Asia is a continent of superlatives.
Nearly every attraction we have visited is touted as the top of its kind and worthy of its own chapter in the Guinness Book of World Records. I’m not sure how many “biggest buddha in country X/Asia/the world/the universe” we have seen at this point, but suffice to say that number is way higher than the logical value of 1.
Given how much confusion there is over qualities that theoretically should be objective like size or age, it’s little wonder that things get even dicier when we talk about subjective judgments such as “best” or, since I’m talking about Malaysia and its food in this post, “tastiest”.
From day one, one of the things we loved most about Malaysia was its food. So, it was with a mixture of excitement and skepticism that we processed reports claiming that Penang was Malaysia’s culinary crown jewel—after the incredibly good eating we experienced even in random little places like Muar, it hardly seemed possible that any one place could stand out amongst a landscape of such fantastic food.
As is so often the way with things that are hyped to the heavens, it’s probably not unsurprising that when we finally made it to Penang, we wound up feeling a little bit ambivalent about the food. Did we eat incredibly well? YES! But was it the BEST food that we had in Malaysia? I’d still say that Melaka earned that title, if just by a hair (though, thankfully, not literally).
Maybe it’s because by the time we reached Penang, we had already been traveling in Malaysia for over a month, so much of the food that we encountered in George Town was quite familiar at that point. I wouldn’t say that we were bored of the food—the diversity of flavors and dishes is far too broad to ever fully tire of the food in Malaysia, I think—but, nevertheless, the food in Penang didn’t seem all that different from (and dare I say, any more special than) what we had been eating everywhere else in the country. I can’t think of a single bad meal we had in George Town, but then again, that’s also true for mainland Malaysia as a whole.
Lest you think I’m being too lukewarm in my praise of George Town’s much loved food scene, I will say that after several months of traveling through a few other countries, we did come back through Malaysia in order to catch a flight and spent a few days en route back in George Town. All of my notes from that time are entirely about the food we ate, and this is largely because we didn’t feel the need to do anything else, we were so content simply ambling the streets and tucking into amazing plates of richly flavorful food. So I’m not dissing Penang’s food. Promise.
The only thing I would maintain is that I do think it’s erroneous to name George Town as one of Asia’s top street food destinations—we spent A LOT of time wandering around looking for food and very rarely did we see actual street food. Rather, the approach to food here seemed to be much as it is in Singapore where there are hawker centers (some of them even open air), but not really much curbside dining.
With all of those disclaimers out of the way, George Town really is a fantastic destination for foodie travelers and it was certainly no chore for us to eat our way through the city as best we could. Here then, is a glorious round-up of what we ate:
No discussion of our gluttonous ways in George Town would be complete without a mention of the incredible Indian food we sampled while there. The smells emanating from the various shops and restaurants on Lebuh Chulia, Lebuh Queen and Jalan Pasar, the core of the city’s lively Little India district, were out of this world. Succumbing to temptation, we ate at a bona fide banana leaf southern Indian restaurant where we indulged in the lunchtime veggie thali set that was ladled onto our “plates” from little metal pails. It was essentially like a sit-down buffet as the folks at the restaurant were happy to continue dolloping curries and rice onto our leaf for as long as we were happy to keep eating. At around 8 MYR (~$2.40US) per plate, it doesn’t get much better or cheaper than this!
While walking by the Kapitan Keling mosque we also had one of our few tastes of genuine street food in George Town. We stumbled upon a little establishment that served up a local specialty, nasi kandur, which is essentially rice with a selection of curries. We sat down at a little table set up right on the sidewalk and dug into some curried cabbage and a chunk of unctuous goat on a bed of fluffy rice. Although tasty and packed full of flavor, we felt the portion was a bit small, especially given the price of 9MYR ($2.7US)—it certainly didn’t break the bank, but the amount of food was far smaller than what we enjoyed at the banana leaf restaurant and for more money, so it didn’t feel like an especially good deal.
Not so for the amazing little samosa cart on Jalan Penang (another example of street food!) we encountered during our rambles run by a lovely man from India. Serving up piping hot pastries stuffed with curried potato or chicken, we enjoyed 4 of these delicious snacks for just $1US!
