With more hawker food stalls per square foot than probably any other place in the world, the island of Penang is a foodie’s dream come true. There is a kaleidoscope of different food cultures and traditions at play here, spanning Chinese, Indian, Malay, Mamak and Nyonya cuisines. In fact, there seem to be more eateries than there are people on the island… each open at particular times of the day to serve everybody from earlybirds looking for some sustenance to kick start their day to late-nighters looking for a binge supper. All this fabulous food makes for an island full of happy-go-lucky Penangites with insatiable appetites. Add to that the sun, sea, sandy beaches and old world Colonial charm of Georgetown and it’s a no brainer why I have grand plans to retire in Penang some day. Guided by none other than my mother’s ex-Penangite gut, here’s the highlight reel of our 3 day street food trail round the island.
First up, what many regard as the king of all Penang street food: Char Koay Teow (Fried Rice Strip Noodles). And when it comes to CKT, there are 2 legendary institutions that I’ve been visiting since my childhood days that continue to battle it out till today for the title of my favourite CKT of them all.
In the red corner – the Sisters Char Koay Teow stall on Macalister Road that’s been run for the longest time by 2 sisters and their family members. At RM 5 for a large plate, the portion is a wee bit small, but boy are the flavours of the noodles wonderfully balanced. It’s savoury without being overly salty as CKT can sometimes be and there’s a good hit of background heat from the freshly ground chilli paste. Then comes the burst of goodness from the tiny bits of crunchy, deep-fried pork lard and sweetness of the shrimp. What really sets a plate of Sister’s CKT apart from it’s peers though is the scoop of freshly picked crab meat on top…. the icing on the cake to what is a worthy challenger for Penang’s best CKT.
In the blue corner – the Lorong Selamat Char Koay Teow stall. It’s impossible to miss the infamously feisty CKT lady parked out in front of Heng Huat Cafe (which I hear she now monopolises), donned in her red Parisian painter’s hat. Be sure not to disturb her while she’s in the midst of creating one of her art-forms. In the few interspersed seconds she isn’t frying up a glorious plate of CKT, be prepared for a barrage of tantrum-filled Hokkien words directed at both co-workers and customers alike. At RM 9.50 for a large plate, it’s probably the most exorbitant plate of hawker food you will find yourself paying for anywhere in the country.
Why do people still put up with it? Well for starters, instead of the usual 2 or 3 shrimp you normally get on a standard plate of CKT, your almost 10 hard-earned ringgits are going towards the cost of five ginormous king prawns that grace every plate she sends out. Large prawns aside, there’s also something about Madam Lorong Selamat’s single plate frying technique and old-school wok that gives her Koay Teow a slightly charred flavour like no other. Yes, its definitely a little greasier and saltier relative to the Macalister Road version… but the full-on flavours are what delivers the knock-out punch, elevating this dish to the pinnacle of all Char Koay Teows and narrowly edging the Sisters’ CKT in my view. And for that reason, Madam Lorong Selamat can afford to be as rude as she bloody hell wants. I for one will continue to crawl back to her for more…
Next up, another must-eat on any Penang Street food itinerary: Line Clear Nasi Kandar!
Don’t let the all-day queue of Nasi Kandar aficionados lining up for their food put you off sampling some of the best Indian-Muslim (‘Mamak’) cuisine in town as there’s plenty of seating space towards the back of this heritage restaurant that’s been around since the early 1930s. Curry is the order of the day here (there’s chicken, prawn, fish head and many others on offer) and you can ask for your plate of rice to be doused in multiple curries or whatever vegetables and other condiments you please. As we were a rather large group, they offered to bring the dishes to our table which saved us having to queue up.
Best of the lot of dishes we sampled was their Fish Head Curry… and what a monster it was. With eyeballs nearly the size of ping-pong balls, the fish head had wonderfully firm chunks of meat round the cheeks and fins. In fact, just the blazing red colour of the gravy was enough to send me into a salivation fit. Long, fresh fingers of okra helped to soothe the heat of this spectacularly ‘full-on’ curry…
If the thought of the oooo-gly eyes of Jaws watching you while you are eating is a little discomforting, their Jumbo Prawn Curry is a pretty darn good alternative. The prawns themselves were almost the slze of an entire palm and the sweetness of the prawn heads and shells give this red curry a sweetness and depth of flavour that’s just sensational to lap up with a big helping of white rice.
With curries this tasty, it was no surprise to hear that Line Clear recently made it onto the set of Anthony Bourdain’s latest season of No Reservations. This generations-old eatery in the heart of Penang’s Georgetown certainly deserves the global superstardom it is set for. I would stay well clear of their fried chicken though which I found incredibly tough and rubbery. Stick with the curries and vegetable dishes and you can’t go wrong!
There’s so much more to Penang than Char Koay Teow and Nasi Kandar that I could go on and on about. Here’s just a peek at some of my other hawker food favourites in and around the Georgetown area which we managed to cram into our whirlwind gastro-tour this time round…
Gorgeously sweet and crunchy Pisang Goreng (Fried Bananas) @ Tanjung Bungah. All hail the Pisang-G Man!
Ah, how I wish I had 3 months, not 3 days to work through the rest of the food this amazing island has to offer. Hopefully when I’ve become a retired OAP living the good life in my seafront house, I’ll have all the time in the world to eat to my heart’s content.
p.s. Addresses are below for any of you who want to retrace my foodsteps and sample some of Penang’s best hawker food. Enjoy and pls note specific opening times to avoid any disappointment.
Sister’s Char Koay Teow: Lam Heng Cafe, 185 Jalan Macalister (opp. Loh Guan Lye centre), 10400 Penang (morning to early afternoon)
Lorong Selamat Char Koay Teow: Heng Huat Cafe, 108 Lorong Selamat, 10400, Penang (noon to 5pm)
Line Clear Nasi Kandar: 177 Jalan Penang, 10000 Penang (open 24/7)
Apom Manis @ Pulau Tikus: Lorong Kucing, Pulau Tikus, Penang (morning till early afternoon)
Popiah @ the Padang: Padang Brown Hawker Centre, Jalan Anson, 10400 Penang (open 1pm to 5pm)
Chee Cheong Fun @ Mt Erskine: Mount Erskine Roadside Hawker Centre, Jalan Mount Erskine, Penang (open noon to 5pm)
Ice Kacang @ Swatow Lane: New World Park Food Court, Lorong Swatow, 10050 Penang (open 10am – 9pm)
Goreng Pisang @ Tanjung Bungah: Roadside van, between Jalan Tanjung Bungah and Jalan Batu Ferringhi (open most afternoons)