Glorious food: Homegrown Favourites

Penang and hawker food are inextricably linked. Never the two be torn apart! It is not very surprising then that when one thinks of Penang food, the mind automatically conjures up visions of freshly cooked hawker fare. Whether you are a local or a tourist, hawker fare has something to satisfy many palates. Best of all, eating out at hawker stalls would not break the bank.

The varieties of hawker fare and hawker centres are seemingly endless, and there are plenty to choose from at almost any time of the day. It is prudent to leave your stomach with a little room for some of Penang’s famous desert or snacks – before or after a meal.

Ais kacang

ice kacang © Adrian Cheah

The mother of all Malaysian dessert, it is also known as “ABC Ais”. Ais kacang literally translated means “Iced beans”, but it contains more than that. Ais Kacang is a mixture of shaved ice with red and brown syrup over red beans, jelly, sweet corn, attap chee (fruit of the Nypa palm) and evaporated milk. You can also top up with ice cream. Super cool stuff in a bowl to add to your list of must-try items in Penang.

For good ais kacang (in no particular order): Hawker stalls at Swatow Lane, Lorong Selamat, Medan Selera at Taman Free School, Presgrave Street hawker centre, Kek Seng Coffee Shop at Penang Road, Taman Free School food court and Teochew Chendul off Penang Road.


cendol © Adrian Cheah

Cendol is a favourite desert among locals. It is easily identified: green pandan-flavoured noodles in white coconut milk with brown sugar. Sweet heavenly stuff – super cheap and ultra good.

For good cendol (in no particular order): Teochew Chendul off Penang Road, Taman Free School foot court, Gurney Drive Hawker Centre and Lorong Selamat coffee shop.


rojak © Adrian Cheah

Fruit and vegetable salad consisting of cucumber, pineapple, nutmeg, unripe mango, cuttlefish and jambu air (rose apple), mixed in a potent sauce of prawn paste, chilli, belacan and crushed ground nuts.

rojak © Adrian Cheah

You could also ask for a slice of bang kwang (turnip) topped with rich rojak sauce and grounded peanuts. This is very popular among local kids. 

For good rojak (in no particular order): Hock Seng Rojak King at Gat Lebuh Cecil, Gurney Drive Hawker Centre and Esplanade Food Court.

Sotong bakar (grilled squid)

sotong bakar © Adrian Cheah

Thin strips of dried squid gently roasted over a charcoal fire eaten with a sweet and spicy sauce, topped with grounded peanuts. The texture of this fishy delight is crispy, brittle and uber delicious. For the best sotong bakar in town, head over to the hawker stalls at Gurney Drive and Esplanade.

Tong Sui (Chinese dessert)

tong sui © Adrian Cheah

Tong Sui is a Cantonese term to describe sweet soup or custard. It literally means ‘sugar water’ but contains more that just syrup. Tong Sui covers a wide range of Chinese desserts of fruits, beans and jellies in syrup served hot or cold. The choices are bountiful such as red bean soup, peanut soups, almond milk soup with eu char koay (deep-fried cruellers), bee koh moi (black glutinous rice porridge served with coconut milk), gandum (pearl wheat porridge with palm sugar) and bubur cha cha (pearl sago, sweet potatoes, yams, bananas, black-eyed peas cooked in coconut milk) and Leng Chee Kang (a lovely dessert with dried longans, snow fungus, gingko nuts and lotus seeds).

  • Dessert Old Time Delight Shop at 78, Lebuh Kimberley
  • Sweet Dumpling Tang Yuan at 33, Lebuh Kurau 5, Taman Chai Leng, Perai
  • Sweet-i Dessert House at 41, Jalan Nipah, Taman Lip Sin
  • Tong Sui Po at 64, Jalan Seang Tek
  • Mat Toh Yau at 22, Jalan Penaga, Jelutong
  • As well as most hawker centres and market areas throughout Penang

Other goodies

Take the opportunity to savour these specialities listed below

Apom balik and apom manis are among the most lovely delicacies that should never be missed.

Ah Guan apom balik © Adrian Cheah

One of the most popular apom balik vendors in Penang has to be Apom Guan at Lebuh Burma. Due to the sheer popularity of his apom, expect to wait for a while. Ah Guan adds pieces of bananas and sweet corn in his palm-size apom before folding it in half to form a delicious semicircle of goodness.