It may have taken us a second visit to the city to discover Jaya, but better late than never. Open 24 hours, this restaurant serves up incredible Indian food at any time of day. We tried the mutton murtabak and—at the owner’s urging—the chicken roll, which was essentially a delicious wrap sandwich using roti for the bread and stuffed with succulent hunks of tandoori chicken. Every dish here was fresh and packed with flavor, and we both regretted having missed out on it during our first visit. If you’re heading to George Town, don’t make the same mistake that we did!
Our oversight is probably owing to one restaurant in particular: Restoran Kapitan on Lebuh Chulia. We ate here not one, not two, but three times while in Penang! The food is, obviously, amazing and clearly we could not get enough of it. Over our many visits, we tried:
The tandoori chicken set, which featured a massive nan bread and chicken that was ridiculously juicy… And if you’re feeling especially flush, plump for the Kashmiri tandoori set, as they’ll stuff the nan full of dried fruits.
Butter chicken, perfectly rich and creamy. Utterly decadent! We ate this alongside biryani, a dish I often find a bit aggressively spiced, but here the spices were wonderfully balanced and also rather unusual as there were striking anise notes to the dish.
Chicken 65, crunchy nuggets of spiced chicken that are perfectly crispy and will have you eschewing McNuggets for the rest of your days!
Kapitan’s is something of an institution in George Town and one of the most famous Indian joints in the city. Having had the food several times, it wasn’t hard for us to understand its popularity!
With a sizeable Chinese population, it’s little wonder the Chinese food in George Town is pretty fantastic. Although the historic core of George Town is fairly compact and easily walkable, we found that most of our favorite Chinese meals were a little farther out and required a motorbike to reach. Trust me when I say they were well worth the extra effort!
First up, a place that pretty tells you what’s what just from its name: Yummy Cottage! A small-scale hawker center, we were ensnared by the heavenly smells billowing out onto the street as we drove by. Pulling a quick U-Turn, we doubled back to check it out and are so glad we did. Most of the signs for the stalls within were written in Chinese and therefore completely illegible to us, so after scouting out the joint, Tony made the executive decision that we simply needed to follow the crowd and figure out which stall was selling whatever meal came with the “fried things” everyone seemed to be eating.
Turns out those fried things were actually the most incredible pieces of fried fish either of us has EVER eaten. It was accompanied by an awesome noodle soup that featured tofu skin, ground pork, slices of liver, chewy ramen noodles, and a light-but-rich broth infused with ginger. Everything about this meal was a complete success!
As I mentioned earlier, Malaysia tends to follow the “hawker center” approach to street food, so on another evening we headed off to the Red Garden Food Paradise hawker center… only to promptly leave after a quick browse because of how touristy it felt. Instead we hopped on our bike and drove back to the Yummy Cottage area where we found another random hawker center that looked far more promising and was, unlike Red Garden, brimming with locals. We wandered about for a bit, minds reeling at all the options on offer, when finally a little old Chinese man took charge for us and ordered the food we wanted, which wound up being hor fun (a local noodle specialty, that features a silky brown gravy that is thickened with eggs) for Tony and a claypot chicken rice for me.
While we were eating, a torrential downpour began outside, so we spent a few hours here just people watching and soaking in the atmosphere. Also, the food was so good that during our dinnertime discussion we elected to extend our stay in George Town for a few extra days so we could try more dishes!
On another motorcycle outing to visit Kek Lok Si Temple (which I’ll cover in our next post), we weaved through the local market at the base of the hill leading up to the temple and found one of our favorite types of restaurants here in Asia: Chinese Buddhist Vegetarian. We love that these places always have a huge assortment of veggie dishes and the price is determined either by weighing your plate OR simply after the proprietress tallies up the number of dishes you’ve sampled. Since it’s all vegetarian and never very expensive, we always load up our plates and try a wide variety of things. This time around, the standout dishes were the curried tofu, sweet & sour eggplant, and a crunchy tofu “sandwich” stuffed with sprouts that we slathered in a tongue-tingling chili sauce. Nirvana on a plate!
