Best 5 Street-Foods to Savor in Georgetown, Malaysia
Georgetown is the über-charming historic centre of Malaysia’s Penang Island. On the north-western corner of the country, just a swim stroke away from Thailand, this destination is renowned as an unrivalled foodie haven. Georgetown is petite, yet offers more enticement than many major cities the world over. It absolutely oozes old-world charm, an eclectic mix of colonial architecture infused with authentic Malay, Chinese, and Indian elements, and boasts more churches and temples of all denominations than many countries do. Revered for its obsession with street art and street food, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more delicious destination anywhere in Southeast Asia.
Georgetown’s main attractions – from its vibrant Chinatown to its colorful Little India and historic colonial sites – would normally only require visitors to spend three or four days here, at most. The fact that every other traveler we kept meeting had been there for weeks on end, however, can be explained with one word alone: food. Abundant, delectable, affordable, mouthwatering food. Of the street kind.
Southeast Asia is renowned for its incredible selection of street food – with many claiming to be the world’s best. We’ve spent more than a year in this region and couldn’t agree more. Although we’ve feasted on really amazing food all over – from Laos, through Cambodia and the whole length of Thailand – it wasn’t until we got to Georgetown on Malaysia’ Penang Island that I thought: holly guacamole, this is street-food heaven!
Head out to Churia Street – Georgetown’s main drag – after six pm every night and you’ll be overwhelmed at the sheer number of street food vendors, cafés, and people spilling out of every inch of footpath. Stroll up just a few hundred meters and you’ll see the hypnotic, bustling scene repeated down every alleyway. It’s sheer foodie-madness!
Variety is the spice of life
Malaysia is renowned as the most multi-cultural country in Southeast Asia, with ethnic Malays actually making up only 50% of the total population. The rest is made up of Chinese and Indian immigrants who have been flowing in over the last two centuries to shape the modern-day country. These three cultures – combined with sporadic sprinkles of Western influence – have created a most unusual and varied cuisine. Malays have Indian roti for breakfast, Chinese chicken fried rice for lunch and Malay seafood noodles for dinner and think it the most normal thing in the world. What’s so beautiful – from our point of view – is that they consider all these dishes authentic. In modern-day Malaysia, they most certainly are.
Headed to Georgetown anytime soon? You really should! Between the numerous street stands and colossal hawker centers you’ll have the chance to try a myriad of different dishes, all boasting interesting origins. Although some are well known – like Chinese dim sum lunches – others are unique and only found in Malaysia. So check out the following best 5 hawker foods to try in Georgetown and let your taste buds guide you through an unforgettable, exotic, tropical adventure.
Roti Canai – Indian rotis (flatbreads) are the most ubiquitous snack to be found in Malaysia, and the roti canai (flatbread served with a side dish of lentil dhal) is the most popular breakfast dish of all. Over the years, the authentic Indian kerala porota recipe has received a few makeovers to become generally accepted as an authentic Malay dish. The flatbread is made very thin and fried in a few dollops of oil. In this version, it is served with a side bowl of dhal, a pureed lentil curry which is usually quite thin and meant to serve as a dip rather than a bona fide dish. If you prefer a sweet start to your day, you can always ask for a banana or coconut jam roti instead. These are the most popular breakfast options in Georgetown and cost merely $0.50 a serving.
Char koay teow – Malaysia’s signature noodle dish – char koay teow – boasts Chinese origins and can also be found in Singapore and Indonesia. The dish can be ordered either with meat or seafood and is prepared with flat rice noodles, bean sprouts, onions. It’s served with a hearty amount of a sweet soy and shrimp paste sauce that’s incredibly addictive. Char koay teow is famously rated as the ‘unhealthiest’ dish in Malaysia due to the large amount of sauce (which incidentally, is what makes it so delicious) but considering you’ll probably only have it once during your stay (you have so many other dishes to try!) I’d personally declare it worthy of the calorie-splurge.
Satay – In the first couple of days in Georgetown, this dish had me stumped. In our Western countries, ‘satay’ is the name given to the spicy peanut sauce that’s usually found in Thai restaurant menus. Where I come from, it’s served with meat, vegetables or as a dipping sauce for fish cakes. In Malaysia however, ‘satay’ is a whole different deal, a whole dish – or rather – a whole way of cooking. Scour Georgetown for the best ‘satay’ stand and you’ll be confronted by a collection of raw meat, seafood, and vegetables sticks. These are grilled over coals and then served with the spicy peanut sauce – yes, that’s the best part! Sticks cost between $0.10 (vegetables) to $0.50 (squid), with the most popular variants being pork, chicken and beef sticks ($0.20). Do note that pork satay sticks are becoming increasingly rare in Halal-friendly Malaysia and Georgetown is one of only few places left where you can still devour them. An order of 10 sticks of your choice is usually served with wedges of raw red onion, cucumber, and lime. Squeeze the lime over the sauce, alternate between mouthfuls of grilled yumminess and raw veggies dipped in sauce, and voila’: you’ve got the most delicious dinner in town.
Asam laksa – Peranakan is the name given to the now-ancient blend of Chinese and Malay which has spawned an utterly unique culture. Peranak people in Malaysia consider themselves quite distinct from both Malay and Chinese and the culture is an identity onto itself. Peranak cuisine, in extension, is also a very unique culinary identity. Although it boasts a fusion of its two ethnic origins, Peranak culture has created dishes that are one-of-a-kind and not found anywhere else. Laksa is a product of this enticing culture and asam laksa, in particular, a Penang variant best savoured in Georgetown. Laksa is a hot and spicy dish traditionally prepared with rice noodles and a concoction of meat and seafood, drowned in a spic coconut curry sauce. The Penang version adds a touch of tamarind which gifts the dish just a hint of sourness.
Oh chien – This fried oyster omelette is one of the best anytime-of-day snacks in Malaysia. The combination of oyster and egg can seem totally weird at first, but trust that the whole distinctive mix just seems to work to perfection. A batter of rice flour, beaten egg, fresh oyster, and chive is fried over a very hot skillet, before being shredded and served with a slather of spicy tomato sauce. Usually served on a paper plate with toothpicks for utensils, oh chien is perfect for those instances when you’re short on time, but big on hunger.