A kaleidoscope of cuisines, Penang’s food culture is simmering with flavors from China, India and Malaysia thanks to years spent as a trading hub and British army port. This turtle-shaped island in the Malacca Strait, with its capital of George Town in the northeast corner, is a paradise for those with an adventurous palate—particularly if you love seafood and can handle some spice. The sheer abundance of hawker centers means that a great meal is never far away—and rarely costs more than a few ringgits; for anything on this list, expect to pay between MYR2 and MYR15 ($5 and $35).
1. Char Kway Teow
Perhaps the best known of Malay street foods, char kway teow is a delicious mix of flat rice noodles, minced garlic, fresh prawns, eggs, soy sauce, cockles and myriad veggies that are tossed in oil and pan fried at scorching temperatures. The high heat is to thank for the smoky, just-barely burned aroma of the noodles.
Get a Taste: You’ll need the patience to wait in line, but the char kway teow at the well-marked Kafe Heng Huat (108 Lorong Selamat, George Town, (+60) 16-269 2222) is said to be among the best in the city.
2. Chee Cheong Fun
Like Hong Kong cheung fun, with a bit of a twist. These springy, doughy rice noodles are first rolled into tubes, and then cut into small slices. Though the noodles themselves don’t have much flavor, the sauces poured over top—sweet shrimp paste, sweet dark soy and chili paste—give this popular evening snack a sweet-and-savory flavor. The garnish, roasted sesame seeds, adds a crunchy texture to balance out the delicate noodles.
Get a Taste: It may be super touristy, but the sprawling Gurney Drive Hawker Center in George Town is an easy place to get all of your fixes in one go. There’s a chee cheong fun stand deep in the market, which will have a long line and a guy slicing rice noodles a mile a minute. Take a hint, and join the queue.
3. Hokkien Mee
Comfort food at its very best, hokkien mee in Penang is different than the black-noodle variety that’s prevalent in southern China. Penang’s hokkien mee consists of rice vermicelli and yellow noodles in a spicy red broth that’s brimming with pork, prawns, hard boiled eggs, bean sprouts, fried onions and kangkung, water spinach. Add globs of chili paste, which is generally served alongside, for an extra kick.
Get a Taste: Surrounded by gorgeous heritage houses, Seng Lee Cafe (270 Lorong Bangkok, George Town) on the corner of Burma Road serves up big bowls of hokkien mee for about RM3 ($7).
4. Roti Canai
No matter the time of day, a big plate of warm, flaky roti canai is always a great idea. Once you try this buttery flatbread it’s hard not to stop at every stand you see. Usually paired with curry or dhal, roti canai a.k.a. “flying bread” gets its unique texture from intense kneading and the use of a piping hot iron skillet.
Get a Taste: Though you’ll find excellent roti canai all through Little India, there’s a famous stall called Special Famous Roti Canai at 56 Jalan Transfer in George Town where you can dig into perfectly charred roti.
5. Penang Rojak
Meaning “mixture,” rojak is a fancy fruit salad, in which raw mangoes, green apples, guava, squid fritters and honey are all mixed together and then smothered in a thick, brown prawn paste. The result? A snack that’s sweet, tangy and just a tiny bit spicy.
Get a Taste: For extra fresh fruit and a healthy drizzling of that famous prawn paste, head over to Hock Seng Rojak King (Lebuh Macallum, in front of Kedai Kopi Sin Hong Leong), before 5pm for some seriously delicious fruit salad.
6. Nasi Kandar
For those who have trouble committing to just one dish for lunch: nasi kandar is an indecisive person’s dream. This buffet-style meal starts with a heaped plate of rice, followed by your pick of Indian-Malay-style curries, fish, chicken, tofu and vegetable dishes. In our experience, each additional topping costs extra no matter how little you pile on, so be careful not to go too crazy. But if you’re set on a mix of everything,
ask for “kari campur,” which is basically an assortment from the buffet.
Get a Taste: In George Town, you’ll want to try one of the most respected nasi kandar joints, Line Clear Nasi Kandar (enter via alley next to 177 Jalan Penang, George Town, (+60) 4-261-4440), which is open 24/7. If you’re staying by Batu Ferringhi beach on the north of the island, find your way to Jalan Sungai Emas (across from the Golden Sands Resort by Shangri-La) and look for the big stall on the left—which is run by a friendly chef Sofna “Umi” Yunus. If you look confused, Umi will walk you through each dish. Free tip: if the pineapple curry is available, pile it on!
7. Penang Laksa
Most people think of Singapore’s red, creamy seafood variety when talking about laksa—but Penang’s version is completely different. The only thing the two have in common is a pretty intense heat. This “assam laksa” is a big bowl of clear fish-based broth with thick rice vermicelli, ginger, onions, lettuce, chilies, tamarind and mint leaves. Then comes the best part: the drizzle of prawn paste (sensing a trend?).
Get a Taste: Some say that the best laksa in Penang is Ayer Itam Penang Assam Laksa, next to the Air Itam market, but one of our friendlier taxi drivers recommended Laksa Tanjung Bungah, part of a small stretch of street stalls next to the floating mosque on the way to Batu Ferringhi. Look for the white truck parked by the seaside, with a mother-son duo doling out bowl after bowl of laksa.
8. Mee Goreng
Reminiscent of spaghetti and tomato sauce, mee goreng has a very homestyle feel. Yellow noodles are fried in a spicy, thick tomato sauce and topped with healthy helpings of squid, fried chives, potatoes and fried tofu.
