9 Reasons You Should Feast on Penang Food, Malaysia

The history of food in Penang island is inextricably linked to its founding back in 1786. Penang was acquired by the English Captain Francis Light, on behalf the British East India Company.

By the 1800s, Penang was one the busiest trading ports in the region, attracting merchants involved in the trade of tea, spices, porcelain and cloth.

Traders and settlers came from Europe, India, China, the Malay Archipelago, Thailand and Burma and called Penang home. This led to a multi-cultural mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Siamese, to name a few.

Penang became a melting pot for hybrid communities, with the most famous being the Baba Nyonya (Chinese and Malay), Jawi Peranakan (Tamil Indian and Malay) and Eurasians (European and Asian).

These different communities settled on the island creating a multi-cultural heritage.

George Town is the capital city of Penang island and is Malaysia’s second largest city. The historical core of Georgetown was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.

Today, the dynamic city of George Town is renowned for its diverse street food. Penang food is a delicious culinary experience where different cultural influences are stirred into its literal “melting pot.”  Here are 9 reasons why you should feast on Penang Food in Malaysia.

GeorgeTownMapMalaysia_PenangFood_AuthenticFoodQuestPenang Island off Malaysia Peninsula and the capital city of George Town
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#1- Penang  – The Food Capital of Malaysia

Penang is the birthplace of Malaysia street food and has been voted time and again as one of the best in the world. A few of the numerous accolades include; Lonely Planet who ranked Penang as the #1 Best Food Destination in 2014. And in 2016, Huffington Post had bestowed Penang char koay teow as one of the must try dishes in the world.

The food reflects the intermingling of the many cultures that arrived after it was set up as a trading port in 1786. You’ll find a mix of traditional Malay, Chinese and Indian dishes, as well as the fusion cuisines such as Baba Nyonya, or Peranakan. The food culture is also influenced by the Acehnese, Burmese, Thais and more.

All of this can be found in food courts, hawker centers and coffee shops (Kopi Tiam) throughout George Town.

Prawn Noodles Penang Food Authentic Food QuestPrawn Noodles at Penang’s Famous Green House

#2- Penang Street Food and Hawker Centers

Penang has a host of hawker centers sprawling around the city. Each hawker center has its own character. From the large and organized Gurney Drive Hawker Center to the open air hawker stalls on Chulia Street. There is a hawker center for every taste.

In our previous article, we discovered Hawker Centers in Malaysia. These Hawker Centers are open-air food complex where many individual food stalls prepare dishes to eat on site.

In Penang, each hawker center becomes a sought out destination for your next meal, a new place to discover.

Penang’s hawker centers are cheap, informal and almost universally delicious. Taste the local food and mingle with locals over a meal.

Gurney Drive Hawker Center Penang Food Authentic Food QuestGurney Drive Hawker Center at dinner time

#3- Unique Penang Food & Dishes

Not only you will find all the different Malaysian cuisines, Penang also bring its own touch when it comes to Malaysian specialties.

As soon as we landed in Penang, we were told not to miss Penang Asam Laksa. Laksa comes from the Peranakan cuisine and it is a popular spicy rice noodle soup. The typical Laksa is made with a sweet coconut base curry sauce.

In Penang, Laksa is made with tamarind, which gives this spicy soup a distinct sour taste. It  became famous when Anthony Bourdain visited Pasang Air Itam and featured its delicious Asam Laksa.  Penang Asam Laksa is ranked #7 on CNN top 50 world’s 50 best foods.

Discover unique local dishes and enjoy the Penangite twist on the food specialties.

Asam Laksa Penang Food Authentic Food QuestPanang Air Itam serving the famous Penang Asam Laksa

#4- Visit The World’s First Food Wonderland – Wonderfood Museum

To feast your senses, visit Penang’s first world food museum, called Wonderfood. This museum features creative and interactive food art to celebrate Penang’s food heritage.

The museum will give you insights on the local cuisine and walk you through the unique dishes of the region. Giant replicas of the food dishes are exhibited in several galleries in this three floor building. You will get to learn about Malaysian eating habits as well as the history behind the food.

