Eating Out in Penang

Penang is most famous for its street food and you will find hawker stands on almost every corner.
Penang is most famous for its street food and you will find hawker stands on almost every corner.

Considered Malaysia's capital of street food, Penang is one of Southeast Asia's best destinations for eating out. From the cheap yet tasty hawker stands of Gurney Plaza to the fantastic historic eateries of Georgetown, Penang's local cuisine is varied, interesting, and consistently delicious. No matter what your budget or tastes may be, Penang undoubtedly has enough food to keep you happy.

Penangites are one of the most most passionate populations on earth when it comes to food. While the fantastic food halls of Kuala Lumpur stun most visitors, their appeal is lost on Penangites, who shrug them off as low quality and overpriced. While it may come off as snobbery to some, it's not difficult to understand their attitude, given the incredible range and quality of Penang's food.

This passion extends into the laws of the state. While other parts of Malaysia have tried to ban food carts from their streets in an effort to improve access for pedestrians, Penang has taken the opposite approach, supporting the hawker stands and welcoming them into the community. As a result, you'll never be far from great street food in Penang, regardless of where you are on the island.

Penang's population center – Georgetown – is also it's center of cuisine. Hawker stands, often run by Malay Indian families, are located on almost every corner in the city's historic coastal zone, and are often open twenty-four hours. Serving up Indian, Malay, and Chinese dishes, they're a mainstay of Penang and one of the most popular places to eat amongst locals and tourists alike.

From the Komtar Center – which acts as Penang's major transportation hub – all the way down to the waterfront, you'll find great hawker food at fantastic prices. Popular dishes include Malay kari ayam, soup and light curry dishes like laksa, and Penang's own famous char kuay teow. In Indian-owned hawker stands, you'll also find dishes like tandoori chicken and various Indian curries.

Some of the best hawker centers are found along Jalan Penang, one of Georgetown's major streets. Conveniently located close to many of the city's largest hotels, and only a short taxi ride from five-star hotel hotspot Persiaran Gurney, it's a great place to eat out during the daytime. Several hawker centers are set up along the side of the road, which eventually turns into a major shopping market.

In the side streets around Jalan Penang, you'll also find locally-owned restaurants serving up many of the island's best hawker foods in a more comfortable setting. Walk from Prangin Mall down the main street and you'll pass several street markets, each full of hawker stands. During the day, most of the market is covered, making it easy to sample local foods without the hot sun beaming down.

To the north of Georgetown itself you'll find Persiaran Gurney, Penang's five-star hotel capital and the island's most celebrated strip of road. A seaside road that's seemingly always packed with cars, this area is home to some of Penang's best low-cost street food. Walk north up the street away from the high-end hotels and you'll end up at a street market located close to the Gurney Plaza mall.

Around here, you'll find all of Penang's signature dishes, along with a few international foods. The prices in this area are slightly higher than in Georgetown due to the greater tourist frequency, but a simple meal is unlikely to set visitors back more than ten ringgit. Given the huge variety on offer, it's a bargain price for a great meal in one of Penang's most relaxing street market settings.

Street markets in Penang tend to be fairly clean, and food hygiene is taken seriously by the hawker stands. Penang's food authorities carry out 'secret shopper' missions to food stalls on the island on a fairly frequent schedule, aiming to keep hygiene standards high. As a result, it's very rare for visitors to get sick from undercooked food – what's more likely to set off anyone's stomach is the level of spices used in a lot of Malaysian cooking.

Back down Persiaran Gurney, you'll find some great seafood restaurants aside the promenade. With fantastic views of the ocean, they're a great place to enjoy a romantic meal beside the water. Late at night, many of the seaside restaurant bring in live bands and other entertainment.

While Penang's tourist-focused beaches aren't as much of a culinary hotspot as Georgetown, they're nonetheless a great place to eat out. The main strip of road along Batu Ferringhi is home to several of Penang's most popular restaurants, including a themed naval restaurant called The Ship. Although most visitors come to Penang for its seafood, the restaurant serves up great steak and grilled food.

Further down the island at Tanjung Bungah, you'll find the standard array of tourist seafood eateries along with some unexpectedly great street food. The Tanjung Bungah Market, which is set up every evening along the main coastal road, has a wide selection of Penang's famous hawker food, and is a hit amongst locals and tourists alike.

While Penang is most famous for its street food, visitors will have no problems finding international food or fast food on the island. Georgetown has several McDonald's and KFC outlets, while foreign coffee chains like Starbucks are easily found at Prangin Mall and Gurney Plaza. Mid-range family restaurants like Nando's are also a frequent sight in Penang's many shopping malls.

These chain restaurants allow vegetarian and vegan visitors to eat relatively well, avoiding Penang's typically meat and dairy-heavy street food dishes. For vegetarians and other people with special diet requirements, most hawker food stands will be able to prepare meat-free or nut-free food, although variety may be limited to the more basic dishes.

For the most part, Penang certainly lives up to its title as Malaysia's capital of street food. From the great hawker stands of Georgetown and Gurney Drive to the fantastic beachfront restaurants of Batu Ferringhi and Tanjung Bungah, Penang is a dream come true for culinary gurus and a nightmare for dieters. Oily, fattening, and packed with flavor, Penang's food is truly the island's best feature.