Glorious food

Penang food © Adrian Cheah

Having a reputation as a food paradise, be it haute cuisine, or cuisine bourgeoise (hawker fare), Penang offers a heady and exotic mix of delicious cuisine to choose from.

In a word, Penang food is both famous and fabulous. When people mention Penang food, they are more often than not referring to hawker food and coffee shop dining. It is true that some of the hype is overblown but it cannot be denied that Penang is home to many uniquely delicious chow. Ironically, hawkers in other states or towns have been known to pull the crowd by simply advertising their food as hailing from Penang, regardless of its authenticity or quality. Then there are the Penang hawkers who advertise their cuisine as specialties from another state, like Johor bak kut teh, Ipoh chicken and bean sprouts or laksa Kedah. In short, an infinite variety of dishes are yours to savour – all you need to do is pick and choose.

Penang food © Adrian Cheah

Penang hawker food can be broken down roughly into several varieties, with each being attributable to Penang's multi-cultural character: Nyonya, Chinese, vegetarian, Indian, Malay, Hakka-styled Western, seafood and desserts. Hybrids are also known to exist, and some famous examples are Malay-style chicken rice and char koay teow, and Chinese satay and nasi lemak. The prices are cheap and reasonable.

Penang food © Adrian Cheah

With fishing being a major economic activity on the island, Penang is naturally a haven for seafood, and a handful of restaurants have already achieved legendary status among locals and foreigners. Tucked away in remote corners, these eateries are not easy to find without local guidance but are definitely worth the extra effort to seek out.

Penang food © Adrian Cheah

Desserts play a major role in Penang gastronomy. There are as many varieties as there are races in Penang! To mention a few would do injustice to the rest, so you would just have to let your nose and eyes be your guide. A word of warning though – most local desserts tend to be sweet and rich, as coconut milk, flour and sugar are the main ingredients.

Penang food © Adrian Cheah

Thanks to early Chinese migrants, Chinese cuisine ranges from Cantonese to Teochew to Hokkien to Hainanese to Szechuan cooking. There's also Penang Nyonya food, which is a combination of Chinese, Malay and some Thai. The Penang variety of Nyonya food, apparently, is different from the Malaccan or even Singaporean versions. For a touch of luxury, try a five or ten-course Chinese meal at one of the restaurants or hotels in town.

Penang food © Adrian Cheah

Indian cuisine goes by two names generally – banana leaf rice and nasi kandar. Both are hot and savoury with rice being the main staple, and a menu from north Indian tandoori and nan bread, to South Indian rice and chapati.

Nasi kandar is famously popular with Penangites, and many restaurants selling it are well known not only to those on the island but those in other states as well. It is quite common to find people from other states detouring to Penang just to stop for a meal of nasi kandar before continuing on their journey elsewhere...

Indulge! Savour!

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Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
Updated: 6 March 2019


Boey Chong Kee Restaurant – serving no-frills Cantonese-style cooking

Boey Chong Kee Restaurant © Adrian Cheah

Although the signboard on the right of the restaurant reads "Beoy...", it was a typo error Mr Boey Chong, owner of the restaurant must have missed when he commissioned it in the 1960s. “Kee” stands for 记 which means shop in Chinese. Serving classic no-frills Cantonese-style cooking, this quaint restaurant is located at one of the shop lots on the ground floor at People's Court off Lebuh Cintra/Campbell. Till today, it is still very much a family business and is run by Mr Boey’s granddaughters, the Chan sisters.

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Muah chee – truly irresistible moist and elastic humble-looking morsels

muah chee © Adrian Cheah

Muah chee, a traditional dish made of glutinous rice dough that stretches like elastic bread dough, is moist, soft and pillowy. The bite-size pieces are coated generously with a powdery mix of toasted crushed peanuts, toasted sesame seeds and granulated sugar. Prior to serving, some fried shallots (optional) could be added along with a sprinkling of white, or black sesame seeds.

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Varieties of char hor fun for different palates

char hor fun © Adrian Cheah

Hor fun is a versatile type of rice noodles made from rice flour, water, salt and cooking oil. Although hor fun in itself is rather bland, it is able to absorb the flavours of any meat or stock it is cooked with. Its soft, slippery yet chewy texture is key in a few popular street food specialities here in Penang – char hor fun, dry stir-fried beef hor fun, steamed fish over hor fun and hor fun with pek cham kay (poached chicken).

