What to eat in Penang, Georgetown
When I moved to Singapore, I was told that I could hop onto a bus that would take me to the Malaysia border in little to no time, otherwise known as the Johor-Malaysian Causeway. Formerly a Malaysian State until 1966, Singapore's rapid development has placed itself in the enviable position of having a much higher consumer spending power than Malaysians. Today, thanks to Malaysia's proximity, Singaporean residents make a day trip, in search of a retail bargain or two, due to the lower cost of living.
Whilst, I haven't yet had the privilege of crossing over to Johor Bahru, I have taken the time to explore other areas of Malaysia in search of activities other than shopping. This has taught me that Malaysia has much more to offer than saving a handful of dollars.
The country itself is laden with national parks, booming cities, colonial towns and mountainous terrain. Not to mention jaw-dropping tropical islands, perfect for that weekend getaway. Whilst, I haven’t even scratched the surface, I’m glad to have so far been able to experience a rapidly growing city, Kuala Lumpur; the island of Borneo with its jungle and turtle islands; and the food capital of Malaysia, the island of Penang. Yep, I said it. The FOOD CAPITAL of Malaysia, about which I am most graciously sharing with you, in this blog post.
Finding your way around George Town, Penang
George Town is the capital city of Penang island and is Malaysia’s second-largest city. The historical core of Georgetown was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.
The city is an absolute delight, with its collection of historic buildings in various styles, from old English colonial mansions to classical Chinese shophouses and Islamic mosques. The Street of Harmony, which brings together houses of different faiths in one stretch, testifies to that.
On top of that, I was delighted to find art at every corner, which you can even interact with.
There's also as a move towards industrial interior-design laden. We stayed at a gorgeous Airbnb run by local artists.
Today, the dynamic city of George Town is renowned for its diversity in food and is considered to be the birthplace of Malaysian street food. In contrast with its big sister, Kuala Lumpur, the street food culture continues to grow strong in Penang, with second-or third-generation vendors still dishing it up in Penang.
Strolling through the heart of Georgetown, you’re able to see craftsmen and artisans doing old trades by hand, such as sign-making, rattan weaving, tin smithing, paper-effigy making, incense making. And thankfully, this also applies to cooking, where precious time is invested in the making of Penang cuisine from scratch.
Penang food is a mix of traditional Malay, Chinese and Indian dishes, as well as fusion cuisines such as Baba Nyonya, or Peranakan, which incorporates regional ingredients and Chinese and Malay cooking methods.
Knowing this in advance, stomach space becomes precious. With only four precious days, we spared little time not planning where and what to eat. That said, we still missed out on some fantastic dishes like lor bak, koay teow th'ng, Nasi lemak and beef rendang. For that reason, I'm thankful to be in Singapore, where I can find these dishes so readily available.
Read more to learn about what we DID manage to eat. Here's our tried and tested advice on what to eat in Penang.
Voted one of the World’s Best Foods
The first thing we were aching to try, was one of the world’s best foods, the Penang Assam Laksa. Laksa is the first meal I had when I arrived in Singapore. The origin of the name "laksa" is unclear. One theory traces it back to Hindi/Persian lakhshah, referring to a type of vermicelli, which in turn may be derived from the Sanskrit lakshas (लकशस्) meaning "one hundred thousand" (lakh). It has also been suggested that "laksa" may derive from the Chinese word 辣沙 (Cantonese: [lɐ̀t.sáː]), meaning "spicy sand" due to the ground dried prawns which gives a sandy or gritty texture to the sauce. The last theory is that the name comes from the similar-sounding word "dirty" in Hokkien due to its appearance
Laksa comes from the Peranakan cuisine, a cuisine represented by Peranakan’s — an ethnic group descended from Chinese settlers from the southern provinces who came to the Malay archipelago between the 15th and 17th centuries. It is a popular spicy rice noodle soup. Laksa consists of thick wheat noodles or rice vermicelli with chicken, prawn or fish, served in spicy soup based on either rich and spicy curry coconut milk or a tangy, tamarind-spiced soup which Penang is most famous for. Whilst the coconut-based laksa is known as Curry Laksa, Penang’s variety is called Assam Laksa, with the word assam being a Malay word for tamarind. This version of laksa has also seen mangosteen added for extra sourness and pineapple added for a touch of sweetness. On the plus side, this version of laksa is considered to be healthier than its sister — Curry Laksa.
We got out Assam Laksa from the infamous Penang Road Famous Laksa street stall.
Another must-try is Penang’s rendition of Char Kway Teow. Char Kway Teow literally means "stir-fried rice cake strips", and is a noodle dish and is considered a national favourite in Malaysia and Singapore. However, in Penang it is known to have a smokier flavour imparted by seasoned wok on high heat. Note that this is considered to be one of the unhealthiest hawker food dishes, due to the incorporation of rice noodles, seafood, Chinese sausage and lard. It is high in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium but IS a source of protein. It was a good enough reason for me to try it once (perhaps, twice).
As for dessert, Penang Road is also known for its famous chendol — another dish which wins the hearts of South-East Asians. Chendol is an iced sweet dessert that contains droplets of green rice flour jelly, coconut milk and palm sugar syrup.The Penang version includes large red kidney beans that are cooked to a soft texture. Attention! One bowl contains 12 teaspoons of sugar. Yup, 12.
Other notable desserts include Kuih or Kueh, bite-size glutinous rice cakes. You probably don't need me telling you that these are pretty sweet.
Another one is Kueh Dadar, a rolled crepe flavored with pandan juice and filled with grated coconut steeped in gula melaka (coconut palm sugar) or Malaysian palm sugar.
Is it worth investing in a food tour?
I would say if you’ve got a limited amount of time and you’re unfamiliar with Penang cuisine, it’s worth it. As Singapore residents, we’ve had access to similar foods back in Singapore; nevertheless, it is certainly worth distinguishing the varying approaches and the reasons behind it.
We visited the different neighbourhoods of Penang to sample food. We had a lovely time in Little India where we tried unmissable dishes: Roti Canai – and Indian flatbread, and Roti Canai – a pancake made out of rice and black lentils. One of the healthiest dishes I had the honour of trying. Definitely worth gorging on these (but don't go crazy on the sauce)!
We also tried Nasi Kandar — a meal of steamed rice which can be plain or mildly flavoured, and served with a variety of curries and side dishes of your choice.
And to quench our thirst, we tried typical drinks, namely Milo (a chocolate malted drink), Teh Tarik (Tea with condensed milk), Chrysanthemum soda, Water Chestnut Juice made of Chinese water chestnuts, and Pat poh Juice, literally means "eight treasures" in Chinese representing the concoction of 8 herbs that make the drink. All undeniably sweet.
Other drinks that are a must-try but not pictured here: Barley Juice (made from barely) and Nutmeg juice.
If you’re not keen on a food tour, Penang has a food utopia called Wonderfood Museum, with oversized food sculptures and historical explanations behind the emergence of such dishes.
Now you know what to eat in Penang, do share your experiences in the comment section below if you ever make your way there. Although I'd hate to know what I missed, I'd love to learn all about it!
And one last word of advice: don't forget to soak in the surroundings in between meals. I've heard it aids digestion.