Penang is world-famous for its street food and culinary mix of Malay, Indian, and Chinese flavors. Here are our five favorite eating experiences, though you'll need to allot at least three days to give them all justice!
Chinese and Malay Hawker Stalls
Found all over the city, Chinese and Malay hawker stalls serve a mix of noodle and rice dishes that range from the ordinary to the, "oh, wow!" Here are the ones you MUST try:
Char koay teow is a dish made from flat rice noodles fried in a super hot iron wok. The higher the heat, the more delicious the dish. The goal is to make the noodles smoky, the garlic crunchy, and then add in the prawns, egg, sausage, and cockles to top it off. Our favorite low-key place to enjoy this specialty was at No. 56 Lebuh China. Go for lunch and enjoy your chat with the chef, a lovely Chinese gentleman who loves the Big Bang Theory. The dish costs 3.50MYR with everything on it.
Penang laksa, my favorite dish, has a fish-based broth made from poached mackarel stewed for hours with chili peppers, lemongrass, and tamarind. It's served with thick rice noodles and garnished with cucumber, onions, lettuce, and sometimes pineapple. The slightly sour taste is off-putting to some, but I couldn't get enough! This is arguably Penang's most famous dish, and one of the best places to have it is at Joo Hooi Cafe, 475 Jalan Penang. If that's too far, you can also try a good bowl at the corner of Lebuh Leith and Lebuh Muntri, but get there before 3pm. A big bowl is 4MYR.
The corner of Lebuh Leith and Lebuh Muntri is also a great place to try curry mee. You may think it's just another noodle soup, but everything from the broth to the tofu will blow you away. The full version comes with a variety of seafood, such as fish ball, squid, and cockles. A big bowl will set you back 4MYR.
Mouth on fire from all that spice? Order a bowl of cendol or ice kacang. Both are shaved ice desserts topped with a variety of bright colored toppings, including green rice flour noodles, sweet red beans, sweet corn, and jelly balls. Strange, I know, but wonderfully refreshing. You can find it throughout town for around 2MYR.
There are tons of other specialties throughout town, including duck rice, Indian mee, and fried oysters. Pick up the food map at any tourist location or ask locals for advice. And as always, if you pass a restaurant packed with locals, pull up a chair and order!
High Tea at Eastern & Oriental Hotel
The complete opposite from streetside hawker food is high tea at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, a historic property set alongside the ocean at the edge of Georgetown. Built in 1885 by the Sarkies brothers of The Raffles fame, the newly restored and updated E&O brings you back to the days when Georgetown was visited by traders from all corners of the world, the British way of life was the life, and the hotel was the centerpiece of the town's social scene.
High tea takes place in 1885, not the year, but the restaurant. You're escorted into the well appointed dining room by one of the professional waiters, who'll pull out your chair and help you get settled. On your table, you'll find a silver spoon-like sifter that makes it easy to pour your tea without letting the tea leaves into your cup and a napkin with a buttonhole. Pinky up, anyone?
You pick your tea from a wide selection of flavors and sit back as the staff brings out beautiful tea sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam, and a whole plate of desserts. The experience isn't cheap at 56MYR per person, but for the amount and quality of the food, as well as the setting, it's well worth it. If you decide to go, we suggest a reservation as the afternoon we went, the restaurant was quite busy. High tea is served from 2-5pm. We were delighted to have been treated to tea by E&O Hotel.
If there was a cuisine truly unique to Penang, this would be it. Considered the world's first fusion, Nonya cuisine is what occurred when Chinese immigrants married Malay women. Unfortunately, there aren't many good places to try this food for cheap, but if you have a bit of a budget, consider going to Mama's.
Though slightly out of the way, Mama's is authentic and worth the trek. When we were there, the restaurant was filled with locals and the waitresses were busy bringing out shrimp lemongrass curries, otak otak (which reminded us of Cambodia's fish amok), fried anchovy appetizers, and lots of other delicious dishes. The food is like nothing I've ever tried before, a unique mix of Thai, Malay, Indonesian, and Chinese, so describing it is difficult. It's more creamy than spicy, and the flavors explode in your mouth and tingle your tastebuds. In short, it's delicious! Our meal for two cost 55MYR.
If you want something a bit fancier and right in the middle of historic Georgetown, try Kebaya at the Seven Terraces. Not only is the atmosphere and architecture fantastic, but the set tasting menu, at 100MYR, is both delicious and inventive. Though it may not be purely Nonya, the dishes truly exhibit the best of Asian fusion. Make sure you have the lamb, vegetable tempura, and caviar appetizer. The wine list is also one of the best we've seen in Asia. This is where we celebrated our 2 year anniversary and we couldn't have asked for a better meal.
Roti, Thosai, and Giant Breads
Tired of noodles and rice? Then check out the Indian restaurants throughout town and the Indian stalls scattered throughout Little India.
Our go-to place for breakfast each morning was Jaya, a 24 hour restaurant on the corner of Lebun Muntri and Jalan Penang. Their thosais were delicious, filling, and dirt cheap, at less than 3MYR. I think we ate there at least 14 times.
A great vegetarian restaurant is Woodland's, 60 Lebuh Panang. Everything we tried was delicious, but the giant bread with chenna masala was by far the most fun to eat. An extremely filling dinner for two usually came to around 25MYR.
Craving a latte or a real glass of wine? The cafes in Georgetown have you covered! With real espresso machines, imported vino, and beautiful settings, you won't be blamed for making cafe hopping your primary activity.
One of the cutest places we tried was Mug Shot, which not only has bagels with lox, but also boasts a cool downtown vibe that's a nice break from the plastic stools on the sidewalks. It's located on Jalan Chulia, right across from the nightly food carts.
Cafe "row" seemed to be around Lebuh China and Lebuh Chulia. If it wasn't for the Chinese shophouses and trishaws, you could have imagined yourself in Paris.
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