“Food is essential to life, therefore make it good.” – S. Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-Fil-A, and inventor of the chicken sandwich
If it’s not obvious already, my husband and I love food. When we sit down for breakfast, we ponder what’s for lunch. When we’re eating lunch, we debate what to eat for dinner. And in the midst of dinner, we start game planning what we’ll eat tomorrow. Is that weird or wrong? Well, good food makes me happy, and if thinking about it is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. 🙂
Naturally we even factor food into our vacation plans. If we’re thinking about visiting a particular place, we first ask “What’s the food like there?” During a recent holiday in China, my husband and I decided to take this time off to eat our way through Penang, Malaysia. Penang is the center of the Earth, in my opinion. There is a mixture of so many different cultures and beliefs here and they are able to coexist in relative harmony. You can hear the Islamic call to prayer throughout the day while there are also church bells ringing in the air and at the same time you smell incense burning from the Buddhist temples. I’m sure it hasn’t always been perfect but in this world today, you can’t help but appreciate a place with such diversity.
In Georgetown we stayed at the historic Eastern & Oriental Hotel in the new Victory Annex wing that was just opened earlier this year. The hotel is absolutely beautiful and you can really sense the British colonial influence and imagine what it must have been like in those days. The E&O is quite centrally located in that it is walkable distance to most of the main attractions and a variety of street food vendors while still on the beautiful waterfront. We found ourselves shuttling back and forth throughout the day to grab a bite to eat and coming back to cool down at the pool. If you’re outside for too long it can be unbearably hot and humid in Malaysia.
Incredible view! Just ah-mazing!
Now let’s get straight down to the food! Our first stop was around lunch time for Wenchang-style Hainan Chicken Rice. Hainanese chicken rice is a dish originating from China, specifically Wenchang in the Hainan province, but today most people associate it with Southeast Asia. With several variations, it’s quite popular in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and is even considered Singapore’s national dish.
This place gets pretty crowded during lunch and there was a long queue of people getting takeout. Although they have a few other dishes, we just ordered the original chicken with chicken rice and a side of soup. To wash it down we had their delicious iced milk tea. It was all very tasty and satisfying, but I say that partially because we were starving having just arrived that morning and partially because chicken and rice are such a winning combination to begin with. However, compared to the Singaporean-style chicken rice it’s lighter in flavor. The rice is less greasy and the chicken less juicy. I think the Singapore style seems more fatty overall but to me that’s what gives it the distinct and delicious flavor that I like.
Up the street a bit, just on the corner of Kimberley and Jalan Penang is this Wantan Mee stand. It’s basically connected to this shop that sells buffet style Malaysian food. Since they share this space you can sit in there and enjoy the wantan mee but you’ll have to at least chip in buy a drink as it is required.
The great thing about hawker food is that a lot of it is made fresh to order or you can usually request it. Nothing beats a fresh bowl of noodles. Originally a Cantonese dish, Penang-style wantan mee is served dry topped with slices of pork and a side of wantans in soup.
This dish was rather delicious and one of my favorites on the trip. The noodles were nice and chewy and all the flavors were working together. I could have eaten another plate!
Nasi Kandar Line Clear is just up the street on Jalan Penang as well. While nasi kandar originated in Penang, Line Clear is probably one of the most well known and most popular places in Georgetown for nasi kandar. The location is somewhat hidden down a small alleyway in the middle of Penang Road but it’s also hard to miss since there are always people lined up at this 24 hour establishment. Here you get a plate of rice with your choice of chicken and curries and whatever side dishes you want. It usually ends up looking like a whole mishmash of things. The photo shows the full variety of everything they have to offer — all of which they will attempt to pile onto a single plate. Don’t be afraid.
