Photo: Simple but delish.

Eat and meet

Along with her UNESCO World Heritage-listed sister city Melaka, Penang fights it out for the title of the food-iest locale in Malaysia—and we reckon it probably just edges in on winning the title.

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A long history of multicultural diversity is the basic ingredient that spices the pot: You’ll find Chinese food from every region, Malay, Indian, Thai, Portuguese and British fare straight up or in traditional Peranakan style, along with more contemporary takes on the mix. You don’t have to spend big or dress up to enjoy a sensational gastronomic experience in Penang. Some of the best meals the town has to offer can be found in low-brow, no-nonsense hawker centres or right on the street with throngs of diners jostling for space.

Welcome to Penang.

Welcome to Penang. Photo: Sally Arnold

Many visitors come just for the food, and Penang residents are just as passionate. Eating is possibly the most popular local pastime, along with talking about food. Ask any Penangite their favourite place to eat and be prepared for a lengthy list of suggestions. There’s even a popular, somewhat kitsch museum displaying giant plastic recreations of celebrated cuisine. Most vendors are known for one particular dish, and each specialty has its most renowned version, usually recognised by the outlet’s name: “The Famous Penang (insert food)”.

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Local dishes

Asam laksa, char kuey teow, and Hokkien curry mee are the holy trinity of Penang’s street food scene, but dozens of other equally lip-smacking dishes are ready to be sampled. Head into a traditional coffee shop or hawker centre, where you’ll be surrounded with individually-owned stalls selling a variety of options, with each usually specialising in one or two items. Order from the stall that takes your fancy, then find a seat (if you can). These centres are generally owned by the drinks seller (hence the name “coffee shop”), who will soon be at your table to take your order. If you don’t order a drink, many of Penang’s coffee shops levy a 50 sen to two ringgit charge for the privilege of taking up valuable table space.

A promising sign.

A promising sign. Photo: Sally Arnold

Generally, your food will be brought to your table, and you pay individually for food and drink. Stalls signboarded “self service” mean no table service. It’s often hot, crowded and noisy—you sit at plastic tables and chairs, if you’re lucky. If not, you might just have to stand and eat outside and hope a seat becomes available. If you are looking to linger and have a relaxed chat, head instead to a cafe or restaurant (there are dozens of these, too).

Night markets are also a great place to sample a variety of flavours. Popular spots include Lebuh Chulia (near Rainforest Bakery), Lebuh Kimberley, New Lane (Lorong Baru) off Lebuh Macalister, Lebuh Presgrave, and further afield Gurney Drive and Pulau Tikus. As well as these regular haunts, weekly and monthly markets are worth checking out for street food, along with cultural and art events. Hin Bus Depot, the city’s arts hub, runs a regular Sunday pop-up market from 11:00 till 17:00 (try the homemade ginger beer), Occupy Beach Street (Legally) closes this usually busy street to traffic every Sunday from 07:00 till 13:00 and often plays host to a two-ringgit mini-food carnival, which is excellent for a graze. Fight the selfie sticks of folks photographing the street art to check out the stalls at Armenian Street’s Got Talent every Saturday evening. If you visit Penang on the last weekend of the month, LFSS (which stands for last Friday Saturday Sunday) organises free tours and occasional food-related events.

Settle in at Gurney Night Market.

Settle in at Gurney Night Market. Photo: Sally Arnold

Pick up the Penang Street Food Map from Penang Global Tourism for a self-guided tour. Be warned that the variety can be overwhelming; you don’t have to eat at “The Famous Penang (insert food)” to experience a great meal—you can follow our suggestions, or head out with a true expert by joining one of Penang’s food tours. We went with the very knowledgeable and passionate Mark Ng from Simply Enak, and learnt not just about Penang’s diverse flavours, but a whole lot about the history and culture of Penang too. And if you really love the flavours, learn to cook them at home with affable Nazlina from Nazlina’s Spice Station Cooking School. Half-day classes start at 180 ringgit, or contact her about her two- to five-week volunteer programme (which includes accommodation) and immerse yourself in Penang’s food culture for a longer stay.

