Postpone your detox and eat your way through Penang with this food travel guide
As a child, Penang never excited me. This highly congested city is the birthplace of a man whom I have great admiration for, my father. Like a spoiled and westernized brat, this multicultural hub, was far too “dirty” for my liking. I detested the open aired restaurants, opting to stay in an air-conditioned car while my family, the locals, dined loudly in enjoyment.
Looking back, I can’t help but laugh. As we all know, fifty percent of the magic is to soak in the environment and embrace its imperfections. You can have the finest food, but if it’s not with the right crowd or you’re in a sterile environment, you’re not going to enjoy your meal. And that, to me, is what Penang represents. It is a city of character, a melting pot of Chinese, Indian and British influences, with a fractured infrastructure.
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If you’re looking for a beach getaway that welcomes you with beautiful pristine waters, look away. Though there are a bevy of resorts situated on the coastlines of Batu Ferringhi, you’re better off staying in Georgetown where the real deal is.
Colonized by the British in 1786, much of Penang’s past and current architecture reflects a time of diversity. As a key port for trade, there was an influx of spices and foreign ingredients that contributed to the vibrant food scene that Penang is notoriously known for. So if you’re only visiting for the weekend, do as the locals do and eat till your heart’s content.
The craftsmanship and methodology behind every dish takes hours of preparation. That is why open aired dining halls called Hawker Centers are a staple and where locals, like my family, flock to. Bring wet tissues (you’re going to sweat a lot), buy a portable fan and indulge. There’s no such thing as menus. Just your average grandmothers and fathers serving an old family recipe, not caring a damn about how it looks or whether it is Instagram-worthy.
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DELICIOUS LOCAL FOOD FOR THE ADVENTUROUS
In Penang, the food does the talking and you must visit with an open mind. You have to be adventurous. For instance, the city’s signature Assam Laksa is a compact bowl of noodles that warrants a few tries before passing judgment. Each spoonful is packed with flavor, surprising you with hints of sweet, sour and spicy aromas. At first bite, your palette is shocked by a strong fishy scent, which, in seconds, is overpowered by a fresh, yet zesty note that makes the dish incredibly refreshing. In just one bite, your taste buds are taken on a rollercoaster where every drop provides a sensation of enjoyment. Try Penang’s best Assam Laksa at Penang Air Itam Laksa.
Being greedy is advised. With each dish ranging from US$1 to $2, order like the Italians and let your heart sing. It is impossible to diet and it would be a shame if you left without trying Penang’s Char Kuey Teow (flat rice noodle cooked on a hot wok with eggs, shrimp and bean sprouts), Hokkien Mee (egg noodles soaked in a rich prawn broth garnished with fried garlic) and Nyonya Kuih (sweet glutinous rice absorbed in coconut milk and infused by the scent of Pandan leaves). Visit Moh Teng Pheow, an old school, hole-in-the-wall bakery for homemade Kuih (cake).
Traditional Malaysian dishes like Roti Canai (savory pancakes dipped in fish or chicken curry), Nasi Lemak (coconut rice accompanied by a hard-boiled egg, sambal (prawn paste) and anchovies, served on a banana leaf) and Ice Kacang (shaved ice served with syrup, condensed milk, corn, beans and jelly) are also worthy of a try.
OLD SCHOOL LODGING
So if you’re planning to visit Penang, be near the food. Stay at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel where you’re transported back into colonial times.
What makes this hotel special is their effort to maintain its heritage. Rooms are spacious, white bath tubs are situated on its own and by every bed there is an old school phone worthy of an Instagram post. All that is missing is a private butler, dressed in a tuxedo with white gloves to serve. But that is the beauty of Penang, there is nothing pretentious about it.
Fifteen minutes away is Lebuh Acheh, a tourist hotspot with a smart marketing gimmick. This is known as Penang’s art district and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It is filled with witty murals hidden around the area and carefully curated to draw attention to vintage shops, new cafes, an old dealer shop with a group of uncles reminiscing of the past and more. The hunt for each painting is a great way to explore on foot or by bike. Don’t be lazy and walk. Sweat off the calories and have some Insta-fun with your travel buddy.
Ultimately, there is a reason why people return to Penang and it’s the food calling to them. Other than family, that’s definitely what keeps me coming back for more.
If you are planning to visit Penang, see this safe travel resource from Traveloka to know more about the current health and safety travel requirements of Malaysia.