The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton

Monday, 10 March 2008

Malaysian food - Part 3: Penang eats

After spending a couple of days with family in KL, we headed to Penang for an overnight stay. My family used to live in Johor Bahru, which is at the southern tip of West Malaysia (so close to Singapore) so we hardly ever made the 8+ hour drive to Penang to visit my uncle (mum's eldest bro) and his family. The last time I was in Penang was more than 15 years ago for a family reunion shortly before my family migrated to Australia. This uncle (the same one who single-handedly cooked all of the dishes for the homecooked spread during our most recent visit) and his wife graciously spent a whole day driving and bringing us around to enjoy the gastronomical delights of Penang. And did we eat! I'm still amazed at just how much food we managed to stuff in a single day! My uncle and auntie brought us to the best hawker eateries and stalls in Penang, but unfortunately I do not know the precise location of each place. Don't worry though - it's hard to go wrong with food in Penang. I had my camera with me so this is a great way to introduce the wonderful food you can expect to enjoy in Malaysia (and according to my uncle, the best versions are found in Penang).

Another thing about Malaysian food is how cheap they are. Most of the dishes listed below cost around RM 3 (~AU$1 or 100 yen).

Main and side dishes

Char Kuay Teow - fried flat rice noodles. Usually with seafood, various meat, dark and light soy sauce, lots of oil and beansprouts. If you're lucky you can get ones with seeham (cockles, a type of strong-tasting shellfish). These noodles are very tasty, and one of Rob's favourite Malaysian food.

Hor Fun - this is kuay teow noodles with thick egg sauce. Usually comes with seafood, various meat and leafy greens, and you must stir and mix all the ingredients and sauce before eating. This is one of my favourite food especially when it's made with fresh noodles. Not as greasy as Char Kuay Teow. By the way, kuey teow noodles are my all-time favourite type of noodles, especially the fresh ones. Unfortunately I can't buy dried or fresh kuey teow in Japan.

Horfun before and after mixing:

Popiah - a type of spring roll filled with bang kuang (a type of turnip) and various vegetables. Very healthy too.

Chee Cheong Fun - a type of rice noodle roll served with a dark and thick salty-sweet sauce (and chilli sauce if requested). I remember eating this for breakfast when I was a kid on Saturday mornings after a trip to the hawker stalls. It's one of my favourite food from childhood.

Popiah and Chee Cheong Fun:

Assam Laksa - noodles in a spicy and sour fish soup of Nonya origin. The soup is made with assam, which is the Malay word for tamarind. Laksa is a very popular noodle dish and there are many variations of laksa depending on the region. Laksa is also one of Rob's favourite Malaysian food although he has a preference for the coconut-based curry laksa.

Hokkien Mee in Penang is basically what is known to many non-Malaysians as Prawn Noodle Soup. It is what the English name suggests - noodles in a prawn-based broth. Ingredients include prawns, meat (pork and/or chicken), sliced heepia (fish cake), fish balls and boiled egg, usually garnished with deep fried shallots and spring onion and served with an extra dose of sambal belacan (spicy chilli sauce made with shrimp paste). Note that there are two types of Hokkien Mee, and depending on location, it could mean either the fried yellow noodles or the prawn noodle soup. To me, Hokkien Mee refers to the fried noodles, so imagine my surprise to find that Hokkien Mee in Penang refers to what I know as prawn noodle soup.

Assam Laksa and Hokkien Mee:

Nasi Kandar is a term that I was not familiar with, but I saw many references to this dish in Penang. When I asked my uncle and aunt what nasi kandar was, they answered by bringing us to a Nasi Kandar stall. These stalls are run by mamak (Indian-Muslims), and Nasi Kandar is a meal of rice served with a variety of curry dishes and sides. It is simple fast food since all the dishes are already prepared, but one of the advantages is the large variety of curry to choose from.

A Nasi Kandar stall, and a plate of nasi kandar:

Drinks and dessert

Cendol is a very popular drink made with coconut milk, pandan noodles and palm sugar. I remember when I was young, the cendol man would ride past our house every afternoon selling this delicious drink, and my sisters and I would occasionally sneak out to pay this man 50 cents for a cendol drink served in a mini plastic bag with a straw. The ones I've had since were usually served more sophisticatedly in a glass or bowl. It's a very nice and refreshing drink that also doubles as a dessert.


Ice Kacang is also known as ABC which is short for air batu campur - air means water, batu means stone and campur means to mix. The word kacang means beans and refers to the red (adzuki) beans used in this dessert. The base of Ice Kacang is usually made up of atap chee (young palm seeds), red beans, corn, grass jelly and cendol noodles, and then it is topped with a mound of shaved ice and drizzled with a generous amount of syrup and condensed milk. There are of course no rules, and a variety of other ingredients do make their way into this dessert such as nuts, fruits and ice cream.

Ice kacang with ice cream, and with fruits and ice cream:

Roti (bread)

I have given a more detailed explanation about Roti Canai and Murtabak in a recent post. The ones we had in Penang for brunch were quite a lot better than the ones we had in Kajang. We also ordered Roti Tisu (tissue bread) which is actually a sweet variation of roti canai pulled really thin, cooked on a hot plate until super-crispy, rolled into a tall structure and drizzled with condensed milk. It was a bit too sweet for me, but I wanted Rob to give it a try.

Roti Canai and Murtabak:

Roti Tissue - notice how tall it was! Beautiful but it makes for clumsy and messy eating:


  1. All the yummy food!!!
    I miss otak otak the most!!!

  2. The food was great, and we didn't even eat all that I wanted to! But after 6 days straight of eating hawker food, I actually wanted some subtle Japanese food!

  3. Perth has a great selection of Malaysian food, so at least you can eat them whenever you want to.. For us in Tokyo, alas, there is not much to choose from, if any...