Where to eat in George Town, Penang, Malaysia
“Oh, you’re going to Penang? You’ll have to try my favourite dish.”
“I know a great local restaurant in Penang you should go to.”
“You don’t mind if things are a bit spicy, do you?”
Whenever I mentioned to someone that I was heading to Penang, one of the first things they would bring up was the food. The Malaysian island has a reputation for its cuisine and is known as one of Asia’s great street food capitals.
It’s true that as soon as you arrive in George Town, Penang’s main city, you’re hit with the smells and sounds of dozens of dishes being cooked right in front of you. From trolleys on pavements, to simple stores on the street, right up to high end meals, it’s all on display.
It would be a crime not to try as much as possible.
I set myself the goal of having more than just the usual three meals a day, to taste as many things as I could in the limited time available. I did a bunch of research to find which dishes are particularly local and where the best spot to try them would be.
I was not disappointed.
Because it can be so overwhelming at first, I have collected everything I’ve found into this short guide for you. These are some of the best foods to try and some good recommendations of where to try them. I’ve put them onto this map.
If you’re using your smartphone, just click on the icon in the top right to open the map in your Google Maps app and all of the markers will load up. Then, as you walk around, you can see whether you’re close to something significant and you can go and have a look at it.
You’ll notice that there are some other sections I’ve included within the map as well. There are some heritage suggestions and the locations of some cool street art. You can also go and look for some of them or just turn those layers off.
Char Koay Teow
This dish is one of the most famous on the peninsula and you can find it across Malaysia and Singapore and further afield. It’s not clear where it originated from exactly but most people will agree that you find the best Char Koay Teow in Penang.
Char Koay Teow is a flat rice noodle dish cooked with prawns, cockles, sausage and eggs. The different tastes you’ll find come from the combination of soy sauce, chilli, and chives.
I’m going to suggest you try the Char Koay Teow from a famous stall at the corner of Kimberley and Cintra. Some locals will say it’s the best in George Town, others will say it’s highly overrated. Give it a try and you’ll have a benchmark by which to judge the others.
A plate will cost RM6 (US$1.40). Open in the evenings.
Penang Assam Laksa
The Penang Assam Laksa is one of my favourite dishes in George Town but locals often expect foreigners to find is strange. It’s true, it has a strange mix of sweet and sour that could be an ‘acquired taste’.
The sour taste comes from the tamarind and the soup is usually made with mackerel. The noodles are usually quite thick and the garnishes will include chilli, onion and mint.
Try the Penang Assam Laksa at the popular Joo Hooi Cafe (which has other stalls with good options, if you’re in a rush and want to try some more dishes at the same time).
A bowl will cost RM5 (US$1.15). It’s open during the day. When you’re here, also try the Chendul (see below).
Hokkien Hae Mee
Another one of my favourite dishes is the Hokkien Hae Mee. It’s a noodle soup with really deep flavours. There will be different types of thin noodles and the soup has an orange colour because of the prawns it is based on. There will also be some large prawns as part of the meal.
I would definitely suggest trying Hokkien Hae Mee at the restaurant at 169 Carnarvon Street. The owner here learned the recipe from his father who started cooking it in 1968.
A bowl costs RM4.50 (US$1.05). It’s open for lunch and dinner.
Koay Teow Th’ng
A traditional Penang dish you should really try is Koay Teow Th’ng. It’s a noodle soup with flat noodles and a clear broth.
It will come with either pork or duck meat but the special feature is the fish or eel balls. Finally, there’ll be some toppings like spring onions added for flavour.
One of the best places to try Koay Teow Th’ng is at the restaurant at 183 Carnarvon Street, which is just a few doors down from my Hokkien Hae Mee suggestion (why not have both if you’re hungry).
A bowl costs RM4.50 (US$1.05).
Curry Mee is a very popular noodle dish in Penang and you’ll be disappointed if you don’t try it somewhere. You may have had something similar before because it’s what is often served at Malaysian restaurants overseas as ‘laksa’.
The main feature is the soup which is coconut based and then has chilli added for taste (and colour). There will be a couple of types of noodles but then the extra ingredients vary depending on the cook and the customer’s requests.
