I’m not much of an athlete by any means. I enjoy nature and a solid bike ride every now and again, but I’ve never been a, “let’s go for a stroll for no apparent reason other than to move,” kind of a gal. Rather, I enjoy sitting down to a very full glass of vino and a good book. But if that walk involves moving towards tantalizing morsels of food, particularly of the street variety, well then I’ll forgo a Cab Sauv and a Margaret Atwood classic any day.
If you’re into food, like really into food—the grub-lover that will pretentiously only eat at the most sketchiest, back-alley food stalls, because you’ve had food poisoning one too many times and your immune system can handle it kind of foodie—then you need to start making your way to the wonderful island that is Penang. Even if you’re just an amateur foodie, and let’s be real, who isn’t these days, then you still need to visit Malaysia’s booming chow capital.
Around every corner there is the faint aroma of perfectly salted fried goods lingering teasingly in the air. Behind tiny alleyways, dedicated and noble street cooks are preparing a colourful assortment of garnishes. Store fronts are bustling, as the sultry sound of sizzling meat roasted over a fire beacons hungry and curious bystanders. It’s a beautiful orchestra, a dance if you will: moving from one street vendor to the next, wondering from one Mamak stall here, a Chinese noodle joint there. It’s an invigorating shock to the senses, and it’s all yours for the taking, right here in Malaysia.
The heart of Georgetown is bursting with all sorts of tasty bites just waiting to be discovered. As a tourist, it’s easy to simply walk around and follow your nose to great food. If all else fails, there’s always Red Garden Café. Here, you’ll find a wide variety of different types of food from all over Malaysia and South East Asia. If you’re into the whole dinner-theatre bit, there’s usually a flashy dance/singing combo to accompany your spring rolls and beef curry—a little added bonus once the sun goes down and the beer starts flowing. If you’re up for a real food-crazed adventure; however, then I’d recommend venturing off the beaten path because Penang has a whole lot of food to offer and there are only so many hours in a day.
If you’d like to try something a little less touristy, head to one of Penang’s many outdoor food courts. Only a few minutes away from Butterworth station, the BSP Waterfront Food Court and Market is a great place to grab a bite to eat. Open from 9:00 a.m. until 3:00 a.m., it’s virtually a one-stop-shop for all things spicy and Asian.
There are thousands of options to choose from, but here’s what I went for:
Som Tam—the classic, and one of my all-time favourties, Green Papaya Salad. Zesty, spicy, and fresh at the same time, this Som Tam offered a pleasingly painful, eye-watering zing with every bite. Paired with the Phase Khana—otherwise known as Kale with Crispy Pork—I enjoyed a balanced and scrumptious meal for about 10 MYR.
If you’re looking for more locally inspired dishes, then head on over to China Town. After securing a plastic seat amongst ten other Malaysians crowded around steaming bowls of soup and fried noodles, I dove into my Hokkien Mee and Char Koay Teow without reservation. Yes, I ordered more than I should eat in one sitting, and yes I received what I tell myself was amazed, nay, inspired stares from my fellow table-mates. The crunch of the bean sprouts, the subtle burn of the chili, the sweet-salty taste of a well-balanced fish sauce, yes, it was certainly worth every, nose-running, sweat-induced mouthful.
I’ve come to believe that every exceptional food experience is best balanced with a sweet ending, and in Penang, that sweet ending comes in the form of bright green noodles and coconut milk. Chendul is a beloved Malaysian classic. If you ask any local about dessert, they will almost certainly hound you into trying Chendul and then persistently say, “I told you so,” as you sop up every last morsel of creamy goodness in giddy delight.
Chendul joints are in plentiful supply across the island of Penang. To find the best one, take a leisurely stroll around the block and look for the longest queue. I waited about 30 minutes for a bowl of Chendul, but when I finally made my way up to the beautiful Chendul masters and witnessed the symphony that is throwing coconut milk, green jelly noodles, red beans, and palm sugar into a bowl, I knew I would never be the same again. It’s true, Chendul changed me and Penang, well she restored my faith in humanity.