On a recent visit to Penang we seemed to be constantly eating, yet were forced to leave with so many edible avenues still unexplored. This place lives up to its reputation as Malaysia's "hawker food capital".
I can't make recommendations for "the best" (I don't think you could sample even 50% of Penang's hawker food in an entire year of feasting) -- but I can say that this is *not* the place to limit yourself to restaurants. Hygiene standards are high, there's no language barrier, and hawkers are tickled to serve foreigners (and you'll get the thumbs up from many fellow diners). Most important, you will miss the best of Malaysia's food cornuccopia if you bypass what the hawkers have to offer.
Lots of transit time on arrival day dictated a light dinner. Jalan Penang just southeast of Lebuh Farquar (walking distance to the beautifully restored E&O Hotel as well as Cheong Sze Fatt Mansion) is the place for stalls selling roti etc. We started at the end closest to Farquar with a tom yam seafood soup that rivaled any version I've had in Thailand. This one was vibrant with lime juice and tamarind, packed with seafood, and very spicy. Followed this with a flavorful mutton soup ... semithick, sort of curried broth and big soft chunks of lamb. Pass on the generic white bread offered to accompany and order a roti from one of the neighboring stalls.
Lorong Swatow (one block in from Jalan Burma) for Sunday "brunch". We began cruising the hawker stalls at about 11am. By the time we left at 12:30p the Mercedes and pickup trucks, vans and subcompacts, were backed up along Swatow and wrapped around the corner at J Burma and all of the stalls and shops were swamped. Started at the farthest stall with curry mee (known as laksa in KL) ... thin egg and rice noodles in a coconuty seafood broth with prawn and beansprouts, topped with golden fried shallots and served with a dab of sambal on top (we requested more). Delicious but very rich -- so probably not the best thing to *start* with if one plans on a few hours of sport eating. I forced myself to leave a good bit of coconut broth in the bowl and moved on to the rojak (pronounced "roh-yah") and popiah vendors down the line. Popiah, 1 ringit (26 cents) each, what a tasty bargain -- soft steamed wrappers rolled around a generous portion of shredded steamed turmeric-yellow jicama (among other things), sliced and served steaming with an admirably spicy sweet chile sauce. Rojak is perhaps an acquired taste, but it was my revelation this trip. Sliced mixed fruits --- pineapple, guava, rose apple, grapes are smothered in a sticky, thick and dark molasses-shrimp paste goo and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The combination of sweet, fishy, and fruity is both repellent and, IMO, delectable. The fishiness of the sauce proved too much for my partner in chow, but I couldn't get enough of rojak on this trip (rojak hawkers are everywhere, it seems), though for subsequent orders I requested only pineapple; its assertive sourness seemed best matched to the sauce.
Moving on, we crossed the street and headed for the man working a wok from which rose the smokey, nose-tingling scent of fried chile. Several vendors serve this corner shop, so we sat and ate a notable char koay teow (fried wide rice noodles with prawns, cockles, Chinese sausage, egg (optional), and bean sprouts ... extra chile please) and lor bak -- also called Nyonya lobak (minced seasoned pork rolled in a bean curd skin and deepfried). Lor bak only lightly greasy, flavorful chewy pork, bean curd very crisp, dipped in chile sauce. The roasted chicken and duck stall beckoned, and a couple at the next table was eagerly tucking into something that looked like small pieces of pork fried with herbs. A stall right near the koay teow guy advertised shui jiao (boiled dumplings), sign in Chinese only but an inquiry should point the way. We really wanted to continue but couldn't -- for a few hours at least.
This 90 minutes of feasting cost all of perhaps U$5, including two fresh pineapple juices and two Indian chai.
Evening on Sun. found us on Lebuh Kimberley in Chinatown, about 2 blocks south of Jalan Penang. Sun. may not be the best evening to be here --- there were noticeable gaps in the rows of stalls lining the west side of the street and a few of the stalls inside the small covered hawker center (you can't miss it) were closed. Nonetheless ... reasoning that, even though we planned dinner that night on Gurney drive, we could do some sampling on Kimberly and call it "appetizers", we dove in. First, chee chong fun (rice sheet rolls, some with dried shrimp inside ... ours were naked), briefly warmed over hot water, sliced and served with a fishy hoisin-type sauce, chile sauce, and soy on the side. Having little taste of their own, these rolls are mostly about texture, but what a texture! Softly chewy, thicker and more substantial than the filled rice rolls that appear as part of dim sum, the perfect vehicles for a sweet and fishy sauce and a bit of chili kick. One more order, please! This vendor is just off of Kimberley on the corner of either Cintra or Jalan Pintal-Tali, in front of the restaurant on the corner. We also sampled lok lok (called steamboat if it's served in a restaurant) from the elderly female vendor across the street. Choose from a variety of small bites (innards, tofu, veggies, fish, squid) threaded onto incense sticks, dip into the boiling water for a minute or so, and then dip into one of 3 sauces (2 chili sauces and a peanut sauce). You pay according to the number of sticks and what color they are. Not bad, not great (I've never been a hotpot lover, unless it's Sichuan-style chili-laden hot pot), but worth trying. We stopped into the hawker center up Kimberly "just to look" ... and ended up being seduced by a patron's plate of obscenely plump egg noodles wallowing with pork, liver, and shredded Chinese broccoli in a thick glistening soy-based sauce. Tracked down the vendor, near the front of the center (ID'd him by the noodles in his glass case) and placed our order. These were heavenly, the noodles *so* thick and chewy and nearly soaked through with the dark sauce, big chunks of chopped garlic, lots of smoke from the wok, very generous amount of broccoli. We know them as Hokkien fried noodles, not sure of the Malaysian name.
