How to Eat Like a Local in Penang, Malaysia

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How to Eat Like a Local in Penang, Malaysia

Penang, an island city located off Malaysia’s west coast, might just be the best hidden food gem in the world. Historic George Town, a UNESCO protected section of the city and Penang’s tourist hub, is covered with street art and modern murals, but it’s the food, a variety of native Malay dishes and a range of Chinese and Indian offerings, that’s been driving both locals and travelers mad—in a good way—for hundreds of years. You’ll sweat and feast and enjoy every delicious second of it. If you truly love food, Penang simply cannot be missed.

Ayer Itam Assam Laksa

Like so many restaurants in Penang, Ayer Itam Assam Laksa does one thing and does it incredibly well. Assam laksa—a sweet, sour and spicy minced fish noodle soup—might just be the unofficial dish of Penang, combining shrimp paste, tamarind (or assam) and what can only be described as dark magic. Located in the shadows of Penang Hill and the Kek Lok Si temple complex, Ayer Itam is a destination that even the most informed travelers might never find on their own. Should you make the trip to the west side of the city, you’ll experience the most authentically Penang meal of your trip.

Tandoori Set at Kassim Mustafa Nasi Kandar

Kassim Mustafa .jpg Photo by Max Bonem

Locals initially adopted tandoori chicken, the flamingo-esque Indian grilled staple, when Indians arrived in Penang after the British colonized the island in the 1800s. Hanging on long skewers at countless shops in and around Penang’s Little India, tandoori chicken is hard to miss but the tandoori set found at Kassim Mustafa Nasi Kandar, open 24/7, is truly special. Served with whichever naan you fancy, the chicken is accompanied by sweet tomato and mint chutneys, yellow daal, and an array of lime, onion and carrot to use at your discretion. Coupled with a pineapple or mango lassi, the tandoori set is a great late dinner or early morning snack, depending on when the craving hits.

Nasi Kandar at Line Clear

Nothing in Penang can quite prepare you for the madness that is Line Clear. Open 24 hours, there’s always a line sprouting from the depths of this local favorite for nasi kandar, a Penang halal specialty involving rice and any combination of chicken, fish, mutton, and vegetarian curries. It’s loud, bright, and congregates patrons from both the nearby mosque, and clubs and bars located just a few blocks away. Like most establishments serving nasi kandar, the portions are enough to feed a small army and you’ll notice many of your fellow diners mixing all of their food by hand into a giant mountain of blended flavors and textures. It’s not for everyone, but should you give the technique a try, you’ll undoubtedly be met with both giggles and respect.

Wan Tan Mee at CF Hawker Centre

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 4.54.30 PM.png Photo by Max Bonem

One of the many Malay-Chinese hybrid meals found throughout Penang, wantan mee is one of the area’s signature dishes and CF Hawker Centre, located just outside George Town, does it to near perfection. The food court, which offers more than 20 different stalls selling a wide range of Penang specialties, is one of the greatest places to sample any number of dishes while in Penang, but the wantan mee stall stands above the rest. The dish—made with egg noodles fried in a dark, sweet, and spicy soy sauce; and topped with char siu (barbecue pork), wontons, choy sum, and pickled green chilies—is all about balance. From the aggressiveness of the chilies to its palatable sauce to the multitude of noodles, it just might be the perfect dish to kick off a lunch that will undoubtedly involve another plate or two of food from one of the many neighboring stalls.

Wen Chang Hainan Chicken Rice

Originating in China’s Hainan province, Hainan chicken rice is synonymous with the Malaysian peninsula and beloved by just about every person you’ll meet in Penang. It’s a simple dish built around chicken fat infused rice, either tender boiled or roast chicken and dipping sauce, but it’s also fairly common to accompany the staples with roast duck or pork. Although you can enjoy the dish on any number of Penang street corners, Wen Chang is very popular, super cheap and, most importantly, delicious.

Tuai Pui Curry Mee

Tuai Pui Curry Mee.jpg Photo courtesy of Max Bonem

Tuai Pui Curry Mee is everything you want Malaysian food to be and more. Fiery, curry broth? Check. Noodles? Of course. Tofu, chicken and an unknown quantity of pigs blood? Yes, yes and yes. When coupled with a milo ais (a sweetened, iced coconut drink), you have the makings of the perfect hot and cold way to start your day. Curry mee stacks up with assam laksa as Penang’s most popular soup and like the rest of them, curry mee is most commonly eaten in the late morning or early afternoon. In the grand pantheon of Penang food, curry mee might just be the most addicting.

Muthu’s Banana Leaf Rice

muthus.jpg Photo courtesy of Max Bonem

Thousands of tourists walk by Muthu’s signless, shadowy entrance each day without giving it a second thought. Referred to by locals as “The Mess,” Muthu’s Banana Leaf Curry is as old school as Penang gets when it comes to the Indian community’s impact on local cuisine. The process is simple: you walk in, sit down, and prepare to be served more food than any one human should ever consume. A large banana leaf will be placed in front of you and then it will be topped with rice and any of the following: chicken curry, mutton curry, crab curry, lentils and chickpeas in various preparations, pickled vegetables, and papadum. Each of these will be administered routinely should the staff notice you’re running low. And if that doesn’t make you utter “uncle,” additional chicken, mutton and crab curry gravy (pictured above) are available at the table should you need it.

Ming Xiang Tai Pastry Shop

pastry shop.jpg Photo courtesy of Max Bonem

Should you find yourself in need of a low-key snack, either of Ming Xiang Tai Pastry Shop ’s two locations in and around George Town will do the trick. Offering a wide variety of traditional Cantonese pastries and biscuits, you can satisfy both your sweet tooth and craving for something savory all for little more than a few dollars. The ko-chaw siew pao, wutaro yaki, and wedding cookies are only three of their more than 20 daily offerings, but be weary. Ming Xiang Tai tends to sell out so get there early to stock up.

Top photo courtesy of Flickr/lostdagame

Max Bonem is a writer and eater currently traveling through Southeast Asia. You can follow his travels via his blog, Instagram or Flickr.