Eating My Way Through George Town, Penang – A Gastronomical Adventure

Penang is widely touted as one of the world’s street food meccas. The local food culture is strong – Locals pack their beloved establishments day and night. Eating seems to be the island’s favourite past time. Penangnites live to eat indeed!

When in Penang, Georgetown is the place to be if you’re looking to treat yourself to the best gastronomical delights the island has on offer. With a range of different cuisines and hawkers to choose from, you’ll be spoilt for choice!

There’s a saying that a big tummy is a sign  of prosperity. This certainly holds true in Penang. With cheap affordable meals, eat to your tummy’s content! Globally renowned publications seem to agree. George Town’s street food has been conferred the following awards:

The wide range of street food on offer coupled together with multiple hawkers peddling similar dishes can be quite confusing to the uninitiated. You travelled all the way  to eat not rack your brains on what/which one to eat right?!

Well, fret not. On a recent trip to Penang, my friends and I embarked on a food adventure around Georgetown. Together with my special guest Chow (yes it’s a real person and that’s his real surname), we’ll give you the CHOWDOWN on some of Georgetown’s best street food. You ready? Here we go!

CHOWDOWN is a food rating on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1-3 = Chowsai (Dogfood). 3-4= Chowpalang (So-So/Average) & 4-5= Chowsen (Must-try)

CHOWDOWN takes into account flavour, freshness and price. No CHOWS given for cleanliness and presentation. We’re here to eat not sleep or watch food!

For detailed explanations on the terms above please refer to this or leave a comment below!


BREAKFAST

1. Jalan Transfer Roti Bakar & Roti Canai

We kick off proceedings with a visit to one of Penang’s popular breakfast spots – Jalan Transfer. Ask anyone where to find Penang’s best Roti Canai and Jalan Transfer will definitely come up as one of the recommendations. A classic Penang Mamak (Indian-Muslim) makan (food) institution, the owner has been flipping this Malaysian favourite for decades.

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The shop is a single row of shabbily put together benches and tables arranged parallel to the street and the drain which flanks it. Street food doesn’t get more authentic than this.

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I can’t remember the exact name of the shop but to be honest no one actually does. The locals simply refer to it by the street name or “Roti Canai di tepi longkang” (Roti Canai beside the drain). Talk about no-nonsense!

We arrived at 6.30 am to a near empty shop. There were only a few other customers tucking into Nasi Lemak & Teh Tarik. The Roti Canai remained elusive. For a moment I wondered if this was the right place. A quick chat with the stall owner revealed that they were still in the process of preparing it.

We were famished after an 8 hour long train ride so we obliged to the neighbouring stall owner’s offer of Roti Bakar (3RM) and Teh Tarik (1.20RM) while we waited for the “main course”. This proved to be a gastronomical masterstroke.

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Teh Tarik

I don’t know if it’s just me but I always find Malaysian Teh Tarik to be generally much better. (Singaporeans hold your gunfire!) The Malaysian’s have figured out the optimal balance to make a cup of good Teh Tarik. Maybe it’s just my sweet tooth? Nothing like a warm cup of sweet creamy frothy pulled tea to wake you up!

Roti Bakar
Roti Bakar

Eggs Ben-a-dick step aside. Meet Malaysia’s answer to Eggs Benedict – the humble Roti Bakar (Direct translation= burnt bread). Simply put literally, it’s eggs on toast but on a sensory level it transcends that definition.

Two perfect half-boiled eggs sitting atop skillfully charred freshly baked Benggali bread slathered with margarine and sugar. Benggali bread is local to Penang – another culinary hallmark of the Mamaks. As a result of a longer baking process vis-a-vis white bread, Benggali bread is much more fluffier and airy.

Roti Benggali
Roti Benggali

This shone through in the toast. Crunchy on the outside yet fluffy and airy on the inside. I’ve never had toast and eggs quite like this before!

Roti Canai
Roti Canai

Shortly after we devoured our Roti Bakar, the Roti Canai (3RM)(Dough pancake) arrived fresh off the iron pan. The first batch of the day was ours. I guess the early bird does indeed catch the worm!

There are a variety of curries to pair your roti with. We settled on mutton curry (3RM for 3 person). You can enjoy your roti and curry 2 ways: Banjir (Flood) – The roti is drenched in curry and dahl (above picture) or jangan campur (Don’t mix) – the roti and curries are served separately. Make your preference known to the staff beforehand as they’ll normally serve it “Banjir” which is how most locals have it.

Even though the roti was drenched, it still managed to retain some of its crispiness. The mutton curry was an explosion of flavour. Well-balanced with just the right amount of heat and spice. The mutton was cooked perfectly and remained the centerpiece of the dish. The meat fell off the bone with ease.

An accurate indication of how good a makan place is when you see people from all races queuing up to eat!

