Say “Heading up north” and the first thing that springs to mind is PENANG and FOOD. Yes, the Malaysian pearl of the orient is also the ultimate gastronomic paradise for most Malaysians. Ask any Penangite based beyond the state and they will proudly proclaim and defend their beloved hometown’s offerings to the death. Penang is the perfect weekend getaway, where 2-3 days is just nice to eat to your heart’s content without greed overtaking your better senses. It’s a fact that Penang is famous for its street food. No doubt there are award-winning restaurants and fine-dining establishments here but that is not our priority. So readers, ready your tummies for a lip-smacking weekend of roadside munching and slurping!
If it's only 24 hours you have then poor you! But we know that sometimes time is a factor. Follow our 24 hour glutton crawl and you will have a great little showcase of Penang food.
First of all, let’s head on to the city centre where the city’s 65-storey landmark stands tall - KOMTAR (Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak). Surrounding the structure are many areas ranging from mamak (Indian Muslim), Chinese, Indian to Indonesian food haunts. For breakfast, my personal recommendation is this addictive Nasi Kandar stall in Kedai Makanan Toon Leong (at the junction of Transfer Road and Argyll Road). I know, it sounds mad to eat curry rice for breakfast but trust me, you won’t regret it! The shop opens at 7am but do go early because by 10.30am, it’s all gone! I made the mistake of arriving at 11am and the owners were washing up the pots by then. Be prepared for big crowds as the stall is swamped with nasi kandar fanatics! Business was brisk and the stall looked chaotic. After I got a taste of the curry catfish and rice, I was hooked! I think the clincher is the curry and bendi (ocra). It’s so good, with the perfect blend of spices that lends its aroma and taste. The bendi is tender and the catfish and beef curries are soooo addictive. Even now, I still crave for it!
Plate licked clean, let’s head on to Sri Bahari Road for some good lor bak. It’s located at Kheng Pin Café and this stall owner has traveled overseas to promote Penang food. Lor bak is essentially ground pork mixed with spices and onions, stuffed into beancurd skin and then deep fried. It’s served with chilli sauce and a thick, black gravy sauce with hints of egg in it. Mix the two sauces together and dip it in. It’s crispy and the sauce goes well with it. Nice light snack to complete brekkie.
Did you know: The state government sends the lor bak owner to Adelaide every year to promote Penang food. So his stall closes during that period while he is away. Adelaide is also Penang’s sister city by historical ties. Adelaide’s founder William Light was the son of Francis Light – the founder of Penang!
If you crave for something refreshing, cross the road to Joo Hooi café. There’s a famous chendul stall beside it (along Lebuh Keng Kwee) that has branches in KL and Johor! It’s not too sweet and just nice to quench your thirst. If your stomach has space, do try the assam laksa as well. It’s good though only the sour version is available here.
For lunch, let’s head back to Transfer Road. Just next door to the famous breakfast Nasi Kandar, is a stall that runs the best Nasi Padang on the island! It’s called Restoran Nasi Padang Minang and it’s below International Hotel. Spoilt for choice, you’ll probably take a while to decide; its many specialities include fried catfish, sambal fish, ayam balado and sambal belacan garing. I had a hard time trying to curb my appetite with the fantastic visual feast before me.
Next is Lorong Swatow which is just off Burma Rd and behind Sheraton Hotel. There are a cluster of hawker stalls here but the notable ones are the Mee Sultan, Curry Mee, Ais Kacang, Tanghun fishball soup and Cucur Udang. Locals and foreigners continue to brave the humid heat to enjoy the spicy Mee Sultan. The intense lunchtime heat makes ais kacang a must here. As for the curry mee, it’s light on coconut milk (unlike KL or Singapore versions) with pig’s blood and cockles for extra texture. The tanghun soup with fishballs is yummy too, thanks to the tasty chicken broth and generous amount of preserved vege. Lastly don’t miss the Mamak prawn fritters. The gravy has just the right amount of peanuts and the prawn fritters are fresh and crunchy. Yum!
Did you know: Mee Sultan gained its fame apparently from a Kedahan royalty who was a regular patron. HRH personally gave his royal seal of approval to the dish. Locals nicknamed it Mee Sultan and the name has stuck ever since!
