Considered the food capital of Malaysia, and identified by no less than Forbes and CNN Traveler as one of the best food cities in the world, there’s no shortage of documentation on where, when and what to eat while you’re here. And there’s no shortage of friendly, opinionated local advice on the topic either, once you hit the streets. Locals take their food incredibly seriously and can expound at length about who cooks the ultimate laksa, Hokkien mee, duck noodles or Nonya cakes. The best fare often comes from unassuming outlets, some no more than carts parked right on the street, often conjured by folk who come from long lines of accomplished family cooks.
Here’s our five cents worth, however, to throw into the mix. It’s our list of the best street food dishes and snacks to zero in on, and the best places to try them. It’s hardly exhaustive as that would require a book, a great deal of time and multiple stomachs. But one thing is for sure; in Penang, there’s wonderful food everywhere, at all times of the day. You won’t be going home hungry.
Char kway teow
Is this Penang’s most famous street food dish? Most likely. It’s popular the world over, but nowhere does this ubiquitous fried noodle dish taste smokier, prawnier or just downright tastier than it does here. Die-hards still cook it over charcoal and insist that, along with a good dose of ‘wok hei’ (the essential “breath of the wok’), it contain small, juicy cockles, egg, chives and sprouts. We like the one Lily so proudly cooks using duck eggs, putting a little of herself into each perfectly smoke-infused plateful. Find her at the venerable old Kedai Kopi Seng Thor, where they also rustle up a decent oh chien (oyster omelette) and wantan mee.
Kedai Kopi Seng Thor, 160 Carnavon Road, 6.30am-7pm (Monday-Saturday), 6.30am-12.30pm (Sunday)
Koay teow th’ng
Need a break from complex, spicy, rich food? Here’s your ticket. Wide, fresh rice noodles, garnished with fish balls, blanched lettuce, pork lard and shredded meat (pork, chicken or duck are popular), swimming in a clear but full-flavored stock and spiked with shards of fried garlic - that’s koay teow th’ng. Fight your way through the devotees who flock to Carnavon Road for what’s regarded as the island's best example, at Pitt Street Koay Teow Th’ng. Theirs is distinguished by homemade fish balls, which they make using eel, and a particularly tasty stock. They also make their own chilli padi (chopped chilli mixed with garlic, lime juice and soy), which you shovel over your noodles at will.
Pitt Street Koay Teow Th’ng, 183 Carnavon Street, 8am-4pm (Tuesday-Saturday), 8am-1pm (Sunday)
Chee cheong fun
The name translates as ‘intestine noodles’ on account of the shape of these fresh, stubby, soft rice flour rolls, which make for a stunning breakfast. Or an any-time snack. They’re served in a puddle of thick, sweetish prawn paste sauce (each hawker has their own recipe so they all taste a bit different), with a dab of chilli sauce and a good smattering of sesame seeds over the top. They’re not overly spicy so kids, if you’re travelling with any, should find this an easy dish to eat.
Seow Fong Lye, 94C Macalister Lane, 7.30am-1pm
Char kway kak
Similar to Singaporean carrot cake, this moreish dish sees cubes of rice-flour cake fried up with egg, sprouts, salted daikon and dark soy sauce into a burnished, chewy, umami-infused mess of complete deliciousness. Once upon a time it was served in a banana-leaf lined brown paper cone and eaten as a snack but these days, it’s seen as a more substantial meal and served on plates. The Eoh sisters, who cook on Macalister Lane right outside the Seow Fong Lye Coffeeshop, have been making char kway kak for 40-odd years, taking over the business from their dad. Not much has changed through the years except these days they cook using oil, not the original lard.
Seow Fong Lye Coffeeshop, 94C Macalister Lane, 7am-1pm
By 7.30am every morning, De Tai Tong is packed with dim sum-gobbling, tea-swilling, news-paper reading punters. This is old school yum char, with gas-fired carts squeezing between tables, piloted by an army of aproned ladies. Each cart is heaped high with all manner of dumplings, buns, fish balls, steamed meats, pastries, cakes and desserts. Just point to what looks good as the food trundles by, making sure you score some lo pa kou (fried radish cake) and the loh mai kai (steamed sticky rice with chicken). They’re especially delish. From 11.30am their lunch offering kicks in; chicken with sour ginger is a popular dish, as is the fish head bee hoon and wat tan hor fun (rice noodles with egg gravy.)
