Esme Fox spent a couple of months getting to know Penang’s flavoursome street food scene. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it…
The Malaysian island of Penang may be small, but it could rightly be called Asia’s capital of street food. Street food is revered here, so much so that it almost enjoys the same status as the historic UNESCO World Heritage City of George Town itself. There is even a museum dedicated entirely to these cheap eats.
With a population made up of Malays, Chinese and Indians, it’s no wonder that Penang has so many influences, flavours, ingredients and such a varied street food scene. Most of the street food stalls can be found inside dedicated hawker centres, open for lunch, dinner and often breakfast too. Some of the best hawker centres in the main city of George Town include Chulia Street Hawker Centre, CF Food Court, found just opposite the historic Chew Jetties, and Sri Weld Food Court, located along busy Beach Street.
During the two months I spent living in Penang, I made my way around many of the island’s hawker centres, sampling the best street food on offer. Here are some of my favourite dishes and where to find them.
There are many versions of curry mee throughout Malaysia and Singapore, but Penang’s version is one of the dishes you’ll find in almost all the hawker centres on the island. A type of noodle soup, it usually includes cuttlefish, tofu balls, cockles, prawns, yellow egg noodles and pig’s blood curd, all cooked in a spicy broth.
One of the most iconic of Malaysia’s dishes and loved throughout the world, laksa comes in two varieties: curry laksa, which is similar to curry mee, but contains coconut milk, and laksa assam. The most common type in Penang is the laksa assam – a noodle soup made with sour tamarind, pineapple juice, fish stock, prawn paste, lemongrass and chillies.
Often served alongside laksa, popiah are Chinese in origin. Similar to fried spring rolls, they are typically filled with crushed garlic, shrimps, tofu strips, crunchy fried onions and green beans, and topped with a sweet sauce made with hoisin and soy.
Char kway teow
Literally ‘rice cake strips’, like thick rice noodles, kway teow are stir-fried in a wok over a very high heat along with dark soy sauce, egg, Chinese chives, beansprouts, prawns, cockles and chillies. Sometimes sausage, pieces of fishcake and crunchy pork lard are also added. One of the best stalls to try some is Sister’s Char Kway Teow on Macalister Street in George Town.
Roti essentially means bread; roti canai is a flat pancake-like bread which originated in south India and was adapted by the Indian Malays. They are usually eaten for breakfast and can be plain or filled with ingredients such as egg and onion (my favourite combination). Some places offer sweet fillings such as powdered chocolate or condensed milk. The plain and savoury versions come served with a small bowl of thin, curried gravy to dip your roti into. It’s best paired with a cup of teh tarik (a hot or cold sweet, milky tea) or kopi ais (iced coffee made with condensed milk).
An Indian Muslim dish, mee goreng consists of yellow egg noodles fried in a tangy tomato and chilli sauce, mixed with egg, boiled potatoes, tofu, chewy fried dumplings and beansprouts. Sometimes dried cuttlefish or squid is also added. The Mamak Mee Goreng Bangkok Lane stall on Jalan Burma is said to sell the best mee goreng on the island.
Influenced by the Indian Malays, apom are small crunchy pancakes with a soft, fluffy centre made from coconut milk, eggs, flour and sugar. They are made right in front of you in small pans or woks, cooked over hot coals and are deliciously fragrant. There are various versions such as apam balik, where fillings such as sweetcorn, banana or chocolate are added and folded into the middle. My favourite additions are peanuts and brown sugar. An excellent apam balik stand can be found in front of the Sri Weld Food Court on Beach Street in George Town.
The word nasi means rice, so this pick is slightly different to Penang’s many noodle dishes, but no less popular. In fact, nasi lemak could be considered to be Malaysia’s national dish. The plate consists of rice infused with pandan (a leaf often used as flavouring in Asian dishes) and coconut, a handful of dried anchovies, some salted peanuts and a boiled egg, all served with a generous dollop of sambal (a spicy, fishy chilli sauce).
Vegetarians needn’t worry; you’ll find several ‘vegetarian only’ street food stalls dotted around the city. Many of the vendors are familiar with the concept of vegetarianism and can adapt what they’re serving.