Glorious Food: The spice of India

Penang Indian food © Adrian Cheah

Budget Indian food in Penang is mainly of the South Indian variety. Rice and vegetables are a prominent feature in sumptuous meals like banana leaf rice; white flour-based pancakes and fried rounds of dough with dhall or potato curry are hot favourites for breakfast or tea-time snacks.

Muslim-Indians are a small minority in Penang with great culinary skills. The not-too-politically-correct colloquial slang of “Mamak” is the Malaysian term of description for these people. Their cooking is the merging of Indian and Malay cooking, so expect thick curries with coconut milk and spicy chillies.

Banana leaf rice

Streamed white rice served on banana leaf with an assortment of vegetables, papadom and curried meat to choose from. Best eaten with hands. A sumptuous South Indian meal for any big eater on a budget. Drenched your meal in savoury curries and indulge. Remember to ask for yogurt. It goes well with the meal. Rasam, a spicy, sourish drink is usually taken after the meal.

Here are some venues to enjoy a good banana leaf rice meal:

  • Jaya Restaurant at 99, Jalan Penang | T: +604-263 7991
  • Muthu’s Traditional Banana Leaf at 143, Acheen Street | T: +6012-421 3090
  • Passions of Kerala at New World Park, Jalan Burma | T: +604-227 2550
  • Sri Ananda Bahwan at 52 Penang Street; 225 Jalan Macalister; 14, Jalan Tanjong Bungah
  • Sri Subham Restaurant at 47, Penang Street
  • The Garden Banana Leaf 50 at Jalan Free School | T: +6017-896 2331
  • Restaurant Veloo Villas at 22, Penang Street | T: +604-262 4369
  • Woodlands Vegetarian Restaurant at 60, Lebuh Penang | T: +604-263 9764


chapati © Adrian Cheah

A popular Indian unleavened flatbread made with whole wheat flour. Goes with your choice of curry. Costs vary depending on the curry/curries you select – chicken, mutton and sardine or with just the classic dhall. Some cook the rolled-out chapati on charcoal while others on a griddle plate.

Here is some trivia for you. The word "chapat" in Hindi means "slap", "flat" which describes the traditional way of forming rounds of thin dough by slapping the dough between the wetted palms of the hands. This is how chapati got its name. With each slap, the round of dough is rotated.

There are a dime and a dozen choices in Penang and here are some:

  • Annalakshmi at Temple of Fine Arts, 1, Babington Avenue | T: +6 04-228 8575
  • A stall in front of Restoran Sultania at 57, Lebuh Queen
  • Gerai Makanan Dan Minuman Maj, next to 47, Ah Quee Street
  • Jaya Restaurant at 99, Jalan Penang | T: +604-263 7991
  • Sri Ananda Bahwan at 52 Penang Street; 225 Jalan Macalister; 14, Jalan Tanjong Bungah
  • Woodlands Vegetarian Restaurant at 60, Lebuh Penang | T: +604-263 9764

Mee goreng and mee rebus

Mee goreng is yellow noodles, stir-fried over high heat with bean sprouts, potatoes, bean curd, squid and eggs, showered with luscious chilli and tomato gravy and topped with chopped lettuce and a wedge of lime for a tangy touch. Mee rebus uses the same ingredients except that the noodles are blanched and served with a thick gravy flavoured with potato and tomato. These popular noodles are commonly available at most hawker centres.

  • Bangkok Lane Mee Goreng at 280, Jalan Burma | T: +604-226 1844
  • Edgecumbe Road Mee Goreng at Gurney Drive food court
  • Ghani Mee Goreng at Medan Selera Padang Brown, Jalan Perak
  • Hameed Pata Mee Sotong at Esplanade Food Court
  • Hussain Mee Goreng at Jelutong market
  • Jones Road Mee Goreng at 280, Jalan Burma
  • Mee Goreng Jalil at Jalan Kenari, 11900 Bayan Lepas
  • Mee Rebus at Golden City Restauran, 104, Burmah Road
  • MNR Mee Goreng at 64, Bishop St, George Town
  • Rasheed Mee Goreng at 22-30, Lebuhraya Jelutong, Taman Jelutong
  • Rahim Mee Goreng at 8, Jalan Air Itam


murtabak © Adrian Cheah

The key components of Murtabak are a mixture of beaten eggs and pre-cooked filling of, minced meat, diced onions and spices. After whisking these components thoroughly in a metal cup with a fork, half of this mixture is poured into the frying pan, topped with a square-shaped roti canai sheet before pouring the rest of the mixture on top of that. It is then sprinkled with ghee. When both sides are cooked, it is removed from the hot plate and placed in the middle a large thinly stretched pastry. The filling is wrapped in the pastry like an envelope and returned to the hot plate and fried till golden brown on both sides. Straight from the hot plate, this paper-thin outer skin is crispy encasing a delicious filling within. Murtabak is commonly served with pickled onions and your choice of curry.

