Penang is not only known as the “Pearl of the Orient.” It’s also popularly known as the Food Capital of Malaysia. That’s why a Penang tour is not just about visiting parks and temples and hunting down all of the street art. A complete Penang itinerary also involves filling your tummies with delicious food.
Here’s a list of a few must-eats when visiting Penang, whether for the first time or the nth time.
No food tour of Penang would be complete without asam laksa, listed at number 7 in the 2011 list of CNN Go’s World’s 50 Best Foods. Asam laksa is a signature dish of Penang, standing out from other laksa recipes with its noodle broth made sour by tamarind juice. The rich soup is complemented by lemongrass, galangal, and chili paste. The poached and flaked mackerel and the noodles are then topped with mint, onions, petis udang, or hae ko. Note that when you order “laksa” in Penang, this is the one you’ll get and not the usual curry mee that you may get in other parts of Malaysia.
Char Koay Teow
Penang-style char koay teow is composed of flat rice noodles stir-fried in pork fat, one egg, succulent prawns, blood cockles, bean sprouts, and chopped Chinese chives. All of these are tossed in a sauce made from light and dark soy sauce, chilis, and belachan. Another thing that makes Penang char koay teow unique is that it uses duck egg instead of chicken egg. How do you know you’ve had Penang-style char koay teow? You should have “wok hei” after you’re done eating!
For arguably the best lor bak in Penang, go to Kheng Pin Cafe and look for Uncle Lau who has been deep-frying lor bak for almost 40 years. For the real deal, the lor bak must be seasoned with five-spice powder and have a beancurd skin that’s extra-crispy when fried. For dipping, lor bak comes with chili sauce and loh, made from corn starch and beaten eggs. Penang loh is a little sweeter compared to versions made in other parts of Malaysia.
Char Koay Kak
Char koay kak is a cake made from radish, bean sprouts, and eggs, stir-fried in black soy sauce. Those who love char koay kak cite the contrasting textures: the radishes are soft and gummy, while the bean sprouts are crunchy and has a little hint of sweetness. For a truly unique taste of char koay kak, head on over to Seow Fong Lye Cafe on Macalister Lane and look for the stall manned by the Eoh sisters. Their family recipe is one that has charmed not only the locals but thousands of tourists over the years.
Popiah is a version of a fresh spring roll, filled with finely grated and stir-fried turnips, shredded omelettes, and a combination of other fillings. These include bean sprouts, grated or julienned carrots, fried tofu, seafood, and pork. There are also hawker vendors that add crab meat to the filling, giving a hint of sweetness and a soft, flaky texture. To top it all off, the popiah is drizzled (or drenched, depending on your preference) with a thick and sweet dressing made from turnips.
Koay Teow Th’ng
A bowl of koay teow th’ng might look unappealing with its pale colours. Don’t let its looks fool you, though. This fish ball noodle soup may just be one of the tastiest dishes you’ve ever had. Made with flat rice noodles and a clear soup, koay teow th’ng also has slices of chicken and pork, fish balls, and a sprinkling of toasted garlic bits and scallions. For the sauce, all you need is a bit of soy sauce and vinegar with a spicy kick brought by chopped red chilies. There are some stalls in Penang that use eel or other fish instead of mackerel for the fish balls, giving the koay teow th’ng a distinct flavour.
There are many, MANY more dishes that you ought to try in Penang, like nasi kandar, duck koay chap, lok lok, and Penang chendol. The thing is, there’s just too many to list! Consider these six as your starting dishes and work your way up to a complete feast.