The street food in Penang is renown in Asia as some of the best! Although there are plenty of other good reasons to visit the big island in Malaysia, the food attracts attention and admiration from people all over the world.
Steaming carts, metallic sounds of scraping utensils, and outside — if any — seating can sometimes be a little hectic to the uninitiated. Don't worry: the cheap, delicious treats are worth the effort. Join the fray and enjoy the reward!
Street food cooks often specialize in only one or two dishes that they prepare night after night, leading to mastery. Sometimes cooking techniques are passed down through the generations.
From expansive food courts that house many carts under one high roof to the famous food scene on Gurney Drive, opportunities abound for enjoying delicious Penang street food. Even Lebuh Chulia, the epicenter for backpackers in Penang, has plenty of street food options once the sun goes down.
Char Kway Teow
You'll encounter this heavy, filling noodle dish under many spellings such as "char koay" or just "kway teow."
As the name implies, the noodles have a deliberately charred and slightly burned aroma that comes from the wok. Kway teow was once the dish of choice for poor laborers who needed a filling meal to keep them going. The dish is usually prepared with pork fat, fish cake, egg, and prawns.
Named after the Chinese immigrants to Penang, Hokkien mee (sometimes spelled "mie") often contains barbecued pork sliced into thin strips, prawns, shallots, and a fish-based chili paste. Yellow egg noodles are mixed with rice vermicelli.
The version of Hokkien mee in Penang differs a little from other places because it is spicier. The hearty broth is made from pork bones and shrimp shells.
Laksa is a famous dish celebrated throughout Southeast Asia, however, Penang has put a special twist on it. A little fishy and seasoned with lemongrass, ginger, and mint, Penang's take on laksa is a unique taste that you'll never forget.
Penang laksa is a variant of asam laksa — both are slightly sour thanks to sour mangosteen fruit — rather than sweet as are laksa variants based on coconut milk.
Mee rebus is a noodle dish often prepared with ketchup or a sweet tomato gravy; lime provides citrus that offsets the sweet taste. Expect yellow egg noodles, half of a boiled egg, and shallots.
Mee goreng simply translates to "fried noodles" and can be prepared in a variety of ways depending on the whim and style of the street food hawker. Noodles can be rice, egg, or in a worst-case scenario, the same "instant" noodles upon which starving college students sometimes rely.
Mee goreng — prepared by Indian-Muslim hawkers in Mamak eateries — is a good option for avoiding the pork typically found in other noodle dishes.
This noodle soup is thickened with egg and corn starch into a gravy that lends a somewhat-slimy texture to an otherwise-tasty noodle dish. The noodles are usually thick, yellow noodles. That mysterious, spongy option seen floating in the dish is a slice of fishcake.
Loh mee is sometimes spelled as "lor mee."
You'll see fried oysters available in nearly every Penang hawker food center, but don't expect a breaded, deep-fried appetizer that could fit in on a sampler platter next to potato skins and jalapeno poppers.
Instead, Penang's fried oysters are usually prepared as an egg omelet and then garnished with a sweet-and-sour chili sauce for dipping.
This unique Muslim specialty consists of previously deep-fried meats, seafood, vegetables, and tofu laid out on display; you are charged based upon what you take. Some carts specialize in nothing but different varieties of fish cake.
Your choices are then rough chopped by a man wielding a large knife; the pieces get mixed and tossed. Rather than deep fry the selections again, an extremely hot, sweet-and-spicy sauce is added to the top to heat things back up. Some slaw and cabbage salad is added for freshness and to make the meal extra filling.
Lok-lok serves as a fun, sometimes-social, meal supplement or starter. Vegetables, meat, seafood, fishcake, quail eggs, and anything else you can think of are skewered in small portions and laid out on display. You choose as many sticks as you like from the ice. Prices are often based on a color-coded system; check the ends of your sticks.
Lok-lok is boiled, either by yourself or the food hawker, you then choose from one of the many delicious sauces.
Possibly the most unique dessert that you will ever try, Penang rojak is mixed fruit that is covered with an extremely sweet tamarind sauce. Shrimp paste and chili add unique flavors not often associated with dessert! Peanuts and sesame seeds add a crunchy texture.
Don't be afraid of the weirdness; give rojak at least a tentative try!
Vegetarian Food in Penang
Nearly all of the above noodle dishes are prepared with pork products. Even if you ask for a dish to be served without meat, chances are that the broth was prepared with bones and fat. The only way to ensure that you avoid pork is to eat at Muslim eateries or carts marked with the Arabic halal symbol.
Penang is home to a large community of Indian Muslims, so finding delicious vegetarian food is easy enough.
Note: Pork isn't the only ubiquitous ingredient: many of the broths and spicy pastes are made with shrimp paste. People with seafood or shellfish allergies should tread carefully.
Is Penang Street Food Safe?
Toss out the draconian guidebooks that advise against eating street food for fear of getting an upset tummy. Skipping Penang street food would mean missing out on a memorable cultural experience.
Assuming you choose popular carts that are busy, the food is as safe as any other. Eating street food is arguably safer than eating food served in restaurants — you can see the freshness of ingredients and level of cleanliness in plain sight. Whatever happens behind the curtain in a restaurant is anyone's guess.