Apom Manis © Adrian Cheah

Apom manis is a wonderful snack in Penang originating from India that resembles crepes. Swee Kong Coffee Shop at Solok Moulmein in Pulau Tikus serves up good Apom manis. The family-run business has been for over 80 years. There are also many apom stalls dotted all over Penang. The key to a good apom is its crispy skirting and fluffy centre. These paper-thin pancakes are made of eggs and coconut milk – key ingredients in kuih kapit, thus the similarity in its fabulous aroma. Catch skillful apom makers in action as they swirl batter on clay pots.

Eu char koay © Adrian Cheah

Eu char koay (deep-fried Chinese crullers) is crispy when fresh and best eaten with a cup of kopi-o. It is also served with porridge, almond cream soup, bak kut teh and even in rojak. This golden brown Chinese puff breadsticks could also be stuffed with various fillings and cook as a dish. Top quality ingredients and good heat control are key in making good eu char koay.

Available at most markets such as Ayer Itam, Lip Sin and Jelutong. 76, Cintra Street, and Kedai Kopi Kwai Lock in Pulau Tikus also offers good eu char koay.

Gado gado is an Indonesian salad of blanched or steamed vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes and fried tofu served with a savoury peanut sauce dressing. Sample this delectable dish at Mews Cafe, 77 Muntri Street and Cafe Lagenda at 43, Campbell Street.

ham chim peng © Adrian Cheah

Ham chim peng in Cantonese literally means "deep-fried salted dough-bread". It is a deep-fried snack made from salty and sweet dough, filled with red bean paste or glutinous rice. The strong five-spice powder gives ham chim peng its distinct flavour. This popular street food is absolutely delicious when eaten hot.

It is available at most market places and hawker centres. However, the most famous in Penang is at a little unassuming stall located at the junction of Cintra Street and Campbell Street. It opens only in the evenings. This stall also sells pak thong kou (white sugar steamed cake).

Muah chee © Adrian Cheah

Muah chee is made from glutinous rice flour. When cooked, the soft sticky-gooey dough is diced into small pieces and rolled around in a sandy mixture grounded peanuts, sugar and roasted sesame seeds. These nice little golden nuggets are soft and taste even better when topped with fried shallots.

Uncle Chee Muah Chee at 2, Lebuh Cannon seems to be popular. Sometimes at hawker centres, you can find muah chee vendors on motocycles or bicycles.

Pie tee or "top hat" is a beautiful and petit hors d'oeuvre of deep-fried pastry shell 'hat' generously filled with a mélange of julienned vegetables topped with fried shallots and a dollop of sauce. The filling and ingredients are almost similar to that of poh piah and it is not surprising if some poh piah vendors do serve pai tee too.

Available at Nyonya eateries and most of the food courts in Penang.

  • Kek Seng coffeeshop at 382 & 384, Jalan Penang
  • Perut Rumah Nyonya Cuisine at 17, Jalan Bawasah
  • Food courts in Penang

goreng pisang © Adrian Cheah

Goreng pisang - crispy golden-brown, deep-fried banana fritters are difficult to stop once you start munching on one. Best fried fritters are extremely crispy. Besides banana, try yam, sweet potato, cempedak, green pea, tapioca rolls and tnee kuih (glutinous rice cake) sandwiched between a slice of yam and sweet potato fritters. This snack food is commonly available with street vendors throughout

  • Tanjung Bungah Goreng Pisang at the corner of Jalan Chan Siew Teong and Jalan Tanjung Bungah
  • Roadside stall at Jalan Free School
  • Weld Quay Goreng Pisang at 90-A, Pengkalan Weld
  • Market Cross Pisang Goreng

popiah © Adrian Cheah

Popiah – fresh Chinese spring roll with filling of grated bang kwang (turnip), carrot, bean sprouts and sprinkling of shredded omelette, diced bean curd and fried shallots. The name popiah in Hokkien means "thin wafer", refers to the white crêpe skin which is made from wheat flour. You would find them at most hawker centers.

