Eat Penang: A 24-hour street food experience

Fluffy roti canai at Transfer Road. ― Pictures by KE Ooi
Fluffy roti canai at Transfer Road. ― Pictures by KE Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, Nov 2 ― Penang has been labelled a “hawker’s paradise” because of the sheer variety of hawker or street food available.

But we decided to take it up one notch; test and see if this little island up north is really the only place in Malaysia where you can find food of every imaginable taste and flavour… at every hour of the day!

By the roadside, in airy coffee shops and yes, even in dark secluded corners where the flames of the cooking fire and aroma of cooked food are the only indications that food can be found there.

We tried them all.

This is not just a food guide but a journey or a street food experience that will tease and stimulate your palate and senses.

The whole route has been meticulously planned so that you can take in some Penang sights as you tuck into what we can call a “24-course meal” in 24 hours.

Things you may need: GPS, plenty of loose change ― because you don’t want to hand over RM100 for a RM3 bowl of noodles and have the hawker glare at you ― and most important of all, an empty stomach with a huge appetite.

A note of warning: this is not for the weak of will or stomach!

6am: Roti Canai at Transfer Road, George Town

Business hours: 6am - 2pm

GPS coordinates: 5.42063,100.330512

Start the day in George Town ― within the heritage zone ― with a satisfying breakfast of fluffy roti canai at Transfer Road. Literally located by the roadside, and on top of a covered drain, the stall’s pan-fried “bread” is both fluffy and crispy, best enjoyed with some thick dhall (lentil curry) or some of the other curries available.

Char koay kak at Kimberley Street (left). Hokkien mee at Swee Kong Coffee Shop in Pulau Tikus (right).
Char koay kak at Kimberley Street (left). Hokkien mee at Swee Kong Coffee Shop in Pulau Tikus (right).

7am: Char Koay Kak at Kimberley Street, George Town

Business hours: 7am - 11am

GPS coordinates: 5.416697,100.332389

Plain rice cakes are fried in a wok over firewood and garnished with bean sprouts, spring onion and egg for a fragrant meal served in a banana leaf cone wrapped in newspaper. The stall is by the roadside so it is a to-go meal or you could eat it while standing next to the stall.

8am: Hokkien Mee at Swee Kong Coffee Shop, Burmah Road, Pulau Tikus

Business hours: 7am--10am

GPS coordinates: 5.43047,100.312691

Time for a steaming hot bowl of Penang’s very own Hokkien mee. Also known as prawn noodles, the most notable feature of this dish is the savoury soup that is cooked from mainly shrimps so it has a very strong shrimp flavour barely masked by added chillies and spices for a spicy kick to the soup. The noodles are served in the soup along with sliced prawns, pork slices, bean sprouts, water spinach and homemade sambal. Be early because this particular stall runs out of noodles and soup really fast.

9am: Lim Birthday Mee at Pinang Delicious Food Court, Macalister Road, George Town

Business hours: 8am - 1pm

GPS coordinates: 5.416713,100.322771

After the spicy prawn noodles, Lim Birthday Mee is another type of shrimp noodles but a clear soup version, best enjoyed on a cold rainy day. Also boasting of a strong shrimpy flavour without the chillies, the “birthday” noodles is also known as lam mee. It is served with pork slices, mushroom slivers, sliced omelette, bean sprouts and parsley. It is best enjoyed with a scoop of local sambal, a homemade chilli paste, but can also be eaten as it is.

Lim Birthday Mee at Pinang Delicious Food Court at Macalister Road (left). Crispy deep-fried fish with plain fried noodles best eaten dipped in the special spicy peanut sauce from Goh Chew Coffee Shop (right).
Lim Birthday Mee at Pinang Delicious Food Court at Macalister Road (left). Crispy deep-fried fish with plain fried noodles best eaten dipped in the special spicy peanut sauce from Goh Chew Coffee Shop (right).

10am: Fried fish bee hoon at Goh Chew Coffee Shop, New Lane, George Town

Business hours: 7.30am - 11am

GPS coordinates: 5.414566,100.326151

Had enough of soupy dishes? This stall offers plain fried bee hoon (vermicelli) or noodles served with crispy deep fried fish and prawns. What’s unique about this stall is that their deep fried fish is so crunchy, it can even eaten on its own or with their special peanut sauce that adds a dash of spice and a burst of flavours to the whole meal.

Perfect for a mid-morning break - toast, half-boiled eggs and coffee at Toh Soon (left). Beef noodles at Sri Weld (right).
Perfect for a mid-morning break - toast, half-boiled eggs and coffee at Toh Soon (left). Beef noodles at Sri Weld (right).

