Sarah and I just completed the most extensive wandering graze of our lives.

Over the course of 12 hours in Penang, we managed to munch through 12(!) of the West Malaysian Island’s most famous street foods.

We shared most of them and they were small portions, but there’s no denying it – this was hedonistic street-gluttony run amok

Click through to see the full extent of our appetite!

A few nights ago my Asian Street Food experience came to an end on a Kuala Lumpur back street. We’d taken an overpriced taxi from our hotel to a reputable street food market in the Kampung Baru area of the city, only to find that a public holiday the previous day had curtailed the night market, meaning a rapidly dwindling pool of vendors. Ignoring the satay stalls and cat calls from the adjoining restaurants, I quickly settled on a popular noodle stall and it’s smiling Malay vendor for what was to be my parting shot.

This was classic one dish one vendor stuff, cooked on a huge, circular pan and served in hot, heavy paper parcels like fish and chips. The noodles were a wide and flat runway variety, reminiscent of a rogue strain of linguine, and had been mixed in with liberal amounts of beansprouts, chili and soy sauce.

The result was a dish that was more texture than flavour. The chili and soy sauce were good, but it was the juxtaposition of the smooth, soft, slightly sticky flat noodles and the crunchy, fresh beansprouts that piqued my interest. Faced with this mean pair, the flavours sidled off into the background and kept their presence to mere taste bud fodder. I gobbled the lot right there on the sidewalk (sorry, pavement) then went to buy some fake DVDs

I felt that this was a good dish to end on. It was simple stuff – quick, sustaining and unpretentious, and the type of thing that I’d be pushed to find any other place at any other time. I loved the rusticity of the serving methods and the fact that it only cost about 20p.

I’m in London now, and its going to be interesting to see how the street food here compares. Next stop Borough market!

Years ago, whilst en route to Australia, I had one of the most memorable eating experiences of my life aboard the wonderful Malaysia Air. It was around midnight UK time, but the cabin crew had yanked open the window shutters to the rising sun and announced breakfast.
On the menu was Nasi Goreng, an Indonesian and Malay breakfast staple that generally involves fried rice, egg, chili sauce and occasionally seafood, meat or vegetables. This particular version came with a little portion of curried prawns on the side, and sent my dormant, 18 year old taste buds shooting across continents faster than any jumbo jet.

I’ve carried that experience with me, and was justifiably excited by the prospect of a re-run when we arrived in Malaysia. However, far from recreating that single experience, I’ve discovered that Nasi Goreng, a lot like multi-cultural Malaysia, exists in several different shades held together by a few common denominators.

One of those is sambal, a pungent chilli paste with variations that include prawn paste, lime juice and sugar. Sambal can be a bit much at first, but as with many acquired tastes, perseverance brings with it rich rewards.

Other common denominators include fried rice and eggs. The egg sometimes comes hard boiled, at other times it is fried whole mixed through until barely cooked. Further variations exist with fried anchovies, prawns, sliced cucumber or what ever comes to hand. This is because Nasi Goreng is essentially an economical meal, composed of leftover rice and other odds and ends.

Even presentation is up for grabs. Sometimes it comes in little pyramid shaped banana leaf packages that open to reveal a boiled egg balanced on top of a dollop of sambal and portion of rice. Other times it comes out with the different components separated on the plate, awaiting the judicious application of fork and spoon.

A true breakfast of champions.

On my third day in Penang, I decided to make an all out assault on the Big 3 – the three dishes identified by Penang expert Rasa Malaysia as the essential tastes of Penang.

Along with Robyn Eckhardt at EatingAsia, her writing was one of the main reasons I came to Penang in the first place. So, rather than pitch up to any old stall and try my luck, I decided to follow Rasa’s specific recommendations and get my map out for a bit of a treasure hunt.

My first stop was Kedai Kopi Classic at 126 Jalan Parak for a bowl of Hokkien Mee. This involved a combination of rice noodles and yellow noodles served in a a thick spicy broth along with sliced prawns, slivers of pork and beansprouts. The soup was devilshly spicy and caught in the back of my throat with my first few sips. Delicious.

Next on the list was a bowl of Penang’s signature dish, Laksa Assam. I had already tried one of these at the LP recommended Hawker Centre on the esplanade and ended up dissapointed. This time I was taking no such risks. I instead made a beeline for the Kek Song Coffee Shop at 382 – 384 Jalan Penang.

Unlike other Laksas, Laksa Assam (also known as Laksa Penang) doesn’t contain any coconut milk. Instead, it consists of a watery broth of flaked fish chili, tamarind and lemongrass. A number of extra ingredients are added, including sliced onion, pineapple and chopped ginger buds – and of course plenty of thick, round noodles. Last of all a dollop of pungent prawn paste is added to give it that extra kick. The result was a hot and sour soup of epic proportions.

My final stop of the day was the Loh Eng Hoo Coffee Shop on Jalan Salamat for some Char Koay Teow. For this dish, prawns are fried over a high heat with a little minced garlic, followed closely by flat noodles, soy sauce, eggs, chives, and finally cockles. Although I enjoyed the individual components of this dish (the prawns in particular were stunning) I felt that it didn’t come together in the way I’d hoped.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed all three of these distinct Penang dishes and the places they were served. I particularly enjoy the no frills, back to basics approach of alot of Penang food (check out the heavy duty plastic bowls and spoons!) All three of these places had atmosphere in spades, and were cheap, local and unpretentious – everything I love about street food.

Cheers Rasa!


In his classic song Me lost me cookie at the disco, the Cookie Monster sings not only about the physical loss of a cookie, but also about how his love of cookies actually drives him up the wall. He’s bemoaning an obsession that has literally taken over his entire life, one he has to know is unhealthy, but is nevertheless powerless to stop. Although I can’t claim to have the same level as expertise as the Cookie Monster, I think I understand him.

I’ve been feeling alot like the cookie monster ever since I arrived in Penang. This place is a food playground, and I’ve been averaging out at something like six meals a day. It can’t go on, it’s unsustainable, but I just can’t help myself. I’ve lost my cookie big time.
Yesterday was a good day for street food. The day started at an almost antique alleyway shack off Chulia St with some roti butter (doorstop slices of toast with butter) and a cup of the local Joe. The coffee beans are fried with butter and sugar prior to grinding, making for a lovely, silky smooth texture and a unique taste.
Later, at Penang Hill, we packed in a chickpea special (or that’s what he called it) from a stall selling an assortment of nuts and other goodies. What was so special about these chickpeas was that they had been combined with masala powder, lime juice, sliced red onions and bombay mix. These little beauts certainly were special, and had Sarah tooting all the way down the other side of the hill.
Later still, we took respite from the rain at a hawker centre with some chicken, lamb and beef skewers, dipped in a chuncky, spicy satay sauce. The meat was exceptionally tender, and I had to stop myself from scooping out the leftover sauce with my fingers.

Me number one dish of the day however, was at me “second breakfast.” – Mee Curry. This affair involved two types of noodles – vermicillii and a thicker, round noodle – in a spicy, coconut milk broth. Heaped on top were acres of beansprouts, slices of bean curd, cubes of pigs blood, some cockles, and a few other veg and sea things. The broth was incredible – flavoursome, silky smooth, and just the right amount of oily. I also thought I detected a peanut flavour in there but can’t be sure. The remaining ingredients mainly added some bite and texture to the broth, with the exception of the cockles – each one was a localised explosion of sea that went above and beyond the other flavours, yet nevertheless managed to maintain parity.
Do you see what I mean?

Penang, on Malaysia’s west coast, is a place of diversity. The East India Company set up a trading post here in the late 1800s, and the capital Georgetown remains a relic of its colonial past. Streets with names like Campbell and Carnavarn, intersect with others such as Cintra and Chulia, mashing fading colonial splendour with functional Asian chaos. Little India, Chinatown and Malay areas further subdivide the city into swathes of varying colours, smells and sounds, making for a real assault on the senses and a unique locale.

Food here seems to be part of the fabric of the city; cultural threads that intertwine and overlap, weaving through the Chinese, Indian and Malay communities like a massive, edible rug. Even the restaurants with roofs and walls spill out onto the street, setting the pavements alight with the thrashing of woks and clanking of tandoors. Elsewhere, outdoor markets and hawker centres try to impose a little containment on the madness, and pavement vendors ply a vigourous trade on almost every corner. There’s no doubt about it, Penang food is street food.

Sarah and I are curry fiends, so it’s no surprise that on our first day we headed straight for Little India. Once there, we found this attractive stall packed with Indian savorys. We dug straight into some morning Samosas, still warm and bursting with a smoothly textured filling boasting plenty of potato, chickpeas, turmeric and mustard seeds.
Later, unpacified, we hit up our second Indian street vendor of the day at Sup Hameed on Penang Street. Sup Hameed is basically a line of Indian street food stalls stretched into a pavement restaurant. Between them, they put together an impressive menu that includes a wide range of conventional curries as well as delicacies such as cow’s stomach soup. We opted for the Tandoori Chicken Naan and the Nasi Kandar.
We’d gobbled a Tandoori Naan the previous night at a late night curry house near our restaurant and had been gunning for a repeat performence ever since. The Tandoori chicken consisted of leg and thigh meat, marinated and then thrust into an outdoor tandoor. Into the same oven were slapped doughy disks that cooked and expanded, bubbled and cracked to just the right degree. The result was a joyful marriage of succulent flavoursome chicken with soft fresh naan. Some sliced onions and cucumber sealed the deal.

The Nasi Kandar was an Indian buffet of sorts, consisting of a plate of pilau rice onto which a selection of curries, sauces and condiments were added. The Chicken Tikka Masala I picked was a little bony for my liking, but the accompanying sauce was rich, salty and smacked of cinnamon. Some shredded cabbage with mustards seeds likewise stood out.

Fantastic, and just a fraction of what this city has to offer. Much more to come!