George Town, Penang: Asia’s greatest street food city?

No time and only one stomach? Here’s how to conquer this food-loving destination with your belt holes intact

It’s 8:30 a.m.

I’m facing down an incredible breakfast buffet at one of the hottest luxury hotels in George Town, Penang — the Eastern & Oriental.

Cheese, pastries, curries, French toast, beef sausage, dim sum, fresh fruit.

The problem is, I don’t want any of it.

I’m preoccupied with what’s waiting for me outside — some of the finest street food in Asia.

Eater’s paradise

Shophouses built from the early 20th century have been carefully preserved and most are still run by relatives of the founders.Penang food is a mix of traditional Malay, Chinese and Indian dishes, as well as fusion cuisines such as Baba Nyonya, or Peranakan, which incorporates regional ingredients and Chinese and Malay cooking methods.

All of it can be found in hawker centers and shop houses throughout George Town.

Combine this with the city’s collection of historic buildings in various styles, from old English colonial mansions to classical Chinese shophouses and Islamic mosques, and you have a city made for walking and eating.

My first meal in the city is a plate of lamb rendang, a traditional Malaysian curry made with coconut milk and spices, slowly simmered to allow the meat to absorb the flavors.

From that moment, I’m like a kid seeking out a sugar rush.

Stomach space becomes precious. I obsess over where and when I’ll have my next meal.

My mission: to enjoy as many of the island’s famed dishes as possible in three days.

More on CNN: 10 best islands for a Malaysia holiday 

What makes Penang special?

Nasi kandar restaurants are extremely popular curry shops. Most are open 24 hours and run by Indian Muslims. Penang-born Malaysian chef and restaurateur Norman Musa has written several books on Malaysian cuisine and hosted his own cooking show.

He’s considered an ambassador of his country’s food, which he promotes through overseas food festivals and his UK-based restaurants in York and Manchester, called Ning.

“I agree 101% that Penang is the food capital of Malaysia,” he tells me.

“I come back to Malaysia every three months. Every time, I know I’m going to put on weight. In two weeks, I’ll put on five kilos.” 

Musa says it’s not just the food that makes Penang incredible, but the atmosphere.

“Watch the food being cooked on the streets, the buzz, the smell, the sounds,” he raves. “That’s what you get in Penang. You can’t get that anywhere else in Malaysia. You don’t get the authenticity.”

Penang-based Wall Street Journal street food columnist Robyn Eckhardt, who’s working on her first cookbook, explains what makes Penang’s food scene stand out from its Malaysian counterparts.

Char koay teow, a Penang must-try according to well-fed experts.

“It comes down to the fact that many older, second- or third-generation vendors are still dishing it up in Penang,” she says.
“The street food culture is still very strong in Penang, whereas it’s starting to disappear in Kuala Lumpur because of the way the city is changing physically.

“This is a place where old trades still thrive — sign-making, rattan weaving, tin smithing, paper-effigy making, incense making.

“There are still craftsmen and artisans here who do work not to titillate tourists, but for the locals who create the demand for their work. Things are still done by hand, stocks are still made with chicken and seafood.

“There’s an asam laksa vendor who is boning anchovies by hand at his stall to place on top of his noodles!”

This “small-batch” culture carries over into street food, she says, noting that ingredients still produced on Penang, such as shrimp paste and soy sauce, “are made the old-fashioned way in barrels that ferment in the sun.”

More on CNN: Cameron Highlands: Malaysia’s enduring ‘Little England’

Advice for first timers

With all its choices, George Town can be overwhelming for a newcomer with limited time and only one stomach.

Eckhardt has a number of tips.

First, she says, if you’re new to Penang/Malaysian food, try not to get caught up in what’s “best.” Don’t become obsessed with hitting the most popular stalls or “thinking that you need to go where Anthony Bourdain did.”

She also points out that “street food here is safe — I’ve never heard of anyone getting sick — and so is ice.”

On coffee shops: “Go into a coffee shop knowing how to order and pay — drinks from the shop owner, dishes from the individual vendors, everyone is paid separately. This will give you confidence.”

A vendor cooks up a serving of Hokkien char, made with fried egg noodles and seafood. Hawker stalls are found in every corner of George Town. A grazing mentality is helpful.

“Many servings here are relatively small, which means you can try a lot of different dishes,” Eckhardt says. “And they’re inexpensive — so don’t feel obligated to finish everything.”

Also, be on the lookout for holes-in-the-wall.

“I am still finding places I didn’t notice before,” she says. “And be aware of meal times. That thosai [crispy Indian-style crepe] shop may have just one person in it — that doesn’t mean the food isn’t good, it may be that you’re passing by at 10:30 a.m., which is well past rush hour for thosai.”

Eckhardt even touches on the very issue I’d been flummoxed by. The dreaded hotel buffet.

“Get out of bed in the morning and skip your hotel breakfast,” she says. “Start walking.”

Eckhardt says there’s plenty of great food to be had in the morning, and it’s worth keeping in mind that some dishes are more readily available at certain times of day than others.

“Asam laksa, for instance, comes out around 2 p.m. and stays around till 5 p.m. or so; it’s seen as more of a snack than a lunch or breakfast.”

Eckhardt’s don’t miss dishes: Char koay teow, asam laksa, nasi kandar, thosai and/or roti (savory, it’s not served sweet as in Thailand), lor bak and koay teow th’ng.

A few of Musa’s Malaysian favorites: Nasi lemak, beef rending, char koay teow, roti canai.

You can find most of the above dishes on this list of Malaysia’s 40 top foods.

More on CNN: Malaysia travel: 10 things to know before you go

Food tours and cooking classes

Sambal udang is a Peranakan dish created by descendants of 15th- and 16th-century Chinese immigrants.

A food tour is among the easier ways to get acquainted with Penang eats. 

For something personalized, Eckhardt offers private tours, which need to be booked at least five weeks in advance.

Her most popular excursion is on foot and hits George Town’s culinary highlights, taking two to three hours. Visit her website for more info. 

Another option is Penang Culinary Tour, which offers customized itineraries. Options include visits to a local wet market, hawker food tastings, Nyonya private dining and stops at heritage coffee shops, a traditional soy sauce factory and belacan (shrimp paste) factory.

To learn how to cook some of Penang’s most popular dishes, Nazlina Spice Station offers regular classes in a small shop house in central George Town.

Sessions include a visit to nearby markets and last three to five hours.

Owner Nazlina (highly recommended by Musa) also does private dinners for two or more, by reservation only. Her website has information on days/times/menus.

More on CNN: Asia’s best street food cities

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