What to eat in Penang all the intoxicating flavours of Malaysia
What to eat in Penang. CNN Travel and Lonely Planet have called Penang the “Culinary Capital of Malaysia” and its food cannot be outdone. In Penang, there is a saying “chiak si hock” which means, “Eating brings prosperity”. Penangites are seriously proud of their varied and diverse cuisine. This island food paradise offers a blend of Thai, Chinese and Indian cooking and Malaysian street food and it is some of the best in the world.
Penang cuisine is essentially a street food culture that has become over time a micro cuisine and the dishes found in the hawker markets make up the backbone of Malaysian cuisine.
Penang is found on the northern tip of the Straits of Malacca and was originally a Siamese state and for the traveller, there are many Penang attractions to be visited. From Siam, it became part of the Ming Dynasty and in the 1800’s it was a very important trading post for the East India Company. The resulting influx of migrants from China, Thailand and India had a deep impact on the native Malay culture. Even today, the vast number of migrants from China means that Malaysia and Penang, in particular, has the highest number of Chinese people outside of China.
Over time with the influences of these migrant populations, the cuisine of Malaysia became exquisitely blended with the Indian, Thai and Chinese influences. The successful adaptions of the migrants country of original foods and the nuances created from the crafting of traditional dishes with nontraditional ingredients became the centre point of Malaysian Penang cuisine.
What to eat in Penang
Malay Penang food is strong, spicy and aromatic, combining the rich tastes of the many herbs and spices found in Southeast Asia. Malaysian Penangite food is often eaten with the hands. It is an art form to scoop up a mouthful of rice along with the curry, vegetables or meat into the palm of your hand and then ladle it into your mouth without some escaping to land in your lap, but with practice, it is an art you can become very good at. Rice is the basic or staple of a Malaysian meal and it is usually eaten with meats, curries and vegetable dishes. The Malaysian sambal is a traditional condiment that spices up an already flavorful feast.
The Malaysian diet contains a lot of seafood, as they were originally seafaring people. Fish, prawns, crab and squid are favourites along with meats such as mutton, chicken and beef. The seafood and meat elements of the meal are often marinated with a very specific blend of spices and herbs prior to cooking. While it is very popular to have raw vegetables along with a spicy dip most vegetables are stir-fried or grilled before being combined with other ingredients.
A favourite condiment and added too many Malaysian dishes is a Sambal or a chile paste or sauce. Sambals combine lemongrass, shallots, ginger, chillies and garlic, which are blended together and then cooked down into a tangy spicy hot sauce or to a thick paste, which is added to almost anything in Penang.
Favourite Malaysian herbs include; galangal (lengkuas) which is similar to ginger, turmeric (kunyit), kaffir lime leaves, laksa leaves (Daun kesom) which are sometimes known as Vietnamese Mint or Vietnamese cilantro, wild ginger flower buds or torch ginger (Bunga kantan) and screwpine leaves (pandan leaves, which leave a sweet, soft flavour which is used both in main courses and dessert recipes) all these add that distinctive Malaysian flavour to the dishes.
Malay food is generally spicy. Dishes are not always necessarily super hot, but there will always be chilli-based sambal on hand. Traditional Southeast Asian herbs and spices meet Indian, Middle Eastern and Chinese spices in Malaysian food, leading to fragrant combinations of coriander and cumin (the basis of many Malay curries) with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, cardamom, star anise and fenugreek.
Check out this website for some phenomenal Malaysian recipes
In the 15th century, Malacca a major city in Malaysia was one of the greatest trading centres of the spice trade. This gave Malaysia and Penang access to an incredible variety of spices such as fennel, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cloves, star anise, mustard seeds, cinnamon sticks, fenugreek and nutmeg which are all used quite frequently in the variety of Malay soup, curry and noodle dishes.
With coconut trees thriving in the tropical weather of Malaysia, they have become an important ingredient in cooking. Coconut milk and cream called santan add a depth of creaminess and flavour to the ‘lemak’ curries. The coconut water, fruit and oil are all used and nothing goes to waste.
Penang’s most famous street food dishes
1 Char koay teow
The most famous dish in Penang is char koay teow. Sometimes called fried kway teow, the flat rice noodles, are stir-fried with prawns, cockles, scrambled egg, crunchy bean sprouts, strips of fish cake and chilli paste. Some versions of the dish will include sweet BBQ’d pork slices which add another dimension to the dish.
2 Hokkien Mee
In Penang, Hokkien Mee (also known as hae me) is based on a Chinese speciality a prawn based, spicy broth with noodles. It’s a thin clear broth made by stewing prawn heads, garlic and spices and then served with pork slices, fish cake bits, bean sprouts, red chilli paste and crispy shallots. You even get to pick your favourite type of noodles to be served in the broth.
3 Assam laksa
A kind of “soup” this glass noodle dish has a spicy Mackerel based broth. The fish is stewed with tamarind, shrimp paste, cucumber slices and fiery bird’s eye chillies. This is a traditional Peranakan dish popular all over the island.
4 Rojak pasembur
Rojak pasembur is a very messy dish that is served on a platter in a mountainous pile of food dripping with sauce. The dish includes bean sprouts, cucumber slices, tofu, hardboiled eggs, crispy prawn crackers, turnip shreds and sometimes additional seafood like octopus and prawns. A completely satisfying meal, the sauce binds all of it together creating a dish that is at once, sweet, sour, spicy, juicy and savoury.
Popiah is a Chinese spring roll and is also known as Lumpia. The roll is made from a very thin wheat dough sort of like a crepe. This crepe is cooked on a flat metal plate and then filled with ingredients like fried tofu, shrimp, soybean curd, beansprouts, sliced strips of omelette, shredded carrots and lettuce. It is delightfully messy and delicious when dipped into one of the many varieties of sweet chilli sauces that are usually available.
A great way to cool all the chilli heat is Penang’s famous Cendol. A sweet icy cold dessert made from coconut milk and pandan flavoured green rice flour jelly noodles with oodles of brown sugar served over shaved ice. Yes, your back teeth with hurt after this.
When looking for what to eat in Penang it might come in useful to know where the Vegetarian Restaurants are and what they serve. Take a look at Jaydip’s article Vegetarian Restaurant in Penang for a fabulous guide.
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