11am: Toast and coffee at Toh Soon Coffee Stall, Campbell Street, George Town

Business hours: 7am - 6pm

GPS coordinates: 5.418871,100.332084

A cup of fragrant local black coffee and toast served with runny half-boiled eggs in a cup make for the perfect mid-morning snack. The little back-alley stall has been around for more than 50 years and if you ever need a cup of strong local coffee with charcoal toasted bread, this is the perfect place to be.

Noon: Beef noodles at Sri Weld Food Court, Beach Street, George Town

Business hours: 11am - 3pm

GPS coordinates: 5.417781,100.342888

This is comfort food for beef lovers. The stall is located at the back portion of the food court and serves up steaming bowls of noodles, beef slices and beef meatballs in clear soup cooked from beef stock. Be prepared to fall in love with the soft, fall-apart beef and the fragrant spices that blend well with the beef flavour.

Chee cheong fun at Genting Coffee Shop (left). Ais kacang and cendol at Joo Hooi Café (right).
Chee cheong fun at Genting Coffee Shop (left). Ais kacang and cendol at Joo Hooi Café (right).

1pm: Chee Cheong Fun at Genting Coffee Shop, Lorong Delima 6, Island Glades, Gelugor

Business hours: 6am - 5pm

GPS coordinates: 5.382875,100.303996

After the heavy meal of warming beef noodles, this can almost be considered as “dessert” due to its sweet shrimp paste sauce. This is no ordinary chee cheong fun as its soft, silky steamed flat rice rolls are served with a thick, treacly sauce that is a special combination of shrimp paste, sweet sauce and peanut butter. Weird? Not at all. If you like it spicy, the dish is also served with chilli paste and a sprinkling of sesame seeds.

2pm: Ais Kacang / Cendol at Joo Hooi Café, at junction of Penang Road and Lebuh Keng Kwee, George Town

Business hours: 11am--6pm

GPS coordinates: 5.417162,100.33059

It is time to cool off in the heat of the afternoon with a nice cold bowl of ais kacang which is shaved ice covered in syrup, condensed milk and topped with red beans, sweet corn, grass jelly and palm nuts. This famous stall has been around for three generations and they even have a chain of outlets at shopping complexes. They also offer cendol ― shaved ice with coconut milk, palm sugar and green jelly noodles.

3pm: Char Koay Teow at Siam Road, George Town

Business hours: 3pm - 9pm

GPS coordinates: 5.415495,100.320293

No visit to Penang is complete without tasting its legendary char koay teow and this roadside stall serves up one of the best fried flat rice noodles you can find on the island. There’s no dining in here because it is literally by the roadside so you can enjoy the piping hot noodles fried with cockles, eggs and Chinese waxed sausage in a coffee shop opposite the stall or stand to enjoy your meal or take away. Be prepared to wait in a long line though.

Char koay teow at the roadside stall along Siam Road (left). This little-known mee goreng stall serves up one of the best Indian-style spicy fried noodles in Penang (right).
Char koay teow at the roadside stall along Siam Road (left). This little-known mee goreng stall serves up one of the best Indian-style spicy fried noodles in Penang (right).

4pm: Mee Goreng/Mee Rebus at Chuan Foong Coffee Shop, Jalan Chan Siew Teong, Tanjung Bungah

Business hours: 3pm - 5pm

GPS coordinates:  5.465881,100.279915

Go for a scenic drive along the coast of the island and catch glimpses of the sea before you come to this little-known corner coffee shop by the main road of Jalan Batu Ferringhi. Be prepared to be blown away by the Indian-style fried noodles in a rich tomato-based spicy sauce garnished with cuttlefish, tofu and potatoes. If you prefer something with gravy, the stall also has mee rebus, or blanched noodles in a thick spicy sauce, the same one used to fry the noodles.

5pm: Hon Kei Pork Soup at Hon Kei Food Corner, Jalan Kampung Malabar, George Town

Business hours: 9am - 3pm, 5pm - midnight

GPS coordinates: 5.419087,100.33262

Pork galore for pork lovers because this is the place where you get to eat almost every part of the pig, particularly the innards, including pig’s brains in a clear soup. This used to be a roadside stall for several generations before they expanded, bought a row of shoplots just a few metres from their roadside spot and now opened their own coffee shop selling only pork soup with noodles or pork porridge.

