A visit to Penang is a visit to Malaysian food heaven. When Malaysians argue about their favourite food city or town, Penang is always high up on the list, if not first most of the time.
The food in Penang is heavily influenced by its multicultural history. Waves of immigration from across Asia, as well as the impact of being colonised by the English, has resulted in Penang becoming a world class destination for food.
In particular, we see a predominance of dishes based on traditional Chinese, Indian, and Malay cooking styles and flavours, culminating in a varied and tasty set of eating options, as you’ll discover in this handy guide.
Food in Penang – George Town
George Town is the capital of Penang and is certainly the key destination for food lovers. The city itself has a mixture of cosmopolitan shopping centres, old-fashioned colonial-era mansions, elaborately decorated temples, bustling markets, and a food scene that embodies the diversity and heritage of its inhabitants.
You will be able to experience everything you desire food-wise in George Town, and this guide will concentrate on this area.
For those with time to explore Penang a little further, there are some great places to visit outside of George Town, where you’ll not only find some great food, you’ll also be able to slow the pace down a little, stop by a small fishing village, and even visit a farm or two.
Given the breadth of the Penang food scene, I’ve only managed to touch the surface with this guide. That being said, it should still provide you with a good feel for the food options available for your time on the island as well as the details of where to find the best dishes.
Famous Penang Hawker Food
Penang is known for its hawker food scene and it is little wonder why. It’s outstanding. The competition is fierce, which results in an amazing depth of quality.
In my experience travelling multiple times through Malaysia and Singapore, I haven’t found a better hawker food location. I’m sure conflicting views exist, especially from the proud Singaporeans, but one criteria that led me to this conclusion was that during my multiple visits to Penang, I haven’t once had a dish I thought was below standards.
There are dozens of different hawker dishes that can be found throughout George Town, which can make choosing which ones to try, and where to try them, a slightly overwhelming prospect.
To help me research this important topic, prior to my most recent trip to Penang, I joined the “Penang Hawker Food” Facebook group and reached out to the group members for recommendations on where to try the most famous hawker food dishes. The response was amazing! I received over 100 recommendations, which helped provide a great foundation on which to base my hawker food exploration.
Where to start? Here I present my list of “Top 10 Penang Must-Eat Hawker Foods’, a description of the dish, and a place to try it.
Top 10 Penang Must-Eat Hawker Foods,
Penang Assam Laksa is arguably Penang’s best known hawker dish and one you need to try. A spicy and sour soup, the key ingredients include thick rice noodles, tamarind (for the sourness), flaked fish (usually mackerel), and a mixture of finely sliced onions, cucumber, red chili, lettuce, pineapple, sweetened prawn paste, mint, and the bud of the torch ginger flower, locally known as bunga kantan. This dish is addictive.
Try at: Kek Seng Café, 382 & 384 Jalan Penang, Pulau Pinang. Open daily 9am to 5pm.
Hokkien Mee. This version of hokkien mee is particular to Penang and is a kick-arse bowl of noodle soup. The broth base is made using prawns and pork bones and is rich and spicy and a deep red in colour. Two types of noodles are used and chunks of pork are added along with egg, greens, fried onions, and chili. Quite amazing.
Try at: 888 Hokkien Mee, 67-A, Lebuh Presgrave. Open daily 3pm to 11.45pm.
In Malay, Mee Goreng translates to fried noodles and can be found at many cafes. It is made up of egg noodles stir-fried in a mixture of chilli sauce, tomato sauce, and soy sauce. Onions, potatoes, peas, cabbage, and bean sprouts are then added with a choice of meat, usually chicken, mutton, or beef, and topped with thinly sliced green chillies, firm tofu known as tau kwa, and eggs. Sometimes curry leaves, tamarind juice, and toasted sesame are added — adding a complex flavor. Other stalls add prawn stock and even mashed sweet potatoes for added sweetness.
Try at: Bangkok Lane Mee Goreng, 280 Jalan Burma, George Town. Open 8am to 6.30pm, closed Mondays.
Chee Cheong Fun is a popular Penang snack. The dish is made from slices of steamed rice noodle rolls that are drizzled in a range of sauces. In Penang, a sauce made from shrimp paste is the most widely used although you can sometimes find sweet and chili sauces as well. Toasted sesame seeds are sometimes added for a little extra crunch.
Try at: Seow Fong Lye Café, 94 Lorong Macalister, George Town. Open 7.30am to 12.30pm.