CHOWDOWN: 4.5 CHOWS GIVEN (CHOWSEN)

Transfer Road Roti Canai Stall

56 Jalan Transfer,

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Business Hours : 6.30am – 1pm & 3.30pm – 7pm

*Lookout for  Malila Bakery and Caltex Petrol Station*


2. Har Mee and Char Koay Teow @ Ping Hooi Cafe

Most coffeeshops in Penang are referred to as cafes. Some of Penang’s best hawker food are found in these “cafes” and Ping Hooi Cafe happens to be one of them. We tried two of their popular dishes – Har Mee and Char Koay Teow.

Har Mee
Har Mee

Frankly, I’m not a fan of prawn-based dishes. I’m too lazy to peel them and find the taste a little too overpowering. The Har Mee @ Ping Hooi (3RM) however won me over immediately. It helped that the prawns were already peeled too 🙂

A mixture of vermicelli mee sua and yellow mee cooked al dente swimming in a savoury broth with fresh prawns and cubes of pork belly topped with a halved boiled egg. The various components combined together perfectly. A spoonful of chilli sambal is served together with the dish for added heat.

The broth was undoubtedly the star of the dish. From the first spoonful, it was evident that broth made from prawn stock base had been simmering for hours. The slow cooking of prawn shells and heads unleashed the umami flavour profile into the dish (Prawns are natural sources of umami). No surprise that the three of us were busy slurping up the broth. We finished it before the rest of the ingredients! I’m now officially a prawn convert. Talk about a life-changing meal!

Tiger Char Koay Teow

Char Koay Teow
Char Koay Teow

We had very high expectations of our virgin Penang char koay teow. Tiger Char Koay Teow (5RM for SMALL) however was abit rough round the edges. There was a hint of “wok hei” but the dish was still a little bit too oily and inconsistent in flavour. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t completely bad. It was only average. Tiger Char Koay Teow regularly receives great reviews so maybe this was a occasional blip. Don’t let my bad experience discourage you from giving it try!

CHOWDOWN:

4.8 CHOWS GIVEN  FOR HAR MEE (CHOWSEN)

3.5 CHOWS GIVEN FOR CHAR KOAY TEOW (CHOWPALANG)

Ping Hooi Coffeeshop

Carnavon Street,

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Business Hours : 8am – 2pm


LUNCH & DINNER

3. Murtabak @ Hameediyah Restaurant

Hameediyah Restaurant
Hameediyah Restaurant

Penang’s version of Singapore’s Zam Zam. Another similar Mamak makan institution. Hameediyah holds the title of one of the oldest restaurants on the island. It turned 107 years old recently. A family business since inception, the restaurant is now operated by the third generation and continues to churn out some of Penang’s best mamak cuisine.

The Nasi Kandar, Briyani and murtabak are long-time crowd favourites. We were stuffed from all the previous meals so we shied away from the rice dishes and opted for the chicken murtabak (5RM).

Mutton Murtabak
Mutton Murtabak

If you’re unfamiliar with murtabak, it’s basically a roti-like pancake stuffed with spiced filling of meat and vegetables. The murtabak at Hameediyah is packed with flavour. It’s different however from the one we’re accustomed to in Singapore. The roti-wrapping is thinner and the filling is more authentic in terms of spices,flavours and vegetables used. It’s probably what murtabak was originally like before Singaporean mamaks tweaked it to suit the local population. Chow and I would still choose the Singaporean version over Hameediyah’s any day.

Neslo
Neslo

For beverages, don’t be a guailo  try the NES-LO (2RM). An interesting mixture of Nescafe coffee and Milo.

We’ll definitely be back to try the Nasi Kandar the next time we’re in Penang!

CHOWDOWN: 3.8 CHOWS GIVEN (CHOWPALANG)

Hameediyah Restaurant

154 & 164A Lebuh Campbell,

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Business Hours : 11am – 11pm, Closed on Fridays


4. Wai Kee’s Char Siew Restaurant @ Sky Hotel, Chulia Street

This nondescript restaurant is extremely hard to find. We went past it twice before we noticed a segment of the snaking queue. Yes, Wai Kee Char Siew Restaurant is extremely popular with the locals. When we arrived slightly after 11am, the place was already filled to the brim.

We had to wait a good 10 mins before we found a seat. That’s not the end of it. The stall operates on self-service order system. Chow had to join a long queue to place our order. The regulars (office workers) butting in with their large takeaway orders didn’t help speed things up.

Char Siew
Char Siew

After 40 mins of waiting, we were rewarded with a glorious plate of char siew (22RM for 3 person with rice). There are two types of Char Siew cuts available – Fatty or Lean. Chow had the foresight to order a mixture of both.

The meat was tender and expertly charred to the point of caramelization. There was no bitter aftertaste which many char siew establishments are guilty of. There was great marbling of fat even on the lean meat. The pieces of char siew have that melt-in-your-mouth quality regardless of the cuts.

