This may sound crazy, but we almost skipped Penang, the food capital of Malaysia! Sometimes our travel plans make no sense. There are so many places to visit that we get overwhelmed and end up sticking with the more popular destinations. This was the mistake we made when we left Thailand and flew straight to Kuala Lumpur. We were in the southern part of Thailand already and could’ve entered Malaysia by train, hitting up Penang first. Instead, we flew directly to KL and plunked ourselves smack dab in the middle of a loud, polluted, and way-too-busy city. To escape the insanity of the Islamic New Year in KL, we headed towards the Cameron Highlands and if you read my post (you best have read my post!) you’d know it wasn’t the peaceful, quiet haven that we were seeking. After paying higher prices for crappier amenities and dealing with too many crowds we were ready to leave Malaysia altogether.
But, we decided that our bellies would be very disappointed with us if we didn’t check out Penang. It didn’t hurt that its airport was the closest and cheapest option to our first destination in Indonesia. Our decision to go to Penang was the best choice we made during our entire Malaysia trip. Besides the fascinating historical architecture in the UNESCO-preserved Georgetown district, the impressive street art, and the exceptionally friendly people, Penang absolutely lived up to our expectations for excellent food.
If you have any doubt about the great food that Penang has to offer, just ask a local. They will wax poetic about their city’s incomparable dishes and insist that the Penang version is unlike the ones you’ve had anywhere else in Malaysia. We had the good luck of talking to a couple of the locals during our stay because the communal eating style makes it quite easy to strike up conversation with unexpected dining companions. The first person we chatted with was an older man who left Penang to go to New Zealand when he was younger and after spending a year there he realized that he desperately missed the food and lifestyle in Penang so he came back. He also told us that an old acquaintance of his owns a successful Malaysian restaurant in NYC, but he doesn’t know the name. That was very helpful of him!
Another guy we met was much younger and moments after asking him about a tofu dessert that he was eating he began to spew a whole list of food in Penang that we must try. He offered to take us to a local food night market, but we already had dinner and dessert so we politely declined. (We also have a rule of not getting into cars with strangers at night. Unless they have candy.) His passion for popular local dishes, however, motivated us to eat a lot more over the course of our stay. That’s a lie. We don’t need any encouragement to eat, but it’s always nice to hear a local get excited about his city’s food.
My favorite mealtime in Penang was breakfast. We stumbled upon this traditional coffee shop set up in an alley near our hotel where we met a friendly lesbian couple (we are everywhere!) who invited us to sit with them. They helped us order amazing hot coffee, tasty nasi lemak wrapped in brown paper, and my new favorite breakfast dish: soft-boiled egg on thick-cut Hainan toast with soy sauce and white pepper. I absolutely love it when I find a dish that is so simple yet so perfect and the best part is that I can easily replicate it at home. And, the coffee is the best we’ve had since we had to leave our beloved Vietnamese iced coffees behind.
Toh Soon Cafe
Location: Alley way on Lebuh Campbell not too far from Jalan Penang
After breakfast, every other meal can be eaten at any time as far as we’re concerned. Call it whatever you want — lunch, brunch, afternoon tea, linner, snack, dinner — but we don’t need a specific time to eat good food. Thankfully Penang had a great variety of delicious food for each and every one of our meals. Here are some of our favorites:
Nasi kandar: You can’t go to Penang and not have this fantastically complex rice and curry dish. We had it about five times at three different places, including the most famous nasi kandar shop that doesn’t open until 10pm. You’d think people wouldn’t eat so late in the evening, but a line forms for this nasi kandar before it even opens. Nasi kandar can be a bit overwhelming at first, with all the choices and no labels, but take a chance and point to whatever looks good. The food vendor will slap your picks on top of a mound of white rice, ladle various sauces on top of that, and hand you the tastiest mess of food you’ve had in weeks! We had nasi kandar at these three places and they were equally tasty.
Liyaqat Ali Nasi Kandar (Nasi Kandar Beratur) – Opens at 10:00pm
Location: 98 Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, Georgetown
Line Clear Nasi Kandar
Location: 177 Penang Road, Georgetown
Wan Hai Hotel Nasi Kandar stall
Location: 35 Love Lane, Georgetown
Hainanese chicken rice: This dish doesn’t originate in Penang, but their version of it is a must-have. It’s usually a poached chicken topped with soy sauce, served with chicken-flavored rice, and a bowl of chicken broth. You can dip the pieces of succulent chicken in the spicy ginger chili sauce that each shop prepares in-house. Penang also has a roasted chicken version of this famous dish, but our favorite was the poached chicken at Kheng Pin. We had chicken rice about seven times at four different shops during our stay in Penang, so we consider ourselves experts on this dish now. Go to Kheng Pin. You won’t regret it.
Kedai Kopi Kheng Pin
Location: Corner of Jalan Penang and Jalan Sri Bahari, Georgetown
Note: The stall opens at 11:30am, Tuesday – Saturday, but get there before opening time on Saturday because they sell out quickly. It’s a kopitiam so there are other food stalls here too. You’ll see the poached chickens hanging on the food cart. The lor bak in this kopitiam is also famous but we didn’t try it.
Hokkien mee / prawn mee: We had this dish in KL and thoroughly enjoyed it, but we had no idea that the Penang version was completely different. The KL version is a saucy noodle dish topped with a raw egg, if you like. The Penang version is actually a noodle soup that, to ignorant foreigners like us, bares no resemblance to the KL dish of the same name. We were directed to the Old Green House restaurant by our hotel receptionist who told us that it’s the best prawn mee in the city. The small shop is located across the street from a huge pet store and aquarium that you should definitely check out because it’s like a free zoo. Once you’re done oohing and awing at the exotic animals in the free zoo head back to Old Green House for a tasty bowl of noodles. Pick your noodle type, toppings, and broth, then sit your ass down for a fantastic dinner. After our first meal there the receptionist told us that they also have a mixed broth — prawn and black broth — that’s even better than just the prawn broth. Of course we had to go back and try that combo. It was tasty too, but we preferred the plain prawn broth.
Old Green House
Location: 223, Jalan Burmah, Georgetown
Cendol: I almost skipped the cendol in Penang because I’m not a big fan, but I kept reading about how great Teo Chew Cendol was and we happened to be staying near their main stall where we saw lines around the corner both of the weekends that we were there. I figured I should try it for research purposes. I’m so glad I did. It’s the best cendol I’ve ever had and I’d kick your gramps in the nuts for a bowl of this delicious cendol any day.
Teo Chew Cendol
Location: 27 & 29, Lebuh Keng Kwee
Cake: Obviously cake isn’t special to Penang, but the China House restaurant has an insane assortment of delicious cakes for fatties like me. The cafe scene is big in Penang right now, but we weren’t especially impressed by the food at any of the cafes that we tried. China House, on the other hand, has a dizzying selection of cakes and most of them are quite delightful. If you fancy a drink, the bartender here seems to take her job very seriously.
Location: 153, Lebuh Pantai, Georgetown
If you like food, go to Penang. You can thank me later by sending gifts of cash and jewelry.
More Penang pictures on our Flickr album.