Must-try dishes include Penang’s asam laksa, which receives all kinds of international accolades. If you have tasted the coconut-based curry version of laksa, note that this is something quite different—it’s a tangy and sour (asam) noodle soup with onions, ginger flower, pineapple and fish, and of course herbs and spices. “Famous” versions can be found at Joo Hooi Cafe on Lebuh Penang, be we tried an equally good rival at Penang Road Famous Asam Laksa in the lane behind. While you’re there, slurp up a bowl of icy cendol at Penang Road Famous Teocew Cendol. Cendol may look like an unappealing bowl–think green jelly worms and red beans surrounding a mountain of shaved ice, coconut milk and palm sugar–but believe us, it’s a refreshing sweet pick-me-up on a hot day.

Hit me. At Joo Hooi Cafe.

Hit me. At Joo Hooi Cafe. Photo: Sally Arnold

For the locals, however, it’s the char kuey teow (also koay/kway tiao) that gets the most attention. This simple dish of stir-fried flat rice noodles with prawns, cockles, beansprouts and egg is far greater than the sum of its parts, and something about the ubiquitous version here in Penang turns this modest mix into pure ambrosia. Try Presgrave Street Night Market (outside the Hin Kee Coffee Shop), although this particular spot is more famous for its 888 Hokkien Mee stall, or Tiger Char Koay Teow on Lebuh Carnarvon near the corner of Lebuh Melayu. For a soup-based version of these rice noodles, try the duck meat kuey teow soup at Satu Satu Tiga on Lebuh Melayu.

The Hokkien mee in Penang differs from versions found in KL or Singapore; here it’s a noodle soup with a thick orange prawn-flavoured base, often, but not always with pork. The taste that tops our list can be found at Burma Road Famous Green House Prawn Mee. This joint is so popular it’s self service, and it’s also open late, so it’s ideal for a late-night snack after a night out.

At Burma Road Famous Green House Prawn Mee. Easier to eat than say five time quickly.

At Burma Road Famous Green House Prawn Mee. Easier to eat than say five time quickly. Photo: Sally Arnold

Oh chien is basically an oyster omelette, and though we had sampled unremarkable versions of this dish previously, the Granny Fried Oyster stall at Chulia Street Night Market has perfected the dish, with an exemplary crispy omelette exterior and plump oysters within.

If you can’t decide quite what you’d like, step into a nasi kandar restaurant, where you’ll be served a mound of rice, and you can point and pick from a variety of curry-based meats and veggies. Kandar refers to the bamboo-poled baskets once a common sight in Asia, and nasi is rice in Malay. Try Line Clear Nasi Kandar on Lebuh Penang near Lebuh Chulia—you’ll see the arm waving outside this 24-hour joint–or in Little India at Restoran Tajuddin Hussain.

Lok Lok: Stand there and gorge.

Lok Lok: Stand there and gorge. Photo: Sally Arnold

Fun communal eating involves standing around a cart dipping skewers of meat and veggies into boiling stock and various sauces at a lok lok (or luk luk) stall. Give it a go at Chulia Street Night Market or at Jetty Lok Lok at Gat Lebuh Acheh near the clan jetties.

For a sweet treat try ham chim peng, a fried doughnut-like snack (simply labelled “pancake” in English) from the stall on Lebuh Cintra near Campbell House—we like the sticky rice filling best. Or try the silky egg tarts and filled pastries at Ming Xiang Tai, with outlets around town.

If savoury snacks are what you fancy, hightail it to the corner of Lebuh Queen and Lebuh Pasar in Little India for ambrosial samosas and other fried Indian-style delicacies. If you’re a little more peckish, on the opposite corner at the Ali Capati Corner stall try the cobweb-like roti jala and fragrant biryani. Take a trip to Gurney Drive, and under the shade of the huge shopping malls, the night market is divided into two sections, halal and non-halal (mostly Chinese). Here vendors famously serve up laksa and pasembur, also called Indian rojak—fritters with a peanut sauce, similar to Indonesian gado gado.

At Gurney.

At Gurney. Photo: Sally Arnold

For a more substantial sit down meal, make sure you bag yourself a table at Teksen Resturant. This place is popular for good reason, and you may well have to queue. From its humble origins as the Teik Seng Rice Stall established in 1965, it has built up an excellent reputation among locals for serving a whole host of Chinese favourites including Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hokkien styles. If you are unfamiliar with the cuisine, this is a great place to find your bearings. Menus are in English, but we prefer to ask the friendly staff for their recommendations.

Hing Kee Restaurant has been established for even longer (since 1907); you may not find the queues here, but they are doing something right to keep the punters happy for so long, and the home-style cooking is equally flavoursome. Hameediyah Restaurant has also been in business since 1907 (obviously a good year), and still dishes up tandoori favourites and delectable murtabak, an eggy, meaty filled pancake. The system here is a little confusing as there are two shopfronts; we ordered our murtabak at one, then sat in the other for our meal.

