Adventures in Food and Drink: Penang Edition

After eating so well in Kuala Lumpur, we headed north for Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. Zach and I arrived on a rainy evening, and the next day was rainy as well, but we tried to do some touristy things and walk around the city anyway.

We gave up after an hour. We were hungry. In the spirit of the Adventures in Food and Drink series, we knew we certainly weren’t going to eat wimpy western food.

No wimpy western food.

The Lonely Planet recommends a number of dishes known collectively as Baba Nonya cuisine. Baba Nonya, according to Wikipedia, is a term used for “the descendants of the very early Chinese immigrants to the Nusantara region, including both the British Straits Settlements of Malaya and the Dutch-controlled island of Java among other places, who have partially adopted Malay customs in an effort (chronological adaptation) to be assimilated into the local communities.”

More from Wikipedia: “Nonya cooking is the result of blending Chinese ingredients and wok cooking techniques with spices used by the Malay community. The food is tangy, aromatic, spicy and herbal. Key ingredients include coconut milk, galangal (a subtle, mustard-scented rhizome similar to ginger), candlenuts as both a flavoring and thickening agent, laksa leaf, pandan leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius), belachan, tamarind juice, lemongrass, torch ginger bud, jicama, fragrant kaffir lime leaf, rice or egg noodles and cincaluk – a powerfully flavored, sour and salty shrimp-based condiment that is typically mixed with lime juice, chillies and shallots and eaten with rice, fried fish and other side dishes.”

The Menu

We had five hours before our bus to Palau Perhentian, Malaysia. We decided it was just enough time to sample all of the recommended dishes.

Here is the route we took in sampling these foods from various food vendors around Georgetown.

Penang Food Map

These foods were best eaten from street vendors. They gather in certain areas and you sit in an open-air food court ordering from whichever ones. The vendors all looked something like this.


The first dish was asam laksa.


Laksa is a spicy coconut fish soup. Zach insists he had scales in his. It was thick and delicious. A wonderful start to the menu, and it would turn out to be my favorite dish.

We left point A, a restaurant known for its laska, for point B, a vendor hotpoint a little bit away from the most touristy parts of Georgetown for the next three dishes. Next up was char kway teow.

Char Kway Teow

This was a flavor explosion. We had expected some chili spices, but there were a lot more paprika and other similar spices. The prawns and Chinese sausage also added to the variety of flavor.

Next we ate Hokkien mee.

Hokkien mee.

It started to dawn on us that three of the dishes were spicy coconut seafood soups. This had some similar flavor to the laksa, but not quite as good.

We followed this up with chee chong fun.

Chee Cheong Fun.

We thought it was going to be dumplings with shrimp, as suggested by Lonely Planet. I had eaten a similar Vietnamese dish when living in Manila — you’d dip the dumplings in fish sauce. Instead, we just got big thick noodles to dip into a hoisin sauce. Not exactly a home run. It just took up space in our stomachs and the food voyage was beginning to get difficult with still four dishes remaining. I insisted we leave point B and head to the food stalls at point C near the water. The walk was supposed to help us digest. It didn’t.

At point C, we first ate rojak, which was a sort of salad topped with a very strongly sweet thick dressing made of tamarind and palm sugar.


It was so rich. And next up was cendol, which is a dessert made almost exclusively of condensed milk, but with beans and other little odds and ends mixed in. Also extremely rich.


We left the hawker-heavy seaside stalls for our hostel to pick up our bags as it was getting close to departure. We still had two dishes to go, and we complained while schlepping our bags to point D.

More soups. The wonton mee was the seventh dish. This was pretty much the same wonton soup I had eaten in the States, and even though the book says there will be shrimp paste and shrimp dumplings, we had none. We didn’t particularly care at this point. As you can see from Zach’s expression, this needed to end soon.

Wonton Mee

We were running out of time and we didn’t see an obvious curry mee vendor at this hawker area. Zach asked our wonton mee lady if there was curry mee around, and maybe she understood, maybe she didn’t. She pointed Zach to a vendor with a sign in Chinese.

Zach ordered us his specialty, which could not have been curry mee.

What is this?

We forced yet another noodle soup down and made our bus in time. I’d like to say that we didn’t eat for a day, but we ate again that evening, and it wasn’t noodle soup.


One response to “Adventures in Food and Drink: Penang Edition

  1. Jared,

    I have enjoyed pouring over all your travel and food choices. Most of them look wonderful. The cuisine is tempting except I don’t think I would go for the desserts. Where’s a good piece of chocolate when you need it.


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