In a myriad of hostel bars, across many countries; every traveller I had met that had been to Penang told me the same thing. Go for the food. Oh, the food. Penang is legendary amongst street foodies, and for good reason. Centuries of immigration from all over Asia have turned it into a multicultural melting pot of deliciousness, a temple to street food where flavours from across the continent combine and compete for attention. Craftsmanship remains valued here; things are created by hand from fresh ingredients and each second or third generation vendor infuses a sense of pride into their specialised dishes. It’s entirely possible to spend a whole day in Georgetown just following the clouds of sweet, sour, spicy smells of pressure cooker recipes turned to food masterpieces from one food stall to the next, letting the anticipation of the next meal draw you across the city. And that is exactly what I did.
** By the way, I don’t claim to be a food expert. You can read what they think here, here and here. I’m just a greedy girl who has eaten way more than her fair share of Asian street food, and these are the things I loved eating during my two stints in Penang.
Start the day early, with a 7am trip to the Cecil Street wet market and some steamed dim sum. Next, follow your nose to Jalan Transfer for fluffy, crunchy edged roti canai with curry sauce. Head to the Mugshot cafe on Lebuh Chulia around mid-morning for a freshly baked bagel stuffed with lemony smoked salmon and cream cheese.
The char siew (BBQ pork) rice served at the Sky Hotel kopi tiam is one of the best things I ate in Georgetown; soft, unguent pork with a sticky crackle of skin – I recommend ordering a double portion of meat. Or head to Restoran Kapitan for huge Indian feasts served in thali lunch trays – the tandoori chicken is really good.
If you’re lucky like me, your visit to Penang will coincide with an Indian food festival, and you can spend the afternoon wandering the stalls and snacking on hot crunchy samosa and pani puri . If not, head down to the waterfront past the fort where vendors sell nasi lemak – rice cooked in coconut milk, fried anchovies, shrimp paste and a boiled egg – wrapped in banana leaf parcels.
The open air Esplanade hawker centre comprises a huge range of vendors situated around a courtyard that overlooks the ocean. Try a bowl of spicy-sour assam laksa topped with shredded fish and sweet shrimp paste. The fried seafood and succulent satay skewers make a good starter.
A slow amble back towards Chulia street is a nice way to walk off a big dinner. The nightly Cheapside hawker market there is one of the best places to find a late supper of curry mee, and if you’re feeling adventurous you can try lok lok – bitesize skewers of seafood, tofu and vegetables that you fry yourself in vats of hot oil.
There’s also lots of beautiful restaurants dotted around Georgetown if you’re looking for something a bit more upmarket – I didn’t try any of these as they were out of my backpacker budget, but I did take a night time walking food tour of Penang which was a really fun way to explore and hear some of the stories of Penang’s history in the context of its famous food.