Penang hawker food is renown in Asia as some of the best on offer. The steaming carts, metallic sounds of scraping utensils, and overload of smells can sometimes be a little hectic to the uninitiated, but the taste and the price will soon make you forget all about the chaos!
Unlike the typical Chinese or Indian food we have at home, Penang hawker food is a blend of the best from ethnic Chinese, Indian, and Malay cultures. The cooks specialize in only one or two dishes that they prepare night after night; you can be assured that they are masters of their specialties!
- First, read this introduction to street food in Asia.
Famous Foods in Penang
Char Kway Teow: You'll encounter this heavy noodle dish under many spelling variants such as "char koay" or just "kway teow." As the name implies, the noodles have a deliberately charred and slightly burned aroma from the wok. Kway Teow was once the dish for poor laborers who needed a filling meal. The dish is usually prepared with pork fat, fish cake, egg, and prawns.
Hokkien Mee: Named after the Chinese immigrants to Penang, Hokkien Mee often contains barbecued pork, prawns, shallots, and a fish-based chili paste.
Penang Laksa: Laksa is a famous dish celebrated throughout Southeast Asia, however, Penang has put a special twist on it. A little fishy and seasoned with lemongrass, ginger, and mint, laksa is a taste that you'll never forget. Read more about laksa.
Mee Rebus: Mee rebus is often prepared with ketchup or a sweet tomato gravy; citrus in the form of lime offsets the sweet taste. Expect yellow egg noodles, boiled egg, and shallots.
Mee Goreng: Mee goreng simply translates to 'fried noodles' and can be prepared in a variety of ways based on the style of the hawker. Mee goreng prepared by Indian-Muslim hawkers known as 'Mamak' is a good way to avoid the pork typically found in the other noodle dishes.
Loh Mee: This noodle soup is thickened with egg gravy which gives a slightly slimy texture to an otherwise-tasty noodle dish.
Fried Oysters: You'll see fried oysters available in nearly every Penang hawker food center, but don't expect a breaded, deep-fried appetizer. Instead, fried oysters are usually prepared in the form of an egg omelet and then garnished with a sweet-and-sour chili sauce for dipping.
Pasembur: This unique Muslim specialty consists of previously deep-fried meats, seafood, vegetables, and tofu laid out on display; you are charged based upon what you take. Your choices are then rough chopped to pieces and mixed. Rather than re-fry your selections, an extremely hot, sweet-and-spicy sauce is added to the top to heat things back up. Some slaw salad is added for freshness and to make the meal extra filling.
Lok-Lok: Perfect for healthy or squeamish eaters, lok-lok consists of vegetables, meat, seafood, fishcake, and anything else you can think of in small portions on skewers; you choose as many sticks as you like from the display. Unlike the typical oil-fried treats on skewers, you boil lok-lok sticks yourself in water and then choose from one of the many sauces.
Rojak: Possibly the most unique dessert that you will ever try, Penang rojak is mixed fruit that is covered with an extremely sweet tamarind sauce. Shrimp paste and chili add unique flavors not often associated with dessert foods! Peanuts and sesame seeds add a crunchy texture.
- You can find all the above Penang specialties at Gurney Drive or find out exactly where to eat in Penang.
A Note for Vegetarians
Nearly all of the above noodle dishes are prepared with pork products. Even if you ask for a dish to be served without meat, chances are that the broth was prepared with pork bones and fat. The only way to ensure that you avoid pork is to eat only at Muslim eateries or at carts marked with the Arabic halal symbol.