Finding Diverse Food in George Town, Penang
48 hours has passed since we arrived in George Town, Penang considered Southeast Asia’s culinary kingdom. This melting pot of Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures have been blending and coming together centuries before any fancy fusion restaurant. Said to have some of Asia’s best street food at some very low prices, it also has some restaurants where a couple like us can eat for around RM15 ($5 CAN).
In Thailand the food was amazing everywhere (you can see our post on great restaurants in Pai) but the cuisine was not quite as diverse in most areas. Here in Penang, even in such a short time, we’ve managed to find some amazing and diverse food, eating Chinese dim sum, Indian butter chicken and a Malaysian specialty, Laksa.
Surprising Indian Delight: Restoran Ros Mutiara Sdn Bhd
Located on Chulia Street, this was our first stop for a meal in Malaysia and we were hoping it would be a memorable one. During the long overnight train ride from Thailand we didn’t eat much mostly because, as we discovered, train food is just as bad, or worse, than airplane food. Looking at the flimsy paper-placemat menu we decided we didn’t want to ruin our appetite and since good eats is the reason why we decided to come to Penang in the first place, we figured we’d wait. The sacrifice was worth it.
When we walked into Restoran Ros Mutiara Sdn Bhd (straight from the ferry we caught after the train ride), we noticed that it was a bit like a cafeteria-style restaurant with different types of Indian food on display, plastic chairs (which are found in most of the eateries we’ve enjoyed in Asia) and only two walls.
We sat down, ordered butter chicken (our go-to Indian dish), rice, and two orders of garlic naan (we absolutely love garlic naan!). We didn’t know we were in for a treat. Everything that came out was made fresh and a bit different in flavour than the usual western style Indian food we are accustomed too, but in the most delightful way.
The naan was a bit thicker, crispier on the outside but softer in the middle, with chunks of amazingness (garlic) throughout. The butter chicken had a touch of spice to it; not an uncomfortable amount but a little from the garlic, onion and hint of ginger we tasted, in addition to the rest of the spices.
It was also the best we’ve had to date. For us, this place was a pleasant surprise and what we hope is a glimpse into the quality of food we will be experiencing throughout the rest of our stay in Penang.
Laksa the Chinese-Malay Way: Joo Hooi Café
Since first learning about the island of Penang, Laksa has been associated with it in our minds. Laksa, a soup created from Chinese and Malaysian influences is found in Singapore, Indonesia and, of course, Malaysia. This soup is made many different ways: Curry laksa, Assam laksa and Sarawak laksa. With some quick Google research we found a place specializing in Assam Laksa and decided on it for our introduction to the dish because of its close location to our hotel.
Joo Hooi Cafe wasn’t hard to find as it’s located on the corner of one of the main streets, Julan Penang, and was full of people. Outside, a street food cart “Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul” stands with a lineup of at least 20 people long at all times. Although apparently very famous in Penang, especially to the Chinese visitors and locals, we continued passed the line. We weren’t here for that – we came for the Laksa.
We were incredibly lucky and instantly found a seat in a booth that was held together by only a few pieces of duct tape. The Laksa here, like many others, is made in a huge pot. The soup came in a small plastic bowl and we weren’t too sure what to expect from this tiny, crowded restaurant.
The first few bites had us questioning the popularity of the dish, and the place. It was a little fishy with a confusing blend of flavours but as we ate more we found the flavor blended more completely and it got better with each spoonful. The mint and lime infused with the soup and by the end it left us wanting more.
Dim Sum For the Needy: Tai Tong Restaurant
Once again, Google search provided us with another great place to eat. Our last dim sum restaurant was back in Toronto, Canada before we left for Asia (with a brief pork bun teaser at Rock Restaurant in Bangkok) and our dim sum cravings were kicking in. We figured it was likely we’d find some decent places to eat some in Penang and luckily, our search brought us to Tai Tong Restaurant, right down the street from the coffee shop where we were getting work done.
We didn’t read too much about this place as we needed only to see the words ‘good’ and ‘dim sum’ and we were sold. We packed up our computers and almost ran to this restaurant. Another plastic chair restaurant, with plastic table cloths and two walls, we sat down not quite sure whether we had found the right all-day dim sum restaurant we had read about online.
When we were handed a menu, we got even more confused until we saw the typical dim sum serving carts being pushed down the row of tables.
We ordered Har gow (shrimp dumplings), Sumai (shrimp and pork wrapped in cabbage), bbq pork buns and our new favourite, chicken feet (although Carolann didn’t care for the bean paste sauce used here).
We would definitely recommend this restaurant as a good place to get your dim sum on. We ordered five dishes and a bottle of water and our total bill was RM16 (about $5.50CDN). With the quality and price, you really can’t go wrong. Just be careful, they close one day a week and last we heard, it was on Mondays!
We’ve spent only 48 hours in Penang and we’ve got a couple weeks to go in Malaysia. We came for the food and it looks like we will end up staying for the food. They say that Penang is the culinary capital of Asia and judging by our experience so far, we would agree, although we’ve only just scratched the surface.
From Indian, to Malay, to Chinese, to Thai and beyond, the cuisines of Asia seem to meet here, sometimes fusing, sometimes remaining their own. It seems as though we’ll only ever really get surface deep into the culinary possibilities in Penang as with every corner you turn, there is another food stall or restaurant serving a different style of food.
With so many places to eat and cuisines to try, the majority of places and dishes are left to be discovered by the people who dare to explore and expand their culinary horizons.
***** You Can Do It Too! It’s not always easy to find good places to eat, especially if you don’t have internet access. If you do, Google away! But either way, don’t be afraid to get out there and seek out new places on your own. Roaming the streets and looking for those great, local establishments, with little to no internet exposure, can provide you with the best experiences. When we look for a local restaurant or food stand, we keep our eye out for those places that are busy with lots of locals. You’re generally sure to find good food where the locals know and choose. *****
Comment below and let us know what city is your favourite for finding great and diverse cuisine!