After taking a couple of hours to recover, dinner on Gurney drive, where everyone goes to eat fish (you'll need to take a taxi if you're staying in Georgetown, abt 3 km). This a relaxed, friendly scene, with the waterfront promenade on one side of the street and a long long row of open shops, old houses, individual hawkers, and hawker "centers" on the other. A great place to spend a few hours hanging out with the locals, enjoying a walk along the water, sampling the food, and drinking cold beers. Again, Sunday may not be the best night, some places appeared closed, but we managed to eat well anyway. We also revisited a couple nights later -- it's a long strip so you could easily do it over a few nights and not cover everything.
Disembark at the Evergreen Hotel and work your way up to the very final large collection of hawkers near the traffic circle. We started at an open, covered area in front of a building with a karaoke stage on the left and a few stalls on the right. Squid grilled with sambal, we chose the squid from the goods displayed on ice. Not really grilled but griddled --- tender, garlicky, shrimp paste-y, plenty of chile, a perfect starter with an icy beer from the mini-skirted Heineken girl. Moving along, past a cute crepes and ice cream shop that looked intriguing (but we weren't there for ice cream), we came to an old house with a clutch of vendors in the front courtyard and wrapped around the side. (The house is on a corner and there is a sign that includes the word "Song" -- perhaps Kedai Makanan Song River listed in the LP guide? ). The grilled fish hawker on the lefthand side of the house is a star --- we chose a huge manta or stingray wing and had it grilled with sambal in banana leaf. When finished, the sambal, which had been smeared on the leaf rather than slathered on the fish, had charred a bit and crusted on the fish, which was also topped with thick slices of soft caramelized garlic and soft, charred, whole green phrik kee nuu chili peppers, served with lime. Long after we finished the not-too-bony, very succulent fish we were scraping up pieces of garlic and chili bathed in sambal. Yum, this was the single most memorable dish of the trip. Finished with a few moist soy-roasted chicken legs and thighs, a Thai guaytiaow laad naa - like dish of stir-fried rice noodles covered with a gravy of pork and Chinese broccoli and topped with pickled chiles in vinegar, and kangkong (water spinach) stir-fried with garlic and sambal, all from other vendors in the same courtyard (they sell beer etc from the house).
On our next visit to Gurney we started at the opposite end, following a few drinks at one of the open sidewalk cafes on the ground floor of Gurney Center with a few dishes at the very large collection of hawkers right next door. We tried two versions of Assam laksa ("Penang laksa" elsewhere in Malaysia): thick rice noodles in a sour, tamarind and fish-based broth, with mint (and possibly other herbs), cucumber, pineapple. No coconut in this delicious laksa, only mildly fishy and not too spicy. The second version, at another stall, was better than the first --- the broth a bit thicker, more textured with fish shreds, a generally fuller, richer taste. Claypot chicken was very good, though I missed the Chinese sausage that appears in the KL versions -- had to work with the spoon a bit to scrape away the soyish charred bits of rice stuck to the pot, yum. Lots of rojak vendors, a Malaysian dessert vendor ... lots of options and this area (vendors encircle a bunch of tables and chairs)was still very busy when we left at 10:30p, on a weeknight.
Penang's Chinatown is a treasure ... more Chinese than many cities in China these days. After sampling pretty-good-but-not-sure-I'd seek-it-out-again bak kut teh (pork ribs simmered in a sort of "tea" of medicinal herbs, including genseng -- a popular breakfast item) at a stall off of Jalan Penang we stopped for dim sum at a shop on Cintra Street (same block and on the opposite side of the street as, 100 Cintra, a shopping arcade in a can't-miss old building). Don't remember the name of the place but we were drawn in by the huge bamboo steamers and glass cases out front filled with bao. A very old place with unexceptional decor but plenty of welcome and atmosphere ... this is the kind of place where regulars come to while away the morning over a few bites and many pots of tea. Staff come to your table with a sampling of dim sum on a tray rather than a rolling cart; some are better than others. DO order the seafood congee with ginger. Steamed pork buns were delicious, and two types: the standard round buns, filled with chopped pork, and rolled buns, filled with a more pristine and fat-studded red-corked pork in chunks. We especially liked the long red chili peppers stuffed with fish paste, rice rolls, bowls of steamed glutinous rice with pork, Chinese sausage, and veggies, and all of the seafood-stuffed rice dumplings. Didn't try anything fried. Egg tart was rich and notable for its delicious crust. We arrived about 9:30am which seemed a little late ... some things were sold out.
We did not get a chance to sample so many things: Indian foods like murtabak and curries on banana leaf, seafood congee from a stall, yung daohu, Nyonya food, Hainan chicken rice (a shop up the block from our dim sum spot looked promising, as did a sort of older-style shop on Campbell at Cintra intersection, north side of the street). The number of hawker centers on Jalan Petaling is amazing, it goes on for blocks and blocks, and seems to include some Hong Kong-style seafood and snack vendors ... I think an evening could be well spent here.
As a last note, the nasi lemak (wrapped in a banana leaf shaped in a triangle) sold at the departures area of the Penang airport is *very* good (bring an extra plastic bag to put it in, if you're not going to eat it right away ... it will leak), with plenty of sambal and rice generously scented with coconut (push aside the larger, bony piece of fish and eat the rice instead with the ikan balis -- small semi-dried fish and peanuts -- scattered on top). We felt smug indeed feasting on nasi as our fellow passengers forced down Vietnam Air's dreck. They may not have enjoyed the garlic and fish odors emanating from our row, though.