What to eat in Penang 17 of the top Street food dishes

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.

What to eat in Penang the culinary capital of Malaysia a Lok Lok stand in a Malaysian street market with an older woman preparing the various foods on skewers to be cooked and sold.

Where is Penang?

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 migrant’s 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.

Balinese women preparing and selling rujak buah. Balinese rujak buah (fruit rujak) is pieces of tropical fruits served in palm sugar and spicy chili sauce.

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.

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©YosriPopiaGoreng1

Ingredients used in Malaysian cooking

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 

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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.

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With coconut trees thriving in the tropical weather of Malaysia, they have become an important ingredient in cooking. Coconut milk and cream called santan are added to create creaminess and flavour to the ‘lemak’ curries. The coconut water, fruit and oil are all used and nothing goes to waste.

Famous street food in Penang

Hawker food in Penang

What is hawker food? A hawker is essentially someone who sells food. Before the hawker centres were established a hawker sold food from a cart or roadside stall. Hawkers will usually focus on one type of food or dish.

Why is it called hawker? The word comes from the French which means “merchant of low-quality goods,” a hawker is a person who offers goods for sale by shouting his or her wares in the street or going from door to door.

What is a hawker centre? Hawker centres are basically large food courts with stalls around the perimeter serving everything from full meals to snacks and drinks. You’ll usually find a selection of local dishes as well as flavours from across the world, including Chinese, Malay, Indian, and western.

Where did hawker food originate from? Dating back to the 1800s, hawker culture developed in Singapore. The early migrants needed a way to earn an income and so they set up stalls and pushcarts selling inexpensive food to their fellow immigrants.

Penang hawker centres operate at all hours of the day, serving up affordable yet flavorful Malaysian dishes. These vendors often use age-old family recipes and old-fashioned cooking methods. 

Street food in Penang – Best hawker food in Penang

Apong Manis

Apom is a thin crepe-like snack made with rice flour. This popular Penang street food is like a thin small crispy crepe and can be stuffed with bananas or sweet corn and other fillings.

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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.

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©Alpha Melbourne

Loh Bak

Loh Bak is pork rolls made from minced pork and wrapped in beancurd skin before getting deep fried till they are crispy.  Loh Bak is served with fried shrimp cakes, fried tofu and preserved eggs It is served with unique five-spice sauce and chilli sauce.

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©chleong.net

Kcang Putih

Kacang Putih is Penang’s favourite snack food. A mix of white beans, crispy fried corn sticks, assorted nuts and other ingredients in a spicy masala mix this stuff is addictive.

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Nasi Kandar

Nasi (which means rice) the rice is steamed and mixed then served with a variety of side dishes such as chicken, beef, fish, prawns okra eggplant or bitter gourd. A mixture of curry sauces is poured onto the rice for flavour.

Traditionally, nasi kandar is always served with its side dishes on a single plate. Nowadays, small melamine bowls are used for the side dishes. Nevertheless, the curry sauce mix is always poured directly onto the rice.

Hameediyah is recognized as Penang’s oldest nasi kandar restaurant, originally started under a tree at a field in Lebuh Campbell, Penang, in 1907.

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©By The Bangsawan CC BY-SA 4.0,

Nasi Lemak

Another of Penang’s famous street foods Nasi Lemak is a mound of coconut rice with a sweet-spicy sambal sauce poured over ingredients such as chicken, fried fish, eggs & anchovies or perhaps you would prefer cuttlefish or salt fish?

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Curry Mee – Hot Bowl White Curry Mee

Penang curry mee is different from most other curry mee in Malaysia.  Curry mee consists of thin yellow noodles or rice vermicelli immersed in a spiced broth enriched with coconut milk, accompanied with chilli or sambal relish. In Malaysia, Chinese-style preparations often include pork products, such as fried lard croutons and cubes of pig blood curd.

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©chee.hong – originally posted to Flickr as Seng Kee Curry Mee, CC BY 2.0,

Mee Goreng 

Mee Goreng consists of stir-fried noodles made with garlic, onion or shallots, fried prawn, chicken, beef, or sliced bakso, chilli, Chinese cabbage, cabbages, tomatoes, egg, and other vegetables. It is flavoured with sweet soy sauce or kecap manis as it is known here.

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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.

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Lok Lok

Lok Lok is a sort of communal fondue. Every stick full of individual ingredients like oysters, shrimp, meatballs, and veggies such as mushrooms has a different colour tag. You place the skewer in a hot pot of water to cook and then you have a series of sauces to dip into. The sauces include Satay, Chili, Garlic and so on. When the bill comes the total number of sticks and their colours are tallied to make the bill.

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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.

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By Meutia Chaerani / Indradi Soemardjan

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.

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Popiah

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.

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Roti Canai

An adaption on the Indian paratha Roti Canai Roti canai is a traditional pan-fried flatbread made with flour, water, eggs, and fat. The dough for roti canai is folded over and over again to give it a soft inside and a crispy outside. It is usually served with dal or other types of curry, but can also be cooked in a range of sweet or savoury variations. In Penang, it is a breakfast dish with eggs.

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©By Gunawan Kartapranata – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Cendol

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.

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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.

Oyster Omelette

An Oyster Omelette is a Penang street food favourite. It is a soft omelette filled with little oysters and sweet potato starch is mixed into the batter which gives it a thick soft fluffy texture. The omelette is served with a chilli sauce for that special kick of heat.

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©By User Richy on zh.wikipedia

Ais Kachang

Ais kachang is a combination of shaved ice and a mixture of red beans, grass jelly, sweet corn, assorted fruits, generously drizzled with rose syrup and condensed milk.

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