Tip: Instead of the standard Ais Kacang, try the Sarsi Ais here where rose syrup is substituted with their very own Sarsi syrup which lends a unique flavour to this refreshment. You also have the option of adding fresh fruits (like banana, starfruit) to your ais kacang for that extra fibre.
"I have had friends who end up taking 2-3 bowls in one go! "
C’mon, there’s more. Let’s drive up to Tg Bunga for the beaches and what else, but good food! Late evenings are perfect for enjoying beaches, seabreeze and teatime, of course! Thanks to the many tourist hotels situated along this stretch, there are loads to try here. At Miami Beach, there’s this quaint roadside Malay laksa stall that’s popular amongst the beachgoers and picnickers. I have to say portions are small but for RM1.50, you can’t complain! As for the taste, it’s delicious and one is not enough. Help yourself to the prawn paste (otak udang) as it brings out the flavour of the soup. I have had friends who end up taking 2-3 bowls in one go!
Head on back to Tg Bunga and turn off into Jalan Sungai Kelian (opp Mutiara food court). Kopitiams line the entire stretch but the good ones are the Char Koey Teow and Laksa stalls. Ask for extra bean sprouts and chilli for the koey teow as the lady owner is a sifu wok fryer. The sprouts arrive crunchy and juicy yet the noodles are light and not oily. As for laksa, they have the sour and lemak versions here.
Tip: Do try the lemak or ‘cham’ version (asam and lemak mix) for that unique taste. Locals love it and usually eat it that way.
Now on to dinner in the city. An old-time favourite would be Shing Kheng Aun Restaurant at Chulia Lane. It serves classic Hainanese dishes like Assam Curry Fish, Chicken Curry Kapitan, Kerabu Chicken/Sotong/Timun, Soya Sauce Pork, Pork Stomach Soup and Salted Vege Soup since the colonial days. The taste is very home-style and it’s packed every night. Do come early (by 6.30pm) as the restaurant will turn away diners if the quota for the night has been reached.
Tip: Dine upstairs if you can and do observe the unique way the dishes are transported upstairs from the kitchen below!
As you are right smack in Chinatown, you can walk off dinner by exploring the nearby food haunts of Cintra and Kimberley Street. There’s an excellent Chinese dessert stall serving cooling and refreshing tongsui like ‘see ko thng’, ‘leng chi kang’, red bean soup and almond soup. This stall has had a legacy that started from the owner’s grandfather. If you’re hungry for more, check out the stall on the opposite side. There is a wonderful stall that serves braised duck and egg (plus all internal parts) and tops it with flavourful broth. You have two options to eat with the meat – ‘kuey chap’ which is flat noodle sheets poured with the same black broth or rice porridge. Ginger chilli sauce is served for that extra kick.
At the road junction, do check out the Koey Teow Thng and Char Koey Teow stalls too. The CKT in particular adds something extra that most don’t offer – mantis prawns! As for the KTT, it’s quite packed. I noticed there were extra dishes served with the koey teow soup like braised chicken feet.
Another stall down the road is the Economy Noodle stall that costs only 80 sen per pack (no eating-in, only takeaway). It’s simple fare and cooked in bulk but it tastes as if it’s individually fried. Crackers, chilli sauce and pickled chillies are the only condiments, but the taste is outstanding! After all that eating, you can cool your body with the famous Herbal Tea shop, just a few shoplots away. It’s called Shong Hor Hin Medical Tea stall.
Tip: If you have a sore throat or feel a little heaty from all that food, order the ‘Kor Teh’ (ie bitter tea). It uses traditional Chinese herbs to reduce heatiness and soothes your sore throat in an instant. It may not be a pleasant experience but the effects are instantaneous! You can request for honeyed water after downing the tea.
Next on the supper list is Sup Hameed at Jalan Penang (next to Soho Bar). It’s a favourite hangout for late-night clubbers and insomniacs. I personally like the sup ekor served with Indian bread (called Roti Benggali). The bread is fresh and fluffy, perfect to soak up the soup’s herbs and spices! Other varieties include sup ayam, sup kambing, sup lembu and the infamous sup torpedo! The last one is apparently good for men, so go figure!
Tip: For sup torpedo, you have the option of ordering specific parts so do be specific or the seller will just lump everything together Fear Factor-style! You only live once, so do give it a try. Since loyal patrons swear by its aphrodisiacal effects, you might just end up having seconds!