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!

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

Sri Bahari Hainan Chicken Rice – legacy on a plate

Sri Bahari Hainan Chicken Rice © Adrian Cheah

Hainanese chicken rice is an uncomplicated dish that comprises succulent poached chicken and aromatic rice cooked with chicken fat and stock accompanied by a chilli dipping sauce and a bowl of clear chicken soup. Some vendors may also serve it with other condiments like a ginger dipping sauce or some thick soy sauce.

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Lao Hakka Cafe: a culinary haven of traditional Hakka flavours

Lao Hakka © Adrian Cheah

At Lao Hakka, the unpretentious Hakka cuisine comes alive, with each dish serving as a testament to the transformation of ordinary ingredients into extraordinary experiences. The cooking style of the Hakka people, also known as Hakka or Kuh-chia cuisine, originated mainly from the provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi and Guangxi. Its comforting home-style dishes are known for their distinct flavours and aromatic meat-centric options such as stuffed tofu (yong tau foo), braised pork belly with taro and stuffed bitter gourd. The Hakka cuisine primarily features rice, pork, tofu and preserved vegetables. Of course being in Penang, some local favourites such as crispy belacan chicken and savoury gulai tumis (fish curry) are also featured on the menu.

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CRC Restaurant – a culinary icon among Penangites

CRC Restaurant © Adrian Cheah

In the 1900s, a group of Chinese sports enthusiasts established the Penang Chinese Recreation Club, a heritage clubhouse. Located at its premises in Victoria Green are two dining outlets – CRC Restaurant and CRC Victoria Cafe. Situated across the road from CRC is the "new" CRC Chinese Restaurant, sharing the same building as the North Malaya Cheah Si Chong Soo. Today, both the "old" and "new" CRC Restaurants are popular choices among Penangites for family meals, birthday celebrations as well as wedding and corporate dinners.

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Indulging at the award-winning Chin's Cuisine

Chin's Stylish Chinese Cuisine © Adrian Cheah

Chin's Cuisine represents owner Dave Chin's unique interpretation on Chinese cuisine, primarily inspired by Sichuan and Hunan flavours. Dave and his team of chefs draw inspiration from the vast treasure trove of Chinese cuisine, a culinary tradition that has evolved over thousands of years.

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Savoury Cantonese-style dishes at Zen Xin Vegetarian Restaurant

Zen Xin Vegetarian © Adrian Cheah

Zen Xin Vegetarian Restaurant is a vegetarian restaurant located along Nagore Road in the heart of George Town. One thing that strikes me when dining at a Chinese vegetarian restaurant in Penang is the creativity involved in preparing innovative vegetarian alternatives that closely resemble traditional faux meats or seafood dishes. It is almost like you are eating the real thing, from texture to taste! Using various plant-based ingredients such as tofu, seitan, mushrooms and soy-based products, the chefs are able to create wonderful dishes.

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An unforgettable birthday bliss – indulging in avant-garde dishes at Maple Palace Chinese Restaurant

Maple Palace Chinese Restaurant © Adrian Cheah

When choosing a venue for her birthday celebration, my daughter Jean immediately suggested Maple Palace and it is easy to understand why. Located in the heart of George Town, Maple Palace Chinese Restaurant goes beyond traditional boundaries, offering avant-garde dishes that redefine Chinese cuisine in terms of both flavour and presentation. Under the guidance of owner Loy Tan and his skilled chefs, the restaurant's innovative techniques and use of authentic ingredients create an unforgettable and mouth-watering dining experience that leaves a lasting impression.

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A luxurious 6-course treat for Mum at Maple Palace Restaurant

Maple Palace © Adrian Cheah

Mum turned 89 this year and I was only too glad that I was able to celebrate her birthday at Maple Palace Restaurant with a scrumptious top-notch feast. Although owner Loy Tan was overseas when I contacted him, he was obliging enough to curate a luxurious 6-course menu for Mum. The individual serving of each course was beautifully presented, making it a delightful visual feast to whet the appetite.

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Deliciously authentic Hainanese chicken chop at Hai Onn Restaurant

Hainanese chicken chop © Adrian Cheah

Hai Onn Restaurant at Jalan Burmah is one of the few Hainanese kopitiams (coffee shops) left in George Town. Although there are two original signages at the entrance of the kopitiam with "Hai Oan", the correct spelling of this restaurant is actually "Hai Onn". This only goes to illustrate how forgiving the owner was in agreeing to carry on with the typographical error in the company name.

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Hainanese Delights serves up nostalgic cuisine of the colonial British era

Hainanese Delights © Adrian Cheah

In the 1920s, the Hainanese were among the last Chinese immigrants to arrive in Penang. Since other dialect groups had already established control over most trades, the late comers ended up as cooks and houseboys (domestic helpers) in British homes and establishments. The Hainanese cooks were taught on-the-job how to prepare British dishes and were also introduced to local ingredients and spices. They eventually evolved their cooking repertoire, infusing their creations with local flavours to suit the taste buds of Penangites and the colonial British. Thus, Hainanese cuisine in Penang, and at large, in Malaysia and Singapore, is unique in its own way and cannot be found elsewhere, not even in Hainan Island.

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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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