When we were in Kuala Lumpur, locals asked us where we were going next in our travels. When we replied that our next stop was Penang, they all said, “Oh, you’re going to food heaven.” In Penang, it was the same: everyone refers to the place as food heaven. Penang comes by its food culture honestly. With a mash-up of people from China, India, Thailand, and Malaysia, there are strong cultural and food influences from across the region. In addition to this, Penang has a long history as a place that grows and trades spices, from pepper to nutmeg to clove and beyond. Its impressive food culture, that has been built over time, relies on the use of specific ingredients and techniques, and even well-seasoned woks and pans that have been passed down from one generation to the next.
In George Town, the largest city on the island, the food culture is dominated by outdoor “hawker streets,” so, on our first night in town, we walked a few blocks from our hotel to the Chulia Street hawker market. Our assumption was that this would be a collection of small restaurants or stalls and that we would choose our food from among these, sort of like mall food courts at home. We were wrong. Unsure of what to do, we chose a table on the street and were immediately approached by several hawkers who proffered laminated sheets with colored pictures of the food they had on offer: spring rolls, fried noodles, octopus, and regional dishes such as Char Kway Teow and Laksa. We ordered bowls of Hokkien Mee, a noodle dish with a delicious sauce (in Penang, it’s ALL about the sauces), vegetables and a little pork. Two bowls and an order of spring rolls set us back about $5 and were delicious and filling. It’s no wonder Penang is such a perennial favorite with backpackers. It’s possible to enjoy laid back ambience and eat like a king for just a few dollars a day.
By the end of our five days, we had experienced a fuller range of culinary delights: a meal at Tek Sen, an open-air eatery that has been featured in Gourmet Magazine, a 24-hour Indian restaurant where we enjoyed fish head curry, a small Laksa stand on the beach (Laksa is a spicy noodle soup with a curry or coconut milk base), and an outdoor food court near our hotel which even featured a booth for Texas Barbeque! Each place had delicious food and a culture in which we were either counseled or commanded to choose a meal almost immediately upon arrival.
On our last night in town we took a taxi across town to the New Lane Hawker Stalls, one of the most famous in George Town and, on tasting our Char Kway Teow, (a signature regional dish of noodles, a dark sauce, chilis, and prawns or other meat) I commented to John, “This is good but probably not up to the standard of the hype.” It had taken no time for us to fall into high expectations of Penang cuisine. The most delicious plate of Pad Thai we’ve ever eaten for $2.50? That’s typical in George Town. One of our most expensive meals of the week was a delicious lunchtime feast of large prawns, softshell crab, and eggplant with prawns. Our bill? Just over $20.
The one food item that we cannot recommend is Durian. We had never heard of Durian before coming to Malaysia. It is a local fruit that has an unusual smell and taste, described by one friend as smelling like death and garbage. It is found offensive by so many people that it is prohibited to take Durian on a plane. It is, oddly enough, however, a popular item in the area. Foods made using Durian are available in shops and stands all over town. It’s possible to buy Durian ice cream, Durian pancakes, Durian candy, or Durian cream puffs. John and I bought – and shared – a single Durian cream puff, mostly just to see what all the fuss was about, and immediately regretted it. The unpleasant and persistent Durian taste stayed in our mouths for hours, despite only eating one small bite.
George Town: Come for the food, stay for fun
If George Town decided to adopt a tourism slogan, this might be a good one. George Town is a place of friendly chaos. Its old town hearkens back to the city’s colonial days and is a charming mix of 19th century European architecture and various Asian temples and Chinese clan homes, with an overlay of street markets and modern buildings. Its streets are a jumble of cars, scooters, trishaws, bikes, and pedestrians, all within dangerous proximity, but it somehow seems to work. Delicious smells of spices and incense permeate the streets and fun street art offers surprises around many corners.
In short, we found that there’s a lot more to do in George Town and the rest of Penang island than just eat. In our few days, we visited a former Chinese Clan House, an opulent 19th century mansion once owned by a wealthy merchant and local mob boss, a traditional Clan jetty, (houses on stilts that were traditional homes of the Chinese), a Tropical Spice Farm, and Enotopia, a butterfly farm with some impressive lizards, just to keep things interesting. We managed the pace necessary to see quite a bit, in spite of the steamy weather, which rises to a heat index of around 110F in the middle of the day, followed by rain somewhere between mid-afternoon and evening on most days.
A month ago we had no idea we would go to Malaysia, much less the tiny island of Penang, and yet, it has turned out to be one of the delightful surprises of our travel.