What to eat in Penang? Praised as one of the best places to eat in Asia, Penang food is rich and varied thanks to the multi-ethnic history of Penang island. With Malay, Indian and Chinese settlers, the island offers the best of three world cuisines, and has an incredible variety of dishes.
In 2014 Lonely Planet even declared Penang as the Best Foodie Destination of the year, thus sanctioning the quality of Penang food and its best hawker dishes to the world. Since then, more and more tourists have come to the island not only to see George Town’s street art, but especially to gorge on Penang’s famous food, and try some of the best Penang restaurants.
But what is the best food in Penang? And what are some of the unmissable things to eat in Penang, and the best hawker food in Penang you must try when going to George Town for the first time? To tell you the truth, with so many choices, it’s hard for first timers to know where to start chewing.
The following list contains 26 Penang famous foods (and 80 places where to eat them) chosen by us. Forgive any omission, for this task is so subjective and difficult that it would be close to impossible to come up with a perfect list. Regardless, in our humble opinion these are some of Penang’s best food – absolutely NOT in order of preference – and more than enough information to get you started on your Penang food hunt. Watch the waistline, as it WILL GROW !!!
Must-Try Famous Penang Food
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Nasi Lemak won’t be hard to find when you visit Malaysia or Kuala Lumpur. But what is it exactly, and why should you try it?
Nasi Lemak is a fragrant dish with creamy rice cooked in coconut milk. It’s usually eaten for breakfast and is a hearty meal to start your day with. Many variations exist across Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, and Southern Thailand.
In the most traditional Malaysian version, the rice comes paired with sambal (a spicy sauce), anchovies, peanuts, and a boiled egg. However, many street food stalls serve it with fried chicken or fish, fried egg, cockles, or chicken or beef rendang (spicy meat dish).
There are several good places to try this dish in Penang, but a few are a cut above the rest, constantly praised and well-loved by local foodies.
Ali Nasi Lemak seems to steadily hold the top place, and it’s easy to see why: the family-run business has mastered the fine art of making this dish, and you will get to see them prepare it in front of you. The final product is simply delicious and will keep you coming back for more.
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One of the cheapest and most common options for eating in Penang is the canteen style buffets, which are found at almost every food court in Malaysia. And they remind a bit of the school lunches, or the work canteens in any western culture, serving a variety of pre-cooked local dishes, only in Malaysia they are a lot different to the meat and two vegs of back home. So in Malaysian food, they typically have Nasi Campur, which means “mixed rice”, as one can throw all sorts of curries and veg dishes on top.
When ordering, just pick a plate, throw on some rice, and then point to what looks good. Prices do vary depending on the choice of meats but are all still ridiculously cheap if compared to restaurant food. The tourist favorite in Penang tends to be Nasi Kandar Line Clear (Chulia Street, Georgetown), however, there are many other choices.
3Penang Hokkien Mee
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Hokkien mee is sold in many of Penang night markets. The Penang variety is served with tangy broth with prawns, which is different to the black sauce noodles found elsewhere in Malaysia, and is a serious bowl of noodle soup.
The first thing you notice when the dish arrives at the table is the deep red color. It oozes flavor and intensity. The broth base is made using a combination of prawn heads and shells, dried shrimp, as well as pork bones. Added to the broth are two types of noodles, rice noodles, and yellow egg noodles, as well as prawns and nice chunks of roasted pork with crunchy crackling.
Additional ingredients to round out the soup include egg slices, bean sprouts, morning glory, fried shallots, and lard. And if that wasn’t enough, the dish is served with a sizeable dollop of chili on the side.
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One of the best things you can do in Penang is trying its most unusual foods. Rojak is one of those, a type of Malaysian salad with cucumber, pineapple, mango, jambu, jicama, bean sprouts, taupok, cuttlefish and youtiao…unlike any other salad you ever had before. Some of the ingredients may be familiar to you, and some not: taupok is a puffed soya bean cake, youtiao is a fried dough fritter and jicama would be familiar to some as turnip, while jambu is water with apple or rose apple.
To make rojak, all the fruits are cut into bite-sized pieces and tossed into a bowl with the dressing made from sugar, chili, lime juice and a dark prawn paste (Hae Ko) which smells strong. The salad is dressed with crushed peanuts and you can also get extra cuttlefish on top if you like it.
Red like fire, juicy and saucy, this amazing chicken — originally from Northern India and imported to Penang by the early Indian migrants — is one of our favorite Indian staple dishes.
