A plastic bowl is slapped down on the steel table in front of me in central Georgetown containing a steaming noodle dish full of prawns, vegetables and sweet brown sauce. I pull out my wallet, pay the 3 Malaysian Ringgit (equivalent to 1 Aussie Dollar) to the stall owner who delivers my lunch and get ready to tuck into some real Penang hawker food.
Hawker stalls are where the local culture comes to life in Penang, but it can be a nervous experience when you’re very obviously an ‘Ang Mo’ (foreigner) like me.
I’ve put this list together so that you know what to look out for – as a general rule, though, anywhere that is packed out with locals is going to be fresh, tasty and flavoursome.
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Where to stay to eat the best Penang hawker food?
There’s no better place to stay in Penang than in the vibrant, bustling George Town district. Gorgous French colonial architecture spans a network of busy streets where the aroma of Penang hawker food is in the air.
For a lovely, luxurious stay in one of Penang’s premiere hotels, the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion offers accommodation in an iconic setting. The Prestige Hotel is another lovely accommodation option in the heart of George Town.
1. Hokkien Mee
When I order one of the most famous noodle dishes to come out of this part of the world, the Penang Hokkien Mee, I am slightly alarmed at the bug eyed prawn heads piled up behind the stand. Wrinkles form around the tiny elderly cook’s eyes as she grins noticing my face.
The dish is served in a prawn head broth with fresh prawns and pork, combined with noodles, bean shoots and fried shallots for a flavour explosion.
My search for satay skewers doesn’t last for very long because I immediately spot the tower of smoke coming from the open flame, accompanied by the unmistakeable waft of grilling meat.
I order a plate of beef and chicken skewers, and the chef, sweaty in the Penang humidity cooks them in front of me, turning them every so often. Once cooked, they are plonked on an unassuming paper plate, sploshed with a creamy peanut satay and I am sent on my way to enjoy.
3. Char Kway Teo
When I announce I am eager to eat some local Penang food to my local friends, the one dish that they agree on is Char Kway Teo.
As we search I learn that the magic of this dish is the balance of flavour that can only be achieved by cooking one small portion at a time.
The blend of flavour is a brilliant mesh of caramelised smoky sweetness coming from the little wok, mixed with with silky flat noodles, prawns, chilli, pork lard, blood cockles, egg and bean shoots served on a banana leaf.
4. Pulut Tatai (Glutinous Rice)
Sitting at my steel table in one of the many Hawker districts in Penang, I order a plate of curious sky blue coloured rectangles of rice which arrives at my table, the colour of a Smurf and odourless.
Each mouthful is sweet, but subtly so making the slabs dyed blue with the butterfly pea flower a perfect dessert. I love the glugginess of the glutinous rice and the honey-sweet taste of the pandan leaf kaya.
5. Curry Mee
Ordering my first Penang Curry Mee, my companion asks me if I want to know what is in the dish before she giggles and reveals that Curry Mee comes with pigs’ blood cubes and blood cockles.
I control my surprised face and tuck in with gusto, even though I’m freaked out by the term “blood cube”.
The meatiness of the blood, and the fishiness of the cockles, combined with coconut milk and noodles just works and I slurp as I eat because that’s the local way to show enjoyment.
6. Egg Tart
On impulse, I buy a perfect little snack for the road at the famous Ming Xiang Tai pastry shop near.
I walk out of the shop with a bag of fluffy, flaky egg tarts that crumble in my mouth as I watch the pastry chefs rolling up sesame balls in their street kitchen and frying up red bean desserts that look just like doughnuts.
7. Crispy Skin Duck
Not one to be put off by the rows of duck carcasses, skin glowing and crispy, I order a plate of duck, rice and sambal from a vendor. When it arrives on its blue plastic plate, the aroma is sweet and sticky and the taste is just as good.
The skin is crispy to the point of crunching and the meat inside is juicy and tender and I go back for seconds to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.
8. Penang Teochew Chendul
Turning the corner at Penang Road, I wade through throngs of locals lining up along the street to get their hands on this famous shaved ice dessert made by a local family who have run this stall since 1936.
The bright green noodles are flavoured with pandan, drenched in coconut milk and covered with kidney beans and gula Melaka (palm sugar) and to me, seems like an odd combination.
Like the glutinous rice, the flavours are at once sweet and savoury and all at once I’m sold on noodles for dessert.
9. Malaysian Durian
I don’t have to look far to find Durian in Malaysia because the smell is unmistakeable. The locals tell me that Penang is known for its durian dominance.
I am shown all different types of Durian and go for the second most expensive kind, nervously watch the store holders chop it open with their large knife. My first bite is thwarted by the strange texture, but as I get into it I enjoy the sweetness and heat of the fruit.
After eating it, the meatiness of the Durian makes me feel a bit hot and sweaty, but it is well worth it!
10. Wonton Mee
I stumble upon this dish courtesy of my local friends who know I love dumplings. The Wonton Mee comes in dry or broth form, but I choose to eat the dry version as it’s soaked in dark soy.
Mixed with vegetables, skinny noodles and some pork, the wontons are perfectly soft, meaty and slippery, so much so that I manage to fumble my chopsticks and leave the café wearing some of the dish.