Char Koay Teow, which roughly translates as “fried flat noodles,” is another famous Penang specialty. The flat rice noodles are stir-fried with prawns, bean sprouts, cockles, eggs, chives, and slices of lap cheong (Chinese dried sausage) in a mix of soy sauce, chili, and sugar. The key to a great Char Koay Teow is the wok hei, the smoky and charred aroma imparted by a well-seasoned wok over high heat.
Try at: Red Hat Lady @ Heng Haut Café, Lorong Selemat. Open 11am to 6pm, closed Tuesdays.
Curry Mee is a thick curry and coconut milk based soup, typically consisting of two types of noodles, bean sprouts, egg, coagulated pig’s blood, cockles, cuttlefish, prawns, bean curd, mint leaves, and chili paste. It is quite hearty and filling and a great way to start the day.
Try at: Sip Hun Aun Café, 17 Jalan Pasar, George Town, opposite Pulau Tikus Market. Open 6am to 10pm, closed Tuesdays.
A plate of Fried Oysters is one of the more iconic street foods in Penang. The dish is made by adding fresh oysters to an omelette mix of eggs, rice flour, chives, and starch. The mixture is then fried on a flat griddle and served with chili sauce and a garlic paste dip.
Try at: Padang Kota Lama (Esplanade). Open 8am to 12.30am.
Book ahead — call 0164868128 half an hour before; otherwise, the wait will be a long one.
Popiah, or fresh spring rolls, is a delicious snack available everywhere throughout Penang. The wheat flour wrapping is filled with a blend of ingredients which include hoisin sauce, chili sauce, fried turnips, jicama, bean sprouts, grated carrots, lettuce leaves, sliced tofu, sliced tofu, chopped peanuts, fried shallot, and shredded omelet.
Try at: Joo Hooi Café, 475 Jalan Penang, George Town. Open 11am to 5.30pm.
Ais Kacang is a popular Malaysian dessert made with shaved ice, red beans, palm seed, sweet corn, agar agar jelly, and evaporated milk, condensed milk, or coconut milk. There are many variations; however, the version I tried at Kek Seng Café included two scoops of durian ice cream, which was fantastic.
Try at: Kek Seng Café. 382 – 384 Jalan Penang, George Town. Open 9am to 5pm.
Eating a bowl of Cendol is a “must-do” when you are out and about on a hot day in Penang. This dessert often consists of green jelly noodles made with rice flour and green food coloring along with green kidney beans immersed in shaved ice and finished off with a drizzle of coconut milk and palm sugar.
Try at: There are two cendol stalls at the beginning of Lebuh Keng Kwee. Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul, which always has a queue, and Teo Chew Cendol.
Where to eat hawker food in Penang:
Hawker food is everywhere throughout George Town, and Penang, for that matter. When undecided about what to try and where, the best solution is to head to a café (Kopitiam) where there may be four or five different stalls offering you a choice of dishes. If there are a few of you, a good option is to order a few different ones and share.
As a tip, when you are in a café, some stalls will display a “self-service” sign. This means you need to order from the stall itself rather than waiting for a waitress to take your order at the table.
A few centrally located cafés worth visiting:
Kek Seng Café is a bit of an institution in Penang, having been in operation since 1906. Although the café sells the staple hawker food of Assam laksa, char koay teow, chicken rice, and popiah, it is the AIS kacang dessert that can’t be missed as it comes with the addition of two scoops of durian ice cream.
Kek Seng Café, 382-384, Jalan Penang, George Town. Open daily 9am to 5pm.
Joo Hooi Café is a very busy café and there can sometimes be a wait for a table on the weekends. The wait is worth it though, with dishes like duck meat koay teow th’ng, pai tee, assam laksa, and char koay teow. Just outside the café is the Famous Teochew Chendul stall, where you can order your dessert.
Joo Hooi Café, 475, Jalan Penang, George Town. Open 11am to 5.30pm.
Kafe Kheng Pin is well known for its loh bak, the five spice sausage pork roll that has its origins in Fujian, China. It can be had by itself or served as part of a mixed plate that includes deep fried prawn fritters, sliced fish balls, and bean curd as well as a few slices of cucumber. Other hawker food is available, such as porridge, wan tan mee, and hokkien mee.
Kafe Kheng Pin, 80 Jalan Penang, George Town. Open 7am to 3pm, closed Mondays.
