Penang - an island of flavours in the heart of Malaysia

Penang is a destination your taste buds would pick if they had a choice, mostly for the variety of cuisines available in such a small stretch

marc_casolani
Marc Casolani
10 February 2017, 8:04am
 Three ethnicities thrive here and you can try out the variety of Chinese, Malay and Indian food found in the many markets, food courts and restaurants
Three ethnicities thrive here and you can try out the variety of Chinese, Malay and Indian food found in the many markets, food courts and restaurants
Penang – a small island, even though it is three times the size of Malta, off the western shores of peninsular Malaysia is renowned throughout southeast Asia for its food culture. Three ethnicities thrive here and you can try out the variety of Chinese, Malay and Indian food found in the many markets, food courts and restaurants across the island. 

Penang is a destination your taste buds would pick if they had a choice, mostly for the variety of cuisines available in such a small stretch. Such is the way in Penang that cuisines are mixed even in a single meal.  

This place is full of culture and it goes without saying that it is busy throughout the whole year
This place is full of culture and it goes without saying that it is busy throughout the whole year
Penang goes back a long way in history and you will see this in the colonial architecture. This place is full of culture and it goes without saying that it is busy throughout the whole year, though some weeks make a visit to the island an overwhelming experience as a result of religious festivals and both Chinese and international New Year’s celebrations.  

The people of Penang take great pride in the culinary arts and traditional cooking methods, making a walk along the roads lined with food stalls a tasty adventure. Be sure to pack a good appetite and an open mind! Long roads of food stalls can be found in many places around George Town, the capital of the island, and can take long mornings, afternoons or evenings to explore, so leave plenty of time to discover new cooking methods and become familiar with the ingredients they use as well as sampling what’s on offer, after all, how else will you know if you want to try these out at home? 

Take some time to get out of the city and drive to the north of the island to their National Park
Take some time to get out of the city and drive to the north of the island to their National Park
Just walking past the stalls builds your appetite as aromas of Chinese, Malay and Indian food wafts through the streets. Though some smells are more appealing than others, most of them create a Pavolv’s dog kind of reaction, instigating instant salviation as your digestive system prepares for the meal ahead. 

While I was there, I often stopped to ask what was in the delightful dishes they were cooking (the signs were all in Chinese so visuals with a little verbal aid was going to have to do!) One Chinese lady goes as far as pointing to some delicious pastries and says “meat”, then points to another one and says “chicken” and another and says “fish” and another and says “vegetable”. A few stalls down the line I realise that this is the only English vocabulary most stall owners pocess, so I took to watching them prepare the food so that I could at least recognise some of the ingredients they were using. I started out trying a chicken pastry, calamari on a stick and a ball of flaked fish. 

Just walking past the stalls builds your appetite as aromas of Chinese, Malay and Indian food wafts through the streets
Just walking past the stalls builds your appetite as aromas of Chinese, Malay and Indian food wafts through the streets
After a little bit more of a wander, I moved to the fruit stall and decided on a smoothie of fresh dragon fruit, banana and pineapple all blended into an energising smoothie. As a rule, they will add a sweet sugar syrup to the smoothie so unless you are looking for a sugar rush, ask them to hold back on the syrup. I then found a table by the side of the road, made myself comfortable and sipped on my smoothie whilst taking in the life and culture – food and otherwise – of the Malaysians doing business and eating their fill. 

Not very long after it was time for a main course, so I headed to a Chinese stall and thought I’d brave it this time and tried a kebab of chicken hearts and some fresh garlic naan bread with four different sauces from the Indian stall and a side dish of stir-fried noodles from the Malay stall not too far off. Indulgence in these Asian flavours left me pretty stuffed, though not full enough to skip the sweet and I rounded off this culinary evening with  some interestingly-shaped sweets, filled with marzipan, cream and coconut and then went on for a crepe-like pastry with Nutella and strawberries. 

I took to watching them prepare the food so that I could at least recognise some of the ingredients they were using
I took to watching them prepare the food so that I could at least recognise some of the ingredients they were using
After a long evening of exchaning pennies for food I checked the contents of my pockets, only to find that I had spent a grand total of €7.50 – how’s that for value for money!

Though the food markets are are must, don’t let them suck you in and hold you there for your entire trip as there is plenty to see on the island. Check out some of their famous monumenhts, temples, museums  and graffiti by artists the likes of Ernest Zackarevicsuch. Take some time to get out of the city and drive to the north of the island to their National Park. There are some great trekking trails with some fantastic indigenous species of flora and fauna as well as beaches along the way. Although there are some mammal species that live here, this area is most famous for bird watching as a few endangered species make their home on the island of Penang. Along the coast of Penang there are a number of small fishing villages that boast character and colour and are most definitely worth a visit. 

The people of Penang take great pride in the culinary arts and traditional cooking methods, making a walk along the roads lined with food stalls a tasty adventure
The people of Penang take great pride in the culinary arts and traditional cooking methods, making a walk along the roads lined with food stalls a tasty adventure
The people of Penang are islanders at heart and take great pride in their island, and a most hospitable bunch. 

The duration of your stay will depend on how much time you have to kill. Whether just passing through, or taking the time to discover every nook and cranny, be sure to cover the cultural highlights, the food markets and the natural beauty of the north for a complete picture of Penang. 

Along the coast of Penang there are a number of small fishing villages that boast character and colour and are most definitely worth a visit
Along the coast of Penang there are a number of small fishing villages that boast character and colour and are most definitely worth a visit
Getting there and around

Getting to the island is easy as there are regular flights from most major airports in the world and ferries run constantly from the mainland. Due to the popularity of this destination, I would advise that you book accommodation in advance. Trip Advisor and Agoda have a good set up with a vast range of places to book. You are looking at an average of €15 per day to eat to your heart’s content, use transportation and enter one of the many cultural sites. Before you decide on a destination date, check out the cultural calendar online as there are a number of events that are highly entertaining, full of colour and a great experience to be a part of.

As a rule, they will add a sweet sugar syrup to the smoothie so unless you are looking for a sugar rush, ask them to hold back on the syrup
As a rule, they will add a sweet sugar syrup to the smoothie so unless you are looking for a sugar rush, ask them to hold back on the syrup
Marc Casolani is a freelance photographer and a chronic traveler. Bitten by the travel bug...