A blog about food in Thailand
and elsewhere.


Posted date:  October 26, 2006


Penang appears to be the latest hot destination among SE Asian foodbloggers. Chubby Hubby was there, Karen of ramblingspoon recently made a visit, and of course there’s Bee of Rasa Malaysia, a native of the place, and a frequent blogger on the food of her hometown. If you ask me, all this attention is justified, as Penang has got to be one of the greatest food cities in SE Asia. I was able to learn this firsthand on a visit to the city a week ago. I have been to Penang several times previously, but was always kind of overwhelmed by the food scene there. I’m not too knowledgeable about Chinese food, which forms the bulk of eats in Penang, and couldn’t tell a lo bak from an oh chien if my life depended on it. However, with the help of the previously mentioned Bee, I was able to make some sense of Penang’s eats, and had a fantastic three day long meal. If you’re thinking of visiting yourself, go to her blog where you’ll find an amazing resource for Penang food-related info.

Street food in Penang takes several forms. The most well-known are the city’s hawker centres. There are semi-contained areas that are specifically designated for selling street food, essentially keeping the food off the streets! My favorite example of this was the Gurney Drive Hawker Centre:


This was the largest, although possibly most “commercial” hawker centre I came across in Penang. It’s popular among tourists, but there are also lots of locals. And there’s an amazing array of food, ranging from all the various Chinese treats that Penang is associated with, to Malaysian and even Indian eats. I personally liked the rojak:


a ‘salad’ of crispy fruits and vegetables (such as pineapple, cucumber, jicama, among others) mixed up with a copious sweet/savoury shrimp paste sauce and topped with ground peanuts–when done well among the most delicious things in the world.

Also delcious were fried oysters:


Unlike the Thai dish , which tends to be cripsy and flavourless, oh chien, as they are known here, have a soft texture, lots of egg, and a delicious garlicky flavour. The oysters are tiny things often the size of a fingernail, but are almost never overcooked and are, well, just OK. The dish as a whole is great though.

For a hawker centre that’s a bit more “authentic” there’s the gritty collection of stalls known as New Lane:


Here I enjoyed chee cheong fun:


a deciptively simple dish of steamed noodles sprinkled with sesame and served with three different sauces. I say deceptively because the dish looks bland, but the sauces, in particular the spicy/savoury one, had an incredible depth of flavour, and the noodles were tender and delicious.

If you need more noodles, this guy makes a popular won ton soup:


but I was more interested in trying some authentic satay:


The above was prepared by this lady:


who, as you can see, intentionally used fatty pieces of meat and let them flare up, which gave the sate a wonderfully smoky flavour.

The food fun in Penang isn’t limited to the night. In fact it starts out quite early, at Penang’s morning market. There, in addition to the various raw ingredients, you can also find prepared foods such as Chinese-style curries and fried dishes:


Kuay kak:


essentially fried cubes of dough. This is not something that would normally appeal to me, but the combination of the salty sauce and charred essence of the pan made this dish delicious. It was actually quite similiar in form and flavour to the fried oysters.

Loh bak,


proved to be one of my favorite snacks. This dish consists of tender pork, and I believe, crab and/or shrimp, wrapped in a sheet tofu skin and deep-fried. The result is served with two dipping sauces, one sweet/sour and one a bit more salty/savoury.

As if this wasn’t enough, there are also hawker centres and food courts that are only open during lunch time. A good example of this can be found on Lorong Selamat where I enjoyed the Penang favorite, char kway teow:


wide rice noodles fried with chili sauce, egg, cockles and shrimp.

Normally I’m not a big fan of Asian sweets, but the iced kacang at Swatow Lane converted me:


This is basically finely crushed iced topped with a seemingly random array of sweet things such as syrup, grass jelly, beans and here, sliced jackfruit. On a hot Penang day I can’t imagine anything more refreshing.

Many of the daytime hawker stalls are like large indoor cafes:


and serve dishes such as assam laksa:


a thick broth of fish and fresh herbs, served with thick udon-like noodles. This is among Penang’s most famous foods.

And come evening again, if you haven’t got time for an entire meal, then a good option is lok lok:


This is a variety of skewered meats and veggies, which you dip in a boiling water to cook, and then top with one of two sauces before eating. Standing room only.

