Everyone loves Thai food. It’s fragrant, fresh and easy to find outside of Thailand. But I’ll bet that if people tried Malaysian food, they’d like it even better.
I’m fresh off six days in Malaysia — three in Penang, three in Kuala Lumpur — and I can honestly say every meal I had (bar one poor roadside choice) was amazing and delicious.
Penang is renowned for it’s street food, “hawker food” they call it. It’s probably a good thing that I left Karl in Bangkok (he had a friend flying into town) as he can’t stomach street food. Instead, I met up with Princeton classmate Dominic and set off exploring Georgetown.
Walking around the city, you might think you were in Chinatown a lot of the time. The Chinese influence on Malaysian history and culture is so strong that even buildings outside of the official “Chinatown” part of the city are styled in the same fashion and contain restaurants and shops run by Chinese proprietors. There are many clan houses and Chinese shrines scattered throughout the city.
Georgetown is filled with row upon row up historic colonial-era shop houses and was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. The designation has been a huge catalyst for restoration of large swaths of the city. But it’s still early days, and many parts of Penang are still very gritty.
We stayed at the edge of Chinatown in a budget guest house called Pavilion Coffee. For $35 a night, we got a private room with bunk beds but shared bathroom facilities (the shared bathroom part wasn’t all that clear on the booking). The room was clean and the building itself very quaint: a restored shop house with a coffee shop on the bottom floor.
The buildings all around us were pretty run down, but one saving grace was that our guest house was right in between two well known hawker food stalls. One closed at 10pm, the other opened at 10pm.
We enjoyed the food so much that we broke our rule of not eating street meat and had chicken satay. I even took a picture with the guy who fanned the coals under our meat. We looked around at the dozens of people coming and going and decided the food had to be trustworthy. The turnover of meat seemed high and if people got sick, surely the satay man would’ve been ostracized from the group.
The char siu bao (steamed pork buns) from the lady on the corner were moist and tasty. We watched cars and mopeds pull up and call out their orders from their vehicles — almost like a Mcdonald’s drive-through, minus the disembodied voice coming from the speaker box.
Another hawker stall a short drive away, known simply as “Penang Road Chendol,” had even better food and an indoor eating area — convenient during rainy downpours.
This particular collection of food stalls is named this way because it’s most famous for its chendol, a distinctly Malaysian dessert of shaved ice, brown palm sugar from the gula melaka tree and coconut milk, topped with red kidney beans and green pandan-flavored rice flour spaghetti shreds (like green worms). It’s an addictive dessert. I could have eaten two or three bowls easily. Diabetics beware!
If you’re in Penang, you can’t avoid char koay teow, a Malay favorite of flat rice noodles stir-fried with shrimp, egg, bean sprouts and sometimes little cockles (clams). The secret to char koay teow, we learned in cooking class, is in the frying technique and the dark chili-oyster-soy sauce that coats everything.
Besides the chendol, this hawker joint’s assam laksa is famous. Grace, a friend of a cousin and a lovely local host, told us that on clear days, there’s a line around the corner for the chendol and for the soup that comes from this laksa man’s cauldron.
Assam means tamarind, which gives his laksa noodle soup a sourness distinct to Penang laksa. In the states, most laksa you’ll find are the curried version more popular in Singapore.
Lastly, we sampled a small heap of rojak, a fruit salad topped with chopped nuts and a dark sweetened shrimp paste sauce. Rojak means “everything together.” Sounds like a strange combination I’ll admit, but the salty-sweet combination was a real winner. The fruit salad had everything from mango and guava to cucumber and pineapple.
One caveat to all this delicious goodness: It still sort of freaks me out to see how most street vendors wash the plastic plates we ate our food off of. They squat on the street and dunk the plates and utensils into large soapy buckets, a dirty gutter often nearby. But to enjoy the food culture in Southeast Asia, you just have to have an open mind and not think about it. Thankfully, unlike in Bangkok, there’s no lingering awful stink coming from the gutters, so it’s easy to just forget and enjoy.
Here are pictures of the best hawker food we ate in Penang: