Penang is an island situated in the northwest region of peninsular Malaysia. The cultural and historical hub of Georgetown has preserved colonial buildings adorning the streets. By walking just a few hundred meters, you feel like you’ve traversed continents. Chinese temples lay adjacent to shops selling Indian saris housed in British architecture. Street signs can be found in English, Bahasa Malaya, Chinese, and Arabic. The hodge-podge of cultures intermingled results in a foodie’s paradise.
Street art of Georgetown
Adam and I, being as frugal as we are, dined only at food courts and street vendors. There are plenty doting around the island that both locals and tourists patronize. The casual and sometimes chaotic atmosphere makes for an exciting way to eat your days away.
Here is a guide for dining on the cheap as a pescatarian (I don’t really eat seafood, but I’m okay with fish sauce). We stayed there for ten days and kept running into new food stalls and trying new foods. One could probably eat at a different place three times a day for years, so this list is not exhaustive.
Hawker centers and food courts are ever popular in Penang. When you order, take a seat and they will deliver to you and you pay then. Some drink vendors have a monopoly over the tables, so you might only be able to sit if you order a drink.
Please visit the following map to find the locations. There are certainly more than the ones listed though!
Chulia street night vendors – These night stalls are mostly patronized by western travelers as Chulia Street is the backpackers’ hub. Lines can get long and you can’t sit down unless you buy a drink. The usual fare (fried noodles, noodle soup, laksa, satay, fruit juices) is available for dirt cheap prices. Only open at night.
CF Food court: Situated near the Chew Jetty. Has the usual fare of food. I also saw some Thai, Japanese, and Italian, but didn’t try it. The food that we got there twice was mediocre and a bit expensive.
Red garden food court – This food court has more international cuisine represented such as Korean, Mexican, Italian, but I didn’t try these foods. The Malay food I did have was a bit expensive for what it was and not very good, so perhaps you might have better luck if you’re craving some comfort food. Very popular at night. Sometimes live music, too!
Gurney drive – A short bus ride away is the famous Gurney Drive food hawker stand along the water. We got there a bit too early and not all of the shops were open, but it seems like it would be an active and busy area to sample lots of food!
Chowrasta Market – We went there every day for breakfast of fresh fruit and coffee. Sometimes we’d indulge in chestnuts or samosas. Actually, the food vendors are lined outside of the actual market. Best to go in the morning or afternoon.
Kimberly Night Market – decent selection. White curry noodles recommended. There’s also an all vegetarian food stand ran by a Japanese man and his family. Curry noodles were fantastic!
Ee Beng Vegetarian buffet – Go there for lunch when food is fresher. Not the best vegetarian buffet, but decent. You pay for what you put on your plate and it’s a little shady because there are no prices listed. I liked the morning glory, spinach, and mushroom dishes. My plate was 5 MYR and Adam’s was 7 MYR.
Little India – There area few block that make up Little India. The neighborhood really comes alive at nighttime. Bollywood music, colorful saris for sale, “fancy” stores selling bracelets. I loved what we tried in the restaurants like roti canai, Kerala parotta, banana leaf thali, lemon rice, tea! Mango lassi was not very good because it was a concentrate rather than fresh fruit.
New Lane Hawker Center – A few blocks away from KOMTAR is the New Lane Hawker Center, which consists of food vendors lining the street at nighttime. The pohpia stand was the best we’ve tried yet because it was extra crunchy.
What to eat
You can enjoy local delicacies as well as taste cuisine from around the world. Most people can speak English and understand vegetarianism, but you may have to ask to them not to put in fish and oyster sauce.
Spring rolls, usually vegetarian but sometimes uses prawns. Instead of the usual rice paper, these delicate papers are made from wheat. Inside are various sauces, noodles, tofu, egg, and lettuce. I appreciated that they’re not deep fried, so they make a perfect crunchy snack or appetizer. Two rolls usually cost between 2 and 4 MYR (0.50-1 USD)
2. Char Koay Kak
The vendor described it as “carrot cake”, but it was really fried rice cakes, radishes, beans prouts, eggs, and veggies. Usually comes with prawns.
3. Curry mee
Egg noodles in a rich coconut based curry. Not always vegetarian, so check. There are delicious vegetarian curry mee at the Kimberly night market! Japanese owner speaks English.
Unique soup made from tomatoes, tamarind, pineapple, and mint. Spicy, sour, sweet, with a pop of refreshment. Comes with noodles and green veggies.
5. Char kway teow
Your typical wide fried noodles with beansprouts and egg. Usually comes with prawns.
6. Yee Foo Mee
Thicke egg noodles, veggies, and egg in a thick brown gravy. A bit too saucy for my liking. Usually comes with prawns.
7. Nasi lemak
Fluffy coconut rice, chili sauce, cucumbers, peanuts, boiled egg. Usually comes with fried chicken and anchovies. Popular for breakfast.
8. Roti canai:
This Indian-inspired Malaysian dish tasted just like the flakey parottas of Kerala, India. Comes with a small dab of dahl and spicy sambal. Eat with your right hand! Super cheap snack for about 1 MYR (0.25 USD)
9. Banana leaf set meal (Indian)
A generous helping of rice with various curries like Chana masala, dahl, pickles, and sambar. Accompanied by crunchy poori, which are sort of like crackers. All served on a banana leaf. If you’ve been to Kerala in India, it won’t compare, but still worth a try. Again, eat everything with your right hand!
10. Roti canai veg roll
We had this four times at Jaya Restaurant. For only 4 MYR (1 USD), you get a roti bread stuffed with spiced potatoes and peas. Served with two curries. Filling and delicious!
There’s a middle eastern restaurant serving up kebabs. Watching them make the fresh chewy wraps made my mouth water. I indulged in a falafel wrap with veggies and tzatziki sauce for 5 MYR (1.25 USD). No photo, but you can imagine with a falafel wrap looks like!
These can be found in Little India and at the Chowrasta Market. Some are vegetarian, some are not, so be sure to ask. They’re a tasty snack, but don’t forget it’s deep fried so not exactly friendly to your body.
13. Roasted chestnuts
Warm your soul with chestnuts from the Chowrasta Market! These nuts were sweeter than usual. Delicious.
This list is certainly not exhaustive. Thre are tons and tons of food options, but we could only eat and recommend so much!
There are plenty of stands to get your drink on.
Coffee (kopi) – White coffee is famed in Penang, but I opted not to try it since I do not like my coffee sweet. I usually settled for iced filter coffee with no milk or sugar one of the many street vendors. Usually costs about 1.5 ringgit. If you want milk, they usually use condensed milk, but if you prefer it unsweetened, say “Coffee C” and they will use evaporated milk. Be sure to clarify no sugar though!
Teh Tarik – Quite popular in Malaysia. Black tea with sweet condensed milk that is also entertaining to watch when they make it! Teh O is no milk. Teh C is with unsweetened milk.
Ginger Tea – An intensely spiced tea.
Fresh fruit juices can also be enjoyed for 2 ringgit.
Or just drink right from a coconut!
Beers can be found at most food courts and at some casual bars on Chulia street and Love Lane where most backpackers go. There’s sometimes live music, too.
*Note that in order to sit at a table at some street vendors, you must purchase a drink.
I don’t have a sweet tooth, so I didn’t try much in terms of desserts.
There are super sweet dense desserts in Little India. Maybe only half of a piece will satisfy your sweet tooth. You’ve been warned!
Cendol – Shaved ice bowls with coconut milk and various gelatinous goodies seem to be a popular choice among the street vendors. We didn’t try it, but it resembled patbingsu in Korea.
Fresh local fruits are available at day markets like the Chowrasta Market.
Where to stay in Penang?
We stayed a family-owned place called Hang Chow Hotel for 45 MYR per night for a private double room with clean shared bathrooms. Friendly and cheap place on Chulia Street, the backpackers district. I don’t think you can reserve online, so just show up!
What else to do in Penang?
Visit the boat jettys, stroll through the historical city, take advantage of the free city bus, have a picnic at the Esplanade, see the view from the top of the tallest building at KOMTAR, take a trip to one of the many beaches, visit the Kek Lok Si Temple, take a crafts class.