The street food in Penang is renown as some of the best food in Southeast Asia. Although there are plenty of other good reasons to visit Malaysia's big island, the food has earned the admiration of people all over the world. Arrive hungry—this is a place to come to eat.
The sizzling oil, lack of menus, people shouting orders over the metallic sounds of scraping utensils, and outside seating (if any at all) can be a little hectic for uninitiated travelers. Don't worry: The cheap, delicious street food in Penang is well worth the effort. Jump in and enjoy the reward!
Char Kway Teow
You'll encounter this heavy, filling noodle dish under many spellings such as char koay or just kway teow. Some popular kway teow operations in Penang date back several generations.
As the name implies, the noodles have a deliberately charred and slightly burned aroma that comes from heating soy sauce in the wok. Kway teow was once the dish of choice for poor laborers who needed a filling meal to keep them going. The dish often gets prepared with pork fat, fish cake, egg, and prawns.
Named after the Chinese immigrants to Penang, Hokkien mee often contains barbecued pork sliced into thin strips along with 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.
Note: Mee, the Bahasa word for "noodles," is sometimes spelled as mie.
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 you'll not soon forget.
Penang laksa is a sour variant of asam laksa. Other laksa variants are usually sweeter and based on coconut milk. A warning for the squeamish: The curry mee version is often prepared with congealed pork blood.
Mee rebus is a noodle dish often prepared with ketchup or a sweet tomato gravy. Lime juice provides citrus to offset the sweet taste. Expect yellow egg noodles, half of a boiled egg, and shallots in your mee rebus.
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 "Ramen" noodles upon which starving college students sometimes rely. If a cart advertises "Maggi mee," you're about to eat instant noodles.
Mee goreng, often 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 viscous consistency is a bit like rad na, a Thai noodle dish. The noodles in loh mee are usually thick egg noodles. That mysterious, spongy object seen floating in the dish is probably a slice of fishcake (think: hotdog-quality meat but made of fish).
Loh mee is sometimes spelled as "lor mee."
You'll find fried oysters advertised in nearly every Penang hawker food center, but don't expect some breaded appetizer that could fit in on a sampler platter next to potato skins and jalapeno poppers.
Instead, Penang's fried oysters are usually prepared inside an egg omelet and get garnished with a sweet-and-sour chili sauce for dipping. Don't be surprised: Oysters are smaller than you probably expect to see from Western restaurants.
This unique Muslim specialty consists of previously deep-fried meats, seafood, vegetables, and tofu laid out on display; point to what you want. Some carts specialize in nothing but different varieties of tofu or fish cake.
Your choices are then rough chopped by a man wielding a butcher's knife. The pieces get mixed and tossed before an extremely hot, sweet-and-spicy sauce is added to the top to warm things back up. Some slaw and cabbage salad is sprinkled for freshness and to make the meal extra filling. Don't expect to have much energy after you eat pasembur!
Lok-lok serves as a fun, social, meal supplement or finger-food starter. Vegetables, meat, seafood, fishcake, quail eggs, tofu, and anything else you can think of are skewered in small portions and displayed on a cart. 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 usually boiled, either by yourself or the food hawker. Once cooked, you then choose which of the delicious sauces you want for your sticks.
Quite possibly the strangest dessert you'll try on your trip (unless you go for durian ice cream), Penang rojak is a mixed fruit salad covered with an extremely sweet tamarind or peanut 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 a tentative try before leaving!
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 the broth was prepared with bones and fat. The only way to truly avoid pork is to eat only at Muslim eateries marked with the Arabic halal symbol.
Penang is home to a large community of Indian Muslims, so finding delicious vegetarian food in Georgetown is relatively easy.
Note: Pork isn't the only ubiquitous ingredient. Many of the broths and spicy pastes are prepared with belacan, a shrimp paste. Noodle dishes prepared with other meats may have a fishball or two thrown in for good measure. People with seafood or shellfish allergies should ask about ingredients.
Penang's Street Food Is Safe
Toss out the draconian guidebooks that advise against eating street food for fear of getting an upset tummy. Skipping Penang's street food would mean missing out on a memorable cultural experience and one of the top reasons for visiting the island.
Assuming you choose popular carts with a lot of turnover, street food is as safe as any other. In fact, eating street food is arguably safer than eating food served by hotels and restaurants. You can see the freshness of ingredients and level of cleanliness at a cart. If the staff drops or mishandles food, customers see it. There aren't many secrets. On the other hand, whatever happens behind the curtain in a restaurant's kitchen is anyone's guess.
The Reason It's so Good
Unlike chefs in restaurants with big menus, street cooks often specialize in only one or two dishes that they prepare night after night. The repetition leads to greater mastery. Also, some cooking techniques and recipes in Penang get passed down through the generations.
Where to Eat Street Food in Penang
Even Lebuh Chulia, the epicenter for the backpacking scene in Penang, has plenty of street food options once the sun goes down.