Every backpacker's first stop after arriving on the colorful island of Penang, Malaysia, is Chulia Street (Lebuh Chulia) for a sampling of Southeast Asia's street food scene. At night, this two-lane street that cuts west to east across historic George Town comes to life. The area has a surfeit of hostels, cafés, bookstores, travel agencies, convenience stores, and anything else a backpacker could need.
Lebuh Chulia blossoms after dark, when the hawkers set up their carts and offer a variegated menu of Malaysian street food favorites: assam laksa, nasi kandar, lok lok, and more.
What to Expect
While the stretch of Chulia Street that's lined with food stalls—mainly concentrated between Lorong Love to the west and Lorong Seckchuan to the east—is not very long (about one city block), it is jam-packed with hawkers and every local flavor a hungry tourist could dream of.
This isn't, however, where you go for a fine-dining experience. The street food scene is messy by nature. Ordering food can be chaotic and stressful, especially when competing with a dozen other diners for a hawker's attention. It will be a test for your comfort zone, but Mark Ng, co-founder and partner at food tour enterprise Simply Enak, says to keep an open mind.
"Be adventurous about it," the Penang-based foodie says. "Food that is fried in high temperature and boiled in soup [is] generally fine."
What to Order
You know the food is good on Chulia Street by how many locals go there to eat, too. It certainly isn't just tourists jostling each other for streetside chow on the sidewalk. "The locals go there for the curry noodles, the wan tan mee, [and] the kway teow soup," Ng says.
- Wan tan mee: These are opaque, thin egg noodles drowned in soup stock and garnished with wan tan (dumplings) and cha siu (barbecued pork). The soup is optional; you can order the noodles dry, too.
- Curry noodles: These are egg noodles soaked in curry, coconut milk, and morsels of blood jelly, cuttlefish, cockles, and tau pok (fried tofu).
- Kway teow soup: A Penang classic, this noodle soup combines pork stock, noodles, and an array of garnishes—mincemeat, fish balls, toasted garlic, and slices of meat.
- Hainanese satay: Unlike the satay you'll find in the rest of Malaysia and Indonesia, Hainanese satay uses pork as well as chicken meat. Pieces are skewered on a bamboo stick and grilled over charcoal. Your cooked satay should then be dunked in a bowl of sweet peanut sauce.
- Char Kway Teow: These stir-fried rice cake strips can be found all over Southeast Asia, but the way they're cooked in Malaysia is different. The secret is in the temperature of the wok: "The higher the flame, the drier the texture," Ng explains. Therefore, the Malaysian version turns out less oily and savory in flavor (as opposed to the sweeter cakes they cook in Singapore).