Street Eats in Penang

George Town on Penang Island is known as Malaysia’s street food mecca, and as we arrived in late April, our mission was clear: to taste for ourselves what all the fuss was about. The former British settlement-cum-capital of Penang state and the country’s second largest metropolis, George Town was long ago established as a vital trading port between East and West. As we experienced throughout Malaysia but particularly here in George Town, the result is an eclectic mix of cultures and faiths that have added not only to the complex history of the country but has also created a beautiful assortment of colonial and Asian architectural styles.  And with this melding of Chinese, Indian, British and ethnic Malay heritages, a delectable sampler platter of global cuisines exists within this charming town.

As soon as we checked in to our small hotel, we dropped our packs and headed straight for the hawker stalls of Joo Hoi Café where we sampled some of the best street food on offer in Penang: rojak salad, laksa, char kway teow, chee cheong fun, seafood poh piah, and the icy treat of chendol for dessert. A few days later we had to return to this famed George Town eatery for a second helping of some favorites and a few new treats, including curry mee and cai kuih.

Ever the pedestrian city, George Town is also reputed for its colorful, engaging street art, which is often enjoyed while slurping on a bowl of hokkie mee as was the case for us at popular New Lane hawker stalls. The street art has found a more permanent home at the newly restored Hin Bus Deport Art Center, which serves not only as creative inspiration for the public but also a hub of healthy, delicious food purveyors on-site.  Post-yoga, we were particularly taken by Wholey Wonder’s papaya smoothie bowl, and in the Malay heat, Bricklin’s delightful iced Americanos.

We found further inspiration (and delectable treats) as we ventured to popular China House Penang, a complex maze of shops, cafes, restaurant, galleries, bakery and live music venue. Here, we enjoyed a bento set lunch of carrot soup, grilled fish, rosemary rice and fresh vegetable salad. That evening we braved an impending heat-induced thunderstorm to enjoy another bowl of one of our Malaysian favorites, char kway teow, at the Gurney Drive hawker stalls.

A visit to George Town is certainly not complete without visiting Little India, which we saved for one of our last meals in Penang. We chose Veloo Villas Restaurant where we enjoyed banana leaf rice with chicken curry, masala dosa, and mango lassis. Martin even taught Trey the proper way to eat with your hands—no utensils in sight!—, good practice for our time in India later this year. To cap off our adventurous eating experience, we decided to give the infamous—or some might consider beloved (there’s really no in between here)—durian a try as we’d seen the large spiky, melon-shaped fruit sold just about everywhere (despite signs in many establishments banning its smelly entry). We’ll let the images below show you just how we felt about our bold taste test.

George Town, Penang was on our list of must visit places for a reason—the food.  What we discovered along the way was how much more this city has to offer and about a thousand reasons why we can’t wait to return.