By Mike Aquino
Nowhere in Malaysia can match Penang for its head-over-heels devotion to good food. Every Penangite is a natural foodie, with very strongly-held opinions on where you can get the tastiest char koay teow and which mamak (Indian) stall in Georgetown delivers the best value for your ringgit.
Blame Penang’s colonial history for the hotchpotch of flavours; Georgetown’s past as a British trading depot brought together a rich mix of ethnicities, allowing Indian, Malay, Chinese, Thai, and Arab communities to rub elbows, taste each other’s food, and come out the richer for it. Trade also opened access to a mind-boggling variety of ingredients, allowing cooks to improve on traditional recipes.
These days, when the conversation turns to good eats, your average Penangite will mention one location first: Persiaran Gurney, or Gurney Drive, in Penang’s historic Georgetown district. A 1.5 kilometre-long esplanade on Georgetown’s northern end, Gurney Drive is famous for the hawker centre next to the roundabout.
This is an ideal place to start your Penang culinary journey. The place is packed with dozens of food stalls, each one generally dedicated to a single dish. Some of these stalls are family affairs, started long ago by an enterprising ancestor and staffed by the second or third generation. The hawkers are arranged around a foodcourt with tables and seats. The fun begins around 6-7pm and continues into the wee hours shutting down at 3am (weekdays) or 5am (weekends).
For something less hectic or more upscale wander the length of Gurney drive to try the other, classier cafes and restaurants facing the promenade. But say you’ve made your way to Gurney Drive, what Penang food should you try first? Allow us to make a few suggestions.
Char koay teow: the name of this calorific noodle dish translates to “stir-fried rice-cake strips”. To make char koay teow, flat rice noodles are drenched with soy sauce, chilli, shrimp paste, shelled cockles, bean sprouts, chopped Chinese chives, egg, pork lard croutons, and whole prawns, then stir-fried in pork fat.
If that sounds heart-clogging, that’s because it is: the high cholesterol and sodium content of char koay teow does not endear it to cardiologists, but the average Penangite laughs in the face of cardiac arrest, if only for the sake of a good helping served hot from the wok.
The dish’s origins lie among historic Georgetown’s coolies, for whom char koay teow was a delicious, affordable and energy-rich meal. Its ingredients were easy to come by – the adjacent sea is a rich source for cockles and shrimp. Its popularity continues in present-day Georgetown, where more expensive char koay teow come with giant-size prawns and other premium ingredients.
Nasi kandar: the archetypal Penang rice meal combines the humble grain staple with assorted Indian-inspired side dishes which tend towards a surfeit of broth, gravy or curry. The point is to drown your rice before eating it, a practice known as “banjir” (flooding).
Nasi kandar takes its name from the days when Indian hawkers would sell rice meals from the street, bearing their wares on rattan baskets suspended from a yoke (kandar) that sat on the hawker’s shoulders. The menu has improved vastly from days when customers ate simple but hearty dishes like curry beef, hardboiled eggs, and okra. Today’s nasi kandar has a significantly improved repertoire with choices that include fried chicken, fish roe, squid, and curried spleen.
The best nasi kandar comes from stalls that have been serving the stuff for generations using the same recipe, staffed by cooks directly descended from the ambulant vendors from the old days.
Penang asam laksa: this is a hot, sour, and spicy bomb of a noodle dish! Thick rice noodles are drowned in a thick broth brewed in tamarind water with minced fish, onions, turmeric, prawn paste and chilli, with lemongrass to taste and Vietnamese coriander on top.
Asam laksa has no pork, making it a healthier noodle choice. Laksa is usually served with prawn paste on the side, and true aficionados think nothing of spooning it on liberally, but the smell takes getting used to.
The dish is very open to adaptation, too – walk around and you’ll encounter an asam laksa cooked in many different ways such as Malay-style, Chinese-style, or Thai-style (with coconut milk and lime), among others.
So what’ll it be? Whether you stay on Gurney Drive or wander deeper into Georgetown to explore other food outlets lining the historic streets, you’ll find rich pickings for the foodie determined to explore Penang’s variegated culinary landscape. Bon appétit!
Main image via Shutterstock
Mike Aquino is a writer, which means his office is anywhere he plugs in his laptop. He is based in Manila at the moment, but has had spells working as an advertising copywriter in Singapore and Malaysia. He is currently the guide in charge of About.com Southeast Asia Travel.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website