Da Tai Tong, 45 Cintra Street, 6am-12am
Soft, fluffy toast with kaya (coconut jam), gooey half-cooked eggs and a mug of heart-stopping coffee is a popular breakfast in Penang and Toh Soon is a wildly popular place to have it. Not so much a coffeeshop as a collection of tables, chairs and a rudimentary kitchen packed into an inconspicuous alley off Campbell Street, it draws in the hordes with its famous slow-cooked, charcoal toasted bread, homemade kaya and rich Hainanese coffee. Weekdays are best as relentless queues form on Saturday and it’s not unusual to wait 30 minutes for a table.
Toh Soon Cafe, 184 Campbell Street, 8am-6pm (closed Sunday)
Noodles, prawns, sprouts, tofu puffs, blood jelly, fishballs, cuttlefish and cockles, all swimming with noodles in a thin, aromatic, spicy coconut-milk based stock, curry mee is sensational. The version at 55 Lorong Seratus Tahun is worth the effort it can take to find; the Moey family have run it for around 40 years and they’ve a cult following among locals. Their stock is light (they use less coconut cream than most) and their special chilli sauce is home made to an old family recipe.
Lorong Seratus Tahun Curry Mee, 55 Lorong Seratus Tahun, 7.30am-2pm
One of the oldest restaurants in town (since 1907), Hameediyah is a curry institution now run by the seventh generation of the original family. Old fashioned flavours and cheery service are the order of the day and black and white portraits of family male forebears, stretching way back in time, hang on the wall behind the counter. While all the food is fabulous (the biryani has a legion of fans), it’s the Murtabak, a kind of stuffed fried flatbread, that deserves special mention. They fill theirs variously with chicken, beef or cabbage, mixed with beaten egg and torn up roti canai, then fry them in ghee. The result is a soft, eggy, chewy, satisfying mash-up of carbs and protein which they still serve with the traditional side of pickled onions. Once common practice throughout Penang's Mamaks, this is now a dying finishing touch.
Hameediyah,164 Campbell Street, 10am-10.30pm
They make over 3,000, packets of nasi lemak at Ali Nasi Lemak per day, each wrapped ever-so-perfectly in a banana leaf pyramid. Considered Malaysia's national dish, nasi lemak is a favorite for breakfast, although the seductive combo of fragrant coconut rice, salty/pungent/spicy sambal belacan, boiled egg and maybe a spoon of curry or rendang, is satisfying at any time of the day. At Ali, which is positioned at the front of Sri Weld Food Court, they make a few different varieties. There’s nasi lemak with fried fish, with fried chicken, prawns or cuttlefish - we like the bog standard egg and anchovy version.
Ali Nasi Lemak, Sri Weld Food Court, Lebuh Pantai, 7am-4pm, closed Sunday
Lor Mee isn’t the prettiest dish. It’s based on noodles - both egg noodles and rice vermicelli - and the sauce that drowns them is gloopy and brackish. It tastes divine though. Fragrant with star anise, cinnamon, peppercorns and dark soy, it’s thickened with tapioca flour; the secret to a perfectly smooth consistency is rigorous stirring for 30 minutes while it’s cooking. Order lor mee and you get topping options such as soy-braised pork belly, intestines, chicken’s feet and boiled egg, the whole thing scattered with beansprouts and fried shallots and served with garlic paste plus chilli sauce to the side. You can’t go wrong with the silky-smooth rendition from Kim Leng Leong, considered the lor mee king of Penang for the last 25 years. Find his stand at the Joo Huat Restaurant on Perak Road.
Joo Huat Restaurant, 336 Perak Road, 7am-4pm, closed Thursday
Nasi kandar gets its name from the kandar (‘pole’) that Indian-Muslim food vendors of yore slung over their shoulders, containers of curry balanced off each side. Now the dish (essentially a pile of rice accompanied by various curries and other dishes) is served in specialist restaurants, and the selection of curries etc is mind-boggling. Maybe the most famous is Line Clear, open 24 hours and tucked down an alley off Penang Road. For our money we like Kassim Mustafa in Little India, where we can skip the Line Clear queue and get straight down to business. Everything’s served direct from vast pots at the front of the restaurant, which is also open 24 hours a day and has been family-run for 30 years. We just rock up and ask for ‘kari campur’, which means rice with a little of all the curries (chicken, squid, mutton, prawn and beef, plus changing daily specials.) We also love their tandoori chicken.
