Guide to Penang's local hawker dishes

What makes these hawker dishes so delicious? CK Lam details the ingredients and flavours so you’ll know exactly what you’re eating

Penang is a hawker paradise with a huge variety of interesting street food stalls offering plenty of good and reasonably priced Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisine. I revel in the delights of the following hawker food, sold throughout the market area, neighbourhood stalls and the narrow back alleys of Penang. Some of the stalls offer sitting areas while others have none, so you may have to eat while standing up – a bit of a challenge. However, it’s an even bigger challenge to decipher what goes into each dish and just where those flavours dancing on your palate stem from. This is where I can help:

Photo: CK Lam
1/5

Pan Mee

What it is: Pan Mee is also known as mee hoon kueh in Hokkien. You can have either the dry version or with soup. Pan mee is a type of noodle made of rice flour that is handmade manually on the spot. The prepared small lumps of dough are kept fresh in a tight container, and when the time comes, they’re flattened and cut into strips using a noodle-making machine.

How it’s cooked: A lot of anchovies are used in boiling the stock, which makes the soup very flavourful and sweet. The main ingredients for the dish are deep-fried anchovies, black fungus, minced meat, Chinese mushroom and the leafy, aromatic kowkay or sayur manis.

The dry version comes with a small serving of soup and spicy chilli sambal while the soup version comes with cut chillies and soy sauce. This dish is a healthy choice as it is prepared without preservatives or artificial flavouring.

Where to try:

Yi Garden Coffee Shop
150 Jalan Macalister 6pm–10.30pm; Closed on Sunday
Tip: A good option if you are looking for a dining place in George Town. Be sure to check out the pan mee with venison meat and also the pan mee with clams.

IU Win Pan Mee Cabin
74, Jalan Aziz Ibrahim, Sungai Nibong. Daily, 7am–10pm

I Mum Mum Restaurant
294 PDC Flats, Pengkalan Weld. 7am–3pm; Closed every alternate Monday

Photo: CK Lam
2/5

Samosas and Curry Puffs

What it is: Savoury samosa and curry puffs are popular deep-fried snacks sold mainly at Indian and Malay street food stalls. They’re made of dough cut into small pieces and stuffed with a savoury spicy filling. Fillings might vary slightly but most vendors have the vegetarian version filled with essentially spicy curry paste, potatoes and onions. The meaty version with chicken meat is also available. Samosas are normally triangular-shaped while curry puffs are crescent-shaped and tapered at the ends to keep the filling intact.

How it’s cooked: Both of them are deep-fried to a golden brown and are not only tasty with a satisfying crunch but also reasonably cheap. They are commonly eaten as a snack or at tea time.

Where to try:

Penang Street
A stall beside Kedai Makanan Veloo Vilas, George Town. 12pm–5pm; Closed on Saturday and Sunday
Tip: The stall offers tempting samosas, curry puffs and susu lembu (fresh cow’s milk)

Tamil Street
A stall on the junction of Tamil Street and Penang Road, George Town. 12noon till evening; Closed on Sunday
Tip: Besides samosas with sardine, chicken and potato filling, you can enjoy a varied selection of vadai or savoury Indian ‘doughnut’ from this stall.

Penang Special Samosa
A stall on the junction of Queen Street and Market Street, George Town. 9am till late evenings; Closed on Sunday
Tip: There’s a variety of samosas here such as chicken, tuna, egg and vegetarian. Other Indian specialities here include pakoda, halwa and vadai.

Photo: CK Lam
3/5

Chapati

What it is: Chapati is an Indian flatbread made of wheat flour. It’s a staple in the Indian community’s diet. There is a very light flavour stemming from the wheat dough to this flatbread and it is simply delicious when dipped in curry.

How it’s cooked: The eateries in Penang churn out chapatis of different textures, ranging from soft to chewy ones. There’s an art to flattening the ball of dough and rolling it out thinly in a circular motion. The piece of chapati is then cooked or ‘grilled’ over a fire. The edges are pressed lightly to encourage a puff that makes the chapati light. Some vendors still use a charcoal fire instead of a flame grill, which gives the chapati a delicate smoky flavour.

