Like all great things in life, the Malaysian food scene is impossible to pigeon hole; the rich, colourful mixture of spices, flavours and textures can’t be pinned down and must be experienced to be understood. And the best place to do this is Penang island, widely regarded as the ‘food capital’ of Malaysia.
From fragrant curries to spicy mie goreng and sticky chilli pork, the melting pot of Indian, Malay, Chinese and international influences has created a true foodies’ paradise.
Hawker halls heave with locals and tourists, the sidewalks are lined with market vendors and restaurants are making a booming business: welcome to Penang.
Image credit: Tourism Malaysia
While Penang is renowned for its street food, this charismatic island has no shortage of fine-dining venues.
Farquhar Mansion: A favourite among Penang’s smarter establishments is Farquhar Mansion, a contemporary restaurant inspired by French haute cuisine. While not a typical example of Malay food, this decadent dining venue has become a top spot for celebrating special occasions. The menu changes with the seasons but always offers French nouvelle cuisine that pushes the boundaries. Try the chef’s tasting menu for a flavoursome food journey.
Kebaya: If you’re after something more authentically Malay, try Kebaya, part of the Seven Terraces hotel. This beautiful dining room serves up Baba Nyonya cuisine, a fine art crafted by Peranakans, an ethnic group which descended from Chinese settlers in Malaysia. A blend of Vietnamese lightness, Thai spiciness and traditional French cooking styles comes together to offer a surprising twist on classic dishes like hong bak lamb and crispy Nyonya tempura.
Putien: While Putien may not look particularly fancy, it’s one of the only restaurants in Penang to hold a Michelin star. Serving up food from Putian in the Fujian province of China, signature dishes include stir-fried yam, lor mee broth and seaweed with fresh shrimps.
Image credit: Tourism Malaysia
As all true foodies know, white table cloths and fine china don’t necessarily make for a superior dining experience. Luckily, Penang is thriving with understated restaurants that offer incredible food with none of the pretence.
Tek Sen: This bustling Chinese eatery has queues forming on the sidewalk from about 6pm every night. With its folding tables and stools, it looks pretty unassuming, but it’s incredible dishes like deep-friend, sweet-and-sour fish and stir-fried chicken that keep people coming back to Tek Sen for more.
Lagenda Café: This is one of those places you might stumble into by chance and be raving about for years to come. Piles of fragrant blue or yellow rice are served at Lagenda with a wide range of flavoursome curries, from beef rendang to prawn and pineapple Lemak, with a generous side of crackers – a Malay meal staple.
Woodlands Vegetarian: Good veggie food can be hard to find in Asia but Woodlands Vegetarian nails it, while also offering some of the best Indian food in Penang. Dosas, kulcha bread, chilli paneer and masala dishes are all made sans meat but packed with flavour.
You can’t leave Penang without indulging in street food. Stomach space is at a premium when there are so many stalls enticing you with their smells of cooking food. The key is to share dishes where possible, hopping from vendor to vendor as you work your way through as many courses as you can manage.
Hawker Stalls: Chulia Street Night Hawker Stalls and the Gurney Drive Hawker Centre are among Penang’s favourites. Don’t miss the fresh meat skewers at Lok Lok, the noodles at Mother & Son Wan Tan Mee and the tasty crepes at Popiah.
Sister Curry Mee: Head to Sister Curry Mee for incredible curry laksa served by two sisters who have been running the stall for over 70 years. The egg noodle dish is made with cuttlefish, shrimp and coconut-based curry soup and offers a fantastic taste of Penang.
Paya Terubong: The nasi lemak at Paya Terubong has been a local favourite for more than 30 years, serving up a flavoursome version of the fragrant rice dish with coconut milk and pandan leaf. If it’s roti canai flatbread you’re after, try Transfer Road Roti Canai for an excellent version of the Indian dish.
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