Vegetarians will feel at home at Woodlands.

Vegetarians will feel at home at Woodlands. Photo: Sally Arnold

Vegetarians are well catered for in Penang. Your best bet is to venture over to Little India for a banana leaf meal or a crispy dosai. Woodland’s Vegetarian Restaurant will have you sorted with Southern Indian specialties, or if it’s fresh and healthy Chinese style you’d prefer, The Leaf serves rice and noodle dishes along with (not so Chinese) spaghetti and salads. They offer good value set-meal specials in a smart, clean, all-white cafe.

Penang’s rich cultural roots are most evident in Peranakan cuisine, a blend of Malay, Chinese and other influences. Look for sticky Nyonya cakes at Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. You may find fragrant nasi ulam (rice with aromatic herbs) at some hawker stalls among other dishes, but for the full spectrum of famous Nyonya fare, sample the home-style selection at Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery. We tried the crispy sambal udung (prawns fried in a pungent shrimp paste-based sambal) (35 ringgit) and sambal petai (stinky beans) (28 ringgit), washed down with a nutmeg punch.

At Auntie Gaik Lean’s.

At Auntie Gaik Lean’s. Photo: Sally Arnold

As an aside, nutmeg was first bought to Penang by the British as part of the spice trade from its native Banda Islands in Indonesia. The tiny islands were colonised by the British in the otherwise mostly Dutch-controlled archipelago. The Brits swapped Banda for New Holland, or modern day Manhattan, but still managed to take with them the precious nutmeg spice and successfully cultivate it in Penang. Nutmeg drinks are sold in most local coffee shops and make a refreshing tangy beverage.

Other Peranakan-focused joints include Lagenda Cafe and Jawi House, while for a special night out book a table at classy Kebaya Dining Room, which is set within a row of beautifully restored terraces. Enjoy the fine dining experience surrounded by antiques and tinkling live piano. A “four”-course set meal (we’d call it three) for 120+ ringgit per person includes a choice of starters, a main with a vegetable and dessert. Food is served Chinese-style, so couples and groups can try a variety of flavours, yet single diners will still be quite content. Servings are substantial and flavours robust. Vegetarians can be accommodated, but it’s non-halal. Dinner is served in two sessions, from 18:00 to 20:00, and 20:00 to 22:00. Bookings advised.

Bowls of delish at Kebaya Dining Room.

Bowls of delish at Kebaya Dining Room. Photo: Sally Arnold

Alternatively, if fancy Peranakan is your lunchtime desire, Indigo at the Cheong Fatt Ze Mansion also offer a set deal for 65++ ringgit for three courses, an excellent add-on to a guided tour of this fascinating heritage building. Dinner is also served here, but it’s a la carte, and somewhat pricier.

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Penang serves up a rich diversity of international cuisine, including pan-Asian and European choices. We tried some decent Thai at Tan Jetty Thai Food, sitting over the water in a rickety but pretty setting. Deep-fried fish with mango salad (60 ringgit) was fresh and well balanced, and the serving size could have easily fed several hungry adults. Pho Viet offers a set Vietnamese lunch for one or two people with a number of standard Vietnamese choices in a smart cafe style setting.

A slice of Thailand in Malaysia.

A slice of Thailand in Malaysia. Photo: Sally Arnold

When you need a change from rice and noodles, Il Bacaro serves Venetian-style Italian cuisine, using fresh local ingredients including house-made pastas and bread. If you’re just craving a pizza, try Yin’s Sourdough Pizza, where you can choose from a small selection of less than typical toppings. We couldn’t fit it in after our wild mushroom pizza, but liked the sound of the sweet pizza with poached pears (12 ringgit).

For colonial-style elegance and fare, 1885 at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel and Suffolk House both offer fine dining, with a proper English afternoon tea or a full monty starched tablecloth dinnertime spread. Or take tea on the lawn overlooking the city at David Brown’s Restaurant and Tea Terraces when you visit Penang Hill, a beautiful spot on a sunny day.

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With so many cafes on the scene you won’t need to go far for a decent coffee. Constant Gardener near Fort Cornwallis, are serious about their brews, with a variety of single-origin coffees and teas. Pop in early (09:00–11:00) Monday to Friday for early bird specials. Yes, 11:00 is early if you haven’t had coffee, in our opinion. Coffee Addict’s Lebuh Hutton street address takes you to a paint shop, so head into the lane behind to the small art-filled cafe to enjoy coffee, juices, sandwiches and salads.