Kassim Mustafa, Cnr Chulia and Penang Streets, open 24 hours
Another nostalgic time-warp, Kek Seng opened in 1906 and still has vintage wooden bench seating down one side. They’re famous for homemade durian ice-cream and ais kacang, which handily you can order together. For the uninitiated, ais kacang is a sweet snack of shaved ice topped with texturally interesting ingredients (red beans, corn, grass jelly etc), drenched in evaporated milk and flavoured syrup and optionally served with scoops of ice cream. At Kek Seng they plop a cute little home-made jelly, redolent of rose water, on the side, and are incredibly generous with jagung (creamy corn) and red beans. You pay extra for the durian ice cream but it’s so good, tasting for all the world like the fresh, real thing. You’d be nuts not to try it.
Kek Seng Coffeeshop, 382-384 Penang Road, 11am-4.30pm
There’s no shortage of roti places in Penang but Special Famous Roti Canai (yes, that’s really its name), strung along the footpath on Jalan Transfer under a canopy, is arguably the best. The roti are fluffy, the curries are aromatic, the service is friendly and the atmosphere is particularly buzzy. Punters on bikes swoop by for take-away, people jostle for seats and the constant swirling, folding and flipping of roti-making, is mesmerizing. They’ve been making roti for decades now; choose yours plain, or opt for roti telur (cooked with egg) or roti canai banjir (literally ‘flooded’). This is where your roti comes pre-torn and smothered in the curry of your choice - usually mutton, beef, chicken or dahl (lentil). Throw in a glass of the ubiquitous milky teh tarik (frothy, ‘pulled’ tea) and, for small change, you’re set for the day.
Special Famous Roti Canai, 56 Jalan Transfer, 6.30am-1pm, 3.30pm-7pm
A heart-stopping assortment of things like fried fritters, prawns, fried tofu, boiled egg, fish balls, fish cakes, crab sticks, sausage, yam bean, potato, daikon, cucumber and sprouts drowned in thick sweet potato and peanut-based gravy, ordering (and eating) pasembur is a satisfying adventure in chew and crunch. Billed as Indian-Muslim rojak (a sweet-sour-crisp salad made using various green fruits and crisp vegetables that are slathered in a sweet-savoury sauce), pasembur is assembled to order, once you’ve decided on all the crispy bits and chunks of protein you fancy from an array of pre-cooked options, stacked high on trays. Large items such as fritters are chopped up, everything gets piled on a plate, over goes a blanket of thick, sweet sauce and... you won’t need to eat for a day. Sample the one at Hussein Pasembur, a casual hawker outlet positioned right by the sea and not far from the E&O Hotel.
Hussein Pasembur, Medan Renong, 29 Jalan Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah
Repeat after us; “do NOT leave Penang without eating assam laksa.” You’d be nuts not to try this wonderfully gutsy brew of noodles, tamarind (‘assam’ means ‘tamarind’), mackerel, shredded pineapple, shallots, cucumber and herbs. These latter include mint and fragrant bunga kantan, or torch ginger flower. Other important ingredients are the fermented shrimp paste called hao ko, lemongrass, galangal, chillies and turmeric. It’s a sweet, sour, tangy, herby, fish-alicious mouth-party that’s indescribably good, and one that’s native to Penang. There’s a good version at the Joo Hooi Cafe (475 Penang Road; DO try the famous cendol too) although for our money, Pasar Ayer Itam Laksa is the pick. It’s a little out of things but you can combine a visit with a trip to the Kek Lok Si Temple.
Pasar Ayer Itam Laksa, 1 Jalan Pasar, Ayer Itam, 10.30am-7.00pm
Down the end of Jalan Masjid, a cute laneway off Chulia Street, Moh Teng Pheow is where you can indulge in the kuih (‘cakes’) of your dreams. These aren’t just any old cakes - they’re from the Nonya culinary tradition so expect loads of sticky rice, steamed sticky rice flour batters, palm sugar, pandan, coconut and some amazing colours. Such as the vibrant, blue hued pulit tai tai, made from steamed sticky rice and tinted blue with pea flower petals. While you can order drinks, a whole suite of kuih and even light lunch at the cafe, Moh Teng Pheow is also a working factory where you can watch the kuih-making processes in action.
Moh Teng Pheow Nonya Kuih, Jalan Masjid (off Chulia Street), 10.30am-5pm, closed Monday