So you call yourself a foodie (or perhaps an epicure or a gourmet if you find the term foodie distasteful.) You are passionate about food and you seek out new food experiences. If this is you, then it seems a visit to the island of Penang in Malaysia is in order. Penang is one of the world's best places to eat. And street food, also known locally as hawker food, is its thing.
The Food and Where to Find It
The food in Penang mirrors the heritage of the people who live there—you'll find Malay, Chinese, Indian, and Nyonya cuisine, occasionally with a twist of Thai.
Several weeks are required to taste the multitude of dishes laid out on the streets. However, if you have neither the time nor the inclination to try them all, then, at the very least, give these three dishes a go: 1. Penang Laska (also called Assam Laska) 2. Prawn Mee (also called Hokkien Prawn Mee) 3. Ice Kacang
You won't have to search hard to find them. There are hawker stalls on every block. Nevertheless, if you need some direction and assurance, then grab one of the free Penang Street Food guides that lie about the town. The guide is published by Penang Tourism and includes a directory and a map, so you'll know exactly where to go for a meal you'll remember.
The free Penang Street Food guide published by Penang Tourism
You've probably heard of Penang Laska. It's the dish that launched Penang onto the world food stage. You may even have a packet sauce, purchased from your local supermarket, in your pantry at home. But that doesn't count; you really need to experience this dish on the street in Penang.
It's basically a seafood noodle soup—sour and spicy—packed with poached flakes of mackerel and springy white noodles in a tamarind and chilly-based fish broth. But that's not all, in there too are lemongrass, ginger, galangal, and shrimp paste. And tossed on top are cool cucumber, juicy pineapple, fresh mint, and shallots. The taste is strange and amazing; however, this dish is not for the faint-hearted. It's likely that your nose will be running and your eyes will be watering before the first drop of soup has passed your lips.
Price: around RM3.00 (US$0.90) for a bowl.
Hawker centers and stalls crowd the streets of Penang
The soup is a prawn and pig-bone broth, infused with a mix of thin, white rice noodles and chewy yellow egg noodles. It's garnished with small prawns, plump fish balls, crisp bean sprouts, hard-boiled egg, water spinach, and spicy sambal. Yum. I am addicted to this dish. My lips tingle when I think of it (Pavlov's dog style). However, it might not be to everyone's taste. My dining companion (a two-year-old) was not happy after I encouraged her to try it.
Price: around RM3.00 to RM3.50 (US$0.90 to US$1.10) for a basic bowl. Some stalls offer additional toppings—pork ribs, mantis prawn, fish balls, entrails, pork sausage, roast pork—for an extra charge.
"Oh. My. Goodness." Believe me, this is what you will say when your towering bowl of Ice Kacang is plopped down in front of you. It is a monstrosity; a delicious, sweet, icy, and glutinous monstrosity, but a monstrosity nonetheless.
Ice Kacang is a shaved-ice dessert, the perfect cool-down snack. The dish has a number of variations, but generally what you get is a mound of shaved-ice, flavoured with syrup and topped with red beans, sweet corn, crushed nuts, and colourful pieces of jelly. Our bowl also had a generous scoop of vanilla choc chip icecream, which balanced precariously on the shaved-ice. A uniquely Penang variation of Ice Kacang has shredded nutmeg (a spice native to Penang), pickle, and sultanas sprinkled on top.
Price: around RM2.50 to RM3.50 (US$0.75 to US$1.10) for a basic bowl. Some stalls offer additional toppings for an extra charge.