Chicken marinated in yogurt and spices is cooked for hours in a traditional hollow tandoor oven, it is usually served over a fragrant naan (flat and fragrant bread, which is rolled with water and dough, and then also cooked inside of the tandoor).
Tandoori chicken usually comes in different set variants based on the diverse quality of naan. A “plain naan set”, for example, will get you a slab of red chicken over a simple piece of flatbread. “Cheese naan set”, on the contrary, will have bread smeared with what passes for cheese here in Penang (don’t expect a French experience, that is) and so on.
Some of the best places to have tandoori chicken in George Town are in super central Chulia street and cost in the RM10/12 price range. The cheapest meat feast you’ll get around Southeast Asia.
This Southern Indian delicacy is very much ingrained in Penang’s — and Malaysia’s — social tissue, but it’s often dismissed and forgotten. BIG MISTAKE! Masala Dosai is one of the best Indian food in George Town! It’s a tender crepe filled with “masala” — which means “mixed” in Tamil — and indicates a blend of mashed potatoes, cumin, ginger, and other spices, all crushed together to perfection. Usually served for breakfast, it can be consumed all day long at most of the many mamak (Indian Muslim) restaurants and stalls all over the island.
Watching expert Indian cooks smatter the semolina dough over a hot plate, leveling it down with a metallic tool, and then turn it over to cook on the other side is very photogenic.
Remember that by simply saying “dosai” you will only get a semolina pancake without any filling.
The pancake that binds a nation, roti canai is the Malaysian equivalent of an Indian paratha — thick fried bread, that is. It’s often served straight off the hot plate and a side of orange curry, but it also comes in many varieties to satisfy both sweet and salty tooth.
We personally love roti kaya for breakfast: a thin roti filled with the quintessential kaya, Malaysia’s coconut jam. Another interesting one is roti tissue, rolled ultra-thin, and often served folded like a little pyramid. A very scenic way to start the day, that’s for sure.
One of the best places to have roti canai in town is Transfer Road Roti Canai, a real piece of Penang heritage, that’s been dishing up this quintessential Malaysian food from this very same roadside stall for the best part of 80 years.
The closest Malaysian cuisine goes to barbecue. Simply put, Satay is charcoal-grilled meat served in mini-skewers that are consumed dipped in a very tasty ground peanut and curry sauce. Chicken and beef are the most common choices — remember that pork is haram in Islam. Satay is sold everywhere there is a food court, and the Penang variety, I’m afraid, often uses smaller meat chunks compared to other Malaysian cities and towns. Still, it’s as good as it gets, especially if washed down with a cold beer.
9Kway Chiap (Duck Soup)
A real Chinese delicacy, this soup mixes duck meat and intestines with flat, large cuts of rice noodles, and aromatic broth. One of Penang’s most famous is sold from a street cart in Kimberley Street. It was so successful that it opened its own shop behind the stall.
Another of Penang’s best desserts, cendol is a bowl of shaved ice with chewy green rice flour jelly, kidney beans, coconut milk, and gula Melaka (brown sugar). Yes, the concoction sounds strange, but the taste is great and unique, and so refreshing on any hot Penang day.
This Malaysian-Indian salad mixes cucumber, fried octopus, potatoes, bean-curd, bean sprouts, turnips, prawn fritters, fried crab, all mixed together in a spicy red sauce. The taste is not for everyone, as it’s sweet-sour and very pungent, but it’s certainly worth trying as it’s a unique dish to Malaysia and Singapore.
Love it or loathe it, Laksa is another quintessential Penang (and Malaysian) dish: a tangy hot soup of piquant fragrance, filled with fat white noodles that remember Japanese udon. It’s usually garnished with fresh limes and greens, sometimes with tiny chunks of tuna thrown in for good measure, and has a sweet-sour taste that is definitely not for everyone. But when in Penang, you should absolutely try it at least once to decide for yourself if you love it (like us) or loathe it.
13Chee Cheong Fun
A long roll of Chinese rice noodles, wrapped up and cut into little blocks, and served with different kinds of sauce. In Penang, it’s most common to eat Chee Cheong Fun with red chili sauce, but in other towns like Ipoh, this dish is served with curry or mushroom sauce.
Meaning burnt bread, this is probably the best dessert in Penang: simple slices of toast, smeared with coconut jam and butter and served with a soft boiled egg. A legacy of the British empire, roti bakar goes down extremely well with coffee and is a popular hawker food in Penang. It’s indeed best when it gets toasted over charcoals.
