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Why Penang Is Southeast Asia’s Top Street Food City

No culinary excursion to Penang is complete without a few plates of char koay teow, rice noodles stir-fried with bean sprouts, Chinese chives, cockles and prawns. The best versions are fried in lard and cooked over charcoal. Credit: Copyright David Hagerman

No culinary excursion to Penang is complete without a few plates of char koay teow, rice noodles stir-fried with bean sprouts, Chinese chives, cockles and prawns. The best versions are fried in lard and cooked over charcoal. Credit: Copyright David Hagerman

When it comes to street food in Southeast Asia, Singapore and Bangkok receive the lion’s share of kudos. Yet it is Penang City — an urbanized island off the northwestern coast of peninsular Malaysia — whose street food scene offers all that those cities do and more, just an hour’s plane ride north of Singapore and 90 minutes south of Bangkok.

That’s why Penang, home to former British colonial port and UNESCO world heritage site George Town, is a weekend destination for residents of Singapore and Bangkok alike.

Have a hankering for Indian food? Chinese? You’ll find it in Penang

Like Singapore’s street food, Penang’s is wildly varied. Think wonton noodles, roti canai (flaky and crispy flatbreads cooked on a griddle and eaten with dal and curry) and mee goreng, yellow noodles fried with chili paste. All of this is  prepared and served within feet of each other, thanks to a population made up primarily of Chinese, Indians and Malays.

Like Bangkok and Singapore, Penang’s street food is served from the wee hours of the morning until late at night. And it isn’t limited to officially sanctioned hawker centers. In Penang, sellers serve their specialties from stalls parked beneath umbrellas on street corners and sidewalks, in kopitiam (coffee shops), and within and outside of food markets.

Street food that’s all in the family

In Penang, culinary skills built on the back of experience can be tasted in dishes served from one of the island’s many hawker stalls run by older and even second- or third-generation cooks.

Many on the island still use cooking methods and techniques that are being lost in other parts of the region. They commonly use live fire or coals. Many serve their dishes on banana leaves, which release an appetite-rousing scent when they come into contact with hot food. And, at a time when American cooks are just coming around to the versatility and deliciousness of lard, Penang’s Chinese hawkers have been capitalizing on it all along. They add cracklings to stir-fries and broths and drizzle liquid lard over dry noodle dishes.

Savor Penang with your eyes through this slideshow:

Main photo: No culinary excursion to Penang is complete without a few plates of char koay teow, rice noodles stir-fried with bean sprouts, Chinese chives, cockles and prawns. The best versions are fried in lard and cooked over charcoal.  Credit: Copyright David Hagerman



Zester Daily contributors based in Malaysia, journalist Robyn Eckhardt and photographer David Hagerman collaborate for publications such as New York Times Travel and Wall Street Journal Asia. Their food blog EatingAsia was named Editor's Choice for Culinary Travel in the 2014 Saveur Blog Awards. "Istanbul and Beyond," their first cookbook, is forthcoming from Rux Martin Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Follow them on Twitter at @EatingAsia and @DaveHagerman and on Instagram at @davehagerman.

4 COMMENTS
  • Grammy 7·7·15

    Fascinating. Love your photos and written posts.

  • kesavachandran 7·8·15

    Malacca born, lived there until migrating to India as a 15 year old in 1946.One of the things i missed most for almost 65 years was Chinese food from street hawkers especially Quea Teow and Mee Quat (Soup Mee).The hawker had a way of indicating his presence by making a “Tick Tock clapping sounds on two Bamboo wood pieces to give you Piping Hot stuff for 15 or 20 cents a dish..Even at Calcutta and Coimbatore having Chinese eateries I never got these dishes.During a visit to Malaysia in 2009 at KL found no trace of street hawkers with their shoulder pole slung twin setups.Instead there were markets,food courts.The Quea Teow goreng i got tasted insipid smelling of Palm Oil not Lard.The flat noodles were brownish not white there was no hawker to serve you with his toothless smile and words in Hylam Chinese accented bazaar Malay while handing the piping hot ,fragrant appetizing food.Though I was in Penang there was no time to savour the dishes.I try a hand at home to make the Kaka type Mee Goreng but we don’t easily get Bean sprouts,Bak Choy . ..

  • Robyn Eckhardt 7·10·15

    Thanks for having a look, Grammy.

    Kesavachandran — You’ll not find shoulder poles in Penang anymore, nor tok-tok mee (which I’ve heard a lot about from older Penang-ites). But the flat koay teow are still white and you will most definitely smell lard on the streets of George Town. Hope you are able to make it back to Penang at some point.
    Thanks for reading.

    • kesavachandran 7·10·15

      I was recalling my Malacca boyhood memories regretting not able to savour them after 65 years.Most likely not any more in this waning life of 84 years on yet another visit to my Old Country,now Malaysia.Thanks for the kind mail,it makes good reading shall welcome it

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