As first timers, we didn’t really know what to order as I heard that once everything gets mixed together on one plate it’s supposed to miraculously all go well together. We asked him to just make us a plate for rookies — the standards someone going there for the first time should not miss out on. This is what we got. Pretty normal looking actually. Just a plate of seasoned rice with chicken and some veggie sides. Almost everyone else was eating with their hands but they do offer utensils for people that haven’t mastered eating curry with their hands like us. The chicken was fall-off-the-bone tender and was really spicy. I’m not sure if it’s because the food had been sitting out but everything was cold. I had high hopes for this place but for me personally it wasn’t my favorite thing I had in Penang.
Char Koay Teow is a another popular noodle dish around Southeast Asia that has several variations wherever you go. However, it is known that the Penang hawker stalls are among the best, even to the point where some people simply refer to the dish as “Penang-style char koay teow”. This one in particular, located on Kimberley outside of Sin Guat Keong Coffee Shop is one of the most famous in Georgetown. Ah Sean is the 2nd generation of his family to make this Penang favorite. He started helping his father make this dish at age 9 and after 55 years of helping his father make this dish, Ah Sean finally took over. It’s the only thing he makes and he has certainly mastered it.
Day-in and day-out, he makes this simple but delicious dish. Ah Sean has said there’s a science to this dish that distinguishes the good from the bad, and judging from crowd of people lining up on Kimberley Street to eat his version, I think it’s safe to say he has perfected this science. One order after another, he vigorously stir-fries the noodles in an iron wok over an intensely hot charcoal flame. With the blazing heat and humidity in Malaysia, it truly gives you appreciation for what he does. I mean it’s about $1 a pop!
Here it is. Yummy, greasy, stir-fried noodles. Probably perfect hangover food or a late night snack. There’s egg, there’s shrimp, there’s oysters, there’s bean sprouts. You may look at this dish and think that kind of looks familiar. Well the Thai version is Pad See Ewe! Have you heard of it? While most variations are stir fried in pork fat, Ah Sean uses the oil he cooks the seafood in to stir fry his noodles, which gives this dish an extra special seafood infused flavor.
Just catty corner to Char Koay Teow guy is this Belacan Fried Chicken cart on Kimberley Street. Belacan is a Malaysian style shrimp paste most commonly used to make sambal and other curries and pastes.
Just a little taste….. It was oh-so-crispy on the outside and meaty on the inside. Fried chicken wings. Who doesn’t want some of that?
Directly in front of the fried chicken we have a Koay Teow Soup truck. Now that’s a food truck!
This was actually one of my most favorite dishes from the trip. We almost left Kimberley Street without trying this one since we were getting kind of full and starting to hallucinate mirages in the distance from the heat . What? Did I say full? No I didn’t. One bowl of fish ball soup coming right up!
This was a delicious, light pork broth with pork filets, pork bits, and fish balls with delicate noodles. I still haven’t grasped the appeal of eating hot or spicy foods in the heat to cool you down but it was worth it.
Nearby off Penang Road on Campbell Street is this authentic old style coffee shop. Famous for its toast, half boiled eggs and Hainan coffee, Toh Soon Cafe is a must see spot for tourists. It’s great for breakfast or afternoon tea. We checked it out in the morning as an early snack.
I think right off the bat you can tell what makes this place special. While there are certainly more efficient ways to toast bread these days, this place keeps it old school by toasting their bread slowly in a charcoal oven. Quite tedious, but keeping with tradition. As you can see, it takes a long time and there are tons of people. So it’s not an ideal place if you are looking for something quick.
The good news is that each table has a plate full of nasi lemak so you can eat that while you’re waiting. Nasi lemak, Malaysia’s national dish, means “rich” or “creamy” in Malay, and is a rice dish cooked in coconut milk and served on a pandan leaf. Originally served during breakfast, today there are several different versions of this dish, many of which can be enjoyed any time of day. The most basic version includes cucumber slices, small fried anchovies, roasted peanuts, hard boiled egg, and sambal (a spicy sauce), all wrapped in a banana leaf. So soo good! I love things wrapped up like this that are like little presents.