  • Hawker centers at Padang Brown, Gurney Drive, Sungai Pinang, Esplanade
  • Padang Brown Hawker at Jalan Perak
  • Joo Hooi Café at 475, Jalan Penang
  • Kek Seng coffeeshop at 382 & 384, Jalan Penang | T: + +016-412 1300
  • Apollo market at Jalan Raja Uda

putu piring © Adrian Cheah

Putu piring is a rice flour cake with jaggery filling cooked by steaming and best eaten with freshly-grated coconut and brown sugar. Besides the traditional saucer-shaped putu piring, there are also other various shapes available. If you see a green version, then pandan extract is added to offer a fragrant aroma to the dish. Usually, putu pring vendors would also sell putu mayong or putu mayam (string hoppers).

putu mayong © Adrian Cheah

You can sample some of these humble yet wonderful offerings at stalls located at Pulau Tikus market area, Jalan Pasar at Little India enclave, Apollo market at Jalan Raja Uda and night markets throughout Penang.

Local fruits

local fruits © Adrian Cheah

There is nothing quite like a serving of refreshing local fruits, packed around with crushed ice to end a meal. It is also a good opportunity for one to experience the wide variety of local fruits that are in season. Because they are naturally rich in vitamins, minerals and fibres, you could find fresh fruit stalls at virtually every food centre. Should you decide to get some for later, wet markets and supermarkets would be an ideal place to shop.

Tropical Fruit Farm in Teluk Bahang list that they have over 250 types of tropical and sub-tropical fruits. That is indeed an fantastic place to visit of have a feast on local fruits. Recommended local fruits include durian (an acquired taste), rambutan, starfruit, campedak, nangka (jackfruit), mangosteen, dragonfruit, jambu air (rose apple), dukung, chiku, banana, guava, nutmeg, nona (custard apple), soursop, papaya and pomelo.

pickled fruits © Adrian Cheah

If you love pickled fruits (locally known as jeruk in Malay), head down to Chowrasta market in Penang Road. Pickled nutmeg, papaya, guava, mango, kedondong, salak, asam kelubi and cermai are among those you should try. They are also available at night markets. 

Lipsmacking local biscuits

tau sar piah © Adrian Cheah

When talking about Penang's biscuits, tau sar piah (pneah) reigns supreme. It comes a roll of five pieces. They are available in two varieties – with green (mung) bean filling or with lotus paste filling. Tambun biscuits are a miniaturised form of tau sar pheah with green bean filling and are sold in a box of 16 or 32 pieces.

Freshly baked tau sar piah has a crumbly flaky crusts. The savoury green bean paste filling should be soft and moist with a distinct aroma of fried shallots. Simply divine and suitable to be eaten anytime of the day. They would also make great gifts.

Coming in at a close second at the popularity stakes is hneoh piah (pneah) – a flattish biscuit with a flaky crust and sticky caramel filling. Both biscuits are available from most shops selling local products or better still, get them fresh, directly from the source:

  • Ghee Hiang, 216, Jalan Macalister | T: +604-227 2222 (Penang’s oldest tau sar piah maker)
  • Him Heang, 162, Jalan Burma | T: +604-228 6129 (the superstar of tau sar piah)
  • Soon Hiang, 36, Jalan Kuantan | T: +6 04-229 5799 (still traditionally made by hand and with heart)

Little India © Adrian Cheah

Check out Little India for a variety of Indian crunchies like savoury muruku and kacang putih. If you have a craving for sweet and savoury nibbles Malay style, try pisang manis sira gula, bahulu, pisang abu masin, kerepek ubi masin, kerepek ubi and tempeyek. Available from Chowrasta, Lorong Kulit flea market and night markets (pasar malam) throughout Penang.

Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
Updated: 7 March 2019

Ah Leng's supreme Char Koay Teow

Ah Leng Char Koay Teow © Adrian Cheah

Taste is very subjective and since Penangites are spoiled with choices, their discerning palate is indeed well tuned to great food. Should you wish to see them enraged and in full disgust, just serve them a plate of something ordinary, or if you dare, something horrible. This only goes to illustrate how passionate they are about food especially the local delicacies.

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The Craftisan, tea-inspired gelato and hand-crafted desserts

Adrian Cheah at Craftisan

When the sweet tooth comes a-knockin', head to The Craftisan for one of its luscious dessert options. Whether it is brownies, crepe or gelato that strikes your fancy, its delicious offerings should satisfy your cravings. Hand-dripped coffee and a selection of teas compliment perfectly its creative desserts.

