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.
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.
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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