One of the best I’ve ever tasted. Char Siew will never be the same again. Each time I’ve eaten Char Siew since then, I’ve been reminded of the one at Wai Kee’s. It’s one of those dishes I’d list as must-try before you die. Trust me, I’m not exaggerating here. You haven’t eaten Char Siew, if you’ve not dined at Wai Kee’s!

CHOWDOWN: 4.9 CHOWS GIVEN (CHOWSEN)

Wai Kee’s Char Siew Restaurant

Sky Hotel,Lebuh Chulia,

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Business Hours : 11am – 2pm


5. Chendol @ Jalan Macalister

Chendol
Chendol

Penang is incredibly hot and humid throughout the year. The locals panacea for the unforgiving weather? Chendol – Shaved ice drenched in coconut milk and gula melaka syrup; topped with red beans and green jelly.

We chanced upon this street side stall by sheer coincidence. We got lost and were trying to find our way back to the guesthouse. Weary and thirsty from cycling under the torturous afternoon sun, the chendol (1.5RM) was a timely welcome relief.

The ice was finely shaved, no clumpy blocks that we get back home. The owner still uses the hand roll contraception from the good ol’days to shave the ice. The coconut milk and gula melaka combined to achieve just the right amount of sweetness. The red beans were extremely fresh, full of flavour and not hard at all. The green jelly had a nice chewy texture to it.  Definitely one of the better chendols I’ve tried.

CHOWDOWN: 4.2 CHOWS GIVEN (CHOWSEN)

No Signboard Chendol (There really isn’t a signboard)

Jalan Macalister,

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Business Hours : Unknown. Come in the afternoon to early evening.


7. Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol

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The Chendol stall which tourists throng to day in day out. Don’t be confused as there is a competitor selling the exact same stuff directly opposite. Just observe which stall attracts more customers. If you come during peak hour, there’ll be queues but in our case there was practically no one.  Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol also serves up a mean bowl of Ice Kachang if you crave something different.

Penang Road Teochew Chendol ice Kachang
Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol Ice Kachang

The chendol here (2.20RM) is less sweet than the one at Jalan Macalister but more creamier. Besides that, it’s hard to differentiate the two. Personally, I prefer the Jalan Macalister chendol. I’ve really got a sweet tooth indeed. Chow on the other hand prefers the Penang Road version.

CHOWDOWN: 4.3 CHOWS GIVEN (CHOWSEN)

Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol 

Lebuh Keng Kwee off Penang Road,

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Business Hours :   Mon – Fri 10.30am – 7pm
                                     Sat – Sun  10am – 7:30pm


 8. Apom @ Jalan Burma

Apom
Apom

Another chance discovery when we got lost.  I guess we should get lost more often then! Apom trucks are numerous and can be found pretty much all round the island. Not your conventional Indian Apom which is usually crispy on the outside and fluffy in the center. This is the Chinese take on Apom. Chinese or Indian, doesn’t really matter as long as it tastes good!

More fluffy than crispy. Much akin to mini pancakes. There’s a range of fillings to choose from. We decided on sliced banana. Four words: Melt-in-your-mouth! An ideal afternoon snack. 4 pieces for 2RM

CHOWDOWN: 4.2 CHOWS GIVEN (CHOWSEN)

Apom Trucks

Along Jalan Burma Stretch,

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Business Hours : Late afternoon till late


9. Char Koay Teow @ Kafe Heng Huat, Lorong Selamat 

Auntie Soon- Kafe Heng Huat
Auntie Soon – Kafe Heng Huat

There’s a couple of street-side hawkers/imitators peddling Char Koay Teow along Lorong Selamat. We nearly dined at one of them! The real Mccoy is an elderly lady donning a red beret who goes by the name Auntie Soon. How soon? We got our Char Koay Teow pretty fast!

Char Koay Teow
Char Koay Teow

After our initial disappointment at Tiger Char Koay Teow, we weren’t expecting much. Thankfully, Auntie Soon’s Char Koay Teow (11.50RM for LARGE) not only delivered but blew our tastebuds away. A fiery “wok hei” which didn’t peter out, tantalizing flavours, savoury lup cheong and the freshest jumbo prawns I’ve ever tasted left us in a Char Koay Teow coma.

Although it’s on the pricey side of the Char Koay Teow scale, it was worth every ringgit. You have to pay for quality right? Quoting Schwarzenegger in the Terminator, ” I’ll be back! ”

Tip: If you’re sharing for 2 or more people order separate small/medium size portions. The large portions  include extra prawns but minimal portions of added noodles.