No doubt that this fun museum will leave you hungry and ready to hunt for your next Penang food specialty.

Wonderfood Museum Penang Food Authentic Food QuestTaking a bite of the giant Cendol, an iconic Penang iced dessert

#5- Walkable City for Eating Stops  

George Town, Penang, is compact and very walkable. You’ll find a myriad of delights along the narrow lanes and alleyways.

Leisurely strolling down the streets, will you to soak in all the details. Amazing murals, street art, along with wrought-iron caricatures are found in surprising corners around the city.

Street Art Penang Food Authentic Food QuestChildren from the window on Armenian Street

See colonial architecture on Beach Street also known as “Street of Banks” for the sheer number of financial institutions.

The “Street of Harmony” Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling street, and Armenian Street on the otherside, showcase the assimilation and harmonious co-existence of the many cultures and religions in Penang.

Coffee shops and eateries serving piping hot curries, noodles and an array of mouth watering dishes are found throughout George Town. Take respite from the heat and enjoy a delicious iced treat.  Or, break your walking tour up with stops in at any one of the tempting hawker centers serving the local Penang food.

Sri Mahamariamman Temple Penang Food Authentic Food QuestSri Mahamariamman Temple in Little India, off Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling Street

#6- Abundant Vegetarians Options

Penang has a predominantly Chinese population. Over 80% of Malaysian Chinese identifying themselves as Buddhists, and vegetarian diet is part of their habits. You will find in Penang, a lot of Chinese cuisine restaurants offering exclusively vegetarian menu.

Additionally, over 9% of the population in Penang is from Indian descent. Vegetarianism is a revered tradition in Indian culture. As a result, you will find many indian vegetarian options offered in restaurants as well.

Penang is definitely a food haven for vegetarians. According to Happy Cow there are more than 140 restaurants offering vegetarian food or vegetarian friendly options on their menu.

If you are a vegetarian, in Penang, you will find plenty of options to feast on and satisfy your cravings.

Vegetarian Penang Food Authentic Food QuestIndian vegetarian dish

#7- Desserts and Juices Complete the Food Experience

Penang offers food travelers a wide array of local specialties to choose from. If you’re a sweet tooth you’ll find many famous sweets and iced desserts made with local ingredients. Using coconut milk, palm sugar, red beans, bananas, sweet corn, and grass jelly, you’ll find these ingredients in refreshing shaved ice to piping hot pastries.

Sweets Penang Food Authentic Food QuestFood stands of Indian sweets in Little India

One of the things we particularly enjoyed are the local fruit juices. The juices are unusual like fresh nutmeg juice or Air bandung – rose syrup and evaporated or condensed milk.

The food in Penang is a complete experience. From delicious famous dishes to local desserts and juice, there are many reasons to flock to the food stalls at any time of the day.

Air Bandung Juice Penang Food Authentic Food QuestColorful Air Bandung Juice made with Rose syrup and evaporated or condensed milk

#8 – Penang Food and Its Food Festivals

Penang hosts several food festivals. Some of are religious based, while others celebrate the local food culture.

In April 2017, Penang hosted for the first time the International Food Festival. For 16 days, Penang celebrated its food heritage from street food to fine dining experiences.

If your travels take you to Penang on September 1st and 2nd. Join the Penang Street Food festival that celebrates its widely acclaimed street food.

In additional to these festivals dedicated to food, Penang also celebrates the Nine Emperor Gods Festival an annual Taoist celebration held from the first day to the ninth day of the lunar month. For nine days, devotees observes a vegetarian diet to cleanse their body and soul.

During the festival, you can find a variety of vegetarian stalls along the roads around Penang with delicious and creative vegetarian cuisines.

When we arrived in Penang, we stumbled onto the Indian festival, Thaipusam, dedicated to  the Hindu deity, Lord Murugan. During this festival, food was given out freely on the streets as the processions was taking place.

You will find the same experience on Deepavali, one of the largest annual festivals celebrated by the Indians. A variety of local dishes are offered on the streets.

Participating in the local festivals in Penang will give you a deeper appreciation for the rich culture and local Penang food.

