Penang is known for its amazing and affordable food. A taxi driver told me that there are Singaporean tourists who fly all the way here just to eat a few meals. Personally, I don't know if I would go to those lengths, but what I did try was really good! I had a few meals of traditional local foods, and others of different cuisines from unique local institutions and cafes.
On the first night, I stumbled across a food stand on Chulia Street, the backpacker district. It's called lok lok - think of a roadside, communal eating experience of hot pot. There are various raw ingredients skewered on wooden sticks and arranged for self-service. The sticks are colored at the ends which let you know the price of that particular item.
You just take whatever you feel like and stick it in one of two pots of boiling water. When it's cooked (up to your own discretion!), you can remove it from the water and dip it in various spicy sauces. It's a fun experience because all these different people are just standing around, cooking their food and eating on the street. There are different vegetables, meat balls, seafood, tofu and eggs. It's not the most sanitary experience, but I figured the boiling water would disinfect the food. I tried about 5 skewers of food for 4 Malaysian ringgit (MYR), or a little more than $1 USD.
Georgetown is also known for having an abundance of quirky and hipster cafes located in renovated shophouses, serving both local and western foods. I found one on Lorong Chulia called Roti Bean Cafe for breakfast the second morning. They have a simple menu, and I ordered egg in toast, alternatively known as "egg in a basket" or "toad in a hole" for 5 MYR. It was delicious - thick buttery toast and a nice soft-boiled egg plopped in the middle! Good fuel for the rest of the day.
Another nice cafe is located on Lorong Soo Hoon, and the name is a play of words on the street. It's called "Soo hongry!"A homey little place, the menu is limited to the few specials they serve each day. There wasn't a physical menu - the waitress described each dish in detail after I sat down.
I ordered the portuguese chicken, which was cooked really well. Cafes like these are a great way to get out of the heat during the midday, eat a meal or drink some coffee, and relax with a book or a journal. Some of the other cafes that I enjoyed are the Mugshot Cafe, Budan's Brew, and China House.
Another fantastic hidden find - a vegetarian Chinese restaurant also on Lorong Soo Hoon. It was quite empty but I went one day for dinner since it was pouring down rain and the location was right next to the guesthouse. They served a special vegetarian set with a soup, multigrain rice, various veggies and mock meat. The portions were just right and the food was cooked really well! I also ordered a cucumber juice on the side, to top off an extremely healthy and nutritious meal.
There are quite a number of vegetarian restaurants in Penang, and the food seems all done quite well. I wonder if this is due to a large population of Hindus and Buddhists.
One famous dish in Penang is the assam laksa - a spicy and sour noodle soup made with fish paste and various herbs such as lemongrass and basil. It's hard to eat in the summertime heat though! Various people swear by their favorite hawker stands, but I'm not the biggest fan of the dish so I just picked it one day at a food court.
Hawker centres and food courts are a big part of the social scene - it's where friends, families, young people all go hang out and eat a meal together. Many of them open in the late afternoon, and stay bustling until the early morning hours. Sometimes there are live performances in the larger food centres. There are always numerous stalls, from traditional noodle stalls to interesting takes on western and Taiwanese food.
There's usually a juice vendor to sell fresh-squeezed fruit and vegetable juices!
The last night I tried popiah at a hawker centre called CF Food Court. Popiah is an interesting dish, sort of a take on a spring roll. Inside a thin flour wrap is fried shredded turnip, tofu, and a sweet and sour dark sauce. It's an interesting blend of textures, and relatively healthy for hawker fare!
I really enjoyed all the different meals I had in Penang. Some of the food is similar to what one might find in Singapore, but it's about 3 times cheaper! I don't think it's the only reason one should come travel to Penang, but it definitely is an integral part of the overall experience.