6pm: Bak Kee BeeHoon Soup at Hwa Nam Coffee Shop, Carnavon Street, George Town

Business hours: 5.30pm - midnight

GPS coordinates: 5.414363,100.33321

This is another pork soup with vermicelli but with a different twist. It is not mere plain pork meat balls or plain minced pork but seasoned minced pork dipped in cornstarch before it is cooked in a clear soup and served with vermicelli.

7pm: Nasi Melayu at Terengganu Road, Taman Free School

Business hours: 5.30pm - 10pm

GPS coordinates: 5.404686,100.308963

For dinner, it is time to head out of George Town and go for a drive through a school area and housing estates for nothing beats a satisfying meal of nasi tomato (tomato sauce-based rice) or just fluffy white rice served with any traditional style Malay dish you fancy from the tender buttery soft squid cooked in a rich curry gravy to the crispy  fried chicken seasoned in local spices, all perfectly complemented with a tangy home-made sambal (ground chilli paste).

The nasi Melayu stall at Terengganu Road has a wide array of dishes to choose from (left). Strips of chicken, pork, venison, beef, mutton or wild boar seasoned in a variety of sauces grilled over a charcoal fire at Terengganu Road (right).
The nasi Melayu stall at Terengganu Road has a wide array of dishes to choose from (left). Strips of chicken, pork, venison, beef, mutton or wild boar seasoned in a variety of sauces grilled over a charcoal fire at Terengganu Road (right).

8pm: Satay at corner coffee shop, junction of Terengganu Road and Lim Leang Teng Road

Business hours: 6pm - 11pm

GPS coordinates: 5.405498,100.308427

Satay may be traditional Malay fare but this stall offers more than seasoned strips of chicken and beef grilled over charcoal. This stall, located within a tiny little nameless coffee shop, offers sticks of skewered pork, pork intestines, wild boar, mutton, venison, chicken and beef seasoned in a variey of styles from the original tumeric-based seasoning to tom yam, honey, black pepper, red fermented bean curd sauce and curry. Although served with peanut sauce and cucumbers, these bites of delectable meaty morsels are good even without the sauce.

9pm: Assam Laksa at Bee Hooi Coffee Shop, Burmah Road, Pulau Tikus

Business hours: 8pm = 11pm

GPS coordinates: 5.432189,100.310186

Penang assam laksa has earned a whole reputation of its own for its unique combination of four different flavours ― sweet, sour, spicy and a tinge of saltiness ― all brought together in a fish stock soup seasoned with local spices. The spicy soup, served with white rice noodles and vegetables, is further enhanced with the sweet and thick shrimp paste and though some may find it has a strong fishy smell, others find it has an intriguing blend of aroma from the spices used in the soup. This stall too has been around for decades. They also have a side dish of wet popiah, fresh rolls wrapped with shredded jicama, diced bean curd, egg, lettuce and covered in a savoury sweet gravy.

Assam laksa at Bee Hooi Coffee Shop (left). Kuih Chiap at Kimberley Street (right).
Assam laksa at Bee Hooi Coffee Shop (left). Kuih Chiap at Kimberley Street (right).

10pm: Curry mee at Chulia Street, George Town

Business hours: 7.30pm - 11pm

GPS coordinates: 5.418005,100.336601

Time to join the throng at this busy road lined with night spots, watering holes, little cafés, budget motels and literally a backpackers’ haven. Be prepared to wait around for a place to sit and also to dine under the stars, by the roadside where you can watch vehicles whizzing by mere inches away. The curry mee here is usually the main attraction for its rich spicy soup with just the slightest tinge of coconut milk. Whether you eat it with plain noodles or with vermicelli and cockles, it will definitely blaze down your throat so remember to order drinks to put out the fire. If you can’t take the heat, the wantan mee stall here serves up a decent plate of noodles in dark sauce or in plain soup.

11pm: Kuih Chiap at Kimberley Street, George Town

Business hours: 6pm - midnight

GPS coordinates: 5.416211,100.332803

A few streets down, here is another roadside stall that offers up hot steaming bowls of herbal and spiced soup of stewed duck meat, gizzards and pork. Either eat it as it is or for a full meal, have it served with a bowl of rice or hor fun.

Teochew-style duck rice of braised duck meat with crispy roast pork at Air Itam Market.
Teochew-style duck rice of braised duck meat with crispy roast pork at Air Itam Market.

