My Experience with Food in Penang
I’m not sure Malaysia really stood a chance in the food category after we found such tasty food in Ao Nang, Thailand. But still we were curious to try some of the local dishes. We also heard that Penang was well known for food, and night markets were scattered all around George Town. I like the atmosphere of markets because there’s so much more energy than in a regular restaurant, so I was really looking forward to experiencing Penang from that perspective.
Off to a rough start
By the time we made it to George Town and checked into our hotel, it was getting pretty late but we still needed dinner. Luckily we started talking to someone in the elevator who pointed us in the right direction for some street food. Andy and I each ordered a rice dish with chicken and pineapples, which was good but nothing exciting.
The next day we went looking for lunch but struggled. The hawkers from the night before weren’t around during the day, and every restaurant we found was either closed or really expensive. Finally we found a few places selling something simply called chicken rice and decided to give it a try.
The man we ordered from brought out soup first. It was a fairly boring broth, and I wasn’t impressed. Next he brought us each a bowl of rice and a plate of chicken. Seemed pretty simple, but as I started digging through the chicken, I had a hard time finding pieces that weren’t fatty or bony. I managed to get enough decent chicken, along with some rice, to quiet my hunger, but I didn’t enjoy the meal.
I’m kind of embarrassed to admit we basically gave up looking for lunch during the rest of our time in Penang. Instead we went to the mall down the street and ate at Subway.
Penang’s Macalister night market saved us
One of the many night markets in Penang is Macalister Market. It also happens to be the only one we went to. It was about a 15 minute walk from our hotel, so at the end of our first day in Penang, once the sun went down, we went to see what was there. The hawkers there were selling a wide variety of Malaysian and Chinese food, and we gravitated towards a guy selling satay. They were so delicious that our first order of 10 sticks wasn’t enough, and we had to get a second round of this Malaysian snack.
After we finished, we wandered around some more and found someone else who had lamb satay as well as chicken. So we tried hers the next night. The lamb wasn’t so impressive, but I liked her sauce better on the chicken. I’m sure lots of people want to try as many things as possible when in a new place, but I tend to find one or two foods I love and stick with them. Andy and I are both creatures of habit, and so we returned a third night for more satay.
The crazy woman
Hawker markets are set up with loads of venders selling food but no drinks or seating. So nearby you will find a few cafes that sell drinks and have tables and chairs for customers to sit and eat. The second time we went to Macalister night market, we were greeted in the drinks restaurant by an older Chinese woman. As she took our money, she smiled mischievously and said thank you while walking away, implying we wouldn’t get our change.
She was joking of course. Despite her broken English, she managed to toss her dry sense of humor our way throughout the night, always catching us off guard and tricking us into thinking she was being serious. She finally told us at one point, “I’m crazy, don’t listen to me.” We laughed all night with her.
Just when we thought we couldn’t eat any more, she pointed to a cart that sold dumplings and pies. She really wanted us to try one, and I was having so much fun I couldn’t resist. But when Andy tried to get out of his seat to come with me, she waved him off and told him to stay put, like a grandmother scolding a child. I ended up with a pork pie that came with two different dipping sauces, one clearly sweet and sour, but all I can tell you about the other was that it had vinegar in it and I loved it. Thank you crazy woman.
Though the sights didn’t impress me, I loved Penang’s food culture. I probably should’ve tried more things, but when I find something I like I have a hard time convincing myself not to have it again. So maybe I didn’t experience a wide variety of the local food, but I’m happy I found a couple things I really enjoyed. I would go back just for the satay and another pork pie.
You might also enjoy:
- How Much We Spent Traveling in Southeast Asia for Two Months
- How Much We Spent Traveling in Malaysia
- How We Spent One Week in Hong Kong
- Discovering Delicious Food in Ao Nang, Thailand
Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
April 28, 2014 @ 8:39 AM
I’m so glad you were able to turn things around in Penang—it really is one of Malaysia’s great food destinations. There is something very comforting/approachable about the Thai food scene, but we have always eaten very well in Malaysia as well. We do tend to be fairly adventurous, which I’m sure helps, but we’ve also found that Malaysians are very friendly and tend to help you out when you’re at a loss regarding what to do/eat. And we definitely have our favorite places to eat in Penang too—I’m not sure that we’ve ever done satay there, but that’s probably because we’re always too busy stuffing ourselves with delicious Indian food!
April 28, 2014 @ 12:17 PM
Thanks Steph! Andy and I aren’t big on Indian food, so we didn’t try any of that, but we were so happy to find yummy satay! I’m sure if we had visited Malaysia a little earlier in our trip, we would’ve been a bit more adventurous with the food, but we were so exhausted by this point. Plus we really did struggle trying to find places that were open for lunch, which was odd. That combined with the heat, and we just gave up on lunch and made our peace with eating Subway.
May 1, 2014 @ 2:49 PM
I’ve only been to Malaysia once and was blown away by the food at a little place on Langkawi. Would love to eat it again.
That crazy woman sounds like fun. They always add to an experience.
May 1, 2014 @ 3:38 PM
We didn’t make it to Langkawi but I’ve heard good things. Penang was definitely interesting, and that woman really was fun! That night was my best memory of Penang.
May 11, 2014 @ 12:52 PM
I’m sorry you didn’t have a great culinary experience in Penang. But, to be honest, I don’t think you were going to have a good one if you went about doing such as ordering ” a rice dish with chicken and pineapples” — i.e., not something Penangites would think to order.
Also, about your comment re “as I started digging through the chicken, I had a hard time finding pieces that weren’t fatty or bony”: were you looking for chicken breast meat? If so, I suggest you try specifying for it. Funny but true: for most Asians, chicken breast meat is precisely the kind of meat we think is not so good. Put another way: we prefer meat that’s around the bone. And ya, some people also like meat that’s fatty… 😉
I’m glad the Western fast food places and satay were to your liking — and no, I’m not teasing because often, such as McDonalds will have interesting options that aren’t found in the US or Britain. Things like banana milkshake (yum) and also Prosperity Burgers around Chinese New Year that at least one of my (Malaysian Indian) friends absolutely loves!
May 12, 2014 @ 1:32 PM
I wouldn’t say I didn’t have a great experience with the food. Quite the opposite really, and I even said in my closing paragraph that I loved Penang’s food culture. The rice dish with the chicken and pineapples is something we got at a small hawker center with lots of locals around, and it was one of only 2 or 3 dishes this particular woman was selling. It didn’t seem very touristy to me. As for the chicken rice with the fatty pieces, I think that was all that was on offer, which makes sense if they really do like that kind of meat better, as you said. Yes, we ate at Subway (not McDonald’s. I wouldn’t eat McDonald’s even in the US.) a couple times for lunch, but other than that we stuck to the local food at the night market. The satay and the pork pie thing we ate were amazing. If we had been in Penang longer, I would’ve tried other things too, but as I mentioned, I found something I loved and I stuck with it.
roberto & anna
May 20, 2014 @ 6:06 AM
We are now in Ao Nang (Long Muang) and we will go to Penang at the end of this week. We cannot wait to try local Malaysian food!
May 20, 2014 @ 10:47 AM
Thanks! Make sure you check out the night markets in Penang for good street food!