Penang has garnered a reputation for being one of the premier food destinations in South-East Asia and many would claim that its culinary scene rivals that of neighbours Bangkok and Singapore. Visitors to Penang are lured by the enticing aromas of Malay, Chinese and Indian dishes and traditional Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine—a blend of Chinese and Malay cooking styles and ingredients that is found in Penang, Malacca and Singapore.
It was the promise of mouth-watering street food that dragged me and the hubby out of bed early on a Sunday morning to join the Urban Adventures Tastes and Traditions in Penang food tour. Junie, our Urban Adventures guide, greets us warmly and says with a glint in her eyes, ‘You don’t go hungry in Penang’. In hindsight, this was probably a warning of all the food we were about to consume during the course of the next 3 hours.
Our first stop is Kafe Kheng Pin, one of the oldest traditional coffee shops in Penang—otherwise known as a kopitiam (kopi is the Malay/Hokkien word for ‘coffee’ and tiam is the Hokkien/Hakka word for ‘shop’). Kopitiams are typically found on street corners and the owner traditionally sells drinks and leases out the space to different food vendors—the South-East Asian version of a more hectic food court. I enjoy always eating in Asia because there’s always an element of chaos which, for me at least, makes the whole eating experience that more enjoyable. It isn’t fine dining but some of the best food I’ve eaten would have to be of the cheap and cheerful variety.
Junie disappears for a few moments and soon returns with a handful of dishes. There is nasi lemak, a traditional Malay breakfast that consists of rice, sambal sauce, anchovies, peanuts and a boiled egg; prawn fritters; and lobak, a pork roll wrapped in a bean curd sheet and fried in Chinese five-spice powder. An elderly man, presumably the owner, approaches our table and asks for our drink order. That’s a no-brainer: kopi peng (iced coffee with condensed milk)!
After we finish our breakfast, we wander down to the Chowrasta wet market—straight to lunch, it seems. We make our way down a busy street lined with vendors selling apparel and accessories before turning into an outdoor food court, where most tables are already taken up by large families sitting on low plastic stools and animatedly talking and eating from the blanket of bowls and plates that cover the table in front of them. Amid the chaos, we manage to find a free table while Junie again disappears to order our next meal.
Next on the culinary adventure is char koay kak, a similar dish to char way teow, and curry mee. For those not in the know, the dish internationally known as ‘laksa’ is actually called ‘curry mee’ in Penang. This is due to Penang’s most famous dish, Assam laksa, holding claim to the ‘laksa’ name. I learned this the previous night when we arrived in the city and the first thing I did was order a bowl of laksa—I was so confused when I got Assam laksa instead!
We also try red nutmeg juice, a Penang speciality, which is sweet and refreshing. It also comes in the white variety, which is meant to have a stronger nutmeg flavour.
Although I feel myself getting full, Junie insists that we try pohpiah skin, and we even watch the skin (it looks like a thin crepe) being freshly made. We then head inside the actual market where it is noticeably quieter, as the stalls are already beginning to pack up even though it’s not yet midday. We wander past butchers, grocers, vendors weighing coconut juice into plastic bags and selling all varieties of bean curd.
It’s now time to try some Indian cuisine and we saunter (it’s probably more of a lumber at this stage) over to Hameediyah, a family-run (this seems to be the case for most eateries in Penang) Indian restaurant that was established in 1907 and one of the oldest restaurants in Penang. Hameediyah even has its own murtabak recipe, which we get a serving of when we sit down. The original Hameediyah shop is a few doors down from the restaurant, where people still line up in front of the pots of curries on display to take away their orders.
While we are filling our stomachs, Junie tells us facts about the local cuisine and traditions and reels off recommendations for every type of dish faster than you can say TripAdvisor (and no doubt a more reliable source), including what food markets to go to and which vendors to try. She says that Penangites are picky about their food, although I’m not sure if it’s pickiness so much as pride. And why wouldn’t you be proud of the fine array of food available in Penang?
Our last stop is at Keng Kwee Street, where the first thing we see is the long line of people in front of the cendol cart. Junie says that we’ll return to the cendol, but it’s now time for char way teow, some more curry mee and, finally, the crème de la crème of Penang hawker dishes: Assam laksa. Assam laksa has a distinctive taste and is quite different from other Penang food dishes. Rather than being coconut milk–based, the soup is quite sour and fishy. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I was a fan at first, but I began to enjoy it more, so perhaps it’s an acquired taste. It was voted one of the best dishes in the world for a reason!
We finish our whirlwind food journey with a bowl of cendol, which is an iced dessert made up of coconut milk, pandan, red bean and palm sugar. This particular cendol is from a vendor that has been in operation since 1936 and is very popular among locals, hence the long queue!
Although I wanted the food tour to continue, I literally couldn’t consume any more food. The Urban Adventures Penang food tour was a delectable introduction to the wide selection of hawker food in Penang and a fantastic way to gain insight into the culinary traditions of this culturally diverse city. I was glad that the Penang food tour was one of the first things we did, as it meant that we could return to places that we may not have found out about otherwise.
Junie was right: there is no chance of going hungry in Penang.
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Urban Adventures is a division of Intrepid Travel and focuses on a new style of travel experience for those who want to get off the beaten path and really connect with a destination. You can book the Tastes and Traditions in Penang Food Tour through the Urban Adventures website.
Disclosure: Curated by Cammi was a guest of Urban Adventures and received the tour free of charge; however, all opinions and photos are my own.
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