Much of our daily life in Malaysia—our plans and our outings—revolves around food. That’s probably true in a lot of countries we visit. But here, we’re in good company. Malaysians are crazy about food.
Penang has a reputation for having some of the best food in the country, so lots of Malaysian tourists go there to try the local specialties. And Penang residents, who tend to be very friendly, can talk endlessly about the best local dishes and the best restaurants, food stalls, and markets selling those dishes. Everyone we meet wants to know what we’ve eaten, where we’ve eaten it, and what we thought of it.
During our two months in Penang, we tried most of the local specialities—those not involving fish heads, blood, or organ meats. These (in no particular order) are our favorites:
Won ton mee
A mass of thin round noodles in a slightly sweet caramelized soy sauce, garnished with small steamed and fried won ton dumplings, sauteed greens, slices of barbecued pork, and chilis. Hearty and delicious. (The best won ton mee we found is made by two men with a small cart who set up in the evening on Lebuh Chulia more or less opposite the Rainforest Bakery.)
One of the best ways to eat your fruits and veggies in Malaysia. Penang rojak is a mix (rojak means “mixture” in Malay) of sweet and tart pieces of fruit and vegetables and crushed peanuts, covered in a thick spicy/sweet shrimp sauce. Our favorite place for rojak (the stand near the entrance of the Tanjung Bungah Tuesday night market) uses green mango, cucumber, pineapple, custard apple (kind of like jicama), and rose apple.
Char koay teow
The ultimate fried noodle dish. Flat rice noodles are stir fried with regular soy sauce, dark soy sauce, chilli paste, garlic, bean sprouts, egg, and pork lard. The best ones (in Chris’s opinion) also include shrimp and sliced pork; less good ones replace those meats with cockles (like small, gamey oysters). A good char koay teow relies on being made in a very, very seasoned wok, (the blacker the better), preferably over a charcoal fire. That’s what imparts the characteristic smoky flavor. (Char koay teow is sold all over Penang; we’re still partial to the first place we had it, Ho Ping Cafe on Jalan Penang.)
A soup of fat round noodles in a fish broth thick with shredded mackerel. Other ingredients include tamarind, multiple types of ginger, lemongrass, chillies, shrimp paste, cucumbers, shallots, shredded pineapple, lettuce, and mint. With that mix of flavors, laksa hits pretty much the perfect balance between sour/tangy, sweet, savory, and spicy. It also has the comfort-food feel of good tuna noodle casserole, but much more interesting. (Our favorite laksa comes from Restaurant Taman Emas on Jalan Gottlieb across from the Chinese Girls’ High School.)
Nasi kandar, nasi melayu, economy rice
Three names for essentially the same thing, depending on whether it’s being cooked (and spiced) by Indians, Malays, or Chinese, respectively. This buffet is quite possibly the staple meal in Penang. You go up to the person at the buffet counter, who spoons out a plate of rice for you and covers it with whatever dishes you point to. (You pay according to how many you choose.) There’s always an assortment of fried and stewed chicken, fish, and egg dishes, as well as green beans, stewed cabbage, and other vegetables. The best part occurs if you ask for a mix of sauces, in which case the server will ladle the sauces from three or four of the curry dishes and stews all over the contents of your plate. It’s a big mushy mess to look at, but it tastes fantastic. (We’ve eaten nasi kandar all over Penang, including at some of the most famous places. Our favorites for consistently good flavoring are Jaya on Jalan Penang and the sidewalk stall that appears at lunchtime by the taxi stand in front of Gurney Plaza Mall.)
A specialty of the Straits Chinese community. In Penang, otak otak is a mousse of egg and chopped fish, delicately seasoned with lime leaves, coconut cream, lemongrass, and ginger, and steamed in a banana leaf for a light, moist texture. (The otak otak is terrific at Mum’s Nonya Restaurant on Lorong Abu Siti off Jalan Macallister.)
A staple at Malaysian Indian restaurants and food stalls. Roti canai is a flatbread made of many layers of very thin dough fried in ghee (clarified butter) on a flat griddle. The best roti are wonderfully crispy on the outside and fluffy and slightly chewy on the inside. They are always served with dhal (a thin sauce made from lentils), but many people order a curry to eat with them as well. They are especially popular for breakfast or as a late-night snack—but as one taxi driver told us, “roti canai for breakfast, roti canai for lunch, roti canal for dinner, roti canai anytime!” This may be the dish we’ll miss most when we leave Malaysia. (Roti canai is generally pretty good everywhere, unless it’s made from frozen dough or cooked in too much ghee, which leaves it greasy. Our favorite places are Sri Ananda Bahwan on Lebuh Penang in Little India, Hameediyah on Jalan Campbell, and Sup Hameed at the north end of Jalan Penang. The roadside roti stand on Jalan Transfer is famous, but we found that the quality varied widely from visit to visit.)
One of the joys of Southeast Asia is the abundant and varied fresh fruit. Among the fruits in season in July and August in Penang, our favorites are rambutan and mangosteen. From the outside, rambutan are small, reddish ovals covered in soft spines that give them a hairy look. Peeling back the thin, spiny skin reveals an almost-clear white fruit that tastes a bit like a lychee or a grape. We keep rambutan in the refrigerator for a cold, juicy treat. Mangosteen are round fruits with a thick shell the size and color of a dark red plum. Inside is a bright white cluster of fruit with an intensely sweet, citrus-like flavor and a texture that melts on your tongue. Another great fruit experience in Penang was a pineapple grown in the garden at our housesit, which was one of the best and sweetest we’ve ever tasted.
In the West, we know nutmeg as a hard little nut that’s grated to make a savory spice. Food-trivia buffs know that the coating around the nut produces another savory spice, mace. But did you know that the nutmeg nut is actually the seed of a juicy yellow fruit? In Penang, where nutmeg is grown, the fruit is used for cooking or made into a tangy, slightly citrusy juice, which Melissa loves. (Nutmeg juice can generally be found at traditional Chinese restaurants and food stalls.)
And finally, because everyone we met in Penang asked us: No, we did not try durian fruit. Called the king of fruit in Malaysia, durian is wildly popular here. It was durian season in Penang, and people flocked to the island from all over to get their annual durian fix. Apparently, the orange meat of the spiky durian fruit is super sweet and creamy. Unfortunately, it smells so awful—like rotting compost mixed with foot odor—that we could never bring ourselves to try it. So pungent is the smell that buses and hotel rooms have “no durian” signs. We were very glad when the season finally ended and we could stop smelling durian at every fruit stall in Penang.
Honorable mention for our favorite foods in Penang goes to two nonnative dishes:
Taiwanese soup dumplings
A restaurant from Taiwan called Din Tai Fung, which has one Michelin star, recently opened an outpost in Penang (at the Gurney Plaza Mall). It’s pricey by Penang standards but a bargain for Michelin-starred food: Melissa and I can dine there together for $30 US. The restaurant has lots of good dishes, but it specializes in soup dumplings. Imagine small steamed dumplings in delicate skins, filled with pork and flavorful broth. In a little bowl, you mix together the restaurant’s tasty homemade rice vinegar and soy sauce with some slivers of fresh ginger, then dip the dumpling in that sauce, and pop it in your mouth for a warm, soupy food-gasm.
We never expected to find some of the best caramel popcorn we’ve ever eaten in Penang. But every Tuesday at the Tanjung Bungah night market, you’ll find a woman named Everlyn making sweet, buttery, crunchy popcorn for about $1.25 US a tub. It doesn’t stay crunchy for long in Penang’s humid climate, so you have to eat it all in one evening (such a hardship).