Yes please. At Constant Gardener.

Yes please. At Constant Gardener. Photo: Sally Arnold

In the centre of Penang’s heritage area you are spoilt for choice. China House’s narrow street frontage is deceiving from the outside; enter and you’ll discover a huge complex that runs the entire block to the street behind divided into cafes, bars, a gallery and gift shop. Fancy a slice of cake? The selection at Kopi C in the front of China House is nothing short of magnificent: more than 75 different cakes are offered per day. It’s a really difficult choice, but a special deal allows you two half slices of certain cakes for the price of one. Walk though to the “library” with a long table and paper and crayons for doodling while you wait—a monthly competition offers a voucher for the best doodle.

We love their Vine & Single bar for a quiet tipple or for something a little more lively, The Canteen at the Lebuh Victoria end of the building entertains with a live music programme. Check their Facebook page for the latest updates. Across the road, Awesome Canteen is housed in a, well, awesome industrial-style structure with tall indoor trees. They serve a weekly rotated coffee selection, burgers and Paleo-inspired cafe fare. This is a pleasant, airy spot to linger and if it particularly takes your fancy, book a room at Sekaping Victoria, with spacious industrial-style rooms overlooking the cafe space.

Perusing one of the refreshment areas in China House.

Perusing one of the refreshment areas in China House. Photo: Sally Arnold

Around the corner in Lebuh Armenian, Gudang Cafe occupies a rustic style gudang—an old warehouse—serving Japanese-inspired fare with their coffees and teas at the longest communal table we’ve seen (they say it’s the second longest in Penang, but we didn’t find the title holder). If you’re around the Lorong Love area, pop into the Daily Dose on Lorong Stewart. As well as coffee, wine and craft beer, they dish up an excellent smoked duck salad (20 ringgit) included in their cafe-style selection.

Along the road on Lebuh Muntri, Passion Heart offers another of Penang’s cake extravaganzas. In this pretty pastel retro-style cafe it’s all about local fruit; try durian, jackfruit, yam or cempedak cakes, among others. For something a little quirky, step into Swimming Cat at Chai Diam Ma. This sweet, inviting cafe has an arty hand-made bent, serving a small selection of pizzas by the charming owner, Nana.

Passionate colours at Passion Heart.

Passionate colours at Passion Heart. Photo: Sally Arnold

Kim Haus on Lebuh Campbell meanwhile offers a mixed bag with a cafe, live music bar upstairs, gold museum and a guesthouse—if you’re looking for a full English breakfast, this is a good place to try. If art’s your thing, head to Narrow Marrow (only open weekends) to connect with Penang’s arty crowd. Alongside your coffee try a local toddy (palm wine) cocktail or a slice of pea flower cheesecake.

Hin Bus Depot is Penang’s contemporary arts hub and along with a gallery and workshops, you’ll find a handful of cafes. Here Wholey Wonder offers a plant-based menu which you can enjoy on rather uncomfortable but fun-looking swinging seats at the bar, or at one of the few tables, before heading upstairs for a yoga class. Check out their gluten-free rainbow cheesecake. Say hello to our friend Patie Tan at The Pharm Hut Kefir Dispensary and try her delicious fermented brews.

Plant-based yum at x Wholey Wonder.

Plant-based yum at x Wholey Wonder. Photo: Sally Arnold

If the whole hipster cafe scene is not your bag, hightail it into any local coffee shop for a traditional kopi, or for a halfway version try Lollipop Ropitiam (ropi = a portmanteau of roti and kopi) on Lebuh Campbell.They serve traditional kopi as well as espresso and naturally leavened bread in an Ikea-style kopitiam.

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Sun’s over the yard arm? Bars are scattered throughout Penang, with a concentration at the north end of Lebuh Penang or more backpacker-style offerings on Lorong Love, near Lebuh Chulia.

Straight to the point at Kedai Tuak.

Straight to the point at Kedai Tuak. Photo: Sally Arnold

Hidden in the back streets of Lorong Pasar, step into the past at the somewhat dodgy looking Kedai Tuak for local tipple of traditional palm wine, or toddy. Front up at the wire grill, hand over a couple of ringgit for a plastic cupful or a repurposed water bottle to take home. Enjoy in the authentic speakeasy ambience with the sounds of Bollywood and the company of friendly, (but mostly inebriated) Indian men.