Street Food Festival Penang Food Authentic Food QuestExplore the local dishes at Penang Street Food Festival

#9- Venture into the Clan Jetties – Penang Floating Villages

Built by Chinese immigrants of the olden days, the Clan Jetties were segregated into distinct communities of Chinese people that arrived in George Town in search of a better future. These homes built on the water were occupied by clan members with the same last name such as Chew, Tan, Lee and others. Today, descendants still occupy the homes which line the jetties.

Local food specialities can be found at Chew Jetty Café, at the entrance of Chew Jetty. You’ll find iconic Penang food like Hokkien Mee (noodle dish) and even hidden stalls that operate from private Clan Jetty homes. My Voice Cafe serves famous ramen and is quite popular for its eye-catching giant ramen noodle bowl.

Take in the history of the Clan Jetties while enjoying the delightful variety of Penang food, desserts and juices at this lively old Chinese Waterfront settlement.

Clan Jetties Penang Food Authentic Food QuestHomes in the Clan Jetties floating village
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In Summary

George Town, Penang is a city full of history and character and where food is available everywhere and at all times of the day.

Penangites are proud to have their city crowned as the food capital of Malaysia. With their easy going and friendly attitude, they will make sure you taste their favorite dishes and eat at their preferred street stalls.

Penang is a manageable city, easy to walk around and sample the diversity of food and flavors. The richness of the food and the culture associated with the relaxed and laid back feel makes it a prime destination for any food travelers.

We definitely recommend Penang as one of the top cities to enjoy local food specialties in Southeast Asia!

Have you been to Penang before? In the comments below, share with us what city would you recommend to visit for its food?

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39 comments

  1. I haven’t been to Penang, but I hope to visit. The food in Penang sounds fabulous – each of the nine reasons appeals to me. I would love to try the Penang Asam Laksa ?.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Nancy for stopping by. Penang is indeed worth visiting. As the food capital of Malaysia, you’ll find a wonderful cultural mix of flavors from Malay, Chinese, Indian and more. We loved all the food including the Assam Laksa. Hope your travels take you to Penang soon. Cheers!

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  2. We loved Penang Claire! The food was first rate but just walking around Georgetown was a fun, thrilling experience. I snapped a few images of that funky-looking temple in Little India. I also enjoyed the funkier-looking pedicabs guys pedaled around town, looking for folks who wanted to get around in the blistering heat and humidity of the place.

    Reply
    • We loved walking around the city of Georgetown as well. So much beauty and history. The best part about walking around was letting the food digest:) Did you try the pedicab? We didn’t but enjoyed the walk and the funky temples. We should meet up in Penang, at some point 🙂 Cheers!

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  3. I almost cried reading your post: so many unforgettable memories and mouthwatering experiences came back from our 3 months in Penang earlier this year. It is truly foodie paradise. We lived in Bayan Lepas way outside of Georgetown. Not many tourists would venture that far so I wouldn’t recommend any places there even though the food is excellent and you can get a dinner for two under $3USD (unbelievable, right?). However, there are couple places in Georgetown I want to recommend. You covered local food pretty well. Here are some choices if you want a variety. Lang Sae Lee Thai Food Restaurant at Tan Jetty – known mostly by locals since it’s somewhat difficult to find (you have to walk all the way down to the end of jetty even though it seems that nothing is there) – they serve excellent Thai food in no frills setting. Trust me you would enjoy it (I lived in Thailand, so I know what I am talking about). If you get tired of local food and suddenly crave Italian, Il Bacáro near Chinatown is the place. It is much more than regular Italian fare (beware though that it comes with the price), and it’s better to make a reservation since it is a popular restaurant.

    Reply
    • So happy to read that at the article almost brought tears to your eyes! Indeed Georgetown is a magical place and the food is simply incredible. Thanks for the recommendations at Tan Jetty 🙂 We are all about the local specialties and we would have loved to stay much longer and discover even more. Appreciate you stopping by! Cheers, Elena.

