Hawker food is just a label Penang residents use to describe street food from local vendors. It’s all delicious food for the most part, and I’m about to tell you the only 6 dishes you need to eat next time you visit this popular tourist state in Malaysia.
Here they are. If you have a suggestion of your own, leave a comment so everyone can benefit from your SE Asian foodie knowledge!
1. Nasi kandar
This dish originated in India, but found it’s way to the Penang hawker food scene over the years and is considered a specialty of the region despite its origins. Rice is always part of this dish, but the curry and other spices used will vary depending on the protein it’s served with, which include chicken, beef, squid, prawns and other fish proteins can all be found as part of a Nasi Kandar dish. I like nasi kandar for its elegance in simplicity. Delicious and not so filling that you’ll have to undue your belt and unbutton your pants afterward.
2. Penang assam laksa
This is a dish is one of the most well-balanced soups you’ll find anywhere in Southeast Asia. And that’s really saying something! It really surprised me the first time I tried it, at the urging of a friend who knew much better than me. I prefer hot and sweet contrasts and once I heard it had (very) sour tamarind in it, I was skeptical — until I tried it. Yum! Mackarel is the protein of choice in this dish and the fishiness is offset by a combination of HOT chilis and sour tamarind. Included are soft and yummy noodles, mint, shallots, cucumbers, cilantro and pineapple. Locals and assam laksa aficionados will tell you Penang is the only place to get the best bowl of this soup. I’ll let you be the judge! This dish is nice and light — perfect as a starter.
3. Curry mee
If I’m eating this dish, you can “Curry Me” twice! This is truly one of my favorite Penang dishes. You can find it in North American restaurants too, but truly only the Southeast Asians and the Brits know how to make a proper curry mee, which is often called curry laksa. This yummy, flavor-filled dish is made with chicken, prawns, cuttlefish, pork blood (yeah, yuck!), tofu, sambal, egg noodles, vermicelli, mint, and of course coconut and curry! I’m likely forgetting a few ingredients, but this is Penang street cuisine at its finest. Eat a bowl of curry mee when you’re heading out for a long day, or getting in from one — it’s really heavy and filling.
4. Lor bak
Extreme pork warning! Lor bak is really one of my favorites (it’s so hard to choose just one!) Yummity yum yum! This pork dish contains several spices that are applied to the protein before the batter (made of bean curd) is applied and deep friend to absolute perfection. Lor bak comes with two dipping bowls containing a yummy and thick cornstarch and egg sauce called “lor” and a spicy red chili sauce.A side note: it’s rare to eat food by any Asian street vendor or restaurant cook worth their salt who can manage to overcook their battered dishes. My belly truly thanks these foodie artisans for their commitment to excellence!
5. Wonton mee
Like so many dishes ending in “mee,” you’ll find variations of it all over Asia. Some say Penang wanton mee is the best, but it really comes down to your taste preferences. In Penang, they do this dish up really simple: al dente egg noodles with a combination of soy and lard to make up the sticky sauce that covers them. You can also ask for a wet sauce which is a little more soupy, but much like mac’n cheese, I like my sauce thick and sticky! The Penang version is typically garnished with kale, pickled green chilies, green onion and steamed (sometimes fried) wontons.
6. Dessert Time: Rojak!
Honestly, if I were more cultured, I could list off several dessert dishes you should try when visiting the state of Penang. However, I eat what tastes good and rojak does the trick every time. I like it primarily because it’s a heavy dessert dish that really fills up the belly, while dazzling the taste buds. You wouldn’t know by looking at the picture but rojak is a fruit salad made of pineapple, mango, papaya, apples, guava and jicama and cucumber. It’s topped with fried donut-like cruller pieces, crushed peanuts, and a sauce made from — prepare yourself — shrimp paste! Everything in this dessert dish just works — try it next time you’re in Panang!