Penang's local hawker favourites

In Penang, there are hawker stalls selling many types of local food either by the roadside, on the five foot ways or coffee shops. Below are just some of those favorites not to be missed, according to well-known Penang foodie CK Lam

Photo: CK Lam
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Cendol with pulut

Among the many desserts in Penang, the cendol really stands out with its flavour and texture. This sweet Indian dessert is about having the right combination of ingredients and it is served ice cold. Cendol is made out of finely shaved ice, red beans, aromatic palm sugar syrup, rich coconut milk and soft green rice flour noodle made from mixing rice flour and the juice of fragrant pandan leaves. The palm sugar has a distinct sweetness with a delicate bitter long finish that complements the creamy coconut milk while the soft, silky cendol noodles don’t turn brittle in the icy bowl. At BM Best, they add texture to this dessert with chewy, sticky steamed pulut or glutinous rice. Made fresh every day, the pulut is steamed with coconut milk that exude a wonderful aroma. This ice bowl of refreshing dessert does satisfy, especially on a hot day.

Where to try: BM Best Cendol in Medan Selera on Jalan Danby at Bukit Mertajam.

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Bukit Mertajam
Photo: CK Lam
2/8

Cup rice

This simple, wholesome and tasty dish is childhood food for many Penangites. The name of the dish is derived from the small aluminium bowl in which the rice is steamed in. The preparation of this dish is simple: the steamed fluffy white rice in a small aluminum bowl is turned over on a plate and served upside down with the shape of the bowl completely intact. Then, the warm rice is topped with a combination of meaty goodness such as tiny strips of roast pork and roast chicken. The light lor or braising sauce is drizzled all over, coating the entire dish. Usually, a bowl of soup accompanies this dish and it comes in the same aluminium bowl which the rice was steamed in. Allow the rice to absorb all the goodness of the braising sauce. The flesh of the chicken is succulent while the roast pork still has the roasted fragrance but without the crispy skin. The plate of rice is even more delightful with condiments of pickled green chillies as it adds a zing to it. Today, it costs around RM3.50, which is reasonable enough and makes it a definite must-try.

Where to try: On the busy Jalan Danby in Bukit Mertajam is a stall that has been attracting customers with its serving of cup rice for lunch and the stall is now run by the third generation children of the stall owner. Be prepared to sweat it out as the stall is more of a makeshift stall with zinc roofs and tables placed by the side of the road. Seats are limited but turnover is fast so waiting time is fairly bearable.

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Bukit Mertajam
Photo: CK Lam
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Duck koay chiap

A basic bowl of duck koay chiap comes with many ingredients. The boiled koay is topped with plenty of duck meat pieces, stewed hardboiled egg, pig’s ears and innards such as duck gizzards,and  big and small pig intestines. The koay is soft with a slight chewiness and the gravy cum soup is wonderfully robust with a strong aroma of spices. For over three decades, Mr Poh has insisted on preparing the koay chiap himself using local ingredients at his stall. From the preparation of the koay chiap, the stewed duck, to the chilli sauce has remained his trade secret all this while. He shies away from the use of a machine, even though the process of churning out the koay is tedious and time consuming. The process is almost similar to making pancakes and it involves a lot of skill. The cooked round pieces of koay are then left to cool and once they harden, he cuts it with a pair of scissors, resulting in pieces of koay surprisingly uniformed in shape and thickness. The preparation of the stewed duck includes the use of various spices including star anise, cinnamon sticks and ginger. All the ingredients are boiled for hours with continuous stirring till the ingredients are tender. For those not preferring koay, you can opt for either rice or porridge. To enhance the bowl of duck koay chiap, Mr Poh serves it with homemade chilli sauce.

Where to try: Mr Poh’s duck koay chiap roadside stall is on Lebuh Kimberley.

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George Town
Photo: CK Lam
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Nasi dalca

The name comes from the way the rice is cooked. Just like sayur dalca and daging dalca the rice is boiled together with the dhal (lentils), allowing the rice to soak in the dhal’s essence. The mixture brings a scrumptious flavour of lentils and rice together on the palate. How this dish came about in the local scene is anybody’s guess. Given that this is a Hyderabad cuisine in India, it’s probably safe to assume that the recipe is brought by the Indian immigrants who came here during Colonial times. However, the marked difference between this dish served here and the one served in India is, the rice is boiled with local spices and herbs and is eaten with a mild curry. The stall at the small alley on Hutton Lane is still serving this simple nasi dalca. Interestingly enough, the owner MM Abdul Jaafar has been operating the stall since early 1957, and it serves as a 'first' breakfast for many office workers around George Town as Abdul Jaafar starts selling very early in the morning. Despite his old age, he still serves customers although nowadays, his son Ahmad helps run the business.

His nasi dalca is perfumed with cloves, cinnamon, star anise and mustard seeds and holds a delightful texture. Each serving comes with a standard small dish of creamy dhal cooked with onions, potatoes and brinjal. There are beef, fish and chicken curries available too. The fish curry, known as roti bakar kepala ikan, is slightly tangy, comes with roti bakar prepared over charcoal fire to dip with and is one of their more popular curries.

Where to try: There’s no large signboard to show the stall except for a small billboard at the entrance which reads ‘nasi dalca’. The stall is around 100 metres from the Jalan Penang/Lorong Hutton junction.

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George Town
5/8

Ikan bakar with nasi lemak

Head to the charming fishing village of Teluk Tempoyak for fresh and cheap grilled seafood. Pak Hassan’s stall is among the cluster of stalls at the complex of Kampung Teluk Tempoyak that offers grilled crab, fish and prawns. The most popular item is the grilled fish, or more affectionately known as ikan bakar. Topped with homemade chilli paste, the fish is grilled over charcoal fire. Pak Hassan serves the grilled fish with the house specialty, nasi lemak. The rice boiled with coconut milk and herbs is fragrant and makes a lovely combination with the grilled seafood and assam sambal made out of onions and chilli that’s deliciously spicy. A lovely time to reach Teluk Tempoyak is around early evening, with the unloading of the fresh seafood by the fishermen directly from the fishing vessels.

Where to try: Pak Hassan’s Ikan Bakar & Nasi Lemak at Kampung Teluk Tempoyak in Bayan Lepas.

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Bayan Lepas
Photo: CK Lam
6/8

Hainanese style satay

Traditional Hainanese style satay is a proven favorite for many Penangites. Enjoyed by many, the satay can only be found in a handful of places in Penang. The stall located at the junction of Chulia Street and Carnarvon Street is one of the better places, serving to two types; chicken and pork. The preparation of the satay and the sauce follows the Hainanese style closely. In a skewer of pork satay, you will find two pieces of uniformly cut lean pork interspaced by a piece of pork fat. The marinade for this satay is turmeric, which gives its yellowish colour and flavour to the meat. The pork satay grilled over charcoal, is constantly brushed with a basting sauce made out of coconut milk and oil using a stalk of lemongrass. The sweet and wonderfully smoky pork satay is served with fresh cucumbers, onions and sauce made out of sweet potato that has a slight tangy taste. An extra side order of charcoal toasted bread with yellowish tinge is a nice accompaniment to the satay too.

Where to try: The stall is located on the corner of Lebuh Chulia and Carnarvon.

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George Town
Photo: CK Lam
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Cheh hu (Chinese pasembur)

This dish is a Penang version of the Western vegetable salad. Our version, known as cheh hu, is served drenched in a sweet and sour potato-based sauce. Cheh hu in Hokkien literally means ‘raw fish’. It is an unlikely name as this dish doesn’t include any raw fish except the addition of blanched crunchy jelly fish to the usual composition of shredded strips of cucumber, Chinese yam bean, bean cake, light and puffy flour fritters, and crisp prawn crackers. The whole mix is then tossed in potato gravy and garnished with roasted sesame seeds to result in mouthfuls of texture and flavours. A plate of cheh hu is enough as a satisfying meal.

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George Town
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Hainanese cuisine

Hainanese cuisine is a touch of Chinese cooking infused and intertwined with Western, Nyonya and local flavours. There are a handful of Hainanese restaurants in Penang serving this cuisine. However, the menu in Hainanese Delights Restaurant located in the low rise 1926 Heritage Hotel brings a selection of Hainanese dishes and some memorable specialties that definitely evoke nostalgic memories for the older generation. This includes mushroom soup and macaroni pie. The latter attained worldwide fame in Hainanese cuisine and is made out of boiled macaroni, chicken, carrots, button mushrooms and topped by crust made of meringue. Meanwhile, the Hainanese style mushroom soup is the result of boiling brown beans, button mushrooms, chicken meat, tang hoon or glass noodles, chicken liver and chicken gizzard.

Where to try: Hainanese Delights Restaurant is on Jalan Burma and has a Hainanese chef.

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George Town

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