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Apong Guan – one piece is never enough

Apong Guan © Adrian Cheah

This is something I have recently noticed about Uncle Ah Guan. He has always being great fun to chat with but on my recent visit one afternoon, although he was smiling and friendly, he was not his usual chatty self. I realised that age is catching up and grinding over the stove in the scorching tropical heat, day in and day out, cannot be an easy task for him these days.

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The ever versatile Nasi Goreng (fried rice)

Penang fried rice © Adrian Cheah

Thanks to its unique cultural mix, food lovers in Malaysia get to enjoy a mouth-watering blend of various flavours in their victuals (or makan-makan in local speak). Think sambal belacan with wantan noodles, Nyonya curries, Malay char koay teow and the ever popular and versatile nasi goreng or fried rice. It can be eaten any time of the day and is found on the menu of any Penang or Malaysian eatery, from street vendors to five-star hotels.

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Something blue, something rice, something nice at Mews Café

Yes, this blue-coloured rice dish from Mews Café that is simply delicious also titillates the senses. It looks amazing, smells appetising and tasted heavenly as well.

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Penang tau sar peah, food for the Gods

Penang's tau sar peah is legendary and spoken of in the same breath as Kuala Kangsar's pau (dumpling) and Kampar's chicken biscuits.

Indeed, conversations about Penang food inevitably turns to the celebrated Penang tau sar peah. For Penangites who work outside the state (and even those who live overseas) and return for periodic sojourns to their beloved hometown, the tau sar peah is invariably among the items that line their bags when they depart.

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Time always for Laksa

Penang Laksa © Adrian Cheah

Penang Assam Laksa is amongst the best known and loved of hawker fare in Penang. A bowl of steamed spaghetti-sized rice vermicelli is first generously garnished with finely sliced vegetables including onions, cucumber, red chillis, pineapple, lettuce, mint and pink bunga kantan (ginger buds).

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Durian, the sensational "king of the fruits"

Penang durian © Adrian Cheah

“You should wash your hands using the water poured over durian skin. It will remove the pungent durian smell from your hands," urged Mr. Teh, my neighbour who accompanied me on a durian feast at Balik Pulau. We had a satisfying breakfast like no other amidst the natural surrounding of a durian orchard.

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That hairy fruit called Rambutan

Penang rambutan © Adrian Cheah

Among the vast range of fruits available in Penang, Rambutan comes a close second to Durian as a popular choice when in season. Sold along roadsides at market places and by fruit vendors, rambutans are tied up in bunches of 50 or 100 and prices vary according to size and quality.

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Belacan, integral ingredient in local cuisine

belacan © Adrian Cheah

Anyone who has paid attention to local cuisine can safely hazard a guess that Penangites, and Malaysians for that matter, have a predilection for pungent foods! Call it full-flavoured, aromatic, spicy or downright nasty, Malaysian cuisine boasts more pungent varieties than arguably any other country in the world. This piquant character manifests itself in various forms, in fresh fruits (durian and jackfruit), in condiments (budu), preserves (cincaluk and tempoyak) and the innocuous looking belacan or shrimp paste. The last item is as indispensible to Malaysian cooking as herbs are to Italian cuisine or soya sauce to Chinese. Why, some purists go as far as to declare that your 'Malaysianess' hinges on whether or not you like belacan!

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Penang’s all-time favourite Char Koay Teow

Penang Char Koay Teow © Adrian Cheah

I have always wondered where the all-so-famous Penang Char Koay Teow came from? Who were its original creators? Some believe that Char Koay Teow (‘fried flat noodles in Teochew) was first sold by Chinese fishermen, farmers and cockle-gatherers on the island who moonlighted as Char Koay Teow hawkers in the evening to supplement their income.

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Coconut water – the perfect tonic for the tropics

Coconut © Adrian Cheah

On our way back from Pantai Kerachut, my friends and I were contemplating what drink to quench our thirst after an exhausting hike, aside from the obvious choices-100 Plus, Coke or Kickapoo. Why not coconut water, we thought, so coconut water it was.

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