Five days in Penang are barely enough to even scratch the surface of this amazing island’s incredible food scene. Famous for having some of the world’s best street food, it’s definitely a must visit destination if you’re a food lover! But between the shopping and markets, beaches, museums, guided tours, temples, street art (more on this later) and incredibly beautiful scenery, there’s plenty to keep you busy in between meals too.
Penang has a rich and multi cultural history and the food and architecture speak volumes. Hindu and Buddhist temples are just down the road from Mosques and Anglican churches. I was most looking forward to trying regional specialties Char Kway Teow, Assam Laksa and Cendol, but was also happy to find some of my other favourite Malaysian dishes done extremely well too, sometimes hugely differently to those tried in Australia or KL.
But before the onslaught of photos, here’s a little video I made, just with a bit of footage I’d caught on my iphone!
Joo Hooi Cafe
Located on Penang Road, the “cafe” is just a set up of tables and chairs, with a group of hawkers cooking from their own carts just outside. We had come here specifically to try the Char Kway Teow but one of the ladies laughed out loud when I tried to order it. Of course it must be common local knowledge that they don’t serve it on Wednesdays!
But nevermind, we order a bowl of Assam Laksa instead. Also known as Penang Laksa, this is one dish you can’t leave the island without trying. An intense tamarind infused fish broth is ladled over thick noodles and garnished with onion, pineapple, mint, chillies and thick shrimp paste, for 3 ringgits, which is about $1. I have to say that this dish is an acquired taste and while I can definitely appreciate the melding of sour, sweet and spicy flavours, I found the soup quite overpoweringly… fishy! Hope that doesn’t offend any fans or purists, I know my girls Karen and Steph would have totally loved this.
The Teochew Cendol from the cart outside goes down a treat on this already very warm morning, no fancy plating up here – just whack the shaved ice, red beans, pandan jelly worms and coconut milk into a metal bowl and eat as it all melts into a soupy puddle! Very refreshing.
Joo Hooi Cafe, 475 Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang Island 10000, Malaysia
New World Park
When one friend learned I was in Malaysia, she warned me not to eat street food or crushed ice desserts – er, that was my diet for the entire week! As it’s so competitive, Penang seems to have incredibly high standards as far as hawker food goes, but if you prefer to play it safe and eat something prepared in an actual kitchen, New World Park might be for you. We discovered this food court on our second day, and returned a few times since it was only a few steps down the road from our hotel.
The Popiah was the best I’ve ever had. Like a fresh spring roll with a thin crepe containing turnip, bean sprouts, lettuce, crab and a few other things I’m sure! On top was a scattering of fried shallots for some extra crunch. This dish is all about texture, as the flavours are a little more subtle.
We tried a bunch of dishes from different stalls – the Koay Teow Soup made a great breakfast one day. This dish originated in China, with migrants bringing the flat rice noodle ‘koay teow’ with them to Malaysia. The soup is a delicious nourishing clear broth with fish balls, pork mince patties, chicken slices, lettuce, shallots and chillies.
We also tried two of my favourites – Roti Canai and Ais Kacang. The Roti was freshly made while we watched and so crisp and fluffy, served with a flavoursome curry sauce. The Ais Kacang was served with pieces of durian and papaya as well as the usual corn, grass jelly and red beans.
There is truly an art to Char Kway Teow, which is prepared in a hot wok with rice noodles, bean sprouts, prawns, Chinese sausage, chives and sometimes with cockles. The seasonings can vary between different hawkers but usually include light and dark soy sauce, fish sauce and chilli paste. It’s served piping hot on a banana leaf. This was a great example and one of my favourite dishes of the whole trip.
New World Park, Lorong Swatow Georgetown, 10050 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
The Green Mansion
The mansion was built in 1890 and belonged to Chinese Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee. He was a 19th century Hakka tin-miner and secret society leader. After decades of neglect and decay, it has been beautifully restored.
For just 10 ringgits each (just over $3) we got to wander around three beautiful buildings filled with antiques that depicted how wealthy Babas and Nyonyas lived about a century ago. I just loved the mixture of Chinese and English influences within the architecture and furnishings. Next time I would love to see the Blue House to compare!
Pinang Peranakan Mansion, 29 Lebuh Gereja George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Stay tuned for Part 2 next week!