Penang food is renowned across the world thanks to its melting pot of Chinese, Indian and Malay influences. Don’t head to expensive restaurants though; the best food in Penang can be found in the food courts and hawker centres.
Peranakan, or Nonya, cuisine
Penang is known as the Malaysian food capital. It’s renowned for its Peranakan, or Nonya cuisine, which was developed by the decedents of immigrants who settled on the island and married local Malaysians, over time creating new dishes that are a fusion of different Asian cooking styles and ingredients.
One of my favourite things to do when travelling is try out the local cuisine, so having heard great things about Penang I was very excited to head down to the island’s hawker stalls and do some taste testing!
I’ve visited Penang twice now, mainly for the food, and I almost always ate from street vendors or at the food courts because simply put, I couldn’t get enough of the rich, spicy dishes on offer.
Penang street food
You’re really spoilt for choice in Penang as there are food courts everywhere, and each one is packed with stalls offering a wide range of cuisine. You’ll find everything from Chinese and Japanese through to Indian and western meals on offer.
Every evening we would do a tour around whatever food court we’d chosen, looking at each of the menus and then decide what to try.
I tried as many new dishes as I could during my visits and wanted to share with you some of my favourites. The list below is far from a definitive catalogue of all the food in Penang, but hopefully it will give you a tempting taste of what Malaysia’s foodie capital has to offer.
What to eat in Penang
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Penang has several ‘signature’ dishes and one of these is Nasi Kandar, a rice-based meal that can include a variety of – often quite spicy – meat and vegetable curries and sambal toppings.
These are all put together on one plate, so the different tastes all come together. I actually had this for breakfast several times when I was staying in Georgetown. Definitely one to add to your Penang food checklist!
Butter chicken (curry)
Served everywhere across the island, butter chicken is a brightly coloured Indian dish that’s more rich in flavour than spicy. Order this and you’ll receive a bowl filled with chunks of chicken in a thick curry sauce. Absolutely delicious!
Roti canai is a tasty flatbread that can come in different shapes and textures. Sometimes slightly gooey, other times flakey; however they’re served they’re heavenly. They’re most often served with a curry like butter chicken to dunk them in and were by far my favourite thing to eat in Penang.
There’s one particular hawker stall that’s known as the best place on the island of Penang to try roti canai. Keep a look out for my upcoming guide on where to eat in Penang to find out where you can find it!
For noodle fans the go-to Penang dish to try is mee goreng. This is a noodle stir-fry, often cooked with garlic, onions, chilli, tomato, shrimp paste and meat – mainly chicken and/or prawn.
A filling meal, I actually prefer the rice version, nasi goreng, but this is still pretty tasty. For something special make sure you visit a vendor that offers a special Penang sticky red gravy which adds a sweet and sour kick.
A ‘Penang must eat’. Murtabak is delicious – probably because, as I later discovered, so many of its tasty ingredients are bad for you!
Murtabak is a dish made up of bread fried in ghee, filled with chicken, onion, garlic and egg. It’s an absolute taste sensation, just don’t think about the calories each one must contain. It’s served cut into portions and is mainly eaten dipped in a gravy or curry. My go to ‘dipping sauce’ was the fiery red-coloured butter chicken.
Koay Teow Th’ng
Koay teow th’ng is a Chinese broth popular in Penang. It’s made up of flat noodles clear broth, meat, lettuce and chopped spring onions. Simple but filling, it’s a cheap tasty option for lunch or dinner.
Popiah is a type of Chinese spring roll that’s made of a paper-thin crepe like pastry that’s filled with omelette, bean curd and vegetables such as grated carrot, turnip, lettuce and shallots. The perfect snack or starter…
If you’re looking for a quick meaty snack, you can’t go wrong with a portion of satay, which in Penang comes in the form of beef, chicken or pork. The skewers of marinated meat are grilled to order and served with a peanut dipping sauce – which often has a kick. They’re also cheap as chips, at around £1 for 5, so we had them most days as a starter!