Midnight: Teochew duck rice at Air Itam Market, Air Itam

Business hours: 11pm - 2am

GPS coordinates: 5.401845,100.277495

Why go to a wet market in the middle of the night? Well, it may be a wet market by day, but it’s a makeshift “food court” by night. Forget the run-of-the-mill duck rice served with crispy roast duck, this stall sells the Teochew-style duck rice, where the duck meat is seasoned and braised to a soft tenderness that it falls apart and almost melts in your mouth. You won’t even know it is duck meat!

1am: Claypot Bee Tai Bak (Loh Shi Fun) at Lintang Paya Terubong 3, Paya Terubong

Business hours: 8.30pm - 2.30am

GPS coordinates: 5.390427,100.277678

Only in Penang you get to dine under a makeshift stall right next to a bus stop, on a narrow pavement near the corner of a road junction. Sounds complicated? Maybe. This stall is not easy to find as it is nestled within a housing area but it is a popular haunt for residents (and naturally, foodies like us) with a penchant for claypot noodles, claypot chicken rice and sizzling plate noodles. Their signature dish is the claypot bee tai bak (a type of rice noodles) in a thick starchy soup with beansprouts, eggs and anchovies. If you love shark fin soup but feel guilty about eating shark fin, this is a great alternative as it is almost like the delicacy, without the cost.

Claypot bee tai bak by the bus stop on the pavement at Paya Terubong.
Claypot bee tai bak by the bus stop on the pavement at Paya Terubong.
Have your nasi lemak 2am break at Lintang Batu Lanchang.
Have your nasi lemak 2am break at Lintang Batu Lanchang.

2am: Nasi lemak at Lintang Batu Lanchang, near the Taman Seri Damai flat entrance

Business hours: 11pm - 3am

GPS coordinates: 5.390907,100.306731

No food journey in Malaysia, even in Penang, is complete without a recommendation to one of the best nasi lemak stalls around. This stall offers fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk with a sprinkling of spices that goes perfectly with their famed curries. It doesn’t matter which curry you pick from their array of chicken, squid, fish, beef or mutton curries, this is the place to be for a truly Malaysian taste of what nasi lemak is meant to be. You can also be adventurous to ask for “campur” (where they literally flood your rice with a mixture of the curries) and add a crunchy fried fish or chicken to complete the meal.

3am: Sup Hameed at Penang Road, George Town

Business hours: 6pm - 4am

GPS coordinates: 5.422128,100.334197

Hot bowls of meaty soup are especially wonderful during the coldest hour of the night. The roadside stall dominating the whole length of the pavement of the road offers the best chicken, mutton, oxtail and of course, their signature, “torpedo” soup (made from the bull’s penis). Try the “torpedo” soup if you are adventurous and men often go for this due to the belief that it gives them a boost where it is needed.

Hot bowls of chicken, lamb or beef soup at Sup Hameed best eaten with warm steamed bread (left). Eu char kuey at Jalan Air Itam (right).
Hot bowls of chicken, lamb or beef soup at Sup Hameed best eaten with warm steamed bread (left). Eu char kuey at Jalan Air Itam (right).

4am: Eu Char Kuey at Jalan Air Itam, near Air Itam Market, Air Itam

Business hours: 3am - 11amGPS coordinates: 5.400189,100.277925

Wash down the warm soup with these deepfried snacks, essentially made from flour and some with glutinous rice or red bean filling. This stall has an array of piping hot eu char kuey, ham chim peng and hua chne (all different types of deepfried snacks made from flour) that are crunchy, fragrant and most important of all, not too oily despite it being deepfried.

5am: Nasi Kandar at Wah Meng Coffee Shop, Jalan Air Itam, Air Itam

Business hours: 3.30am - 11am

GPS coordinates: 5.400382,100.278069

This nasi kandar stall is not where you sit for hours with a teh tarik just to watch the sports channel for free. It is where you have to line up for nasi kandar that is as authentic as you can find in a coffee shop. Be prepared to eat while squatting down or standing up because the coffee shop is not open till 7am but it will be worth it because what they offer are homecooked dishes that are different from the standard, sometimes bland, fare of of 24-hour nasi kandar chains.

Finally, we have come to the end of the 24-hour food journey all over the island of Penang. There are plenty of other interesting street foods on the island but unfortunately, we could not feature all of them so do take your time to explore and discover more passionate “roadside chefs” in Penang.

This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on November 1, 2013.

A plate of nasi kandar from the stall at Wah Meng Coffee Shop is like a home-cooked meal, not a commercial nasi kandar stall.
A plate of nasi kandar from the stall at Wah Meng Coffee Shop is like a home-cooked meal, not a commercial nasi kandar stall.