Around the corner, Antarabangsa Enterprise is Penang’s unofficial United Nations, united mostly by cheap booze. This unpretentious but busy place is a terrific spot for affordable beer and to meet both locals and travellers. Not really a bar, it’s a narrow shop with a smattering of plastic tables and stools on the street with occasional buskers and food carts. Daily deals usually offer three cans of beer for 10 ringgit.

So who has been to the real Beach? At Antarabangsa Enterprise.

So who has been to the real Beach? At Antarabangsa Enterprise. Photo: Sally Arnold

Junk Cafe offers beers, cocktails (19–23 ringgit), coffee, burgers and a friendly ambience in a small but fascinating junk-filled bar. If a chilled wine bar is more to your taste, Georgetown Wines is tucked away in a renovated stable near Cheong Fatt Ze Mansion. Walk into the cellar and choose a bottle or order by the glass. Classy but casual Mish Mash on Lebuh Muntri is the place for a selection of excellent cocktails including Malaysia’s own Jungle Bird, a rum and Campari-based drink served here with a bouquet of pretty edible flowers (36 ringgit). Also on offer is a range of single-malt whiskeys and cigars. The cosy atmosphere and attentive service get a thumbs up from us.

For a fun (late) night for folks in the know (that’s you) head to the “secret bar” at Magazine 63. This hipster speakeasy is as much fun to find as it is to join the crowds within. In a row of desolate-looking shophouses on Lebuh Magazine, look for a banner for a furniture shop, push back the grill and in the darkness feel for the door and push.

Grab an umbrella at Magazine 63.

Grab an umbrella at Magazine 63. Photo: Sally Arnold

You’ll enter a narrow corridor lit by a solitary red light. To your right, find a large brass door knocker with the face of the devil and pull to reveal a spacious bar decorated with Chinese lanterns and pretty umbrellas. A mezzanine above the bar hosts live music and DJs. Cocktails (not on the menu) are served in teapots and Chinese jars, and poured into rice bowls, adding to the tongue-in-cheek illicit vibe. The bar was pumping midweek when we visited, but it gets packed on weekends and they request you book via their Facebook to secure a table. While you’re barhopping, don’t forget to check out the bars at China House.

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Batu Feringgi

If you’re based at Batu Feringgi you won’t go hungry, although most of the action happens here in the evenings, when the street stalls and hawker centres fire up their woks. Seafood is the star on many menus, and Middle Eastern fare abounds, catering to the crowds of holidaymakers from this region.

Popular Long Beach hawker centre draws the tourist hordes and this lively crowd pleaser is a good spot to take fussy kids—expect pizza and other Western dishes along with standard rice and noodle offerings. Despite its out of the way location, tucked at the back of the second floor of an ugly multi-storey block, Andrew’s Kampung still manages to draw a steady stream of punters with their friendly service and decent food. This is a simple plastic chair joint so don’t expect gourmet, but tasty kampung (village)-style Malaysian Chinese tucker.

Start your day at Ferringhi Garden.

Start your day at Ferringhi Garden. Photo: Sally Arnold

Down in the thick of resort hotel land, family-friendly Living Room is another congenial local joint serving Malay standards and fusion dishes including fresh seafood. We tried a Thai-style fish dish, and though it wasn’t particularly authentic Thai nor very spicy, it was still fresh and delicious. As the name suggests, this is a comfortable place to hang out, and occasionally live acoustic music is played.

Ferringhi Garden wins the accolade for the prettiest joint on the strip. “Garden” is no understatement, with a jungle of flowering orchids, pitcher plants and cascading greenery making for a beautiful romantic setting. Western-style steaks and seafood are on the menu at this relaxing spot.

Bora Bora beachside.

Bora Bora beachside. Photo: Sally Arnold

If you can’t wait for the evening, adjoining Ferringhi Coffee Garden serves light cafe-style meals and real (but not great) coffee. Batu Ferringhi’s western-facing strip of sand makes an idea viewpoint to watch the setting sun over the Straits of Melaka. You could do worse than wander south of the Hard Rock Hotel to Frandy Beach Bar or north of the Holiday Inn to Bora Bora to dip your toes in the sand during a few sundowners.

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Where to next?

Where are you planning on heading to after Penang? Here are some spots commonly visited from here, or click here to see a full destination list for Malaysia.

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