CHOWDOWN: 4.8 CHOWS GIVEN (CHOWSEN)

Kafe Heng Huat

108 Lorong Selamat,

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Business Hours : 11am – 6pm, Closed on Tuesdays


10. Ming Xiang Tai Pastry Shop @ Jalan Burma

Ming Xian Pastry
Ming Xiang Pastry

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Within walking distance of Kafe Heng Huat is a traditional chinese bakery – Ming Xiang Tai Pastry. Rather easy to spot with the black signboard and larger than life egg tart board. Famed for their signature egg tarts among other traditional chinese pastries. They also offer traditional herbal chinese drinks to cool off from the blistering Penang weather.

Egg Tarts & Wutaro Yaki BBQ Sauce Pastry
Egg Tarts & Wutaro Yaki BBQ Sauce Pastry

The egg tarts (2RM/piece) were pretty good but still incomparable to the ones I had in Macau. The pastry that thrilled my tastebuds was the Wutaro-yaki sauce pastry (2.80RM/piece). Barbecued meat drenched in savoury Japanese sauce encased in perfectly baked Chinese pastry. Fusion food at its best! Simply Heavenly!

CHOWDOWN:

4.6 CHOWS GIVEN FOR WUTARO YAKI (CHOWSEN)

4.1 CHOWS GIVEN FOR EGG TART (CHOWSEN)

Ming Xiang Tai Pastry

133 Jalan Burma,

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Business Hours : 8am – 11pm


11. Tua Pui Curry Mee @ Lebuh Kimberley

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Tua Pui is Hokkien for fatty. The shop had already closed for the day during our first visit. Try to visit before 430pm. Tua Pui serves one of the best bowls of curry mee (3.50RM) on the island. I’m a sucker for curry mee so I had to try it!

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Tua Pui Curry Mee
Tua Pui Curry Mee

The curry broth was rich, adequately spicy and tasty. Noodles (vermicelli and yellow noodles) combined well with the broth. I particularly enjoyed the fresh taupok which absorbed the broth very well. The blanched beansprouts added some crunch to the dish.The cubes of coagulated pig’s blood was interesting. It tasted like very soft silken tofu. On the whole, a very well put together dish!

CHOWDOWN: 4.1 CHOWS GIVEN (CHOWSEN)

Tua Pui Curry Mee

Stall No. 23 Lebuh Kimberly,

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Business Hours : 8.30am – 5.30pm


12. Penang Assam Laksa @ Joo Hooi Cafe

Penang Assam Laksa
Penang Assam Laksa

Since being ranked 7th by CNN’s World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods in 2011, Assam Laksa has become synonymous with the island. Penang assam laksa is worlds apart from Singaporean laksa.

Penang Assam Laksa (4RM) uses local mackerel fish as its base. A hodgepodge of piquant flavours. Sweet, sour, salty, spicy and umami all at once. Each spoonful is akin to detonating a flavour grenade in your mouth.The laksa noodles were chewy and soft. Somewhat similar to Korean Udon. The freshly chopped raw vegetable garnish added zing to the dish, elevating the flavour profile by bringing all of them together.

Just by looking at the ingredients that go into assam laksa, it’s a recipe for disaster from a culinary standpoint. In reality however, it works brilliantly. The line between insanity and genius is extremely fine. The Penangnites have got this one on the right side of that line.

CHOWDOWN: 4.1 CHOWS GIVEN (CHOWSEN)

Joo Hooi Cafe

475 Jalan Penang,

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Business Hours : 10.30am – 530pm


Getting around

Simply search any of the addresses or names on Google Maps and you’ll find the exact location and the relevant directions. That’s how we got around from place to place too so don’t worry! We used a bicycle but you can rely on public buses, hail a taxi or even walk for certain locations.


We only had slightly more than 24 hours in Penang so our adventures were confined to solely Georgetown. I hope this somewhat serves as a guide to help you get around the food maze that is Georgetown. Check out my Top 7 Places to Stay In Penang for Under $100 if you’re looking for accommodation.

I’m sure that there are other food gems on other parts of the island. This food guide is in no way a guide to the “BEST” food (though I personally believe majority of the listings can’t be matched) as food is an extremely subjective and personal topic. What it’ll do is ensure that you won’t have a bad meal in Georgetown.Though you’ll have to be very unlucky to experience a bad meal in Penang! Feel free to share with us your Penang food recommendations in the comments section below 🙂


Photo Credits:

” Roti Benggali ” taken from http://www.timeout.com/penang/restaurants-and-cafes/maliia-bakery

” Neslo ” taken from http://www.trendytron.com/trends/current/buzz/Neslo

” Aunty Soon ”  taken from http://www.boundfortwo.com/2014/05/char-koay-teow-at-kafe-heng-huat-lorong.html


Photographs by Darren Chow, Seetoh Liwei & Nicholas De Silva

Food Reviews by Nicholas De Silva & Darren Chow

Special mention to Thanis Lim & MissTamChiak for recommendations


Happy Eating!

Solo Traveller

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