The Fascinating History Of Penang’s 6 Most Iconic Dishes

The Fascinating History Of Penang’s 6 Most Iconic Dishes

Know more about the history of Penang’s most iconic dishes with our listicle! (Left: Image by @lancetaey. Right: Image by @conniesimplelife.)

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When a Malaysian thinks of Penang, the first thing that comes to mind is food. This coastal town boasts some of the best and most loved resorts, but first and foremost, it is a food paradise. With various cuisines and dishes available, it’s impossible to run out of ideas when it comes to mealtime. So overwhelming are the choices; it’s almost overwhelming to decide what to eat. Hence, we constantly ask our friends and family the ultimate question: “What to eat, ah?”

Penang food is not only rich in flavours but most definitely in history — how the dishes came about on this island and the culture they originated from. So, without much more dawdling, here’s a quick dose of history on some of Penang’s most iconic foods. But most importantly, where to find them.

1. Char kway teow

To aid newly arriving Teochew immigrants in settling themselves, six Teochew men built a lodging establishment on Beach Street in 1855. Although Teochews were never in great numbers — they now make up only 18% of Penang’s Chinese population — they brought their appreciation for veggies, a type of noodles called kway teow, and their egg speciality — the oyster omelette.

Teochew noodles are delicate, flat, and elastic rice noodles. These paper-thin noodles are often caramelised and sweetened while being stir-fried over a charcoal fire’s intense heat, emitting a mouthwatering aroma known as wok hei. The best char kway teow stalls still use charcoal fire, even though gas would be more practical. For many Penangites, char kway teow is the ultimate comfort food — best enjoyed in the late afternoon or early evening with an iced coffee. But honestly, we’d have it for breakfast too.

Places to satisfy your cravings:

Barefoot Char Koay Teow
Address: Cecil Street Market, Lebuh Herriot, 10300 George Town, Penang
Operating hours: Daily, 12pm to 5pm

Sih Jing San Food Centre (First stall in the left corner of the main entrance)
Address: 168, Jalan Macalister, 10400 George Town, Penang
Operating hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 7am to 11:30pm; Closed on Monday

Penang Road Char Koay Teow
Address: 27-29, Lebuh Keng Kwee, 10100 George Town, Penang
Operating hours: Monday to Friday, 10:30am to 7pm; Saturday & Sunday, 10am to 7:30pm

2. Penang assam laksa

An affluent Chinese businessman called Koh Lay Huan visited Captain Light the day after he arrived in Penang and presented him with three fishing nets as a gift. Koh was a shipping and pepper tycoon who had long since left the Hokkien-speaking region of China and relocated to Kedah. However, Koh and other Chinese businessmen disapproved of the violence escalating in southern Thailand, Kedah, and the Dutch trading monopoly over the ports in Sumatra; so, they made the decision to establish themselves in Penang.

Coincidently, Koh was invited to stay as the first towkay or Kapitan of Penang’s emerging Chinese community after Light recognised he needed his assistance. With native wives in several ports, he was connected to the Peranakan community of affluent Chinese merchants from Malaysia who had lived on the Thailand and Kedah coasts for generations, long enough to create a fusion cuisine different from the Malaccan-Peranakans who lived further south. Even their version of laksa, a soupy noodle dish popular throughout Southeast Asia, differs by using tamarind instead of coconut milk.

The assam (tamarind) laksa from Penang is a sweet and sour soup containing flaked mackerel and is tinted fiery red by a blend of chillies and shrimp paste. Slippery, fat rice noodles are mixed with a variety of vibrant herbs, including lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, ginger flowers, and shallots. Vietnamese coriander (or laksa leaf) and thinly sliced pineapple are added as a garnish. Popiah, a crispy spring roll from Koh’s home Fujian region, is the finest way to soak up the extra soup.

Places to satisfy your cravings:

Laksa Bisu
Address: Air Itam Food Court, Pekan Ayer Itam, 11500 Air Itam, Penang
Operating hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm; Closed on Monday & Tuesday

Laksalicious
Address: 117A, Jalan Hutton, 10050 George Town, Penang
Operating hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 11:30am to 6pm; Closed on Monday

Kim Laksa Balik Pulau
Address:
Nan Guang Kopitiam, 67 Main Road, 11000 Balik Pulau, Penang
Operating hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm; Closed on Monday & Tuesday

3. Penang Hokkien mee & loh mee

Both loh mee and Hokkien hae mee are varieties of noodle soup that immigrants from China’s Fujian province — and maybe, in the case of loh mee, from the nearby Guangdong province — brought to Penang. This southern part of China experienced severe unrest during the beginning of the 1800s.

Hokkien men were urged to look for employment in the tin mines in Phuket or further south in Perak due to the uprising against the Ming dynasty, the British Opium Wars, and the Taiping Rebellion. Local Thai-Malays, Peranakans, and new Hokkien refugees flocked to Penang after the Sultan of Kedah waged war with Thailand in 1821. Eventually, the Sultan took refuge on the island as well.

Hae mee, also known as Hokkien mee or Hokkien prawn noodle in Penang, is a broth made of boiled shrimp heads, tails, and pork bones with onions, garlic, and chilli paste, which gives it an orange tint. A random assortment of hard-boiled eggs, smoked pork belly, fried mantis shrimp, a token handful of local water spinach, kangkung, for colour, and sometimes chicken feet or intestines are placed over the noodles.