15Wan Tan Mee
A quintessential, simple Chinese noodle dish that can be ordered dry or in soup. The dry version is our favorite: the noodles are soaked in black soy sauce, garnished with herbs, slices of barbecued pork, fresh cut green chilies and wan tan — meat dumplings wrapped in rice flour. In general, the juiciest the noodles, the best the dish, but it depends on the cook.
16Char Hor Fun
Another Chinese noodle delicacy, this plate is a mix of vermicelli and flat rice noodles cooked in juicy egg gravy and garnished with fresh prawns, pieces of chicken or beef, and chunks of choy sum — a green leafy vegetable. The egg gravy keeps the noodles silky and juicy, and it’s unique to this popular dish that’s also known as wat tan hor — silky egg noodles.
Sold by Chinese hawkers in most Penang food courts, economy rice is, as the name implies, a cheap lunch option in Penang. It works akin to a buffet: customers choose among many different dishes kept into metal trays and scoop their favorites over a base of rice. Differently from nasi campur, it’s possible to find pork at most economy rice stalls. But meat it’s not the only choice available: vegetables, tofu, eggs, anything, really, can be found and eaten here.
18Banana Leaf Rice
Daun Pisang is a South Indian staple thali, served attractively over a rectangular cut from a banana tree leaf. In general, banana leaf rice is vegetarian: white rice is scooped out of metal containers and served with daal — yellow lentil soup — and a variety of vegetables. But it can be served with meat, generally chicken.
Some of our preferred places to have it are Top One Restaurant, Veloo Villas, Sri Ananda Bhawan.
Tangy and spicy, curry mee is another quintessential noodle dish in Penang. They mix a broth of curry paste and coconut milk with yellow noodles and are served with an additional spoonful of chilly sauce. Do not mix if you can’t take spicy food, as it can get pretty hot. Some hawker sellers serve curry mee with fresh herbs and cubes of pig blood, and sometimes, small prawns. To us, this is definitely one of Penang’s best noodle choices.
20Char Koay Teow
Koay Teow is large flat rice noodles, which are “charred” and fried together with egg, bean sprouts, and fat prawns, creating a very famous Penang Chinese noodle dish that people come from all over the country to try. The Malays also have their own version, Koay Teow Goreng, which differs slightly in preparation and ingredients and can be considered as a very different dish.
21Curry Fish Head
Fish heads are not very much liked in most of the world, but in Penang, they are deliciously cooked in curry, and make up for a very tasty Chinese seafood dish. The meat becomes tender and juicy, and the curry is enriched with vegetables such as tomatoes and ladies fingers.
Bak-Kut-Teh is a pork rib dish popular in Malaysia and Singapore, and widely available in Penang, where there is a large Chinese Hokkien and Teochew community. The name translates directly into “meat bone tea”, and consist of a broth of spices (including star anise, cloves, cinnamon, garlic, and fennel) where pork ribs are strewed and cooked until they are soft. Additional ingredients may include cubes of tofu, mushrooms and other herbs. The broth is also spiked with dark soy sauce, which not only gives this dish a particular tangy taste but also its dark color.
If the Chinese have economy rice, the Malays have nasi campur, which means “mixed rice”, and consists of a base of rice upon which customers add different dishes of their choice. It’s very similar to nasi kandar, but it’s not necessarily cooked by Indian Muslims and has a direct lineage with Indonesian rice dishes.
It can be found pretty much anywhere in Penang, where the different choices of food are kept into metallic trays that customers select and douse over their rice.
Be mindful that this dish is sold by item, meaning that you will pay based on how many choices of food you take, not their quantity.
24Apong, or Chinese Pancake
Another of Penang best desserts, this crunchy pancake is made over a fire, filling some small circular metal trays with dough and other ingredients that are cooked until the base becomes crunchy. At its simplest, the Chinese Pancake is filled with crushed peanuts, or peanuts and corn, but it can come in many other varieties of ingredients, such as bananas, chocolate, and many more.
Love it or hate it, chicken feet are a staple Chinese dish in Penang. The little legs are stewed and cooked in a thick, dark soy sauce for hours on end until they become so soft they can melt in your mouth. They are served over small trays and eaten with chopsticks: grab one, stuff it in your mouth, and suck the meat off the bone. You can spit the bone in the plate or on the table — don’t worry, for waiters at most food courts are well used to clean up after yourself.
Malay’s barbecued fish is pretty widespread in an island like Penang. This fish is cooked for a long time over fire or charcoals until it becomes very dry and crunchy. For this reason, not everyone likes it, for the meat loses its tenderness, and becomes crispy. Its best enjoyed with a bit of rice, grilled vegetables and spicy sauces.