The traditional extra ingredients are bean curds, cockles, bean sprouts and cubes of duck blood. I think the best place to try it is at a restaurant called Hot Bowl, just outside the historic centre.
A large bowl will cost RM6.40 (US$1.50). It’s only open until 3pm.
Another traditional dish you can find in Penang is called Oh Chien, which is essentially a fried oyster omelette. The oysters are large and fresh in George Town and the base can be either gooey or light.
Everyone I asked recommended one place to eat Oh Chien… except it seems to have recently closed down. So unfortunately I can’t suggest a particular stall for you – but keep your eye out for Oh Chien somewhere on your wanderings.
I would tend to approach Lor Bak as a snack, rather than a meal. It is made by marinating pork in spices, mixing it with some other ingredients like onion or carrots, rolling it in a sheet of bean curd and then deep-frying it. It’s delicious but too much of it can make you feel kind of sick.
The best place to try Lor Bak is the Kheng Pin Cafe, which I’ve marked on the map. But I grabbed a little snack at an evening stall on Kimberley Street, which could be a good option if you’re in a hurry.
Each stick costs RM2 (US$0.45).
I find Pasembur to be a bit of a strange dish. It’s called a ‘salad’ because it comes with shredded cucumber. But actually the majority of the dish is made up of cold deep fried ingredients.
Generally you’ll choose ingredients individually and popular items include prawn fritters, fish cakes, boiled eggs, sausages and bean curd. It all comes topped with a delicious spicy sauce.
One of the most enjoyable placed to try it is at Hussain Pasembur, which is on the water so has a wonderful view while you eat.
The cost depends on the amount of ingredients you choose. You should be able to get a filling meal for about RM9 (US$2.05).
A little snack that’s worth tasting is Popiah. It is like a spring roll (not fried) with the crepe made from wheat flour. Inside, the ingredients are usually things like grated turnip, carrot, lettuce and bean curd. There’s also some sweet sauce added.
You may see a few stalls selling Popiah. I would suggest looking for the one that’s usually on the corner of Kimberley and Cintra in the evenings.
It costs RM4 (US$0.90) for two rolls.
Another snack you will undoubtedly come across on the streets is Lok Lok. It’s a bit like steamboat except the food is on sticks already and you just dip it straight into boiling water.
The sticks are all presented to you on the stall and you just take the ones you want, dip, and eat. Popular sticks include fish balls, meat balls, cockles, prawns, and mushrooms.
The prices are usually from about 80sen to RM2 (US$0.20 to US$0.45) for a stick so how much you pay depends on how much you eat!
An, finally, how could I not mention dessert? After all these spicy and sour dishes, I’m sure you feel like something a little sweet.
You’ll find Chendul across Southeast Asia and it’s especially popular here in Penang. The dessert consists of jelly noodles made from rice flour, coconut milk, shaved ice and palm sugar. You also can get extra ingredients like red beans.
The best spot to try Chendul in George Town is at a little stall outside the Joo Hooi Cafe. The cafe is my recommendation to try Assam Laksa, so this makes a nice treat right after.
There’s always a queue. For a bowl of Chendul, it costs RM2.90 (US$0.70).
And those are all my suggestions for now. You’re never going to get a definitive list of the best things and places to eat in George Town because there is so much on offer, everything has a different opinion, and it changes quite regularly too.
George Town food tours
I would highly recommend going on a local food tour if you really want to try a bunch of the dishes in George Town. The guides have their own favourite places and can get to a lot of places very efficiently. You’ll also learn lots of little things about the cuisine and the culture that you would never appreciate on your own.
There are a few great options here to choose from:
Use some of my tips, explore and try things your own way, or use one of the expert guides I’ve mentioned. Just don’t be afraid to eat as much as you can and taste as many things as you can.
This is a very special place for food and it’s worth making the most of the opportunities while you’re here!
A good cheap and comfortable option is one of the ZEN Rooms hotels (there are a few in the city).
For a boutique heritage hotel, I would suggest Cheong Fatt Tze - The Blue Mansion.
And for the ultimate splurge, you can't go past the gorgeous Macalister Mansion.