Penang, Malaysia is known as one of the world’s greatest hawker capitals. The best food is not found in restaurants, but at literally thousands of food stalls that usually serve one signature dish – often a recipe that has been passed down through generations.
Penangites are taken to eat at these stalls from the time they’re infants and usually adopt their family’s favourite spots from a young age. As they get older they branch out, and foodies are on the lookout for the places that add a twist to old flavours, like making a particularly crispy oyster omelette (an egg omelette with tender fresh oysters) or using eel balls instead of fish balls in their wonton mee (noodle and wonton soup).
When travelling, my technique for finding the best places to eat is to ask those in the know, then check out the places that get mentioned the most. But ask any local food connoisseur in Penang where their favourite food stalls are and every one will give you vastly different answers.
“Some stalls are known as the best simply because they have had that reputation for years,” Chris Ong, foodie extraordinaire and hotel owner, said. “When you try the food it might not be better than other places, but locals want to think it’s great because they’ve been lining up for it for years.”
As I dined at food stall after food stall, in search of my personal favourite, I was surprised to see very few non-Asian faces. Many visitors to Penang do not eat at food stalls (something akin to not going to the Louvre while in Paris) and the most popular excuse is a fear of germs. But unless a place looks just too grungy or is located on a traffic-clogged curb, you should be fine.
“If the wok stays hot and the food is fresh there’s very little chance of bacteria,” my friend Joann Khaw, a local walking tour guide, told me. “People never get sick from busy food stalls. You’re more likely to get something from a restaurant.”
After sampling so many dishes, I had to admit I never knew I had the capacity to eat so much. Fortunately four to five meals per day of char kwey tiaw (fried noodles in soy sauce with egg and various additions), asam laksa (Penang’s famous, indescribably good curry noodle soup), rojak (fruit and veggie salad in a sweet dark shrimp paste) and much, much more, goes down a lot easier than heavier Western foods. Plus, I am pretty convinced that the fine fresh ingredients of Penang cuisine makes it one of the healthier diets of the world.