On an island famed for its tasty treats, it can be hard to fit every recommendation into a single itinerary. However, even in the hotly contested street-food scene, there are three dishes that reign supreme: assam laksa, a Nyonya favourite of spicy fish broth with sour notes of tamarind and slurp-worthy rice noodles (below); nasi kandar, fluffy white rice topped with meat or seafood, and an assortment of curries; and of course, char koay teow.
The latter is possibly Penang’s best-known dish, and according to locals it is the focus on fresh, high-quality ingredients that sets the Penang version apart. Expect large shrimp, fresh succulent cockles, lap cheong (Chinese sausage), eggs and beansprouts. Many hawkers in Penang still fry their char koay teow over a charcoal stove, giving the noodles their signature “charred” taste.
Where to go
Locals will happily debate for hours over the best places to try a certain dish, but when time is tight and tastes varied, these hawker centres provide well-regarded versions of the classics in a traditional casual setting.
Northam Beach Café is about a 20-minute walk west along the seafront from the Eastern & Oriental Hotel on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah and has a wide variety of dishes including oyster omelette and ikan bakar (grilled stingray), but is most popular for its refreshing drinks and ice kacang (colourful shaved ice dessert) served with sea views. Just south of George Town is Sungai Pinang Food Court Paradise, which lives up to its name. Try the grilled fish, claypot chicken rice and dim sum.
Other hotspots include New Lane Foodstall (about 15 minutes’ walk from Macalister Mansion), Goodall Café and Long Beach Café in Batu Ferringhi.
For nostalgia fans, take a three-wheeled trishaw tour through the narrow lanes of George Town for a close-up look at this Unesco-listed heritage hotspot. Make sure you include some stops at the lone hawkers who specialise in a single dish – many of whom have occupied their spot since the 1950s.
Experiencing the variety and quality of street food in Penang is a great way to get participants bonding, and there are now several programmes designed to do just that.
The cooking school at Tropical Spice Garden near Batu Ferringhi is the first of its kind on the island. The school is surrounded by jungle trees and wildlife, and under the guidance of experienced and professional chefs—each specialising in Nyonya, Malay and Indian cuisines—groups can learn to cook local favourites such as assam laksa, nasi lemak and chicken tandoori. Classes and activities such as cook offs and herb hunting in the on-site garden are designed for 10-100 people.
Growing up amongst such a vibrant food scene it’s no surprise Penang’s millennials are coming up with their own delicious take on the classics. At Moody Cow Café cheesecake is given a local twist with flavours such as durian. Over at Fort Cornwallis, Kota is serving up pandan crème brulee and an innovative nasi lemak cake.
This is a great spot for large groups as it can cater for up to 500 diners under marquees on the surrounding lawns. Just ask the likes of Ferrari, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Nikon, Dell, Intel and Canon, who have all held events here.