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  4. Oh my word, my mouth is watering! I love different cuisines from around the world and I love the fusion of foods and spices in Malaysia. Penang’s food scene looks perfect for me with plenty of vegetarian options. Is the Laksa vegetarian, too? (Sometimes soups are tricky.) The Penang Street Food Festival sounds like a foodie’s dream! I’d love to visit when this is happening.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much Jackie…writing this article was quite a challenge because of all the delicious food and wonderful memories. Penang is really an amazing city and the food is incredible. We would love to visit the Penang Street Food festival as well…perhaps we should coordinate and meet at the next one? Lots of vegetarian options 🙂 Cheers!!

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  5. I just told my girlfriend that we need to go to Penang 😀 You have such an amazing article about this food Mekka that I’m really tempted to visit Malaysia. I’m intrigued to visit this cool food museum and try all the street foods like the Penang Asam Laksa! I love how many food related festivals they have as well. Thank you for this awesome article.

    Reply
    • Awesome, Tom. Great to read the article and your plans to visit Penang meshed perfectly. If you are in the area, do not miss Penang. And, plan to stay a few extra days. Great city with amazing food. Glad you liked the article and stay tuned for more about the food in the area. Let us know if you have any questions about Penang as you prepare for your trip. Cheers.

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  6. I’m always excited to learn about countries that are melting pots of cultures like Pengang. I’ll be out that way later this year, might have to stop by. The prawn noodles look deliciously spicy. Looks like a fun visit to the Wonderfood Museum.

    Reply
    • Thanks Debra, and glad you enjoyed reading about the food culture in Penang. There is so much good food and local food experiences. Definitively, worth a trip should your travels take you to the area. More to come about the museum soon. Stay tuned!

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  7. Dang, girl! Your post makes me miss Penang even more. I was in Penang last month for the first time and I gained 3 kgs within a few days only. Not good! Penang is indeed a paradise for a foodie like me. I loved almost all the food I tasted specially Lam Mee, Prawn Mee, Wonton Mee, Ai Yu Bing Jelly dessert and the local Black Thorn durian. Can’t wait to visit Penang again in the near future 🙂

    Reply
    • Lol…so true, it’s easy to gain weight in Penang. So much good food….we ate most of the dishes you had, but missed the black thorn durian. Wow, that sounds interesting. We are counting down going back to Penang as well. Indeed, a foodie paradise. Thanks for stopping by Debbzie.

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  8. Ahhh! When I was in Malaysia I didn’t get to Penang, though I was tempted. I love a great hawker stand, and the Penang food is supposed to be one of the world’s best. Next time!

    Reply
    • Great to hear…food is the only reason to visit Penang 🙂 Georgetown is a UNESCO heritage city so there is much to see and do, but the food,in our opinion is above all!! Hope you get to Malaysia soon. Thanks for stopping by.

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  9. Every food photo looked delicious! I love finding authentic dining experiences when I travel so this will come in handy one day. I have yet to get to that part of the world.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much, Theresa, and so glad you enjoyed this article. We agree, seeking out the local and authentic dishes and places make for a wonderfully enriched travel experience. Hope your travels take you to Penang, it is deliciously worth it!! Cheers.

      Reply
  10. It looks like you had a DELICIOUS trip! My foodie world capital is Paris (I mean, real croissants, come on! 🙂 ) but San Juan, PR also has some incredible cuisine. If you go, try mallorca bread. All you’ll regret is that you can’t bring it home 🙂

    Reply
    • We love France and agree that Paris is a food city as well. The flavors in Southeast Asia are quite different than in France. A much more multicultural mix of flavors that is wonderful as well. Thanks for the tip about Mallorca bread in Puerto Rico, noted for a future trip. Thanks, Meagan.

      Reply
  11. Floating villages? That sounds so interesting and fun to see… I wonder if the fact that they are floating changes how or what they eat? I’ve never been to Malaysia, but my husband has, and he always raves about their food!

    Reply
    • Awesome Doreen. Thanks so much for your feedback and glad you like the theme of our website. We agree 100%, exploring the local flavors on one’s travels really adds to the experience. Indeed, a visit to Penang is worth it on any trip to Malaysia. Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply

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