No blog about Penang is complete without the quintessential works of art that this proud island is known for: food! And you won’t find anything better than the local home-cooked masterpieces that can be found at these humble hawker stalls flanking traditional Chinese-style coffee shops (known colloquially as kopitiams).
Let’s get straight into the chow, shall we? I hope your stomach isn’t the jealous type, because your eyes are going to feast! Teehee.
First up we swing by a conspicuous kopitiam along one of Penang’s main roads in the bustling district of Pulau Tikus. It’s a famous store and these guys have been going strong for decades. Here is why:
They make some of the best fried noodles in town! We call it “Mee Goreng” which literally translates to fried noodles in Malay. They whip it up fast and furious and fresh for you, and you get to watch them do it too! Feel free to chop and change the ingredients, but usually it’s either with or without squid slices. Also if you’re allergic to peanuts you should definitely let them know beforehand.
In the same premises is a decent Pasembur stall. Pasembur is the Penang version of Rojak Mamak, and typically involves a smorgasbord of bite-sized treats covered in a sweet and spicy hot sauce. Think Asian nachos or poutine, and you’ll still be way off, but that’s the best comparison off the top of my head.
This place is generally open from morning to late afternoon, so don’t go rocking up at night. If you do happen to end up in Pulau Tikus at night, you might have to saunter over to the Pulau Tikus markets one street to the south. They’re known for their Lok Lok, which is basically this mammoth assortment of skewered nibbles that you can select and cook yourself. This is what it looks like:
Now if you hop over into Georgetown, there is an even greater variety of food to choose from! The list is so immense it would be a monumental task trying to list them all, so I’ll give you…one.
Hey, where you going? Okay, it’s actually really more like three, because there are these three kopitiams that are pretty much fused at the hips and happily operating together along Presgrave Street. And you should know that when it comes to hawker stalls, when I say three I mean there are about eight different stalls lining the exterior of the shop. I’ve always wondered about this arrangement of Asian food stores, where the cooking and preparation happens at the entrances to the restaurant, but now is not the time to be questioning interior design. It is time for more food!
Here is a bowl of some Penang famous Hokkien Mee, also commonly known as Prawn Mee. A big favourite with the locals.
It is generally on the spicy side, but you can easily control the level by choosing how much of the spicy sauce you mix into the soup. They let you do this by pouring a healthy dollop of spicy sauce into your eating spoon, and you can choose to incorporate or discard any amount whatsoever. No one will look at you funny if you let most of it slide. So don’t go putting that spoonful of chilli sauce in your mouth in one go unless you’re feeling up for the challenge!
Another stall you’ll find guarding the entrance to these kopitiams is the Satay stall. Another Penang favourite, these unassuming skewers will pack a punch! The options you have are based on the type of meat they use (sorry vegetarians). There’s typically chicken, beef, mutton and pork, and this stall even has fancy tomyam ones!
Again you can behold the chefs in action, although for Satay you may want to avoid standing downwind unless you’re a big fan of the smoky charcoal flavour.
After you’re finished with your main course, hop on over to the desserts stall and get yourself some of Penang’s world famous cold desserts: Ais Kacang or Chendol. The one above with the green noodly things (fear not, they’re just as afraid of you as you are of them – I mean, they’re not alive) is the Chendol. As you can see it has the aforementioned green noodly things and a nice mixture of beans and grass jelly in a lovely sweet soup.
Ais Kacang is this towering monstrosity of shaved ice topped with ice cream, floating serenely in a bed of grass jelly, sweet corn, beans, and attap chee (soft palm seeds). Splendid after a hot day in the sun!
This place is only a short walk up from the Kwong Wah Yit Poh Chinese newspaper headquarters. If you pass by after opening hours, you can even take a peek into the newspaper printing factory since it’s only barred off by steel grills. Presgrave Street is one of Penang’s many historical boulevards and is neatly lined with ancient Chinese shop lots. On occasion it may even be intricately adorned.
That’s it, I’m kind of starving so I’ll leave it here. Oh, one final thing to note when attempting to order at kopitiams with hawker stalls: there is a special way about it. First, you find a table and sit down. If there is more than one of you, then you can either take turns ordering at the stalls you want or you can appoint a designated runner to summon the foods.
This is because there are so many different hawker stalls and they are all separately run and owned. So when it comes to placing orders, you have to go to them. But don’t worry, once you place your order, simply indicate where you are seated (usually with copious pointing and gestures) and they will bring the tasty food to you! Certain stalls such as the drinks stalls will approach your table for orders. So no need to panic, act like you’re at home, and enjoy your food! Bon appetit!