Nasi Briyani

Rice cooked with spices and 'ghee' accompanied by a choice of curried dishes. Kurma Chicken is recommended as the top choice. Goes well with air manis or a glass of iced rosed syrup drink. For the best nasi briyani in town (in no particular order): Hameedeyah Restaurant at Campbell Street; Taj Restaurant at Campbell Street

Nasi Kandar

Indian muslim rice with curried dishes. Derived its name from the shoulder poles (kandar) used by vendors of the past. The assortment of curried squids, chicken, fish, and prawns are worth a try. For the best nasi kandar in town (in no particular order): Taj Restaurant in Campbell Street; coffee shop opposite Gama Departmental Store; Kayu Nasi Kandar at Bukit Jambul and Penang Road.


Indian salad comprising of shredded cucumber, turnip, bean sprouts, beancurd, and potatoes topped with prawn fritters, spicy deep-fried crab, and octopus, covered with a generous spread of spicy nutty sauce. For the best Pasembur in town (in no particular order): Hawker stalls at Esplanade and Gurney Drive.

Roti canai

roti canai © Adrian Cheah

Also known as roti paratha, it is a flaky, moreish flatbread made with flour, water, salt, a little sugar and fat. The ingredients are mixed and kneaded into a dough. After resting the dough, it is divided and rolled into palm-size balls. The rested dough ball is stretched; held at a corner, it is then flung in the air onto the oiled work surface twice or thrice, stretching it paper thin before folding to obtain a layered texture. Pan-fried on a griddle with oil till golden, the wonderfully cooked bread is fluffy, layered, flaky and crunchy on the outside and slightly soft and chewy inside. Adding more ghee (traditional Indian clarified butter) or butter to the cooking process will enhance its flavours further.


Indian savoury pancake made from rice flour and served with curry. Served with your choice of curry.

Tandoori chicken

Punjab's most famous contribution to Indian cooking has to be the tandoor – an oven made from clay, a simple artifact which does many things like bake bread or roast chicken on long skewers. Savour this authentic tandoori chicken usually served with nan bread and curries. For refreshments, try the fresh tang of lassi (yogurt drink), with choices from mango to rose and more. Available at most Indian restaurants and nasi kandar shops throughout Penang.

Delightful bowl-shaped appam at Singgah Sebentar

appam © Adrian Cheah

The appam (also known as palappam) or apom (in Penang) is an Indian pancake made with a fermented rice flour and coconut milk batter. The contrast of textures in this dish is alluring. The pancake - with a crispy fringe and is with a spongy, soft fluffy rice cake centre – exudes a distinct yeasty aroma. The crispy fringe reminds me of kuih kapit.

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Roti canai, good for breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner, supper and any time in between

roti canai © Adrian Cheah

Yes, this is how popular roti canai is in Penang, available all day long at almost every street corner. This simple flatbread is adored by both young and old, men and women of all races in the country.

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The murtabak – a hearty meal all by itself

Penang Murtabak © Adrian Cheah

Hameediyah Restaurant in Campbell Street serves good murtabak. Established in 1907, this is one of the oldest Indian Muslim restaurants in Penang.

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Pann – treat of the real thing

pann © Adrian Cheah

Literally translated from Tamil, 'otthu kadai' – that quaint little wooden roadside shop specking the streets of George Town – means "small shop".

The 'otthu kadai' is a pretty interesting emporium – tiny, compact and mottled with a collection of different things. Each of these small convenience shops is a veritable miniature open-air mart selling an exhaustive range of items in an incredibly confined space.

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"Roti! Roti!", the lure of the breadman

Penang bread man © Adrian Cheah

The 'roti man' or bread vendor is quite a common sight in Penang. They are usually on their rounds in the mornings and from tea time, plying their stock-in-trade in a road contraption that resembles a hybrid between a motorcycle and a 'meat safe'.

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