Where to try:

Gerai Makanan Dan Minuman Maj
Next to No. 47 Ah Quee Street, George Town. 7am– 6pm; Closed Sunday
Tip: They grill the chapati using a griddle over a gas stove and serve it fresh in a tiny little shack for the early morning office crowd. They’ve got good sardine and mutton curries for dipping too.

A stall in front of Restaurant Sulltania
57 Queen Street, George Town.
Tip: The chapati here is cooked quickly on high heat on wire gauze directly over a charcoal fire, and flipped continuously to ensure even cooking on both sides. It has a pungent charred aroma and is best eaten with vegetable curry.

G. Tholasi Corner @Wa! Coffee Cafe
28 Lebuh Bishop, George Town. 6.30am–2.30pm; Closed on Saturday and Sunday
Tip: Check out this family-run stall selling Southern Indian dishes and chapati cooked over a gas stove. The accompanying dhal is deliciously spicy.

Photo: CK Lam
4/5

Teochew Cendol

What it is: Teochew Cendol is definitely the most popular dessert in Penang. The dessert is made of finely shaved ice, boiled red beans, aromatic palm sugar or gula Melaka, creamy coconut milk and the queen ingredient is the soft green bean flour noodles flavoured by fragrant pandan juice called cendol.

How it’s prepared: The mentioned ingredients are piled on top of each other. Palm sugar is preferred because it is aromatic, and has a distinct lightly pungent flavour. Decreasing the amount and thickness of the palm sugar will result in a less aromatic flavour, which is why this sweet dessert has to have the right combination of ingredients. Nowadays we can find a variation of cendol that comes with durian, ice cream and glutinous rice. It’s a perfect dessert to have on a hot day.

Where to try:

Penang Cendol
Junction to Macalister Lane and Burma Road, George Town. 11am–4pm; Closed on Sunday
Tip: Besides the standard cendol, you can expect other cold beverages here, too. Its popularity is due to its quality and generous portions of ingredients. Check out their air pegaga, a greenish herbal drink known for its cooling effect.

Tony Ais Kacang
Hillside Foodcourt, Jalan Tanjong Bungah, Tanjong Bungah.
Tip: Nothing beats the favorites of cendol and ais kacang here. They serve milkshakes, floats, fruit cocktails and sundaes too.

BM Best Cendol
Medan Selera Jalan Danby, Bukit Mertajam
Tip: They add texture to this cold dessert with chewy, sticky glutinous rice steamed with coconut milk.

5/5

Hokkien Mee

What it is: Also known as prawn mee, Hokkien mee is served with a choice of either blanched egg yellow noodles or rice vermicelli, or a combination of both. Condiments include hard-boiled eggs, sautéed tiny prawns, sliced pork, fried shallots and bean sprouts. Some stalls offer add-ons with additional charge. Choices include pork ribs, pork intestines, roast pork and mantis prawns.

How it’s prepared: The soup holds the magic for this dish – it’s boiled with chilli oil, prawn shells and pork bones. The result is an addictive spicy-sweet broth. When served, a spoonful of fried chilli paste is provided for extra spiciness.

Where to try:

One Corner Cafe
Jalan Bawasah (behind Penang Plaza), George Town. Around 7.30am onwards; Closed on Tuesday
Tip: The Hokkien Mee at this stall comes with only shrimps and fried shallots. Go early as this stall has a large following among Penangites and tourists alike.

Jalan Air Itam
A stall on the junction of Jalan Air Itam and Jalan Kampung Melayu, Air Itam. 3pm–7pm; Closed on Tuesday
Tip: There are no tables or chairs here; customers have to make do with either standing or squatting. Do bring along a hand towel to lessen the heat while holding the bowl of Hokkien mee.

Green House Hokkien Mee
Burmah Road (Opposite Chew Thean Yeang Aquarium), George Town. Dinner till late in the night
Tip: Do check out the Hokkien Mee with instant noodles instead of yellow noodles.

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