George Town, the capital of Penang off the west coast of Malaysia, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its well-preserved colonial-era mansions, shophouses, temples and ethnic enclaves.
Grounding all this stunning architecture are the alley cul-de-sacs and unfurling lebuhs (roads), where the true heart of George Town pulsates to the rhythm of clanging woks and the hum of expectant eaters in (often long) lines.
In spite of hipster cafes and bars sneaking into legendary hawker strips like Jalan MacAlister, Lebuh Chulia and Lebuh Kimberly, locals remain fiercely protective of their street food: the old-fashioned, handmade dishes that generations of cooks expertly fry with flourish, long before slow food became a trendy movement.
Your best bet is to ramble across George Town, feasting your eyes on the sights while tasting various dishes from atmospheric kopitiams (traditional coffeeshops) and streetside peddlers. But if you’re here for the greatest hits – dig in.
1. Assam Laksa
If there’s one dish that personifies Penang, it’s assam laksa, a resplendence of piquant, tart and sweet undertones surging through mackerel-stewed broth infused with tamarind juice and hae ko (thick sweet prawn paste). Cucumber slivers, pineapple bits, mint sprigs and ginger-bud shreds top off thick rice noodles steaming in this literal melting pot. For the undisputed best, work your way to Air Itam Laksa (Jalan Pasar) by its namesake market, a 25-minute drive outside of town. For 70 years, the bold broth known for its lemongrass punch has simmered in the shadow of Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple complex in South-east Asia, as bowls and bowls in succession are ladled out to longtime devotees and visiting foodies. Come later in the day for a more concentrated stock.
2. Char Koay Teow
Every South-east Asian city worth its umami has its iconic version of fried noodles: enter Penang (not to be mistaken with Singapore’s) char koay teow, a charcoal-fired heist of supple prawns and cockles, scrambled eggs, crunchy bean sprouts, fishcake, and Chinese chives laced with sambal belacan (fermented chilli paste) and lard. For showmanship, watch the Kafe Heng Huat (108 Lorong Selamar) boss lady clad in her trademark red beret and safety goggles attack the wok with gusto as charcoal sparks literally fly during your estimated one-hour wait. But for silky decadence with the option of adding bamboo clams, Tiger Char Koay Teow at Kafe Ping Hooi (corner of Lebuh Carnavon and Lebuh Malay) infuses creaminess into their duck’s egg version of the typically unpretentious dish.
SEE ALSO: A quick guide to Bangkok’s street food
3. Nasi Kandar
An energising staple that checks off every Penang resident’s need for aromatic spice, nasi kandar stalls offer a cornucopia of meats, seafood and vegetables steeped in various renditions of curry and gravy, plus arrays of fried sides to round off hearty meals built on fragrant rice. Bonus: many are open late-night or 24 hours for post-nightlife resuscitation. At Line Clear Nasi Kandar (alley off Jalan Penang), a multi-tiered buffet steamer unfurls, laden with daily specials like fish curry and daging kicap (beef in black soy sauce), and classics like fried chicken and telur dadar (omelette). Generous servings come with kuah banjir, a mix of gravies for your smothering pleasure. The only way to make it taste better? Eat with your fingers, like the locals do.
A Penang salad is not for the light of appetite, but a euphemism for tossing various ingredients like a variety of seafood fritters, crackers, potato, deep-fried beancurd and cuttlefish with a sweet and spicy sauce dappled with peanuts. (If guilt sets in, there’s always the vegetable-julienne and bean-sprout garnish.) And yes, Pasembur, a northern Malaysian stalwart, is a teatime snack for locals. In George Town, Kareem Pasembur Rojak (Lebuh Union) stands out for his homemade sauce rooted in sweet potato, a shade lighter than the usual bright orange, but pleasing customers since 1945. The pushcart is instantly recognisable by its heaping mound of supremely crispy prawn fritters; pick your spoils from around 25 different offerings, then savour at a shared table by a shady nook on the street.
You’re melting in the tropical humidity and your palate is ablaze from everything else on this list. Douse the heat with Penang’s quintessential icy confection which takes shaved ice up many notches by steeping it in rich coconut milk and butterscotch-y gula melaka (palm sugar). Pandan rice flour jellies tinged green floating in the mix is the main treat in cendol (or chendul), although different stalls may offer other toppings such as red beans, creamed corn and glutinous rice. Duck under the awnings of Penang Road Famous Chendul (27/29 Lebuh Keng Kwee) for a luxuriant hit of syrupy sweetness housed within a mountain of fine ice – the true definition of chilling out, George Town style.
– TEXT BY DESIREE KOH
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This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.