Penang’s most famous ‘signature’ dish is assam laksa; a spicy fish noodle soup. CNN travel actually ranked this dish as no seven in the world’s best foods in 2018!
I’m going to hold my hand up straight away and tell you that I did not like this pungent, sour-tasting local delicacy, but I believe I’m in the minority.
Some might say an acquired taste, assam laksa is made up of thick rice noodles, fish (often mackerel), shrimp paste, chilli paste, lemongrass and tamarind. I’m not a big fan of a lot of these flavours, so it’s not really a surprise that I didn’t fall in love with laksa, but at least I gave it a try.
This soup has a strong, tangy taste, so its not for delicate palates like my own. However, I think its always worth going out of your comfort zone when trying new foods as you never know what you’ll discover…
Char koay teow
Penang is famous for its char koay teow – a dish made of flat rice noodles fried at high heat with prawns, cockles, eggs and beansprouts. Find it in any hawker stall or food court…
Want to learn more about what Penang has to offer? We recommend Lonely Planet’s Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and Penang Travel Guide.
Fish head noodle
Fish head noodles are another local delicacy. It’s exactly what you’d expect; fish heads, served with noodles, in a broth. Not for me, but if you’re feeling brave you should know the locals adore it!
The first roti jala I ever ate was the one I cooked at Pearly Kee’s cooking class at the Tropical Spice Garden in Penang.
Roti jala translates as ‘net bread’, which is pretty understandable when you see it. It’s more of a pancake than a bread really, and it’s made using a unique pouring cup with several spouts, which allows you to make a lacy pattern.
Another iconic street food in Penang is fried oysters. These are served in an omlette, with a chilli sauce on the side, they’re another acquired taste. As I’m not really one for fishy dishes, this wasn’t really for me, but the eggy omelette was tasty non-the-less!
Looking for accommodation in Penang? We recommend Lone Pine in Batu Ferringhi. Read our review to find out why…
Giant spring rolls
In our favourite food court; Long Beach Cafe, in Batu Ferringhi, it didn’t take long to discover a dish that the locals loved. Every evening a lady would appear at her stall selling just one thing – giant spring rolls. Once these sold out, which was pretty darn quickly, she’d shut up shop and head home.
Later in the week we ended up talking to a young guy who we discovered was her son. He explained that every day she would make 100 of these spring rolls to sell and they’d go like hot cakes, usually picked up by the locals. Now on a mission, we made sure we got to Long Beach early the next evening so we could try them out for ourself and we loved every mouthful. It’s always a good idea to eat where the locals do!
Hokkien mee is a spicy noodle soup, made from prawn and pork stock. The noodles are a mix of egg and rice, and the soup also includes pork, prawn, boiled eggs, spinach and shallots. It’s often also topped off with a dollop of chilli sambal. If this doesn’t fill you up, nothing will!
Chee cheong fun
Known as a breakfast dish or tea time snack, chee cheong fun (rice noodle roll) is made up of steamed noodle rolls served with sweet sauce, chilli sauce and prawn paste and topped off with a sprinkling of sesame seeds.
With its origins in southern Indian, Putu mayong is also known as a string hopper and is made from steamed rice flour. It’s made sweet or savoury depending on your toppings of choice – some locals like to eat it with grated coconut and salt, while others just sprinkle white or brown sugar over the top. How’d you have yours?
Ais kacang translates to ‘ice beans’. Shaved ice is topped with red kidney beans, sweet corn and grass jelly, drizzled with rose syrup and coconut or evaporated milk. You can even top it off with a scoop of ice cream.
Finally, cendol is the local sweet delicacy of choice. Green jelly noodles are served over shaved ice and kidney beans topped with coconut milk and palm sugar syrup. Yup, they like their sweet things super sweet in Penang!
A Penang food tour is a great way to learn more about the local cuisine and try out some of these dishes. We recommend using Tripadvisor to compare and book tours…
The best food in Penang
Have you visited Penang and tried some of these dishes? I’d love to hear what you thought of them! Or perhaps there’s something you ate there that you think should be added to this list?
Please do share your experiences with me in the comments below…