I keep getting asked the same question, what to eat and where to go in Penang?, and I usually reply personally with an email but it’s about time I added this to the blog.
First, a little history
Penang is an island on the West Coast of Malaysia at the top end of the Straits of Malacca. It was one of the major cities from the days of the Spice Trade hundreds of years ago. Sir Francis Light leased Penang from the Sultan of Kedah on behalf of the British East India company and it flourished as a busy trading port.(His son, Colonel William Light was responsible for Adelaide being chosen as the capital and also for it’s town planning.)
It is also one of the few places in Malaysia that still has a population of Nyonyas and Babas and their influence can be seen in the old heritage shop house architecture in Georgetown. Nyonya food is a fusion cuisine that is a combination of Chinese and Malay cooking traditions and is really unique and there are several restaurants in town that serve this amazing cuisine. The Penang version of Nyonya food has more of a Thai influence owing to its proximity to the Thai border.
Today, Penang Island besides being a favourite for local beach holidays, it is also a favourite for the grey haired immigrants who have settled in Malaysia under the Malaysia Second Home visa scheme.
In recent years, there has been an explosion of residential and hotel construction along the coveted real estate of Tanjung Bungah up to Batu Feringgi. As you drive up along the beach, modern apartment blocks perch precariously along clifftops overlooking this stretch of the coast line. This road is also majorly congested as is common in Malaysia, the planning permissions for construction were given without any heed for the need for better infrastructure.
The populationof Penang is mainly Hokkien speaking Chinese and is one of the few states held by the political opposition parties. Besides being a touristy island, it also boasts a sizeable technology industry.
Visitors to Penang flock to the many open air hawker centres and coffee shops for Penang’s unique street food. Here is a list of things to try:
Penang Hokkien Mee – a Prawn noodle soup in a prawn stock
Penang Laksa (Assam Laksa) – Laksa noodles (Lai Fun) in a tamarind flavoured fishy and herby broth, eaten with a generous dollop of the treacle like pungent Heh Ko, prawn paste. This laksa was voted by CNN as one of the top 10 dishes in the world.
Penang Rojak – called Rojak Buah elsewhere, is a sweet and savoury fruit salad dressed with a sauce made with the same Heh Ko
Char Kway Teow – A fried rice noodle dish. This is found all over Malaysia but the Penang version is paler, fried without the use of dark soya sauce and has prawns and chinese wind dried sausages in it.
Chee Cheong Fun – The basic chinese rice noodles drizzled with Penang’s version of sauce made with the ubiquitous Heh Ko again. This is surprisingly moreish.
Lor bak – Is a sort of sausage wrapped in a soya bean sheet, deep fried and dipped in a special sauce
Pasembur – An Indian street food which involves a large array of fried foods, from prawn fritters, battered crabs to coconut crunch, all doused in a special rojak sauce. (In KL, we have something similar with Indian rojak) Sidenote:”Rojak” just mean “Mixed” in Malay.
Kway Teow Teng – Is translated as flat rice noodle soup, which sounds boring but pick the right stall and the stock is rich, the noodles are smooth and altogether quite iconic for Penang.
Nasi Kandar – This is an Indian Muslim rice dish which gets its name from the way it was sold in the old days, from a street hawker balancing 2 bamboo baskets with a long pole on his shouldlers. The dish is usually served with a heaped serving of white or flavoured rice, drenched in a curry sauce of your choice and accompanied with a variety of side dishes of fried chicken, fried fish, meat curries and vegetables. There are versions of Nasi Kandar is several other northern Malaysian states and they are all slightly different in flavour.
The best Hokkien Mee – Penang specialty (Prawn Mee Soup) is on Jalan Burma ( Burma Road) at Swee Kong Coffee Shop, directly opposite the Pulau Tikus Police Station. Available daily except Thursdays. From 6.00am to 8.30am.
Best Char Koay Teow is of course the Lady With the Red Beret on Lorong Selamat. Daily 11.30am to 5 ish. You might have to queue for this one.
Gurney Drive (an open air hawker food centre, just past Georgetown and before the start of the road to the beach resorts). Best time to visit is early evening as not all the stalls are open at lunchtime and it is way too hot. There are many other hawker food centres around Penang and you will find a similar selection of stall food at each. Each dish will cost you about RM5 or £1. You can have a real feast for a tenner.
Food you must try there:
- A bowl of Assam laksa (Penang laksa) which is very fishy
- rojak (Malaysian fruit salad)
- Soya bean curd and soya bean drink from the special soya bean from the stall (van) there – everyone knows it
- Pasembur or Indian rojak (Indian muslim stall food which is a mix of lots of veg and fried bits in a special sauce
- Lor bak – sort of like a sausage wrapped in a tofu skin
- Penang chee cheong fun – rice noodles with a black sauce
- Mua Chi – pieces of glutinous rice rolled in peanuts and sugar
- Ch’ng Teng – a refreshing and cooling cold drink with dried fruits
- Cendol – A sweet coconut soup sweetened with palm sugar
You must have some proper Nyonya food in Penang as they still have really authentic cooking in Penang.
The best Nyonya Restaurant is Rumah Perut on Kelawei Road, I think it is halal. Otherwise try E.T Restaurant on Rangoon Road. It is a steamboat restaurant but for the locals in the know, they serve home cooked Nyonya Food. i.e. Joo Hu Char, Gulai Assam Fish, Lor Bak, Assam Prawns. Also try Nyonya Breeze or Mama’s on Abu Siti Lane which are both good too. These are really popular and you will need to book ahead.
On the way down from the beach – there is a charming run down, rustic seafood restaurant on the beach that does BBQ crabs: The Sea Pearl Lagoon Cafe in Tanjong Tokong. This is too downmarket for a lot of my local friends but I think it has a certain Je ne sais quoi and is worth a visit. Have the crabs, salt baked prawns, the oyster omellete from the stalls and the char kway teow (friend noodles). All taxi drivers know this place. Don’t be alarmed if the taxi takes you down some dirt lanes as this is in one of the older villages in Penang and it does look like a real third world country down there.
If you are staying by Batu Feringgi beach, don’t miss the Goreng Pisang/ Banana Fritters stall along the way. Also try their yam and new year cake too. If you are going by cab, they will all know it as they have been there for decades. They have upgraded from a basic open air stall to a couple of large vans. Best goreng pisang in town!
Other things to look out for, find a restaurant that does Nasi Kandar and ask some locals for their favourites. Everyone has an opinion on this one.
Things to see and do in Penang
Besides eating, there are quite a few interesting places to visit
- Take the heritage walk in the old part of Georgetown
- See the Banksy like street art around the old town
- The snake temple, although there aren’t many snakes anymore
- Take a ride up the cable car to Penang Hill
- Then drop by at the Kek Lok Si temple
- See reclining buddha and visit the only Burmese temple outside of Burma next door
- If it is in season, visit a durian orchard and sample some of Penang’s special varieties. For durian fans, this is like a pilgrimage.
- Drive around the island, see the Buddha’s footstep in the rock at the far end of the island.
- Try paragliding or water skiing on the beaches of Batu Feringgi
Where to Stay
If you fancy a beach holiday then stay at one of the many beach hotels in Batu Feringgi. It is about a 30 minute drive into town when the traffic is flowing.
In the past few years, there has been a whole range of small boutique hotels opening up in Georgetown. Most of these are converted from old Shop Houses and most have been painstakingly restored. These might be a better option if you plan to spend more time exploring the historic part of Penang.