As I mentioned in a previous post, we came to Malaysia because we tried Penang and Mussaman curries in Thailand and loved them. Well, we found out much later that these are not Malaysian curries at all, but Southern Thai curries. So, our entire reason for visiting Malaysia was based on a misunderstanding. No matter, because we loved the food in Penang even more than the curries that brought us here.
Penang is known throughout SE Asia for its amazing food. This owes a lot to the clash of cultures that exists here…Indian spices, Chinese noodles, and Thai herbs flow freely into the Malay dishes. Plus, the food is cheap! We had only 1 restaurant meal the 4 days we stayed here, and ate at food stalls the rest of the time, with our dishes costing between 2 and 5 ringgit (aprox. US$0.50 to US$1.50). Even better, the portions here are small, so we could eat about 6 meals a day (splitting the dish each time, so we weren’t really THAT gluttonous). After losing a few pounds in Thailand from our stomach flu, we could afford to overeat a bit anyway.
Food stand eating is quite convenient in Penang. Not only is it fast and cheap, but there are usually small plastic tables set up nearby so you can actually eat your meal at a table. Basically, it’s just like eating at an open-air restaurant.
Below is a selection of dishes that we really enjoyed.
Curry Mee (Malaysian)
Curry mee is a noodle soup with a coconut milk base. This was by far our favorite dish in Penang—so nice we ordered it twice! Interestingly, in Penang, noodle soups are often made with both egg and rice noodles—two great tastes that taste great together. Curry mee also includes fried tofu, bamboo shoots, cubes of pig’s blood (thankfully, we did not know what this was until later…we tried it and didn’t mind it), and snails (didn’t know what this was either when we ate curry mee…tried one, didn’t like it). It is served with a spoonful of hot sauce on top; you drop the spoon in and mix the hot sauce with the curry broth. It is really spicy and rich and delicious. My mouth is watering just writing this.
This is a small roll filled with some sort of brown sauce (maybe hoisin?), lots of shredded yam bean, dried bean curd, and some sort of meat (we read that it was crab meat, but we think ours was filled with chicken). All of this is wrapped in a fresh spring roll skin. Because of the yam bean, this roll is super juicy, not dry like most spring rolls. It is absolutely incredible…we were shocked by how tasty and delicious it was, especially since it doesn’t really look like much on the plate.
Again, another winner. This is simply roasted chicken (sometimes they sell it with boiled chicken—be sure to find a stall that sells roasted chicken since it is much, much tastier) with bean sprouts and green onion served with a scoop of rice, a small bowl of chicken broth, and an amazingly delicious chili sauce with ginger. Mix all of these elements together, and you get one of the best meals we had in Penang. Sounds simple, but the flavors are each so distinct that it makes this dish a standout.
Claypot Chicken Rice
This dish is quite different from regular chicken rice. The claypot is placed on top of the range, with a scoop of rice and a dark brown liquid (we think it is a very light soy sauce mixed with other goodies) thrown in. It also includes chinese sausage, stewed chicken, and an egg. This dish sounds like it might be heavy (due to the soy sauce mixture that the rice is cooked in), but it surprisingly light. Also, the crispy rice at the bottom of the pot is a delicious treat.
Nasi Kandar (Indian)
Nasi kandar is a generic term for “Indian stuff with rice.” You can choose any number of curries, fried treats, roasted meats or veggies to go with your rice. They sell it everywhere in Penang and you could probably eat nasi kandar at every meal and never have the same thing twice. We actually had this dish in the ferry building in Langkawi. It is chicken masala, curried rice, and cucumber and pineapple salad.
Congee or jook is Chinese rice porridge, and I grew up eating it on the weekends for breakfast. I used to eat it plain with sugar, but in my adulthood I have come to enjoy salty jook. Jeremy loves this stuff too, maybe even more than I do. In Penang, we had it with salted and preserved eggs and chinese fried dough. We will be eating a lot of this when we get to Taiwan. Stay tuned.
There are two roasted chestnut vendors at the Chowrasta market off of Jalan Penang. I remember when I was a kid my dad used to make roasted chestnuts and I always loved them. They are mildly sweet and make a great snack.
Char Siew Noodle Soup and Stir-fried Noodles
We happened upon this food stall one night and had a quick and simple dinner. It’s just a simple noodle soup with barbecued pork and veggies on top. The stir-fried noodles have some soy sauce mixture poured over them. It’s really yummy.
Roti Cenai (Indian)
Unfortunately, I guess I forgot to take a picture of this dish. It is an Indian bread fried in ghee that can come stuffed with goodies like egg and onion. You get a curry dipping sauce with it and it is greasy and delicious.
Sugar Cane Juice
Not a meal, but worth mentioning anyway. You can all kinds of fresh-squeezed juices in Penang (we also really liked the starfruit juice). If you take it “to go,” they dump it in a bag with some ice—no plastic cups here.
Not every meal we had was insanely good. There were a few dishes we tried that we didn’t love. Here are some of those meals:
Hokkien mee is a spicy noodle soup with prawns and Chinese cabbage. We didn’t love this dish because it is very fishy tasting, even for us (we love fish). We think the broth is made with dried shrimp, which gives it a very strong, almost smoky flavor.
Char Kway Teow
This is basically a stir-fried noodle dish with flat rice noodles, chinese sausage, bean sprout, and egg. It was fine, but not one of the standouts. Maybe if I tried one of the other char kway teow vendors?
Sorry, again, no photo. We may have ordered this from the wrong place…we got it from a Muslim hawker stand because they were the only ones not harassing us to eat at their joint. Laksa is not a Muslim dish, however (it’s Malaysian), so it may be better at another food stand. Also, it’s worth noting that laksa in Penang is different than laksa elsewhere in Malaysia—the broth is much fishier and there is less coconut milk used.
We want to give a special shout-out to the people running the food stands. These people are amazing! They are super fast, they work long hours, and they often speak several different languages. We should have gotten video of some of these people working…their hands move so fast, they look like martial artists! Hi-ya!
As you can probably tell, we loved Penang. The food is great, we love the mix of different cultures all living together peacefully, and best of all, there are not that many tourists here as compared to other parts of SE Asia. We had a nice time climbing and swimming in southern Thailand, but we were troubled by how much it seemed like a playground for Europeans and Americans. We were longing for a little more interaction with the locals and we got that in Penang. Malaysia rocks!