Old Penang Food

When you think of Penang food, you think of the usual such as assam laksa, char koay teow or fondly known as CKT and cendol. Stop for a moment, there’s more to Penang food than just what’s on its streets, which are dishes peddled by hawkers that hold earthy, somewhat inelegant but no less vibrant flavours. There’s more to quick stir-fries and addictive deep-fried offering in Penang.

Actually, there’s a host of delicate, enticing tastes that dance on your palate memorably. That’s not all, these cuisines also reflect a chunk of Penang’s history and the culture of the people who prepare them as well as the economy and geography from which those people originated. If you haven’t encountered them, let us make the introductions.

Hainanese Food
The people from the smallest province in China brought along their homey, toothsome flavours during their diaspora to Penang but it’s their twist to international dishes that makes them a favourite while heavily reflecting on Penang’s colonial history. Their chicken rice carries a milder seasoning tone as compared to the Cantonese or even Malay styles. Their fried spring roll seems to be meatier and its dipping sauce more pungent as compared to the ubiquitous vegetarian variety with chili dipping sauce. Still, all that aside, it’s their twist to the chicken or pork chops and chicken pot pie that has won many over. These flattened fillets of proteins are often crumbed or egg-battered the old-school way and smothered with either brown gravy or tomato-based sauce. Seasoning favourites stem not only from salt and pepper but also from Worcestershire sauce with its distinct taste.
Where to try: Hainanese Delights restaurant at 1926 hotel on Jalan Burmah and Hai Nan Town restaurant on Pengkalan Weld in George Town.

Jawi Peranakan Flavours
If there’s one type of cuisine that embodies elegance in Penang, that’ll be the Jawi Peranakan dishes. Most of its meat dishes need a lengthy preparation time – meats and seafood sit patiently while marinating in sophisticated mingling of spices, and herbs as well as vegetables are julienned, chopped or diced. The flavours harmoniously marry the fusion of two cultures of Arab and Malay, evidence of migrants and traders from the Middle East who settled in Penang way back when this was a bustling port. The result is an astoundingly lush notes on the palate of spices and herbs in dishes such as nasi lemuni, stews, briyani, nasi kunyit and their version of laksa.
Where to try: Jawi House on Armenian Street in George Town.

Nyonya Cuisine
As you’d guess by now, there are quite a few Chinese styles when it comes to Chinese food. It all depends on which part of China from which they had migrated. The Nyonya flavours are a step up and they are birthed from the collision of Chinese and Malay cultures. The result is a dilution of both original flavours into something quite unique that marries rich robust spices with the faint opulence of slow cooking. The dishes such as pork in cincalok, ponteh chicken, assam fish and otak-otak exude unpretentious yet dignified flavours with a long finish on the palate.
Where to try: Mama’s on Lorong Abu Siti, Perut Rumah on Jalan Bawasah and My Nyonya Favourites on Lebuh Penang in George Town.

Curries in No Hurry
The Indians, whether of Muslim or Hindu faith, had given Penang its most famous and sought after cuisine – the nasi kandar. People have been known to travel from all over just to score a plate of rice utterly drenched in at least two types of lively-flavoured curries accompanied by fried chicken, fish, mutton or seafood and myriad vegetables. What started as peddling rice and curry from hand carried carriers to port workers in Penang, nasi kandar has certainly come a long way since then. It’s no surprise since the Indians came from a land of spices from which they expertly grind into various curry pastes that produce robust and colourful curries and marinade.
Where to try: Hameediyah restaurant on Lebuh Campbell, Line Clear on Jalan Penang and Nasi Beratur on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling in George Town, as well as a couple of nasi kandar restaurants on Jalan Todak 4 in Seberang Perai.

Miscellaneous Old Flavours
Besides the stated categories of Penang’s time-honoured cuisine, there are some individual dishes that are worth a mention too. There’s the roti jala which is a delicate web of flour and water mix spread out onto a hot flat pan to produce a roti and to be dipped in curry. You can try this at Little India in George Town and at a shack under a big tree, across from the Teluk Bahang roundabout. On a sweet note, try the ting-ting candy sold at Lebuh Kimberley during its night hawker food session. What it is, is a handmade rock-hard sugar candy that is hammered in pieces and sold then. This candy is reminiscent of how sweets were sold in Penang way back when. The rendang, which the Malays are known for, was created from lack of refrigeration and tender, high grade meat. This dish takes a long time to cook since low-fire simmering of meat in spice-rich curry is vital. You can try some during lunch at Umi’s Nasi Campur stall on Jalan Sungai Emas in Batu Ferringhi and a makeshift eating shack up an inclined road across from the floating mosque in Tangjung Bungah.

Image credits: Jawi Peranakan House, Su Aziz and Penang Global Tourism.