The Indian influence in Penang goes back centuries to the Chola dynasty. Since then, Indians, in particular Southern Indians from along the Coromandel Coast, have migrated to Penang and other parts of Malaysia. The descendants of these Indian migrants, known as Chulias, are an established presence in Penang within all walks of life and, luckily for us, their food has remained an important part of Penang’s food scene.
Penang’s Little India is a small enclave in the heart of George Town’s UNESCO World Heritage site. Walking along Lebuh Pesar (Market Street) that cuts through Little India, it’s almost like stumbling across a movie set straight out of Bollywood.
There are DVD shops selling copies of the latest Bollywood blockbuster, with the music from accompanying soundtracks blaring out from storefront speakers, colourful sari shops, silk shops, and impossibly bright flower garland stands, as well as a large array of jewellery and gemstone stores.
However, for me, the main reason for visiting Little India is for the food. When walking the streets of Little India, you are hit with the aromas of spices, incense, samosas, pokoras and bhajis being deep fried, and open air ovens baking breads.
These hot foods are available from the many small carts that line the streets, as well as larger stalls and small shops. In addition, there is a large array of brightly coloured mithai (Indian sweets) available from many of the same stalls and shops.
Naturally, there are many restaurants in the area, with influences from all over India.
Here are a few restaurants worth trying:
Woodlands Vegetarian Restaurant is a well-known vegetarian restaurant that has an impressive array of breads to choose from. Don’t miss the huge paper dosai with four tasty dips. There are plenty of sharing plates to keep everyone full. The standout dish is the Curd Vadai, lentil doughnuts that have been covered with yoghurt.
Woodlands Restaurant, 60 Lebuh Penang, George Town. Open daily 10am to 10pm.
Sri Ananda Bahwan, at 53-55 Lebuh Penang, is not to be confused with the vegetarian restaurant of the same name located a few doors down the street. This particular outlet serves meat, including an excellent tandoori chicken set.
Sri Ananda Bahwan, 53-55 Lebuh Penang, George Town. Open daily 7.30am to 10.30pm.
Penang Special Samosa is a large stall specialising in a great variety of snacks, including samosas with fillings such as chicken, tuna, and vegetarian. Other specialities here include pakoda, halwa, and vadai.
Penang Special Samosa, 45 Lebuh Queen, George Town. Open daily 2pm to 6pm.
Outside of Little India
Although the restaurants in Little India will keep your Indian food craving satisfied, there are many quality Indian restaurants dotted throughout the rest of George Town.
Here are two worth trying:
Nasi Kandar is a Penang specialty created by the Malaysian Indian population. The dish contains mildly flavoured rice that is served with a choice of side dishes including fried chicken, beef, different types of seafood, and vegetables with curry sauces poured over to finish.
Nasi Kandar Line Clear, 177 Jalan Penang, George Town. Open 24 hours.
Abu Mamak has a reputation for friendly service, a huge range of rotis (with some unusual toppings), and Penang’s best Maggi mee goreng, a noodle dish using the Maggi range of noodles. A great place for a late night snack.
The Chinese influence in Malaysian food is varied and goes back centuries to when Chinese immigrants came to Malaysia in the fifteenth century when Chinese princess Hang Li Po married Sultan Mansur Syah in Malacca. The influx of Chinese immigrants brought their cooking styles with them, and once combined with the local Malay ingredients, a new style of cooking and cuisine was introduced to the country, which became known as nyonya cooking.
Whilst the traditions of nyonya cooking may be slowly disappearing, there is still a large influence of Chinese cooking due to the large Chinese population that inhabits Penang to this day. This influence can be found in the hawker food mentioned above, with such dishes as Hokkien Mee, Wanton Mee, and Char Koay Teow, to name a few holding onto the Chinese traditions.
There are many Chinese restaurants located throughout George Town. Here are a few of my favourites:
If you visit Tek Sen Restaurant, don’t be surprised if there is a queue out the front as it is very popular with locals and tourists alike. There’s a reason for that, with a long menu serving excellent food with fast and efficient service. Don’t miss the twice cooked pork.
Tek Sen, 18 Lebuh Carnarvon, George Town. Open 12pm to 2.30pm and 6pm to 8.30pm, closed Tuesdays.