Far and away, however, our favorite Chinese restaurant in George Town was a little place called Tek Sen. Conveniently, Tek Sen is located in the heart of the walking area of George Town, so is easily reached on foot and is guaranteed to be slammed with locals whenever you visit. On our first visit, we ordered double roasted pork, eggplant with fermented bean paste, ma po tofu, and a special Chinese New Year chicken dish. Everything we tried was amazing, but that special chicken, which was sweet and juicy and had a real “zing” to it, was definitely the star of the meal.
So good was the food at Tek Sen that we made sure to save space for it on our return visit to Penang. This time, we ordered the ma po tofu (again!), eggplant with pork & shrimp (the only mistake here was that we foolishly ordered the small size…), and the house specialty, braised duck with yams. This dish featured a really thick, unctuous gravy and the duck was incredibly luscious and tender and just fell off the bone. We topped off our meal with glasses of the homebrewed soy milk, which was, pardon the pun, SOY good.
I’ll probably be pilloried for this as I know people from Penang are particularly passionate about the local version of laksa, which differs quite a bit from the version that is more commonly found throughout the country. Penang’s laksa, also known as asam laksa, features a lighter, tamarind-based broth that is somewhat reminiscent of a Thai tom yum soup, and fish is the predominant protein.
While in George Town, we determined once and for all that we definitely prefer the coconut curry-based baba laksa (known as curry mee, in Penang), with its rich gravy, slow-burn spicy heat, and slight sweetness. We sought out a bowl of penang laksa from a little stall down an alley off of Jalan Penang that is supposedly the source of the city’s best laksa, but I just found the fish flavor completely overwhelming and really noxious. I took one spoonful and that was all I could handle. Sacrilege, I know, but having heard so much about how this was Penang’s defining dish, no one is more disappointed than I!
No matter what time of year you visit Malaysia, chances are you’ll be sweating your face off within minutes of stepping out the door. The solution to this is obviously to eat plenty of icy treats to stay hydrated AND ward off heatstroke.
Two of the most popular Malaysian desserts are ais kacang and cendol.
Happily enough, located on the same alley as the aforementioned laksa shop are several stalls that dish up these wonderful treats. Ais kacang (also known as ABC or ice kacang) is essentially a Asian cross between a slushie and a sundae: it features shaved ice that is drizzled with rose-infused and sarsi-flavored syrups (sarsi tastes like rootbeer, FYI), and then topped with things like corn, red beans, pandan jelly noodles, and ice cream, though truly the sky’s the limit it seems when it comes to possible toppings.
Cendol is a lot simpler, but no less delicious. It’s little more than coconut milk, gula melaka (palm sugar), shaved ice, and pandan jellies, but by god is it good! And so refreshing. We went back and forth about which dessert we liked best, and after an epic tug-of-war, settled on cendol as our favorite, with the heart-stopping palm sugar syrup mixed with the creamy coconut pushing it over the edge.
*The one caveat I would offer is that although it seemed clear to us that these two dishes are desserts, we often found them listed under the “drinks” section of menus, and found that many locals tended to order and enjoy them alongside their main meals in lieu of a beverage. Moreover, we found that cendol is very much an early/midday treat as we were entirely unsuccessful trying to order it any time after 4 pm. Indeed, one evening we went into a place called Local Dessert Restaurant and were met with confused looks and resolute denials when we asked about cendol. So it would seem that perhaps our favorite Malaysian dessert may not even be a dessert at all…
So, there you have our top meals (and one flop) during our time in George Town. I think we did a pretty good job of sampling the local cuisine, though if there were any gaps, I’d probably have to say that we perhaps should have made more of an effort to uncover the purportedly incredible street food. Additionally, Penang is known for its rich Peranakan history and food culture, and we didn’t make sampling that a priority, though I think this is because we had already tried (and loved!) this style of cooking while in Melaka. Nevertheless, we thoroughly enjoyed both of our visits to George Town and the glorious food benders we subsequently engaged in. Even with our ridiculously high standards when it comes to food, the meals we enjoyed here certainly constitute one of our highlights during our time in Malaysia.
Tell Us: If you’ve been to George Town, what’s your favorite local dish? What did we miss? If you’ve never visited, which of these dishes would you be most curious to try?