WHEN THREE MEALS A DAY ISN’T ENOUGH
Penang’s authentic and multicultural food scene may just be the best in the world
The best food scene in the world may just be in Penang
FOR YEARS, FOOD-OBSESSED FRIENDS AND ACQUAINTANCES I TRUST HAD BEEN suggesting I visit George Town, on the Malaysian island of Penang, promising glorious Chinese and colonial architecture, along with a polyglot food scene they insisted was better than any other in Asia, perhaps even the world. “Bangkok is becoming too sanitised,” they’d say, or “China is long gone,” assuring me that something vital and authentic remained in Penang that didn’t feel at all exposed like Singapore’s hawker centres.
To say they were right is an understatement. You could eat in Penang from morning till night every day and never get bored, which, to be honest, is how you want to do it: Eat as much and as often as possible. The city is a wild hotchpotch of restaurants, markets and street stalls; its cuisine is a mix of Malay, Indian, Thai and Chinese influences (with a particular leaning toward the Teochew, Hokkien and Cantonese flavours of the Chinese south). Both the street food and the restaurants tap into the multiculturalism of this city brilliantly and, unlike the flashier dining scenes that coexist with the street food of Singapore and Bangkok, restaurants here turn out dishes as simple and honest as the vendors’.
Early in the morning, Chowrasta ( Jalan Chowrasta), a lively outdoor market with butchers, produce sellers, coffee shops and food stands, does an incredible prawn cheung fun and kaya toast, made with a coconut-egg jam, at a foldaway table ringed by plastic stools for breakfast – a cacophony of sizzling woks and chatter. Deeper into town, Tong Hooi
( 0060-12-498 3962) is a typical local coffee shop surrounded by individual food stalls, including the legendary Ah Leng Char Koay Teow ( Jalan Dato Keramet) and its rice noodles tossed in a charred wok with shrimp, cockles, beaten duck egg and bean sprouts. It’s hard to leave without sampling more: On a recent visit, I’d just finished a plateful of noodles when another vendor plied me with Chinese barbecued meats with a Southeast Asian-style dip of lime juice, shallot and fresh red chilies. Across town, spend a Sunday strolling Penang Road, where people queue up for the famous Teochew chendul, a sweet snack of shaved ice with coconut milk, red beans and slippery green pandan noodles, and Assam laksa, a brew of rice noodles, mackerel, tamarind, pineapple, chili and mint.
Then there are the restaurants. On the edge of Little India, an energetic enclave that runs from the historic centre to the coast – which you should visit as much for the shopping as for the food – Ramzan ( 0060-4-261 4967) is the place for lunch, specifically the duck curry with spiced rice and cucumber. A five-minute walk north, Aik Hoe ( 0060-16-472 0971) is an old-school teahouse where dim sum is displayed in enormous steamers on a counter at the back and families gather every day for breakfast or lunch. The Tek Sen Restaurant ( 006012-981 5117) offers a completely different vibe: Packed to the rafters with trendy young locals, it serves electrifyingly tasty Malaysian-Chinese food, including caramelised double-roasted pig with chilies and homemade tofu with scallops and prawns.
You cannot leave Penang without trying the local Peranakan food, a fusion of Chinese, Malay and Thai cooking known as nyonya. The family-run Perut Rumah ( 0060-4-227 9917) does it best. Get the otak-otak: fish custard perked up with kaffir lime and chili, all steamed in a banana leaf. When you’re raving about Penang food back home, you’ll spare no detail on this dish. It’s the one you’ll crave most of all.
“You can not leave P en ang without trying the local Per ana kan
food, a fusion of Chinese, Ma lay and
Clockwise from far left: Steamed pomfret and wing-bean salad at Tek Sen Restaurant; outside the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, off the waterfront; evening diners at TekSen Restaurant; an old rickshaw outside The Blue Mansion; cooking at Chowrasta market