Luk Yea Yan Vegetarian Restaurant is a cosy and air conditioned vegetarian restaurant with friendly and helpful staff that lends itself to a warm atmosphere. There is a great range of vegetarian food, which you can either choose from a buffet that has over 30 different options, or off a menu that includes vegetarian versions of local classic dishes such as assam laksa, prawn mee, curry mee, and even a loh hor fun. There is also a small area where you can buy dried packaged foods and a large range of biscuits.
Luk Yea Yan Restaurant. Open 7.30am to 3.00pm and 5.30pm to 9.30pm, closed Wednesdays.
Tai Tong Restaurant is a popular dim sum restaurant, in particular by night. All the classic dim sum dishes are served on trolleys by the staff who are very friendly and happy to take their time explaining each of the dishes. Make sure you don’t miss the lemon curd tarts.
Given Penang Island is surrounded by water, it’s certainly no surprise that there are many seafood restaurants throughout the island. Although eating seafood in Penang is not cheap, there are still many barn-like eateries to choose from. The range is extensive, with oysters, clams, scallops, squid, octopus, and even abalone. The bigger ones will generally have large aquariums containing live crabs, lobsters, prawns, and many different species of fish, ensuring freshness.
A few Penang seafood spots to try:
The dining area at Bali Hai Seafood Market is huge and they have a vast range of seafood available. The kitchen is conveniently situated behind glass so you can watch the chefs cooking the fresh seafood.
Bali Hai Seafood Market, 90 Gurney Drive, Jelutong. Open 24 hours.
Another large barn-like seafood restaurant is DeHappy Seafood Restaurant. The prices here are affordable and the service friendly and efficient, with open tanks at the rear of the dining room where you can make a choice from the many live crabs, lobsters, and fish.
There is no shortage of markets in Penang. Whether you want to visit a large wet market to watch the locals buy fresh seafood or a smaller street market to buy some knick-knacks, you will find what you are after in Penang.
Each market is different in its own way, but the one thing that is constant is the ability to eat very well. All the larger markets have dedicated sections for eating and it is a great way to try some of the famous hawker foods.
Here are a few must-visit Penang markets:
Chowrasta Bazaar is hidden behind a 1920s building façade that wouldn’t look out of place as the location of the local council. Entering from Jalan Penang, the first stalls you come across will be selling candied fruits, preserves, and other cooking items such as belecan and oils. Heading toward the back of the market, you will first walk through the fruit and vegetable section before hitting the recently renovated “wet” section where a large range of seafood and meats are available. Interestingly, there is a secondhand book section upstairs, where a number of shops are packed with all sorts of books and magazines.
Chowrasta Bazaar, Lebuh Tamil, George Town. Open 6.30am to 1pm.
Pulau Tikus Market is a tightly packed market that seems to offer everything a quintessential Penang market can. So much is contained within the market that it spills into the surrounding streets. There is the usual “wet” area selling meats and fish, as well as a live chicken “processing” section, and a wide range of fruits and vegetables with a good selection certified organic. You will also find a compact hawker food section that offers the standard fare as well as a couple of nyonya keuh stalls to buy desserts. Also, if you’re a fan of roasted meats, head to stall 43, where Seang Kee Enterprise sells roasted duck, pork, and chicken.
Pulau Tikus Market, 3 Jalan Pasar, George Town. Open 7am to 1pm.
Although the eating area at Cecil Street Market opens early, the main wet market doesn’t really get going until the afternoon, when you will find the locals completing their food shopping for the day. However, it is here you will also find a huge hawker food section that takes up almost a third of the market. Almost all types of hawker foods are available and the seating area is very busy during lunchtime.
Cecil Street Market, Lebuh Cecil, George Town. 7.30am to 7pm
One type of market that Penang does very well is the night market. Regardless of the type of night market, there will always be great food available. In particular, for me, the unmistakeable aroma of satay being grilled over charcoal always sets the scene for an enjoyable food experience.
Here are a few must-visit Penang night markets:
Although there are a few clothing, sunglasses, and bag stalls, the Macallum Street Night Market is predominately a food market selling more than just hawker food. There is plenty on offer, including grilled squid, waffles, deep fried crabs and fish balls, barbecued pork, and an interesting stall called Mat Toh Yau Dessert, where you’ll find brightly coloured jellies, fruits, and nuts mixed into interesting and refreshing desserts.
Macallum Street Night Market, Lintang Macallum 1, George Town. Open Mondays and Thursdays, 6.30pm to 11pm. Note: Monday is the main night.
