Penang: Street Food capital of the world
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.
Hawker Stalls by the Padang field off Anson Road (left), Vendor making Popiah (right)
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.
Sisters Char Koay Teow @ Macalister Road
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.
Char Koay Teow @ Lorong Selamat
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…
Mouth-watering Fish Head Curry @ Line Clear Nasi Kandar, Penang Road
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.
Fully loaded Nasi Kandar with Jumbo Prawn and Fish Head Curries
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…
Apom Manis (Sweet Pancakes) @ Kucing Lane, Pulau Tikus. Breakfast of champions.
Popiah (Nyonya Spring Rolls) @ Padang, off Anson Road. The best. Period.
Penang Chee Cheong Fun (Rice Noodle Rolls) @ Mount Erskine. Melts in the mouth like velvet.
Ice Kacang @ New World Park, Swatow Lane. Still my favourite!
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)
Maybe I’m biased, but I truly believe that the popiah in Bukit Mertajam is better than any version I’ve had on the island. Ridiculous queues but so damn good it’s worth the wait. If you’re ever up north again… 😛 (she also sells laksa so you can eat that whilst waiting – win win!)
SuYin: Thanks! Will bear Bkt Mertajam in mind for next time (i take it you are a mainland native / not island?)… we sometimes hit Batu Kawan for seafood so may stop by there as well, but will have to be next year! The Pisang Goreng is for you btw!
Indeed I am from BM (and ALL the “island” people say we’re not part of Penang, cheh). Thanks for the pisang goreng.. would’ve been more awesome if you managed to teleport one over, but oh well. 😛
Have you ever been to Tambun (also on the mainland) for seafood? It’s brilliant – fresh, and very reasonably priced. And people from the island actually cross the bridge for it!
My nanny who is from Batu Maung has mentioned the chee-ness of Tambun’s seafood many a time, but I’ve never had the chance to try it for myself. Will def get a hitlist of places from you on the mainland before i head north next time!!
Does the Lorong Selamat CKT auntie still wear googles? She’s a hoot! I’m so nostalgic for all this, my Dad is a BM boy and I miss Penang so! HF
HF: haha i remember those chemistry safety goggles she used to sport back in the days she was still frying by the roadside!! she’s stopped wearing them tho… now that she owns the whole heng huat cafe, I think shes a bit more sheltered from the elements kicking oil back at her eyes (if it’s any consolation, she does still sport the red Parisienne artists’ hat tho!)
Guan! I was going to blog tonight and now I’ve lost all interest in what I was going to yak on about and instead I’m dreaming of far away places.. Penang looks incredible. My friend Mai has a restaurant called Rasa Penang in Putney, she can be pretty shouty, long lost sister of Madam Lorong Selamat perhaps?! I love a bit of competition, it keeps the quality of food high. There used to be an ice cream kiosk in Andalucia run by two sisters, they fell out 10 years ago and they have set up rival kiosks, selling the same icecream, 50 yards away from each other, and don’t speak. I know it’s sad but I kind of love how stubborn and silly they are. Fantastic pictures, thank you for ‘taking me there’ with you. Milli
Milli: Tx, you are more than welcome! If u ask me, Penang is def worth the 13 hr flight from London, but probably makes more sense to make it a stopover as part of a wider South-East Asian itinerary given how far away it is.
Didn’t know there was a Penang inspired restaurant in putney, must track it down when I’m back in London end of this week… Will be a while until I’m craving local food again tho after the amount I’ve managed to cram in over the past 2 weeks!!
Ooh! Is Rasa Penang new? We’re occasionally in Putney so I’ll try to check it out!
Oh, you’re killing me here. I’m dreaming of that nasi kandar…
Su-Lin: Line Clear is properly properly tasty =P. Needed a Cola to counter the heat and savouriness!
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