Penang food (and drink) culture is a reflection of the island’s people: a mix of flavors and traditions from around the World. Chinese, Indian, European, and Middle Eastern culinary concepts have blended with local Malay recipes and ingredients. And while this is true for many cities in cultural melting pot Malaysia, Penang food seems to have that little bit extra that makes both, locals and international visitors, always come back for seconds (and thirds).
During my stay in George Town, Penang, I never once ate anywhere twice.* And there was still much more to discover. But I noticed a few common threads that will hopefully make you just as hungry for culinary Penang as I am.
*The only exception was a hawker lady on Chulia Street selling Bak Chang dumplings made from beautiful sticky dark rice – they were amazing, and I had one every day.
Three main elements characterize Penang food culture:
- Street food
- Coffee & desserts.
Before we dig in and find out where to find the best in these three categories, here’s a practical map that shows you now only the best of Penang food but also 15 stunning Penang hotels in Heritage Buildings and my favorite Penang art spots plus some points of interest that will help you plan your visit to the island. If you click on the star to the right of “Malaysia” the points will be added to your Google Maps and show whenever you open Google Maps on your computer, tablet, or smartphone.
Penang Street food: Chulia Street & Beyond
Where do I start? The dishes in Penang’s street food tend to be simple, from few ingredients with choice spices, and quickly cooked. Some are prepared in advance and kept warm over steam.
Here are some of my favorite Penang street foods:
- Char Koay Teow – Rice noodles wok-fried with vegetables, sausage, and shrimps and cooked with soy sauce.
- Popiah – In essence, non-fried spring roll, served with a sweet-and-sour peanut sauce and fried onions
- Bak Chang – A rice dumpling with pork and other ingredients that differ from vendor to vendor
- Satay/Lok-Lok – Skewers. And you can put literally anything on a skewer. Some vendors charge the same per skewer, while others charge tiered prices depending on what’s on the skewer. Try the stall on Lebuh Carnarvon, just off Chulia: skewers are color-coded, so you don’t lose track of your bill, and the couple who runs it will patiently take you through the process of frying some of your selection while others are eaten cold.
- Roti Canai – You mustn’t leave Penang without having tried this simple fried bread dish served with dhal soup to dip or spread on the roti.
- Penang Assam Laksa – Laksa is a fish soup you’ll find throughout coastal Malaysia. Penang apparently makes the best.
- Nasi Kandar – Curries buffet Malaysia style. Beware of hidden chili.
- Mee variations – Wan Tan Mee, Loh Mee, Hokkien Mee, Indian Mee (Mee Rebus),… They all work with the same type of wheat noodle.
- Yeap Noodles – This unique restaurant on Chulia Street sells mee noodles with a twist. Each dish is based on Chinese classics with shrimp, chicken or tofu but adds flavored noodles. From pepper noodles to carrot noodles to mint noodles – they are chosen to complement the dish.
- Cendol and Ais Kacang desserts – The Malay versions of sweet soup start off with shaved ice, top it with green rice flour noodles (for cendol) or sweet corn (for ais kacang) and red beans, topped with a generous amount of sweet coconut milk. Note that ais kacang (or ABC) comes in many other variations as well.
Still not satisfied? Try seafood!
Penang Food is Nothing Without Seafood
Pulau Penang – Penang island – is surrounded by the fertile fishing grounds of the Andaman Sea. So the Penangites’ taste for seafood comes naturally. Fried fish or fish curry with rice is a staple, enjoyed for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Pasembur is one of the most common incarnations of seafood in Penang. Choose batter-fried crab or shrimp or octopus from the buffet – you pay by item weight or per piece (biji) – and hand your plate over to the hawker. They will refry the delicacies, cut them into bite-sized bits and top them with cucumber and a sweet-and-spicy red sauce. Vegetarian and meat options are also available. While you can find pasembur all over the city, for a truly local experience, I recommend heading over to the northern waterfront and Padang Kota Lama Food Court.
Kendar, mini-scallops, are available for about $4 per kilogram in the night markets (and cheaper fresh on the produce market). They are either steamed over a broth or barbecued and served with a sweet chili sauce. I had mine also at Padang Kota Lama Food Court.
By sheer accident, I visited Penang just in time for octopus season. Just tell the hawkers on Chulia Street how much you want to pay (10 Ringgit is a right amount for one), and they’ll boil it for you. Served either en natural with a chili dip or with other sauces.
Coffee Shops & Dessert Cafés
Penangites love coffee. Small, traditional coffee shops can be found on almost every corner regardless of whether the neighborhood is Indian, Chinese or Malay. Here, you can meet the locals and have the typical Malay sweet white coffee.
However, a more modern coffee culture is emerging, influenced by the instagramibility of South Korean dessert cafés and the style of American coffee shops. Here’s a list of some of the most remarkable Penang coffee shops I stumbled across strolling through the old city of George Town.
55 Café on quiet Steward Lane is more old-school European Kaffeehaus than chic dessert café. Set on the corner of a building that used to be a coffee roaster, this coffee shop serves proper barista fare from simple espressos to Latte Macchiato and co. There is also a lunch menu.
A visit to 55 Café is an experience: Behind the coffee shop is the Kopi Museum, a museum dedicated to the art of coffee making (in Penang). Next door is the Gehring Art Gallery specialized in Malaysian art. And upstairs is the Coffee Atelier guest house, one of the best-rated hotels in Penang.
This tiny coffee shop with only a handful of tables is located practically across the street from the famed “Children on Bicycle” street art on the eastern end of Armenian Street.
The eye-popping photos in the TFros Instagram account aren’t just for show. Every single dessert TFros serves as a piece of art with homemade everything – from ice cream to muffles (waffles with a soft muffin consistency inside a crunchy crust) to honeycomb to tiramisu… all if it stunningly arranged, also: cold brewed teas.
Constant Gardener Coffee
Constant Gardener doesn’t only strive to serve the best hot drinks in town – be they coffee, tea or hot chocolate (made from real chocolate) – but also to educate on how to eat better and train the senses. The walls are decorated with drawings explaining the design of good coffee and cakes, and the public can participate in tastings.
BTW: Many of the hot classics are also available in iced varieties. Try, for example, the sumptuous Belgium chocolate with milk on ice and add one of the delicate cakes.
Merry Me – Freakshakes and dry ice
Where TFros delves into delicate art, Merry Me, a dessert house inside the Reunion Heritage House hotel in Victoria Street, serves up kitsch. Their specialty is freakshakes: milkshakes topped with chocolate, ice cream scoops, muffins, and anything else you might find in a dessert kitchen.
But don’t worry: if you need to keep it light try their colorful Kakigori shaved ice creations.
And for the intellectual minimalists, they even have your regular barista coffee varieties that you can take to the library on the upstairs gallery.
Minimalism: Spiced Indian Coffee
If you just want to drink a coffee but with local flair without highly instagramable fuzz, head over to Little India. In Lebuh China, a charming gentleman from Mali, India, sells bean porridge (look out for the green sign) and, more importantly, sukku malli kaapi – spiced coffee that his mom regularly sends from India. I large cup is just 1.50 Ringgit (40 cents) and the gentleman’s delightful stories, and explanations about the benefits of sukku malli coffee are free.
Extra: Durian Deluxe
Have you heard about this strange spiky fruit with a gooey flesh that reminds some of a rotting corpse while it has others rejoice? Well, Penang is the place to be to quench your durian desires. You’ll find several large shops along with small stalls throughout the old town selling fresh durians and all kinds of durian products from durian coffee to candy to dried durian.
Have you been to Penang? Which were your favorite culinary delights and where did you find them?