Loh mee is seasoned with Chinese five-spice and thickened with corn starch. It’s sold alongside Hokkien mee, and combining the two broths for a traditional bowl of ‘Hokkien cham lor’ is perfectly fine.

Places to satisfy your cravings:

Golden City Restaurant
Address: 104 Jalan Burma, 10050 George Town, Penang
Operating hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 5pm to 12am; Closed on Monday

New World Park Food Court
Address:
102 Jalan Burma, 10050 George Town, Penang
Operating hours: Daily, 10am to 10pm

Aunty Choon Hokkien Mee
Address:
6, Jalan Nagor, 10050 George Town, Pulau Pinang
Operating hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 8am to 3pm; Closed on Monday

4. Nyonya Cuisine

When it comes to Chinese cuisine, there are many different Chinese styles, and it all depends on the region of China they originally came from. The Nyonya flavours are a step higher and were created when the Chinese and Malay cultures collided.

As a result, both original flavours are alchemised into something fairly distinctive, combining hearty, strong spices with the mellow elegance of long cooking. Dishes like otak-otak, assam fish, inchi kabin, and pork in cincalok radiate humble, dignified flavours with a protracted aftertaste.

Places to satisfy your cravings:

Winn’s Café
Address: 38, Jalan Cantonment, Pulau Tikus, 10350 George Town, Pulau Pinang
Operating hours: Monday to Saturday, 11am to 3pm, 6pm to 10pm; Closed on Sunday

Nyonya Breeze
Address: 3A-1-7, Straits Quay, Jalan Seri Tg Pinang, 10470 Tanjung Tokong, Penang
Operating hours: Daily, 11:30am to 2:30pm & 5:30pm to 8:30pm

Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Kuih
Address:
Chulia Street, Jalan Masjid, 10200 George Town, Penang
Operating hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 10:30am to 5pm; Closed on Monday

5. Nasi Kandar

Another sought-after dish Penang is known for is none other than the nasi kandar, and to put it simply, it means ‘bamboo pole rice’. Since the late 19th century, labourers at the Penang port relied on nasi kandar for lunch. At the time, Penang was already a well-known international port located north of the Strait of Malacca; most of the immigrant workers were from China and India.

Rice vendors arrived by foot at the dock, where the labourers worked to feed the large workforce economically and effectively. The vendors used a mangrove pole measuring about seven feet long to balance horizontally on their shoulders. It had two enormous pots on either end — one end holding plain white rice in a basket dangling from it, and the pot at the other end carried some form of curry, often either fish or meat.

A simple one-dish meal featuring some meat or fish with gravy over a bed of rice was the concept. Since then, nasi kandar has evolved into something more and is now available not just in Penang but countrywide — each state offering something unique. Gone are the days of plain white rice with a single curry dish, but rather a wide range of curries and dish types.

Places to satisfy your Nasi Kandar cravings:

Nasi Kandar Jamal Mohamed
Address: Jalan Telekom, Kampung Benggali, 12000 Butterworth, Penang
Operating hours: Daily, 1pm to 11:45pm

Restoran Deen
Address:
598-D & 598-E, Jalan Jelutong, 11600 George Town, Penang
Operating hours: Daily, 6am to 11:30pm

Nasi Kandar Merlin
Address:
1A, Union Street, 10200 George Town, Penang
Operating hours: Monday to Saturday, 8am to 3pm; Closed on Sunday

6. Curry mee

The origins of Penang’s curry mee can be attributed to early Straits-born Chinese or Peranakan cuisine, which combined Thai, Malay, and Chinese cooking styles and emphasised the use of fresh spices. Although Cantonese cuisine isn’t famous for its spicy content, the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s saw Cantonese food hawkers popularising Penang curry mee, a dish unique to this island.

Most well-to-do Straits-born Chinese or Peranakan engaged in nannies, maids, or babysitters from Canton (Guangdong), China, to take care of the household tasks in the early 20th century. These Cantonese women were known as ‘ah mah cheh’. While introducing Cantonese food to the local household, these ah mah cheh also learned the finer points of Straits-born Chinese or Peranakan cooking from the lady of the house.

Known initially as curry mei fun, Penang Curry mee became famous mostly thanks to the Cantonese hawkers. Back then, a bowl of Penang curry mei fun meant you’d have half a portion of what is now known as yellow mee mixed with rice vermicelli, which was standard practice. While the ‘half and half’ method is not the typical way of serving this dish these days, you can still ask for this particular order.

Places to satisfy your Curry Mee cravings:

Chulia Street Curry Mee
Address: 1C, Lebuh Carnarvon, 10200 George Town, Penang
Operating hours: Wednesday to Saturday, 4:15pm to 9:45pm; Closed on Monday & Tuesday

The Shark
Address: 192, Jalan Burma, Kampung Syed, 10350 George Town, Penang
Operating hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 7:30am to 11:45pm; Closed on Monday

Tua Pui Curry Mee
Address:
23, Lebuh Kimberley,10100 George Town, Penang
Operating hours: Thursday to Tuesday, 8am to 5pm; Closed on Monday & Wednesday

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An extremely introverted foodie who's passionate about creative writing, baking, cooking, and photography. Found out that her spirit animal could be a capybara. If she's stressed, you'll find her either baking or running. A true dog lover who unfortunately doesn't have a dog...YET.