The Best Foods in Penang + Where to Find Them

One of the reasons I was so excited to return to Malaysia this summer was for the food. When it comes to all things edible, I'm a huge fan of big, bold flavors, and given the country's Malay, Chinese, and Indian influences, it's no surprise that after my five-day visit back in spring, my taste buds were left wanting more. And no single place seems to encapsulate the culinary diversity of Malaysia better than Penang, particularly George Town on Penang Island. Known as a foodie haven, this centuries-old port city boasts multiple food stalls, cafes, and restaurants on every street, overwhelming you with options.

We were there for five days total and seemed to average somewhere around four to five meals daily. There was literally nothing I didn't like (though that's a rarity in itself), but a few things stood out as particularly delicious.

Nyonya Cuisine

nyonya cuisine in Penang, malaysia

While Malaysia in general is a pretty ethnically diverse place, there are a few areas that are specifically known for their intermixing, and Penang is one of them. During the 15th and 16th centuries, when the spice trade drove the world economies, the Strait of Malacca (which cuts through the two parts of Penang) was an important trade route for the Dutch and Portuguese. Hoping to benefit from the increased wealth in the area and escape poverty and famine, Chinese merchants (who were primarily male) flocked to the area and intermarried with the local Malay women. Thus, the Peranakan (or Baba-Nyonya) community was born. Outside of Penang, there are Peranakan communities in Melaka, Thailand, and Indonesia as well.

Out of this union came a vibrant new hybrid culture and an absolutely ah-may-zing culinary love child. Mixing Chinese flavors and techniques with local Malaysian ingredients and spices, what is known as Nyonya cuisine bursts with flavor that is simultaneously sweet, salty, sour, and spicy.

Although much of the food Penang is famed for can be considered Nyonya in some sense, the best way to experience the full range of flavors is to go to a restaurant that specializes in Nyonya cuisine as a whole. The one that we went to was called Mama's Nyonya Cuisine, and I can't recommend it enough. It was located on the edge of the main tourist area, and there only seemed to be locals eating there (at that time, anyway), so I imagine it's pretty legit.

Until this point, we'd been eating a lot of Chinese food, and in comparison the dishes we had here were a lot brighter. Whereas Chinese food tends to rely heavily on more salty, savory flavors, the spread that we had (chosen based on recommendations), though primarily savory, also incorporated a lot of lighter flavors like lemongrass, coconut, and tamarind.

Here's a list of the dishes we ate:

  • Otak otak (a fish cake made of fish, tapioca starch, and spices)

  • Cincalok pork with petai (cincalok is a fermented shrimp paste similar to the Filipino bagoong, Cantonese hom ha, etc)

  • Nyonya prawn sambal with lemongrass (funnily enough, this one tasted like the leftover milk after having a bowl of Fruit Loops)

  • Nyonya style eggplant with dried shrimp

  • Burbur cha cha (a coconut milk-based dessert soup with sweet potatoes, taro, black eyed peas, fruits, etc)

Mama's Nyonya Cuisine
31-D, Lorong Abu Siti
George Town
Penang, Malaysia

 

Cendol

cendol street vendor in Penang, Malaysia

As someone from Hawaii, considering the flavors and textures that I grew up with, it was basically inevitable that I'd fall madly in love with cendol (pronounced with a "ch-" sound). Cendol is an iced dessert that features little green worms of rice flour jelly, coconut milk, and palm sugar syrup. It's eaten basically everywhere in Southeast Asia, and additional toppings vary based on location. In Malaysia, it's normally topped with red beans. Though it's found all around the region, the reason cendol is particularly famous in Penang (and other Malaysian port cities) is because prior to the introduction of refrigeration, its preparation relied on imported ice.

You'll normally find cendol being sold from street stalls. Vendors will quickly scoop the different components out from large, clear tubs into either a bowl with a spoon or, if you're taking it to go, a baggie with a straw. It's pretty liquidy and can be eaten much the same as boba.

During our five days in Penang, we went to three different vendors (I told you, I love this stuff), and you'd think that something so simple would all be the same, but that definitely wasn't the case. The best by far was the one from Teochew Chendul (which we visited twice!). It was a bit less sweet and had softer ice than the others.

Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul
Jalan Penang
George Town
10450 George Town
Penang, Malaysia

 

Mee Goreng/Mee Sotong

Mee goreng, by definition, means fried noodles and can be found in various iterations around Southeast Asia. It's not something particular to any area, it's not something normally worth traveling for, and yet based on an online tip (shoutout to TimeOut KL), we found ourselves walking toward this one particular food court in Penang to have what is supposed to be a horribly mundane dish.

Known to the locals as Mee Sotong (squid noodles), the mee goreng from Hameed 'Pata' Special Mee in the Padang Kota Lama food court, despite its outward appearance, might just be the best fried noodles you'll ever eat. Everything about the plate looked wrong. The noodles appeared as if someone literally threw them, and the chunky, dark brown, braised squid topping was barely even on the plate. And yet, the very first bite solidified the recommendation and assured us that choosing to eat fried noodles in a city where your food options are limited only by the amount of time you have was not a mistake. Sopping with an undeniably squid-y sauce and a building spice that has you sweating without even realizing it, the mee goreng was a veritable flavor bomb.

The food court is located just outside Fort Cornwallis, so if that's on your Penang itinerary, definitely stop by. 

Padang Kota Lama Food Court
4, Jalan Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah
George Town
10200 George Town
Penang, Malaysia

(I don't have a picture because it was ugly as anything, and I honestly wasn't expecting much, but clearly I was mistaken)

 

Asam Laksa

asam laksa in Penang, Malaysia

If there's any Malaysian dish you're familiar with prior to visiting the country, it's probably laksa. There are two main types of laksa - curry and asam - but at its core, it's a spicy noodle soup featuring thick or thin rice noodles. It's found throughout Malaysia, Southern Thailand, and Indonesia, and is considered a Nyonya concoction.

Rated 7th out of 50 of the world's most delicious foods by CNN Travel, Penang's asam laksa is not to be missed. To the western palate, the flavor profile is at first a bit jarring. The soup is spicy, sour, and sweet, flavored primarily with tamarind (asam) and mackerel. It's topped with mackerel flakes, mint, onion, pineapple, and prawn paste, making for a dish that's probably pretty different than anything you've tried before.

The shop we went to is located on the same street as the cendol above. It was quite early and thus pretty empty, but based on online reviews and the photos and clippings adorning the walls, it's apparently pretty famous ("famous" is also in the shop's name, so there's that too). Less spicy and with a thinner soup than you'll find at other places, it's light enough to serve as a snack, leaving you with room to continue on your food journey as we did (that was the first of six different food stops that day!)

Penang Road Famous Asam Laksa
5, Lebuh Keng Kwee
George Town
10100 George Town
Penang, Malaysia

 

Penang Hokkien Mee

hokkien mee in Penang, Malaysia

In what seems to be a common trend here, Hokkien mee is a dish that's found all around Malaysia but done a bit differently in Penang (to the point of the Penang version being called something completely different in other places). If you were to go to a place in KL and order Hokkien mee (whose name refers to the Fujian/Hokkien region of China), you'd get a noodle stir-fry with egg, pork, prawn, and squid. That isn't what you'd get in Penang.

Penang's Hokkien mee is distinguished by its broth. Served with egg and rice noodles and topped with pork, hard boiled eggs, bean sprouts, prawns, and sambal, the soup is flavored by simmering pork ribs with prawn heads and shells.

In all honesty, Hokkien mee wasn't on our original list of must-eat things in Penang. It just so happened that we were craving a midnight snack and had seen a recommendation for restaurant whose main draw was Hokkien mee that was open until 4am. But what a fortuitous craving that was. At 11:50 pm on a Wednesday, the space was absolutely packed, and most tables had at least one bowl of noodles. I actually ordered rice porridge, but I managed to grab a bite of the Hokkien mee, and let's just say that when we came back a few days later, I had a large bowl of Hokkien mee in front of me as well.

Old Green House Restaurant
 223, Jalan Burma
George Town
10050 George Town
Penang, Malaysia


Special mention goes to all of the little cafes speckled throughout the city. There seem to be a million and one of them, and they're all adorable.

The Mugshot Cafe, known for its yogurt pots

The Mugshot Cafe, known for its yogurt pots

China House, a multi-use cafe/art/performance space that has a bafflingly large array of cakes

China House, a multi-use cafe/art/performance space that has a bafflingly large array of cakes

The Daily Dose Cafe, known for its English breakfasts

The Daily Dose Cafe, known for its English breakfasts