The sheer clash, collision and blend of cultures on the island of Penang, near Malaysia’s northern border with Thailand, make the food in this part of the country simply phenomenal.
Here Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and Thai influences come together to create something really rather special, and with Penang being an island, seafood is in abundance too.
Between street food stalls, restaurants and food courts in Georgetown’s Chinatown and areas like Little India, there is so much variety you won’t have time to sample it all in one trip. Listed below are five good ways to start though, and even though most are available throughout Malaysia, and indeed elsewhere, the cultural backdrop of Georgetown and its well earned reputation as a foodie destination make it the best place to discover them.
‘Assam’ in Malaysian means sour or is often translated as such, as tamarind, the fleshy fruit of the tamarind tree, is a major component of the flavour profile of this sour and spicy dish.
The broth of this dish is a fish stock, most commonly made from mackerel and sardines, and the must-have additions are laksa leaf, often called Vietnamese mint, and the wonderfully perfumed, unopened flower of torch ginger (bunga kantan). It is usually eaten or served with a small bowl of heh ko (shrimp paste), which you mix in to your own taste, as well as julienned cucumbers, mint leaves, more Vietnamese mint leaves, red onion, rounds of sliced bird’s eye chillies, and – just for a little more tartness – strips of pineapple. The noodles for this dish are generally thick rice noodles and usually no extra protein is added.
Try it at the 106-year-old Penang institution Kek Seng Kopitiam, on Georgetown’s Jalan Penang.
Roti canai, typically served up on a big shiny silver platter, is the snack of choice for Malaysians around the country but it really comes into its own in Penang. In its simplest form roti canai comes as a plate of fluffy roti bread served with a hot and spicy sambal chilli paste that complements them perfectly. It’s simple – dip in and enjoy!
To make roti a greasy ball of dough is flattened and then stretched several times before being folded so there are plenty of air pockets. As a result, it is much thinner, stretchier and fluffier in texture than Indian naan bread – it also has a sweet element that makes it all the more irresistible.
Locals will often tuck into roti canai as a snack or light meal when they don’t want something heavier, but will also order it alongside more substantial dishes. In Penang’s coffee shops pr kopitiams, and the Mamak restaurants run by Indian Muslims, locals order roti canai along with teh tarik, a local speciality drink.
To make teh tarik, meaning ‘pulled tea’, black tea, sugar and condensed milk are mixed and then poured as high as possible in the air to create a perfect frothy texture, in much the same way as famed Moroccan mint tea.
Penang Char Kuay Teow
This is reportedly the most popular version of char kuay teow in all Malaysia and the Penang take on the dish is unique and delightful. With an emphasis on seafood typical for Penang, prawns and cockles are added to the dish along with eggs and bean sprouts and a good serve of crab meat thrown on the top.
Far from healthy thanks to the lumps of browned lard thrown in for added flavour, hokkien mee is both locally authentic and truly satisfying. Along with two different types of noodles in this soup made with a pork and prawn broth, expect to find egg, prawns, bean sprouts and spinach – but don’t expect the darker, richer soy sauce base that is common in the Kuala Lumpur version of the dish; up in Penang, things are lighter and more watery.
The word otak in Malay means ‘brains’ and, yes, this dish has a grey, soft and squishy resemblance to brain. While this might not sound the perfect way to sell something, boy is otak-otak popular all the same.
This type of fish cake, popular across Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, is served with a twist in true Penang style. Here the fish, often mackerel, spices and coconut milk for added moistness are steamed as a cake wrapped in a pandan leaf. This version, often known as nyonya otak-otak, is different to the version commonly found in southern Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, in that there the paste of fish and spices are simply wrapped up as a thin slice using banana or coconut leaf and grilled over a charcoal fire, giving a drier and distinctly smoky fish aroma. In both areas, otak-otak is often eaten as a snack with rice.
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