Why you should care
Because this eat-cation does not require dress-code-compliant attire. Or restaurants.
Upon arriving in Penang, hit the street and follow your nose. In some cities, that could lead to woe. But here, the avenues are lined with steaming grills, woks and pots, delivering a cuisine that ranks among the finest in the world. Loosen that belt.
Centuries as a strategically located port brought this Malaysian island a mix of peoples, and thus a mix of flavors. There’s ample history in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of George Town, beaches lining the Strait of Malacca and scenic hikes in a national park, but this is first and foremost a place to visit for the food, and most of all the street-eats scene. Malay, Indian and Chinese cuisines have simmered together to form an unbeatable street-hawker scene. A two-block stroll from our hotel reveals too many things to choose from. Proper pacing — and five meals a day — are required.
For an unusual dessert, look for a man using a trowel to sprinkle dust on white globules.
Start with char kway teow, fried rice noodles with sausage and shrimp, the quintessential Penang dish. Puckeringly sour laksa stew is a must-try but not necessarily a must-finish. (One must be judicious with bites to maximize the limited meals.) Go ahead and gorge on salty nasi goreng fried rice with beef, pickled vegetables and a fried egg. Consumed, as I had it, in a shack overlooking the beach, it’s a filling lunch.
As hard as it is to eat anything twice given the panoply of options, I must have seconds of the oyster omelet. Plump bivalves are fried up with eggs and a rice flour batter to give the dish a sticky, gooey texture. Served with a cup of tangy but not aggressive hot sauce, it’s heavenly. For an unusual dessert, look for a man using a trowel to sprinkle dust on white globules. That’s muar chee — sticky rice balls coated with ground peanuts, cinnamon and sugar.
And we haven’t even gotten to the meat satays, creamy porridges and endless other delights. It adds up to what James Oseland, the former editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine who appeared for five years on Top Chef Masters, calls one of the top three food destinations in the world, along with Mexico City and London. While the latter two boast great restaurant scenes, Oseland scoffs at going brick-and-mortar in Penang. “What on earth for, when there’s such an astonishing bounty of street food just about everywhere you look.” It may be downscale, but the scene is bolstered by the army of food critics, he adds, who make up the island’s gastronomically spoiled residents.
Asked for his Penang favorites, Oseland rattles off a few I did not even have the chance to try in my four days: roti canai flatbread dipped in goat-curry gravy; “lusty Malay-Indian curries”; the wheat noodle–pork dumpling combination of wantan mee. It’s enough to get me salivating at the computer screen, and my taste buds demanding a return trip.