A synchronised clanking of metal woks fills the air, as heaps of noodles are vigorously tossed around, with a splash of some kind of sauce and a generous helping of meats and vegetables. On the other side, wafts of smoke originate from an open grill, on which an old lady swiftly turns and cooks a series of Chicken Satay sticks, before serving it with a dollop of peanut sauce. Ahead of you, as far as your eyes can see, there is a series of stalls doing some variation of the aforementioned actions. Actions that seem well-rehearsed, almost robotic to an outsider, but result in a plate of soul-warming food. Welcome to a busy food market in Penang, where, amidst all the chaos, the only thing guaranteed is delicious food!
If there’s one activity you shouldn’t miss on your Penang trip, it is hunting down the best food the island has to offer! A walk through Penang’s lanes and bylanes will transport you to a world of mouthwatering aromas and delicious sights worthy of a food expedition!
Given Penang’s popularity, there are numerous food tour operators who can take you around town and help you sample local dishes. But what if you don’t want to tag along on one of the conventional Penang food tours to experience this? We didn’t want to either because we think they can be quite restrictive in their attempt to make you taste 10 different dishes from 5 restaurants all in a span of a couple of hours. We wanted to eat at our own pace. So we decided to go on our very own DIY Penang food hunt and find where and what to eat in Penang!
We spent 3 days in Penang, and for every meal, we visited a different place to find good local food- some of which were humble hawker stalls, some, hole in the wall cafes and some, restaurants serving authentic local food. This Penang food guide will take you exactly to those spots and will also give you an insight into what to eat in Penang.
What & Where to eat in Penang
Since we wanted to create our own DIY food trail, choosing exactly where to eat in Penang was our biggest concern because food is available in literally every nook and cranny of this island! So it’s easy to get carried away and confused. Our list of places to eat in Penang is hopefully going to help you find your way through the clutter. Curated based on suggestions from locals and our first-hand experience, these eateries gave us the opportunity to taste some of the most iconic dishes of Penang and truly completed our experience.
Penang Food Tour: Gurney Drive Hawker Centre
Penang has a vibrant street/hawker food culture. Evenings here come alive with the chatter of local food stall owners setting up shop and the clanking of metal woks getting prepped for serving delicious food. The Gurney Drive Hawker Centre is probably the single largest setup in Penang, home to hundreds of food stalls. Open every evening until midnight, Gurney Drive is a great place to start your food trail in Penang for the sheer variety of food that’s available here. Rows of tiny stalls on both sides, selling everything starting from Char Kway Teo to Pork Dumplings. Find yourself a table in the crowded seating area and grab a few different plates of food to taste. Prices typically start from as low as MYR 5 (approx. USD 1.2), depending on what your order. But there’s something here for every kind of eater and every budget so take a deep dive and watch Penang’s love for food come alive.
What to eat here: Char Kway Teo (stir-fried flat egg noodles with seafood/meat & bean sprouts)
Wantan Mee (thin egg noodles with chicken/pork dumplings)
Satay (barbequed skewered meat)
Cendol (shaved ice dessert topped with coconut milk, jellies, red beans, palm sugar, corn)
Fresh young coconut
Penang Food Tour: Chulia Street
One of the oldest and most happening parts of Penang’s Georgetown, Chulia Street is an icon by itself. Known for its numerous small watering holes and street food carts, a walk down Chulia Street during the day and evening was definitely one of the highlights of our Penang trip.
During the mornings and afternoons, Chulia Street is often thronged by busy office-goers because of the availability of quick lunch options. Almost every store along this street serves the iconic Hainanese Chicken Rice which is a lunch staple here. Although bustling with people, with absolutely no seat to spare, these hole-in-the-wall restaurants on Chulia Street quickly became our go-to lunch spot during our stay in Penang.
The evenings saw Chulia Street take on a completely different avatar. Tiny pubs and bars open their doors to visitors while the street gets lined with small food carts on both sides, serving up hundreds of plates of food at a lightning pace! Expect to find everything ranging from fried noodles to dimsums as well as local desserts like Cendol and Apom. But more than the dishes, it is Chulia Street’s good vibes that leave a lasting impression.
What to eat here: Hainanese Chicken Rice
Char Siew (Glazed & barbequed meat, mostly pork belly)
Apom (Thin, crispy pancakes made from coconut milk & flour)
Penang Food Tour: A Taste of Teksen Restaurant
Visiting Penang and not tasting the local Chinese food? Not happening in our books! Penang and Malaysia, in general, has a large community of Chinese people who migrated here several hundred years ago. They brought along their cuisine which has now cemented its position in Malaysia’s culinary landscape. And one of the best places to get a taste of the local Chinese food is Teksen Restaurant in Penang’s Georgetown.
