We loved the myriad delicious and cheap street food options available all over Kuala Lumpur, and we took full advantage of them. But as pretty much any Malaysian will tell you, Penang is the go-to food (I hate and refuse to use the word “foodie”) destination. We had to see for ourselves, and planned a trip up there after our scuba adventures on Tioman Island. On the advice of a friendly cab driver in KL, we traveled via train instead of flying or going by bus. We like trains, and we liked the idea of getting to see a bit more of the countryside. It was a fun trip, lasting 5 or 6 hours, and costing only 8 or 9 dollars for perfectly comfortable second class seats. As for the countryside… mostly we saw palm oil plantations, so I’m not sure that’s very different from the bus view. At any rate, it did the trick. We arrived at around 10 p.m. on August 3 and made the short walk to the frequently running ferry to George Town, the capital city. Twenty minutes later, we were there.
We checked into our guesthouse and found a late night street market within walking distance, starting things off nicely with a few watermelon juices, the first of many plates of char kway teow (rice noodle stir fry with veggies, egg and often shrimp, usually served on banana leaf) and an order of popiah, a type of fresh spring roll. Grand total? Maybe $5. Things were off to a good start.
We planned to spend a few days in the city before catching a flight to the Perhentian islands in northwest Malaysia, where we planned to put our newly earned scuba certifications to good use. Unfortunately, not all of the minor foot injuries I sustained during my run-in with the Tioman Island jetty were amenable to healing in the sticky tropical climate. Not long after arriving in Penang, we sought out a clinic where I got treatment for an infected cut on my toe and a stern order to keep it out of the water and rested to the extent possible for at least a week. So much for the Perhentians.
We quickly decided to stick it out in Penang– we were enjoying ourselves, and there was plenty to explore (and devour) before our planned trip to Borneo on August 13. We rented a scooter to make it easier on my feet (and the rest of us– it was hot, and the city doesn’t really lend itself to walking). Brian drove, I navigated, the locals laughed at us, and everyone had a great time. Of course, we also did a bit of site-seeing (to work up an appetite between meals), which we will save for a second post. Aside from the char kuey teow, a few other food-related favorites:
Roti canai is probably at least 50% responsible for Brian’s enjoyment of Penang. It’s a flaky, Indian-style flatbread, typically sold with dal or another soupy curry, and sometimes stuffed with egg, banana, or other fillings. He is very fond of it. You can find it at street stalls everywhere, and we quickly found a regular breakfast spot on Jalan McAllister, not far from our guesthouse. Brian endeared himself with his approach to ordering (he tended to ask for “roadie” instead of roti, to everyone’s initial confusion and subsequent amusement), and it was all-around a success– tasty, filling, and cheap, if not exactly healthy.With so many options available at all hours, it’s important to keep an eye out for the indicators of a great street food place: A line, ideally populated by locals. This naturallly suggests fresh (high turnover), good value food. Longevity, particularly in a crowded playing field like Penang, is a good sign as well, so in choosing between stalls we are definite suckers for the one with the “since 19xx” sign (or the wizened proprietors).
Nasi Kandar Line Clear checks all of those boxes. It’s been around since 1947, it’s always full, and a full plate of deliciousness will run you no more than a few dollars. You start with a plate of rice and choose from a huge assortment of curries, sauces, and side dishes to heap on top. We strongly recommend picking a meat dish or two, trying a bit of everything else, and opting to have it campur (“mixed”) and banjir (“flooded”). If you’re a local or a bit more dextrous than us, you eat it with your fingers, mysteriously without making a total mess of yourself.
The star of our Penang food adventures was unquestionably the street market. There are stalls on the street all day (and night), but in the evening the markets come alive, with carts and stalls squeezed into every patch of space and usually some communal tables nearby. Showing up, you claim a table, note the number, then wander about and place orders for whatever looks good. It’s made fresh and delivered minutes later. There’s usually a handful of waiters circulating to take orders for drinks. The whole business is hectic and highly enjoyable. Our favorites were at New Lane, Jalan McAllister, and the slightly more established set-up in Batu Ferrenghi, a beach community a bit north of the city.
We actually had to exercise some significant restraint with this post– we were in Penang for over a week and spent time every day seeking out different foods and places to eat them (as you can see from this photo, our guesthouse was not one of those places for smelly fruits). Eventually my foot healed, we said a fond farewell to Pete, our scooter, and headed off for a bit of jungle adventuring in Borneo.