Get a Taste: One stall in particular has a long-standing following: Bangkok Lane Mee Goreng (270 Jalan Burma, George Town, (+60) 16-485-7859). Like so many of Penang’s open-air food stalls, you can see everything tossed together in front of your eyes.
9. Kaya Toast
It’s not every day that we get all excitable about toast, but we’re crazy about kaya. Charcoal-grilled bread is covered in a sweet, buttery spread alongside a soft-boiled egg mixed with coconut milk. Add pepper to the egg, mix it up, and then dip your toast. Pair with a Hainan-style coffee—think sweet milk and a super dark brew— and you’ll be ready to explore. Need an extra jolt? Try the half-coffee half-tea “kopi cham,” the Malay take on the “yin yeung.”
Get a Taste: If you have to choose just one kaya breakfast, head straight to Toh Soon Café (Campbell St., George Town, (+60) 4-261-3754). Tucked into a dingy alleyway off of colonial Campbell Street, this historical toast outpost has been grilling up breakfast for decades. Get there before 10am—or factor in at least a half-hour wait.
10. Ice Kacang
Dessert is not to be skipped in Malaysia—and there are plenty of quirky concoctions to sate those sugar cravings. For those who have trouble deciding between ice cream, shaved ice and a fruit salad: there’s ice kacang. This is a bowl of finely shaved ice, built to amazing heights and topped with red beans, sweet corn, jellies and an assortment of tropical fruits. The crown jewel? A big plop of vanilla ice cream.
Get a Taste: At New World Park hawker center (29 & 31 Lorong Swatow, George Town), you can find a bit of everything, as well as towering bowls of ice kacang.
We’re obviously all for stuffing our faces, but there’s plenty more to see and do around town.
Sweat and swim A three-hour trek from Penang National Park will take you to quiet and clean Monkey Beach. You can hire a sampan instead, but prices vary from MYR50-150, depending how desperate you look.
Walk through time An hour-long stroll through the UNESCO heritage zone surrounding Light Road will take you past several historical highlights, including St. George’s Church, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and Fort Cornwallis.
Mansion hop One of the most charming parts of George Town is the brightly hued mansions that have been restored to their original glory. Peek into the 19th-century Pinang Peranakan Mansion on Church Street, which stands out with a lick of fresh turquoise paint and vibrant Chinese lanterns.
Admire art Find a touch of whimsy in the renovated art boutiques and colorful murals on Armenian Street, many of which were created by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic.
Eat even fresher Dig into fresh papaya and mango at the Tropical Fruit Farm (Jalan Teluk Bahang, (+60) 4-866-5168) on the way to Balik Pulau, on the southern side of the island. The road is winding, but affords view of rural “kampung” stilt houses and roadside durian stands along the way.
Toast the ocean At the alfresco Beach Blanket Babylon (32 Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, George Town, (+60) 4-263-8101), you can sip a tipple amidst the seashore surrounds.
Go to war Or, at least, explore the eerie Penang War Museum (Jalan Batu Maung, George Town, (+60) 4-626-5142), which is part of the 80-year-old Batu Maung Fortress.
Talk shop Get an early start for a busy morning at the Chowrasta Bazaar (Jalan Chowrasta, George Town), where you’ll find souvenirs such as pickled nutmeg and prawn paste.
Temple tourism You can’t go to Penang without seeing the largest mosque in town: the Masjid Kapitan Keling (Jalan Kapitan Keling, George Town), which is blinding white and begs to be photographed. Nearby, there’s also the colorful Khoo Kongsi Chinese temple (18 Cannon Square, George Town), which showcases Fujian architecture.
Where To Stay
Boutique Heritage: Among the many beautifully restored heritage buildings around George Town, Hotel Penaga (Corner of Jalan Hutton & Lebuh Clarke, George Town, (+60) 4-261-1891, www.hotelpenaga.com) stands out. Located just blocks from the historical sites, the property has converted a cluster of terraced shop houses into a 45-room hotel with graceful interiors, stained glass windows and antique beds. Modern touches still abound—think free Wi-Fi, Jacuzzis and tech-savvy showers. Rooms from MYR362 ($852).
Old-Fashioned Elegance: Built in 1885, the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (10 Lebuh Farquhar, George Town, (+60) 4-222-2000, www.eohotels.com) is a grand example of Penang’s iconic mix of history: there are domed ceilings, Moorish details and acres of wood. Last year, the hotel also opened a modern annex, with updated gadgets and amenities, making it popular among business travelers. Rooms from MYR850 ($2,000).
Beach Break: After a day or two exploring George Town, you might be ready to hit the beaches. The best plots of sand are found along Batu Ferringhi—and the Shangri-La Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa (Batu Ferringhi, (+60) 4-888-8888, www.shangri-la.com) is the ideal spot for those splitting their time between the resort’s serene surrounds and the island’s outdoorsy offerings. You’re about a five-minute ride from the National Park, and a half-hour from the quaint and colorful villages of southern Penang— that is, if you ever make it out of the resort. Many rooms have big outdoor bathtubs overlooking the gardens. All guests have direct access to a long stretch of calm beach, but guests of the Rasa Wing can also take advantage of an adults-only pool, as well as free happy hours and afternoon teas. Rooms from MYR689 ($1,621).
This article originally appear in HK Magazine, in print and online.