Seven things to eat in Penang

Seven amazing street food dishes to eat in Penang, Malaysia

by Leyla Kazim 3 February 2016

Leyla Kazim tells us what and where we should be eating in Malaysia's most multi-cultural state.

A London-based food and travel photographer and writer, Leyla spent the best part of 2015 eating her way around the world.

A London-based food and travel photographer and writer, Leyla spent the best part of 2015 eating her way around the world. Brought up surrounded by exceptional cooking from her Mauritian mother and Turkish-Cypriot father, getting acquainted with the huge range of international flavours available in the culinary world is something she spends a lot of time on. There are few places she's happier than in a restaurant, be that behind a lens or with wine and friends.

There are few places in Southeast Asia boasting as tight a knot of ethnic diversity as the northwestern Malaysian state of Penang. The most prominent observation, and one you can't fail to notice from the moment you set foot there, is that it's full of different faces. And I absolutely loved that.

Looking one way, I could have been in south India again: dark skin, bright cloth, Tamil phrases. Our taxi from the airport passed a sprawling Indian celebration of some sort – I suspect a wedding – spilling out from the Indian Palace restaurant, right over the street and into the twenty-four hour McDonald's forecourt. It was a sea of sarees.

Look the other way and there are shop fronts covered in Chinese characters that would be any other city's Chinatown. A whole host of languages are spoken, foods eaten, faiths followed and cultures expressed.

It’s no secret that the cross-pollination of ethnicities and cuisines is an age old recipe for very good eating. And there are few better examples of this than Penang, where arguably some of the best street food in this part of the world can be found.

Here are some of the key dishes to seek out:

Street food sensations

1. Wan tan mee noodles

Wan tan mee noodles

A bumping Chulia Street in Georgetown led us to some excellent wan tan mee from a stall manned by a very busy husband and wife team. It’s a noodle dish served with dumplings made from a mix of minced pork and prawns, wrapped in a wonton skin.

You can have it dry where the noodles are tossed in just the right amount of thick soy sauce, light soy sauce and lard oil. In this version, a bowl of soup with the dumplings in accompanies it, but you could have it all in the broth, too. Eat this with the pickled green chillies soaked in light soy you’ll find on the tables.

2. Roti canai

Roti canai

A Penang staple from the Indian Muslim community, this is a pastry-like buttery flatbread that’s flung and twirled until it’s paper thin. It’s then folded into a circle, fried until crisp and slightly charred, and served with dhal or lentil curry and onion pickles, or you can get a sweet version with sugar.

Other toppings are available, like sardines, cheese, onions or bananas, but the locals tend to keep it classic. It’s around 20p for one portion – expect to get a few.

3. Char kway teow

Char kway teow

This is arguably Penang's most famous street food, and it’s the favourite thing I ate during my time there. It’s a savoury umami dream. Flat rice noodles are stir-fried with shrimp, cockles, Chinese sausage, eggs, beansprouts and chives in a mix of soy sauce. There's a great charred flavour derived from stir-frying the noodles over a very high heat in a well-seasoned wok, along with the strong fragrance from the sauteed ingredients and the sweetness of the prawns.

4. Assam laksa

Assam laksa

Penang's signature dish, this is a spicy and sour bowl of glory. Thick round rice noodles hide beneath a hot, slightly sweet, dark brown-orange broth made tart by assam (sour tamarind) and thick with poached and disintegrated fresh mackerel fillets. It’s flavoured with lemongrass, cucumber, onions, pineapple, mint leaves and ginger, and is served with a spoonful of thick, sweet and salty shrimp paste, which you can mix into your bowl to taste.

5. Nasi kandar

Nasi kandar
Georgetown, the main city in Penang, is known for its street art as much as its food scene

This is another classic local dish from the Indian Muslim community. You select your curries from what's available that day, they're piled on top of rice, then splashes of various gravies are added.

They'll be served alongside some vegetables, often cabbage fried with turmeric or long beans. Pictured here is a combination of terrific beef, chicken and mutton curries. You’ll also often find squid curry and fish egg curry, which are equally popular.

6. Hokkein mee


This is another spicy soup, this time with both egg and rice noodles in a thick stock made from prawn, dried shrimp, pork ribs or chicken. It's usually garnished with slices of boiled egg, fried shrimp, thin slices of lean pork and sprinkled with crispy fried shallots, as well as a spoonful of chilli paste. Some vendors add crunchy golden cubes of fried lard to jazz up their bowl.

7. Cendol


This may well look like an alien dish, but it’s fantastic. Cendol is a sweet made from shaved ice (literally ice shaved from a big block) in a coconut milk and palm sugar syrup, with starchy rice noodles (the cendol) made green from pandan leaves and kidney beans. It’s aromatic, inordinately refreshing and hugely popular with both locals and tourists alike.


All images copyright Leyla Kazim 2016

Malaysia is a thriving multi-cultural hub, full of food from all over Asia