At night, along the main entrance to the day market, the Pulau Tikis Night Market sets up with a great collection of standard hawker food including char koay teow, satay, fried oysters, chee cheong fun, and the “not-to-be-missed” lok lok, the skewered deep fried meats and vegetables.
High-End Penang Restaurants
The Penang restaurant options are quite impressive. Taking a modern approach to traditional dishes, along with a modern interior and first class service, it is worth having a special meal out in Penang.
The high-end Kebaya Restaurant, located at the beautifully appointed Seven Terraces Hotel, serves classic Peranakan dishes with a modern twist. Served as part of an RM100 four-course menu, dishes include otak-otak, red snapper with garlic and turmeric that has been baked in a crispy pastry, 72-hour sous vide beef shoulder glazed with tamarind and gula Melaka, and a pandan crème brûlée, which is served with brandy snaps. In my opinion, Kebaya is Penang’s number one destination restaurant, and one I highly recommend.
Kebaya, Seven Terraces, Lorong Stewart, George Town. Open 6pm to 10pm.
The Dining Room at Macalister Mansion offers a selection of modern and innovative dishes in a stunningly decorated dining room. The menu changes to suit the season and the restaurant offers two tasting menus of four and eight courses. There are quality wine pairings available as well as a good range of single malt whiskies.
Dining Room at Macalister Mansion, 228 Macalister Road, George Town. Open 7pm to 11pm.
A visit to Farquhar Mansion, and its elegantly decorated dining room, will see you experiencing a modern seasonal menu with touches of French flair and Japanese delicacy. Occupying a colonial-era mansion in George Town, dining at Farquhar Mansion is perfect for a romantic night out or a special event meal. There is a five course tasting menu available or an extensive à la carte menu and wine list. Standout dishes include the seared foie gras and the succulent lamb rack.
More Food Experiences
Still looking for food experiences? How about these:
Cooking, herbs, and spices
The Tropical Spice Garden is a 25-minute drive from George Town and a terrific place to visit. Not only will you be able to participate in a cooking course where Malay, nyonya, and Indian dishes are on the menu, you will be able to walk around the gardens that showcase more than 500 tropical plant varieties from around the world. Live guided tours are available and I recommend you take this option if you can. The guided tour will stop by the herb gardens, where you’ll have a chance to taste the different herbs and fruits that are used in the local cuisine, as well as visit the spice table, where the guide will provide a history of the regional spice trade and give you a chance to touch and smell the different spices. There is a nice outdoor café where you can enjoy a cooling drink whilst taking in the views of the Straits of Malacca.
During the Penang durian growing season, it is possible to visit one of the many durian farms located throughout the island. A visit to the Bao Sheng Durian Farm not only offers the chance to taste from the large variety of durians they grow, you can also stay in a villa at the farm. In addition to tasting organic durians, Freedom Eco Farm, located close to Penang National Park, also offers the opportunity to experience Penang’s nature at its best by leading you on a hike through the national forest as part of their eco-tourism business.
If you don’t have time to head out to a durian farm, then a visit to one of the durian stalls in George Town is your next best option.
One of the best to try is Ting Siang Hock Trading. You won’t be able to miss this shop when you are looking for a taste of durian in Penang. Not only is there a large special offer sign above the shop, the aroma of durian can be smelt from many shops away. This shop is open every day of the year and sells durian even in the Penang durian off-season, as the durian is sourced from all over Malaysia. On the day I visited, there were four varieties on offer including Musang King for 75 RM per kilo!
Ting Siang Hock Trading, 74 Jalan Dr Lim Chwee Leong, George Town. Open 11am to 11pm, closed Sundays.
To try a taste of the traditional nyonya kuih, head to Moh Teng Pheow Café, which is located inside an old factory. Down the end of a small alleyway, off Lebuh Chulia, the business still produces the kuih in an old fashioned manner and if you arrive early, you can watch the kuih being made. The quaint café is at the back of the factory and here you can order some of the kuih to enjoy or even a light lunch.
Jalan Masjid, off Lebuh Chulia, George Town. Open 10.30am to 5pm, closed Mondays.
After a trip to Penang, you will leave with an appreciation of why eating out is so important to the locals. Regardless of the type of cuisine you are after, you will find a huge variety on offer and a consistency in the high standards of all dishes.
Whether you are trying hawker food for the first time, eating a curry in Little India, trying vegetarian Chinese food, or even dining out at a high-end restaurant, a visit to the Pearl of the Orient will leave you satisfied — guaranteed!
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