We got a few orders of their toast. Some with kaya butter spread, and then some plain for dipping in the half boiled egg. I loved kaya so much it was the one souvenir I brought home.
A trip to Penang wouldn’t be complete without a bowl of their iconic Penang-style laksa, also known as asam laksa. Laksa is a spicy noodle soup made with rice noodles that is popular in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. There are two main types of laksa: curry laksa, made with a coconut based curry soup and asam laksa which a sour fish-based soup.
In Penang, the laksa is made with mackerel and the sour flavor from the asam (or tamarind) is what distinguishes it from other laksa. You will find shredded fish, lemongrass, ginger and chili in the broth and garnished with mint, thinly sliced onions and a scoop of shrimp paste. I personally prefer the curry laska to the the Penang laksa, however my husband loved this bowl of Penang laksa and it’s on the list of the World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods, according to CNNGO.
After slurping down a bowl of spicy hot noodle soup, just outside was a shaved ice stand to cool things off. I’m familiar with Taiwanese style shaved ice but this was my first time trying the version popular in Southeast Asia. This stall was packed with people waiting to get a bowl of the icy treat.
The owners were working very quickly!
Typically, cendol or chendul is a dessert composed of shaved ice topped with coconut milk, green jelly noodles made from rice flour and pandan leaf, palm sugar and a combination of red beans, glutinous rice, grass jelly and creamed corn. Everyone stands around throwing back a bowl as fast as they can since the ice melt so quickly in the heat. Hurry! It’s even melting as I write this!
Still hungry? I am. That delicious small plate of wantan mee from the first day was such a tease. I was craving some more, so off we went to find another wantan mee stall.
This next one was even better. The wantans were bigger and I actually liked how they were mixed in with the noodles.
The last meal we had in Georgetown was dinner at Kapitan, an Indian restaurant in Little India. This place also had nasi kandar, which I hear is decent, but we opted for some different dishes. We tried the chicken tikka masala. The chicken was so tender and juicy and the curry was the best I’ve had.
We also got the chicken tandoori set with cheese naan. This was the first time I had cheese naan and it was delicious! I guess I never knew what to expect so I usually go with either plain or garlic naan when given a choice. The bread was soft and pulled apart nicely. The tandoori chicken had a beautiful red color and was very flavorful and smoky.
Some of the cooks at Kapitan were nice enough to invite me into the area where their tandoor ovens were located so I could see how the naan and chicken were made. Pretty amazing. This was a great way to end our trip in Georgetown.
I hear it’s hard to have a bad meal in Penang since every food stall and restaurant claims to be the best at something and works hard to stand their ground. The food in Georgetown is so good that they even have competitions for who has the better food stall selling specific dishes, for example they have chicken rice competitions! So fun! Penang was such an ideal vacation spot for me and my husband. Although quite different from Vietnam, Penang actually reminded us a lot of Hoi An in that there are some sights to be seen and tons of food to be eaten — all with the chance to chill at the beach for some much needed R&R. Both Hoi An and Penang are also carefully preserved UNESCO World Heritage Sites, giving you not only a sense of history through an area seemingly frozen in time, but a delicious sense of its rich cultural heritage through its extraordinary food. I’d say our trip to Penang was a street food crawl success!
The list of places (in order of appearance):
Wen Chang Hainan Chicken Rice | 63, Cintra Street
Wantan Mee (cart) | corner of Kimberley and Jalan Penang
Nasi Kandar Line Clear | 177 Jalan Penang
Char Koay Teow | located on Kimberley outside of Sin Guat Keong Coffee Shop
Belacan Fried Chicken cart | Kimberley Street
Koay Teow Soup truck | Stall outside Sin Guat Keong Coffee Shop on Kimberley Street
Toh Soon Cafe | No. 148, Lebuh Campbell
Penang Road Famous Laksa | 475 Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang
Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul | 475 Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang
Wantan Mee | intersection of Love Lane and Chulia Street
Kapitan | No.93, Chulan Street