The Malaysian island of Penang is less than an hour’s flight from Kuala Lumpur and boasts eclectic cuisine influenced by Chinese and Indian merchants as well as native Malays. In the past, hawkers paced the streets, banging on sticks of wood to make their presence known. Today, you’ll find them cooking at stalls outside coffee shops and in markets, but the wide array of dishes they offer shows that the island is still a culinary melting pot.
Start the day as locals do, at Toh Soon Cafe (Jalan Campbell, off Jalan Penang), a coffee shop tucked into a back alley of historic George Town, where colonial-era shophouses still outnumber newer developments. For decades this tiny shop has served the traditional breakfast of toast and kopi, strong black coffee brewed in a metal pot and filtered through a muslin cloth. The beans are roasted with sugar and butter, giving the resulting brew a dense richness. Order your drink ‘O’ style (RM1.30, VND9,000), without condensed milk, for a stronger sip.
The toast, too, is still made the old-fashioned way. In the tiny kitchen, a charcoal fire burns inside an oil drum, toasting bread to a golden crisp and heating water for coffee at the same time. Once toasted, the bread gets a thick layer of butter or kaya, a sweet, eggy spread flavoured with coconut milk (RM1.50, VND10,000). Ask for both: the golden, mouthwatering result makes a light yet satisfying breakfast.
For an introduction to Penang’s hawker food, walk down a block to Chowrasta Street Market (Jalan Kuala Kangsar, off Jalan Campbell). Filled with fruit and vegetable sellers and butchers hacking up racks of meat, the bustling wet market also has its share of hawkers selling classic Malay dishes like hokkien mee (spicy egg noodle soup) and chee cheong fun (steamed rice crepes). If you find a roti stall, ask for a roti canai: for about RM1 (VND7,000), you get a warm, round flatbread, edges crisp from the iron skillet. Like the Indian paratha that inspired it, the bread comes with a rich cumin-scented curry for dipping.
Starfish with Coffee
As lunchtime nears, make your way to Lam Heng Coffee Shop (185 Jalan Macalister), home of the famous Sister’s char kway teow stall. Rumoured to serve the best fried rice noodles in Penang, the stall has been run for decades by two sisters and their family. The shop itself looks like it hasn’t changed since the stall opened, with chipped blue walls and shelves stacked with ancestral clutter. Order your noodles from the woman at the wok, then take a seat on the wooden stools with an iced kopi, swirled with sweetened condensed milk.
Char kway teow was originally sold by Malay fishermen and farmers who needed extra income. At night, they stir-fried leftover shellfish with rice noodles and lard, which they sold to labourers as a cheap and filling meal. Today, the noodles are known as one of the region’s signature dishes. Although contemporary health concerns dictate less pork fat and more bean sprouts, the best noodles are still fried in lard, which combines with the searing heat of the wok (wok hei, which literally means “wok breath”) to lend the noodles a rich, smoky flavour.
At Sister’s, each plate (RM5, VND34,000 for a large) has a distinctive garnish of fresh crab meat. Charred in the wok, tangles of flat rice noodles absorb the dark sweet sauce and freshly ground chilli paste. Bean sprouts and egg go in for textural contrast, joined by tender shrimp and a handful of Chinese chives.
For a midday respite head to Batu Ferringhi, the beach along the northern coast of Penang Island. Although new developments are rapidly cropping up, it’s still possible to find a calm stretch of sand. Skip the strip of resorts and restaurants and look for hand-painted wooden signs pointing the way to the beach.
Adventurous travellers can partake in water activities like parasailing and jet skis, but the most thrilling diversion might be spotting a group of monkeys in the leafy trees overhead.
On the way back, stop by the Mount Erskine Hawker Centre (Jalan Mount Erskine). It looks like a ramshackle collection of stalls on the side of the road, but insiders know that some of the best food in Penang can be found here. This is the place to try the island’s signature dish, nyonya laksa (RM4, VND27,000 for a large), a pungent, fiery noodle soup that merges Chinese and Malay flavours. Hunched over an enormous pot, the cook ladles the tangy red broth over thick, slippery noodles and tops it with steamed and flaked mackerel, pineapple chunks and mint leaves. The flavours are explosive: a mouth-puckering dose of tamarind juice, infused with heat from rings of red chilli and hints of gentle mint.
Cool off with a bowl of bubur cha cha (RM3.50, VND24,000) from the neighboring stall. The name, which means “dancing porridge” in Malay, perfectly captures the euphoric experience of eating this dessert. Stewed in coconut milk, a rainbow medley of glutinous bites (sweet potatoes, taro, banana, tapioca) is topped with a mountain of shaved ice and a scoop of creamy mango ice cream.
Back in George Town, stop for a final kopi at Sai Lam Coffee Shop (307 Lebuh Chulia). The street is crowded with wan tan mee stalls, but the soup here (RM4, VND27,000 for a large) might be the best in town. Loaded with knots of fresh, hand-cut noodles, the amber broth comes topped with silken dumplings and strips of char siew pork. According to local rumour, the business was founded 80 years ago by the current owner’s father, Choy; as all hawkers did in those days, he wandered the streets knocking on a bamboo stick to advertise his wares. It’s not hard to imagine people queuing up at the sound.
Across the street, an apom vendor beckons with rows of crisp golden crepes (RM0.50, VND3,500). Wandering through George Town in the cool dusk air, pancakes in hand, you can understand why so many merchants of yesteryear chose to settle here instead of returning home.
AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines run flights from Vietnam to Penang via Kuala Lumpur (KL). Doing the trip with AirAsia costs from US$140 (VND2.9 million) return, depending on when you depart and how far in advance you book your trip. Malaysia Airlines do the roundtrip starting at US$400 (VND8.4 million) including taxes and additional fees.
Accomodation and Information
There are a number of excellent budget options for travellers staying in George Town, Penang. Go to travelfish.org for further information. Prices start at under RM60 (VND400,000) per night for a room with aircon — the best locations for anyone wanting to get into the cuisine are in the Chinatown area. For the mid to high-end market, check out websites like agoda.com.
Some excellent websites provide information on Penang including penang.ws, which includes a free, downloadable guide to Penang, and tourismpenang.net.my. Both portals provide information on the local cuisine and the various attractions on the island.