Sweet and spicy smells waft through the streets of Georgetown as noodle carts steam into the night. Famous the world over, the food in Penang is as diverse as the cultures that make it so special. No other place on Earth can boast the cultural melting pot that makes Penang food so unique.
The best elements from Malay, Chinese, Indian, and even Indonesian food have been fused together to create dishes that you will be craving for months after your trip! The availability of fresh seafood - Penang is an island - and the spicy influence from nearby Thailand will make you count the minutes between meals.
Penagites love to share their fanatical obsession of food with the rest of the world. One night of sampling the unique local treats in Georgetown will make even the most skeptical foodie a believer!
Unique Penang Foods to Try
- Assam Laksa: Laksa, a favorite food in Kuching, is popular all over Malaysia. However, the assam laksa found in Penang stands out with its spicy and sour fishy taste. Thin rice vermicelli noodles are added to a mackerel broth seasoned with lemongrass, chillies, and tamarind. Assam laksa has a unique taste that is sure to be a new experience. Read more about laksa.
- Otak-Otak: Penang's version of this delicious fishcake dish is distinctly different in that the fish is steamed in banana leaves with coconut milk.
- Nasi Kandar: If you're getting tired of noodles, the Indian Muslim community has a great solution: nasi kandar! Nasi kandar is easily found in Mamak restaurants and consists of your choice of meat or seafood on a plate of white rice and then covered with multiple curry gravies. Tumeric, cumin, cloves, and anise provide a pungent, multi-layered flavor. Arguably the best nasi kandar can be had at Nasi Kandar Line Clear on the corner of Penang Road and Chulia Street.
- Hokkien Mee: This famous local dish is made up of two noodles in pork and prawn broth. Thinly sliced eggs, spinach, prawns, and bean sprouts make Hokkien mee very filling. Crispy-fried pieces of lard are sometimes added for flavor.
- Mee Rebus: Mee rebus is an egg noodle soup made from sweet potatoes and flavored with lime. Shallots, prawns, boiled egg, and bean sprouts are usually included.
This is just a small sampling of popular food in Penang! Read more about delicious Malaysian noodle dishes and Malaysian Indian food; check out this master list of Malaysian street foods to try while you're at it.
- Roti Canai: Much different from the Indian naan bread that we know, Roti is thin, stretchy, and slightly sweet. Wheat flour is stretched into dough and then slung until it becomes flaky; watching a roti artist work the dough is almost as fun as eating the finished product. At only 33 cents a bread, roti canai is the perfect complement to a meal. Roti is best enjoyed with a hot glass of teh tarik.
- Lok-Lok: Look again, that cart with the treats on skewers may not be the typical satay or hotpot found all over Southeast Asia. Lok-lok is an assortment of meat, vegetables, dumplings, and other tasty snacks on small skewers that are boiled in water rather than deep fried or grilled. Lok-lok is usually served with a sweet and spicy chili sauce.
- Hotpot: Essentially the same idea as lok-lok, only the skewers are submerged into boiling oil rather than water.
As in other parts of Southeast Asia, Penang residents prefer their desserts extra sweet. Aside from the big assortment of tarts and pastries, here are some other popular favorites:
- Ice Kacang: Pronounced "ka-chong" and sometimes referred to simply as "ABC", ice kacang is a popular local dessert on hot days. Thick, sweetened red beans are topped with shaved ice, condensed milk, and sugary syrups. Ice kacang is often finished with ice cream, fruit, and jelly candy.
- Cendol: Pronounced "chin-dol", this dessert is also sticky-sweet. Green rice noodles are served chilled with thick coconut milk and palm sugar.
- Rojak: Penang is particularly proud of their version of rojak: a fruit salad coated in thick, dark, palm sugar paste and topped with crushed peanuts and sesame seeds.
Chinese-Malay Food in Penang
The enormous population of Peranakan and Hokkien Chinese in Malaysia has contributed a strong influence to the food in Penang.
No matter where you go in Penang, you are sure to find Chinese noodles of all varieties at hawker carts. The multitude of choices and Chinese names can be confusing. Don't be intimidated!
- Read this guide to Malaysian noodle dishes.
Note: Vegetarians should be aware that a majority of noodle dishes are made with pork products. Even if you ask for "no pork", chances are that the noodle soup broth was made with pork fat and bones. Lard is used to smoothen noodles and to make dumplings hold together better. The only way to safely avoid pork is to eat at carts and restaurants labeled as "Halal".
Seafood in Penang
Penang has an endless supply of saltwater and freshwater seafood for prices that friends at home will never believe. Oysters, shellfish, and mussels are commonly eaten on skewers as lok-lok or added to noodle dishes. Prawns, crabs, and lobster are found for a fraction of the usual Western price.
Those mysterious, white meatballs found across Southeast Asia at street carts and in noodle bowls are fish. A white-fleshed fish such as pollock or hake is pounded into a paste and then rolled by hand into small balls, providing a rubbery texture. The taste is very mild and fishballs are usually present to lend texture to a soup. Yellow fishballs are made using a lower-quality meat than their white counterparts.
Many Penang foods are complimented - either as part of the dish or upon request - with a spicy chili paste known as sambal. Sambal comes in many varieties: Sambal ikan and sambal belacan both have a strong fish taste while sambal jeruk is based on lime, vinegar, and sugar. The default in Penang is usually sambal belacan, so smell the paste before you add it!
Where to Eat in Georgetown
While noodle carts practically line the streets, large open-air food courts with dozens of carts are the best bet to try several Penang foods in one place.
Read more about where to eat the best food in Georgetown.
Ramadan Food in Penang
The Muslim fasting month brings a whole new assortment of dishes and snacks!
- Read about Ramadan foods in Malaysia.