Thursday, July 16, 2009

Penang, street food capital of Asia

Malaysia is a country obsessed with eating good food, and Penang is often regarded as the epitome of the Malaysian culinary urge. TIME magazine agreed and pronounced it home to Asia's best street food in 2004. All the country's different ethnic cooking styles are represented here, but first and foremost, Penang is about Chinese-Malaysian and Nyonya cuisine. Nyonya food, also called peranakan food, is the legacy of intermarriage between early Chinese settlers and Malays in the region - its hallmarks are the use of Malay ingredients (shrimp paste, local herbs) in dishes that are Chinese in origin.

Malaysians love the idea of authenticity in food - the idea that a certain dish is "the real thing", traditional and how it was meant to be made. So they will travel the length of the country to go eat at some shabby, roach-infested hawker centre or coffee shop, in the hope of trying the rojak or laksa which is reputedly the best and most authentic. With this in mind, we set off on our Penang expedition looking to find the culinary holy grail of perfect renditions of local specialties. And of course, most of these were found in the most "authentic" of locations.

Authenticity and tradition is in thick supply in Penang. The best regarded local foods are often run by family enterprises and are generations old. The Ghee Hiang company has been making the much-loved Tambun biscuits or tau sar piah since 1856. Sisters' Char Kway Teow has been making the same thing for 50 years.

Also kicking it for 50 years have been the two brothers who run the laksa stand at Air Itam Market. This is by far the most famous laksa joint in all of Penang - someone all the way from Melbourne recommended we go here. As far as "authentic" locations go, this one is by a dusty roadside and you sit at a table next to an open drain. In the West that would be considered a major negative, but in Malaysia, proud of its hawker tradition, its just another sign of authenticity.

While laksa is a popular Malaysia-wide dish, the Penang version, often called asam laksa, is very distinctive. It's fishy, tangy from tamarind, infused with herbs like mint and wild ginger flower, and topped off with dark prawn paste. Honestly seafood ain't my thing, but my better half loved it so much she had to ta pau an extra one so her family could try it. Given that many other Penang cooks have imitated Air Itam Laksa, it is debatable how much it stands out from the crowd - but if you want to appreciate your laksa as a Malaysian would, you need to come to the originators like these guys. We found the venerable brothers to be a lovely pair of guys at that.

Another local specialty is oh chien, or fried oyster. The oysters are fried with egg and served with chili sauce. The ones we had, reputedly the best, were from the Lorong Selamat hawker centre.

Nearby on Lorong Selamat and also famous is the char kway teow at Kafe Heng Huat, where the old auntie who makes the dish in question is renowned for her goggles and red beret-cum-chef's hat. CKT may be a cousin of Thai noodle dishes like pad see ew and pad thai, but it is a Penang dish through and through. KL people will always speak glowingly of Penang CKT.

Given that for best results, CKT should only be made in individual serves, and given that it is in high demand here, you can expect a long wait here. It's pricey by local standards as well (RM6 per serve), but its worth it. To be honest I found Sisters' version more to my taste - a little less oily and more char flavour, but this one comes with some hefty prawns. Heng Huat was also jam-packed at lunch-time when we arrived, compared with barely half-full Sisters' the day before, so perhaps the Penang crowd are voting with their feet?

You can order food from nearby street-hawkers who will bring it in to Heng Huat for you; things like rojak, popiah and lor bak. We also tried the Heng Huat's ais kacang (below) which comes with the unusual additions of ice cream on top, and a hint of sarsparilla among the other flavoured syrups. Nice way to finish off the meal.

We only had a little over 24 hours in Penang (arriving at lunchtime and leaving the after the following day's lunch), but we somehow managed to fit in around 10 meals during that time. Make hay while the sun shines, as they say.


For more on food in Malaysia, try:

The Guide to Ordering Food in Malaysia

Terengganu Cuisine

The Malaysian-Indian Food Experience

Addicted to Kuih

Roti Canai Terbang - The Way of the Flying Roti

Breakfast at Bakti Woodlands, Kuala Lumpur

Lina's Popiah, SS3, Petaling Jaya

Vegetarian Dim Sum at Nature's Recipe Cafe, Petaling Jaya

Salam from Malaysia

Cooking up a storm in Malaysia


  1. yo! Penang is the absolute motherlode foodie-wise. i make lists (ie. List A - an absolute must, twice or more if possible; List B - to be eaten if rellies know of a stand selling a expertly made version) of what i must eat whenever i go back. and i usually put on about 1-3kg, depending on the length of my stay.

    And the buildings are pretty cool too - especially the various chinese clan houses and the old english colonial ones. i particularly like the monkeys hanging about the trees ooh... well, everywhere! The cemetery for the former english colonisers is pretty creepy. and chinese cemeteries are very creepy!

    And there's so much history! My grandparents lived under the Japanese occupation of Penang and I've heard some excellent stories around that time.

    i'll stop rabbiting on... but i'm chuffed you went!

  2. I am writing for Landmark Books Pte Ltd, a small publishing
    house based in Singapore.

    We are preparing a book on Penang food for publication and
    would like to ask for permission to use the picture of Kafe Heng Huat from your blog.

    The book will be 208 pages with an initial print run of 3,000
    copies. The retail price has not been determined, but should be
    between S$30 - $35.

    I would like to have permission to use the picture for this and

    Please let me know your rates and terms for reproducing the

    Thank you for your attention. Please reply to


    Goh Eck Kheng
    Landmark Books

  3. I love street food a lot. That's why I always try to order food online from different restaurants.