Penang is a bit of an anomaly. It’s in the tropics but cannot boast of clear seas and powdery sand. Connected to the mainland by two iconic bridges and a rickety ferry service, the difference is apparent as soon as you step foot on the island. It’s by no means idyllic and its history dictates that what visitors see, taste and hear now is the result of centuries of colonisation, immigration and inter-racial connections.
Curry mee. Photo: Douglas David
For Malaysians, Penang is synonymous with food – from roadside stalls and market treats to unique cuisine highlighting the centuries of cultural fusion. Considered the unofficial foodie capital of Malaysia due to the proliferation and variety of hawker food, the best places have withstood the test of time. Everyone has their favourite spot and many a (friendly) argument has been started about where the best char kuey teow stall is or whether the Nyonya cuisine in that restaurant really is that good or is it just for ‘tourists’. Our advice is, when in Penang try everything! Breakfast in Penang requires a hearty appetite and the ability to sniff out good hawker food. The Pulau Tikus Market is a bit of an institution for Penangites; it’s where our mothers and grandmothers bought their groceries and where chickens used to be slaughtered á la minute. It’s less wet now and the chickens are already dead, but the surrounding food stalls are still churning out the same cholesterol inducing goodness they always have. Chee cheong fun (rice noodles with prawn paste), Penang prawn noodles and apam balik (griddled pancakes with peanuts, sugar and sweet corn) will go down a treat, and all this by 8 in the morning!
Pulau Tikus Market
Moh Teng Pheow is a hole-in-the wall café in the heritage zone and may be a bit hipster now but their delectable local sweetmeats in an array of jewel colours still rock. On entering, catch a glimpse of the uncle and his assistants busily preparing trays of kuih to serve in the café and delivered for sale all over town. The ingredients used are as exotic as they sound – pandan (screwpine), bunga telang (butterfly pea flower), gula Melaka (palm sugar), santan (coconut milk), tapioca flour and glutinous rice. And the names of the kuih are as interesting as how they taste, from the blue and white pulut tai tai with kaya to the rich coconut flavour of kuih talam. While here be sure to try Penang favourites like assam laksa, pai tee (pastry cups filled with vegetables) and nasi kunyit (saffron rice) with chicken curry.
Moh Teng Pheow. Photo: Douglas David
There are a few staple dishes that embody the Penang street food scene and can easily be found on almost street corner. Visitors will always head to the bigger food courts or hawker centres found in touristic areas but if you want genuine hawker eats head to the kopitiam (local coffeeshop) on Lebuh Presgrave. This is an archetypal Penang street which hasn’t been gentrified as yet but still has rows of Straits Eclectic shophouses and the famous 888 Prawn Noodles. Penang prawn noodles deserve praise – a rich broth made from prawns and pork with noodles, and topped with fried shallots, small prawns, hard-boiled egg and crispy roast pork belly. It may not sound like much but this is one of those culinary combinations that works. The stall also offers lor mee, which is a braised noodle dish in a starchy vinegary sauce, which again doesn’t sound very delectable but is pretty comforting once you get over the consistency of the soup! Try the oh chien (oyster omelette) and char kuey teow (flash-fried rice noodles) for the full Penang food experience. If you have the gumption, go to Loo Beef Noodles on Lebuh Carnavon for their signature beef broth with noodles and a choice of lean meat, beef balls and tripe. Oh, and the oyster omelette is pretty good here too!
After food, the history and heritage is what draws visitors to Penang. The island always had an air of a dishevelled grand dame but it wasn’t until it received its Unesco World Heritage Site recognition that she really came into her own. Blessed with an eclectic mixture of architecture courtesy of British, Peranakan, Indian, Malay and Chinese influences, each group of immigrants and colonialists has left an indelible mark on the island. The heritage site is divided into the core and buffer zones and is spread over 260 hectares covering much of the centre of George Town. It’s a pedestrian friendly town and very easy to spend a few hours having fun getting lost. Places of interest include the Clan Jetties, Little India, Street of Harmony, Lebuh Armenian, Lebuh Pantai, Fort Cornwallis and the Esplanade. Alternatively join a cycle tour where an experienced guide will take you through the zones passing Chinese clan houses, street art, places of worship and even stopping at the best hawker food.
For a small island, the festival scene is well on its way to setting up camp on the global scene. We suggest planning your trip when these events are on. Start with the George Town Festival, which is usually held in the middle of the year and is a showcase of local, regional and international productions and the arts. Expect everything from amazing photography exhibitions and plays with a Malaysian slant to avant-garde dance performances and ethnic crafts. The George Town Literary Festival is the largest literary festival in Malaysia focusing on world literature. Writers, performers and poets gather to talk about their work and the world at large, and the festival has been described as being ‘provocative’, which is reason enough to attend!
Away from the thespians and philosophical literary figures, local celebrations like Thaipusam, the Hungry Ghost festival, Chinese New Year and the Nine Emperor Gods festival are all colourful, intriguing cultural events that will give you a peek into the bona fide culture of the island.
What else is there to do?
Lots! Visitors don’t come to Penang to shop but there are some quirky stores that deserve a browse including Areca Books which focuses on local writers and books on local history, architecture, culture and politics; and Shop Howard with its original selection of collectables, stationery and photographic prints. As far as night markets go, the Macallum Street Night Market is a cacophony of noise, aromas and stalls – it’s not a typical tourist destination but should definitely be on your list of places to visit.
After all that heritage and hawker food, it’s time to take the plunge and try durian. Forget what you think of or heard about, no judgement should be made until you sit on the side of a road and peel open this curious fruit. There’s always a truck parked on a street corner on Jalan Macalister and Jalan Anson so do some research ahead to get the right location. You may hate it or you may love the custardy flesh and pungent scent; but at least you can say you went to George Town and tried durian, which is what travelling is all about – exploring, discovering and wanting to return.