Penang's capital, the quaint and lovely George Town is known for its tumbledown colonial architecture, easy access to beaches and above all, vibrant food culture which reflects Malay, Indian and Chinese influences. Seriously, if you love to eat, pack clothes with an elastic waistband because Penang will not disappoint. It’s one of the world’s favourite culinary destinations for good reason.
I’ve recommended a few places to eat below but keep in mind hawker food is king. There are dozens of open air food courts in George Town that you will stumble upon if you walk around (recommended), or you can hire a bike and head to Gurney Drive. The best part is you can eat well for five ringgit or fifty and if you leave without a full stomach, you will only have yourself to blame. Here's what to eat:
If you think dim sum is the best thing on earth (because it is) head to Restoran Aik Hoe one morning for yum cha. Pick your favourites from large bamboo steamers filled with dumplings, fluffy pork buns, and lo mai gai, parcels of sticky rice with chicken and mushrooms and wash it all down with pots of Chinese tea.
If coffee if more your thing or as the Malays call it, kopi, squeeze into one of the unironically retro booths at the nearly eight decades old Toon Leong. In one corner of this Chinese-Malaysian owned kopitiam that serves the best brew - thick, fragrant and heady sweetened with creamy condensed milk - a hawker cart dishes out plate after plate of nasi kandar, curried meats served with your choice of sides like silken whole eggplant and spiced lady fingers. Fun fact: Nasi kandar is named after the kandar or shoulder poles carried by the roving vendors who sold it. Nasi means rice.
Nasi goreng or fried rice is delicious. Nasi Ayam is Hainanese steamed or roast chicken with rice served with a chilli dipping sauce. So so simple and effective. Nasi lemak is coconut rice with anchovies, peanuts, boiled egg and spicy sambal generally wrapped in banana leaf.
Penang kopitiams are unique in that they often allow patrons to eat-in from nearby hawker stalls. Some of Penang’s best food is on the street so make haste for Kafe Heng Huat and join the locals in lining up for a plate of char koay teow, undoubtedly Penang’s favourite dish. The cart at its entrance is the stuff of legends, doling out plate after plate of rice noodles glistening with pork fat and teeming with juicy prawns and cockles, that are perfectly wok hei or kissed by the breath of the wok.
Asam laksa is another Penang specialty, a tart interpretation (and a far cry) of the classic coconut based Nyonya noodle soup. Instead the broth is intensely fishy spiked with ginger, tamarind and chilli and freshened up with mint. If you enjoy piquant flavours, get this. Otherwise get hokkien mee.
Another street food staple is roti canai. Roti, a sister of the layered Malabar parotta, hot off the griddle is crispy, soft and flaky all at the same time and served with dal or curry. It goes for as little as one and two ringgit. Nuts.
Get oh chien or fried oyster omelettes and tons of tropical juice - I like starfruit.
Head to Little India where small canteens run by Penang’s Tamil population are hidden between sari shops and record stores blaring Bollywood, Tollywood and R&B tunes. Try Veloo Villas where breakfast means masala thosai, and delicious set lunches and dinners are served on banana leaf. The fried chicken is pretty great.
If you grow fatigued of Malaysian food (we have nothing in common) head to China House. This complex of three gorgeous heritage buildings linked by a lovely open air courtyard might have hip restaurants and a bakery that offers a selection of thirty different cakes a day but it also has a cool shop and galleries featuring works by contemporary Malaysian and international artists. Most importantly, go because it has a wine bar so drink to forget (just how much you ate).
Restoran Aik Hoe, 6 and 8 Lebuh Carnavon, George Town
Toon Leong, corner Jalan Argyll and Jalan Transfer, George Town
Kafe Heng Huat for Madam Soon Suan Choo’s char koay teow, 108 Lorong Selamat, George Town
Restoran Viloo Villas, 22 Penang Street, George Town
China House, 153 Lebuh Pantai, George Town