For me, a special highlight of Penang food was the amazing diversity of Indian and Muslim foods. Both of these are somewhat hard to find in Bangkok, so I always eat my fill when I’m in Malaysia. I was in for a special treat during my visit to Penang, as it coincided with ramadan, where at the end of every day of fasting, known as the buka puasa, several stalls selling food emerge on the streets. Penang’s Little India had a great deal of these, and a particularly popular treat was a kind of bread known as roti jala:


The weblike shape is made by pouring the liquid batter through a seive:


Other treats included fresh coconut juice:


and some obscenely sweet-looking fried bread:


Not to mention a whole host of other sweet foods (does fasting create a desire for sweet foods?):


If I had any complaint about Penang’s street food, it would probably be the extreme lack of vegetables and the extreme overabundance of starch. Penang’s Chinese community seems to survive on noodles alone, with the Muslim community seemingly surviving on rice (or breads) and meat. And between either of these, there’s hardly any green to be seen. There is of course lots of southern Indian vegetarian, which is delicious, but the veggies are usually pretty overcooked and mushy. Followers of weird American reduced carbohydrate diets consider yourselves forewarned…

7 Comments for Penang

Hey welcome back to Bangkok! We thought about you a lot in MHS where we had a great time–in Penang did you get to eat any of the wonderful hybrid Pernakan or “Nonya” cuisine? It’s some of the best stuff I have tasted!

Enjoyed your post Austin.While in Penang you have to try Nasi Kandar.You are barred from leaving the island until you have at least one meal of this Indian Muslim delight.
I am sure you will enjoy your Singapore visit but it is alas a wasteland to put it mildly where street food is concerned

Bravo Austin. I am proud of you and glad that I was able to help! 🙂

Thanks for the great post and overview of the hawker centers. Adding to the informal blogger concentration, I was there last week. But because of social engagements and long rain storm, could not visit the huge hawker centers, nor could I follow rasa malaysia’s advice. But I liked the city a lot (especially after a few days in even more chaotic Kuala Lumpur), and had some tasty food (mostly roti canai, dosai, and other items from the Nasi Kandar places on Penang Road). And I don’t recall eating a lightly cooked vegetable either… (plenty of fruit, however)

My post on Penang is probably 1-2 weeks out.


I have the exact same pictures of that coconut man and the Indian tid-bits seller…what a coincidence! I just didn’t publish them on my site.

anasuya: No, unfortunately I was pretty busy all the street food for an article I’m working on, and didn’t have a chance to explore other things.

pat: I did indeed eat some nasi kandar, and enjoyed it very much. In fact, I’d say it’s one of my favorite meals there–I love the huge selection of side dishes most restaurants have. Honestly, I like the food in Singapore! It’s not really “street” food, but if you know the right dish in the right hawker center, it can be excellent in my opinion.

rasa: Your help was invaluable!

marc: I skimmed your blog, but couldn’t seem to find anything about Penang. Either way, it’s good to know that somebody else feels likewise about the veggie situation there! I love my greens, and really missed them in Malaysia.

Hi Austin —

I think Newley introduced us via e-mail but, unfortunately, we never hooked up while you wre in Penang. Anyways, glad to see that you made it to such as Swatow Lane — and hope that you ate at the right ais kacang stall! — as well as Gurney Drive and New Lane.

Also, if you don’t mind a few corrections:-

1) “sate” appears to be an Indonesian spelling for what Malaysians prefer to spell as “satay”;

2) What you identified as “char kiuh” is actually “koay kak”;

3) It’s Lorong Selamat (i.e., Safe/Secure Lane!) rather than Semalat;

4)It’s “roti jala” (i.e., “net bread” — and I think you can see how it got that name! 😉 ) rather than roti jawa.

Alternatively, agree with you that Penang Chinese food *is* very carbohdryate-y. (I myself noticed this when writing an entry on Penang food over at http://webs-of-significance.blogspot.com/2006/12/food-capital-of-malaysia.html
and especially when we got to my recommended itinerary portion.)

OTOH, for something with more vegetables: Did you try “popiah” (something akin to an unfried egg/spring roll)?

If not, well, I guess you just have to come back again to Penang for another round of eating! :b

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