
‘It’s An Acquired Taste’ food discoveries
Pasembur or Rojak is a unique Indian seafood salad. You select your toppings from the stall displaying a suspicious range of fried seafood. Your chef will then top your seafood with shredded cucumber, bean curd and a thick nutty sauce. It’s a confusing mix of flavours and textures – crunchy, soggy, sweet, savoury & fishy. It isn’t to our liking, but many locals crowded around the stalls yelling out their orders.
Chee Cheong Fun
This popular Chinese dish consists of steamed sticky rice noodles that are sliced and served with an even stickier shrimp paste & topped with roasted sesame seeds. The noodles are smooth and the sauce is sweet and fishy. Although I personally did not enjoy the texture, I did enjoy watching the stall owner chop up the noodles with expert speed and precision.
Fried Oyster Omelette
Forget mushrooms in your omelette, Penangites love succulent oysters with their eggs. The omelette is cooked on a cast iron wok. It seemed these wok masters whipped out an omelette a minute. It’s topped with shallots and chilli. The omelette is crispy on the outside & chewy on the inside. An interesting dish with mixed reviews.
On Gurney Drive everyone walks around with this colourful dessert in hand. It seemed mandatory, so we joined the bandwagon. It was super sweet, with jellies, rose syrup, evaporated milk, creamed sweet corn, fruit & shaved ice. Oh and I forgot to mention, it’s also topped with sweetened red beans. You heard it, don’t use all the beans in your burrito, save some for your dessert!
In one word, Penang was scrumptious. I loved daring myself to eat at dodgy looking stalls and being rewarded with some of the tastiest food I’ve ever eaten. There weren’t enough meals in the day, so take my advice and go to Penang on an empty stomach. You’re in for a treat.