A heritage restaurant, housed in a typical, vintage building, Teksen’s simplicity is striking. No fancy decor and furniture, no flashy lights, humble servers, and an even more amicable owner – we immediately felt at home once we were seated. Mind you, getting a table at Teksen is harder than it seems because of its popularity, so come prepared to wait for a while. But there’s a reason why it is so popular among locals as well as visitors – its insanely delicious food! Order Teksen’s iconic dishes like Double Roasted Pork with Chili or Tofu with Minced Pork with a serving of steamed rice, and you’re good to go. Spicy, sweet, sticky, savoury, crunchy and juicy, all the same time – our meal at Teksen was like a flavour bomb bursting in our mouth!
What to eat here: Double Roasted Pork with Chili Padi
Stir-fried Tofu with Minced Pork & Chili
Homemade Tofu in Claypot
Penang Food Tour: Auntie Gaik Lean’s Restaurant
Many of the early Chinese immigrants who settled in Malaysia later married local Malays, giving birth to the community of Peranakans. Those marriages not only brought together the two communities but also led to a beautiful fusion of the Chinese and Malay cuisines, now popularly known as Nyonya food. And one of the best places to eat Nyonya food in Penang is at Auntie Gaik Lean’s Restaurant. Highly recommended by the staff at the Edison Georgetown (where we stayed during the trip), we knew we had to check out the restaurant to see for ourselves what the hype was all about.
Run by the vivacious Auntie Gaik Lean herself along with her son, the restaurant had a certain appeal that immediately tells you that you’re in for a good time! Decorated with simple Chinese lanterns and furnished with vintage wood furniture, we saw Auntie Gaik herself busy in food prep as we sat down for our lunch. Sensing our curiosity, she happily struck up a conversation with us, telling us stories from her life and how she ended up running one of the most famous Nyonya restaurants in Penang. She also generously suggested what we should try from the menu and since there was no way we were going to second-guess that, we went ahead and ordered her favourite dishes.
Our lunch comprised of Nyonya-style fried rice with fried chicken (Inche Kabin) and a nutritious rice dish made with 5 different types of fresh herbs, something we had never tasted before. The food was fresh, flavourful and delicious, and we had to agree that all the hype about Auntie Gaik’s food was worth all the hype! Although we managed to have these two dishes for lunch, their menu comprises of an extensive variety of unique Nyonya dishes like Chicken Rendang, Sambal Brinjal and Chicken Curry Kapitan, which are highly recommended by the restaurant’s regular visitors.
What to eat here: Inche Kabin (Nyonya-style fried chicken)
Nyonya Chicken Rendang (Chicken braised in a coconut curry)
Nyonya Fried Rice with Sambal
Nasi Ulam (Rice with herbs)
Still looking for accommodation? Book your stay in Georgetown, Penang here
Penang Food Tour: China House
Here’s one eatery which technically doesn’t fall under the category of those serving traditional local food, but we had to include this in our list because it turned out to be the best place for desserts in Penang! For all of you with a sweet tooth, craving for a bite of a dessert after dinner, head to China House for an array of cakes, cupcakes, cheesecakes and other desserts. A perfect little spot for a midnight dessert-run, we went back to China House at least twice because their cakes were so good, especially their Tiramisu Cake which became our favourite! They may not serve any local desserts, but what they serve is definitely up there with some of the best desserts we’ve had elsewhere.
It is also worth mentioning that China house is not just a bakery, but a congregation of many things – art gallery, shops, restaurant, cafe as well as a live music venue. So if you have a free evening, this is a great place to wind down with some light food and music, ending with some delicious dessert.
What to eat here: All their cakes and desserts for the day are on display so pick any that catches your fancy. They’re all of top-notch taste and quality.
Penang Food Tour: Red Garden Food Paradise
Well, food paradise may be a slight exaggeration, but the Red Garden food court in Georgetown did give us some very delicious and satisfactory meals! It is essentially an organized hawker food centre which is home to several dozen stalls serving some great local food. Whether its Roasted Duck you’re craving for or a simple meal of fried noodles, you’re bound to found something here at a very reasonable cost. The food court also has a large central seating area which is very clean and well maintained, so you can find yourself a table and enjoy the fresh food right there. We loved having a couple of relaxed dinners here on nights we didn’t want to walk around too much through crowded streets looking for food, which is a fairly common way to eat in Penang. The place has a great vibe, a mix of locals and travellers all eating to their heart’s content while shop owners relentlessly cook up a storm.
What to eat here: Roasted/Barbequed Duck
Char Kway Teoh (Fried flat noodles)
Char Siew (Barbequed pork belly)
Fresh young coconut/Beer
Penang’s food has a character of its own and we hope you are able to get a taste of it when you visit some of our favourite eateries there. Imagine spending your days in Penang taking in all its beautiful sights and sounds, pausing once every now and then to grab a bite at a legendary cafe or hawker market. The whole point for us to curate our own food tour in Penang was to be able to relish the food we were having and soak in the vibes of the beautiful night food markets and restaurants. It was a great way to explore Penang without having to rush through it all.
Having said that, we also have to admit that this experience was a lot more seamless since we drove around Penang in our self-driven rental car, giving us access to every nook and cranny of the island at any time of the day or night! You can read about our road trip to and driving experience in Penang here if you also want to plan a similar trip.