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Moi, comforting rice-based porridge to warm the soul

congee, moi © Adrian Cheah

If the truth be known, a bowl of piping-hot plain white moi (congee in Hokkien) is unpretentious and is as bland as ever. Yet through the millennia, it has become a comfort food that has no equal. Moi has become the food of love, health and of the home for millions. At times, I marvel at how food this simple can be elevated to taste so deliciously divine.

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A luxurious omakase dinner at Maple Palace

Maple Palace © Adrian Cheah

Dining at Maple Palace has always been a satisfying experience. The elegant 6-course omakase dinner celebrating my 54th birthday was such a delightful encounter. Lavished with priced ingredients, the flavours of the scrumptious feast were top-notch!

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An irresistible dim sum encounter at Bao Teck Tea House

Bao Teck Tea House © Adrian Cheah

Dim sum ("touch the heart" in Chinese) refers to an array of dainty bite-size snacks enjoyed all over the world, especially among the Chinese communities. In Penang, dim sum is available for breakfast, lunch and even dinner from push-cart vendors, coffee shops, tea houses, restaurants and fine-dining establishments. Although the price difference can vary dramatically, there are many options for one to enjoy dim sum according to one's budget.

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Savouring mouth-watering Chinese dishes at Jia Shi Restaurant (formerly at Song River)

Jia Shi Restaurant © Adrian Cheah

It is vital for a restaurant to have popular signature dishes loved by many. This is an important factor in establishing a long and lasting clientele that will continue its patronage.

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A memorable 9-course vegetarian dinner at Happy Realm

Happy Realm © Adrian Cheah

Being a food paradise, Penang offers many avenues for full-fledged vegetarians to obtain scrumptious meals. From Indian vegetarian restaurants to Chinese outlets, there is a wider range of food available. During the Jade Emperor Festival (first to the ninth of the ninth month of the lunar calendar), more stalls mushroom all over Penang selling vegetarian delights from rice dishes to stir-fried noodles and from Chinese cakes to Italian pizzas. Furthermore with the creation of faux meats, some dishes are unbelievably "uncanny".

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Auntie Jo's delightful jelly mooncakes

jelly mooncake © Adrian Cheah

Taishi cakes, the predecessor of mooncakes, were present during the Shang Dynasty (c.1600-1046 BC) and Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC). For a long time in history, mooncakes have been created as an offering during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Although traditional baked mooncakes have been around for thousands of years, this symbolic mooncake making tradition has not stopped evolving.

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The humble golden kee chang that are extraordinary

kee chang © Adrian Cheah

Preparation for kee chang (alkaline dumplings) starts a week in advance. Picking the jasmine rice grains out from a heap of glutinous rice is time-consuming and requires patience. The laborious task is necessary in order to obtain a translucent finish for the dumplings. If rice grains are present, the kee chang will lose their translucent appeal. I vividly remember sorting through the grains of rice when young, or as Mum would call it, “pilih the pulut”. I failed to understand then why such a tedious undertaking was even necessary since everything would be gobbled up eventually. Mum refused to entertain our rationale and would not compromise on quality. Today, being a "product" of Mum, I too have learnt not to compromise on quality, finding it rather ironic that my daughter would utter the same arguments I once did.

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Emperor Villa's "kochabi" set meals good for lunch or dinner

Emperor Villa © Adrian Cheah

Emperor Villa, a family-run business offering accommodation and dining first opened its doors to the public in September 2019. It took two years to complete the construction of its rustic villas complete with a spacious swimming pool, nestled among nine acres of greenery in the hills of Sungai Ara, Penang.

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Discover legendary handmade mooncakes by Chef Chong Kei

Mooncake © Adrian Cheah

Celebrated by the Chinese on the 15th day of the eighth lunar moon (between September to October), the Mooncake Festival commemorates the overthrow of the Mongols, when the insurgent leaders, by way of smuggling secret messages in mooncakes, called the people to revolt.

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