Penang is known as the Malaysian food capital and offers a variety of mouth watering Chinese, Indian and Malay-inspired dishes.
It is renowned for its peranakan, or nonya cuisine, which was created by the decedents of the immigrants who settled here and married local Malaysians, over time developing new dishes that are a fusion of different Asian cooking styles and ingredients.
Table of Contents
Penang – food paradise
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 heard down to the island’s hawker stalls and do some taste testing!
During my week in Penang I almost always ate from street vendors or at the food courts and simply put, I could not get enough of the rich, spicy dishes on offer.
The best street food in Penang
You really are spoilt for choice as there are food courts everywhere, and each one is packed with stalls offers a wide range of cuisine; with everything from Chinese and Japanese through to Indian and western meals on offer. Every evening we would do a tour around the court looking at the menu boards of each hawker and then decide what we felt like trying. I often would order different parts of my meal from different sellers, and with food so cheap it was the perfect time to buy lots of small amounts in order to sample as many eats as possible.
I tried as many new dishes as I could during my stay and wanted to share with you some of my favourites. The list below is far from a definitive catalogue of what Penang has to offer, but hopefully it will give you a tempting taste of what Malaysia’s food heaven has to offer.
By far this was my favourite thing to eat in Penang, 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.
Served everywhere across the island, this brightly coloured Indian dish often isn’t as spicy as you’d expect. More rich than spicy, this was my favourite curry in Penang, with tasty chunks of chicken in a thick curry sauce. Usually served on its own, you could order a portion of rice to soak it all up, but I couldn’t resist a murtabak if there was one to buy!
A big lover of breads, I tried out many different variations in Penang. Roti canai was another favourite of mine, which is a flat bread that can come in different shapes and textures. I tried both rectangular and round versions and some were doughy while others were flaky. Whatever form they took though, they were all delicious. Again another dipping bread, it’s best to order these with a basic curry, such as butter chicken.
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. Yet another dipper, we ate ours with a nonya chicken curry, made with coconut milk and potatoes.
Penang has several ‘signature’ dishes, and one of these is Nasi Kandar, a rice-based meal, which can include a variety of – often quite spicy – curry and/or sambal toppings.
These are all put together on one plate, so the different tastes all come together. Definitely one to add to your Penang food checklist!
Giant spring rolls
In our local food court, Long Beach, 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, and 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 who explained that every day she would make 100 of these spring rolls to sell and that they’d go like hot cakes, usually picked up by the locals. Now on a mission, we made sure to get to Long Beach early the next evening so we could try them out for ourself.
Freshly, and perfectly cooked, and filled with lots of crisp vegetables, we loved every mouthful – it’s always a good idea to eat where the locals do!
If you’re looking for a quick meaty snack, you can’t go wrong with a portion of satay. And in Penang you can get beef, chicken and pork satay.
Skewers of grilled meat are served with a peanut dipping sauce and are so cheap you can fill yourself up with just £1. Sorted!
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, that adds a sweet and sour kick.
Penang’s most famous ‘signature’ dish is assam laksa, a spicy fish noodle soup.
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 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.
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…