Penang’s Culinary Traditions

by Kat Fatland

For food lovers like myself, Penang is a heaven on Earth, a prandial theme park. It took me approximately three meals after my arrival here to acknowledge, quietly and to myself at first, that this little island off the coast of Malaysia probably offers the greatest food in Southeast Asia. Ten meals later, and a little more vocally, I announced that Penang’s food topped my personal list of worldly culinary delights. And hundreds of plates in, I can only use superlatives to describe my affection. Now, like almost every Penangite I know, I, too, feel the surge of anger rise in my throat when somebody tries to tell me that the char kuey teow (noodles fried in chili paste with bean sprouts, egg and prawns) stall they frequent is better than mine. And I have come to fully understand the area’s ubiquitous greeting of “Sudah makan?” (“Have you eaten?”)

Here in Penang, the best of the street-food hawkers are looked upon as royalty—brilliant alchemists who have found the perfect blend of flavors to satisfy our appetites’ most mysterious desires. From the plates of rich noodles to the heady slices of roast duck heaped atop savory rice, culinary diversity abounds on every street corner. And though the street fare is truly fast food—hawkers deftly flip chapatis (toasted discs of unleavened bread) like spinning plates, rapidly fry spice pastes in woks and snugly wrap rice and curry into a bright green banana leaf with intense precision—eating here is a revered event, a celebration of a monumental coming together that’s deeply felt, and a keen insight into Penang’s vibrant past.

Having come to Penang from the Midwestern plains of the United States, I was fairly unfamiliar with the idea of any sort of culinary tradition. Where I’m from, food tradition begins and ends with meat and potatoes, with the occasional casserole thrown in for good measure. On a larger scale, given the U.S.’s relatively young age and its general gravitation toward all things new, our traditions seem to change with every generation. Cooking only with available resources was eventually replaced with cooking what was convenient—all the better if it was microwaveable. It was hard for me to conceive of food as providing any perspective on history, let alone playing a major part.

But unlike my hometown, Penang’s culinary heritage is as rich and colorful as the famed 19th-century shop houses that line its streets. The island’s unique flavors began to morph and merge well before my home country even came into being. Whereas a landlocked country’s traditional meals might historically rely on local ingredients and traditions, Penang’s early status as an important shipping hub resulted in an influx of migrant traders and workers from all around the region, who brought with them the cuisine preferences of their respective homelands. The Hokkiens from China’s Fujian province, for example, brought their tradition of pickling and drying foods, which began as a means to stave off famines—a legacy that explains the countless pickled fruit stalls still found in and around Penang’s Chowrasta Market. And with their home province being China’s largest bamboo-growing region, Hokkiens also brought with them bamboo shoots, which were once featured in traditional poh piah rolls (thin crepes filled with julienned vegetables and pork belly) but have since been replaced with grated turnip or jicama.

A large influx of South Indian migrants from Tamil Nadu—referred to historically as the Chulias—introduced dal (lentils) and curry leaves into the mix, and brought the very first mamak stalls to the streets of Penang’s George Town (“mamak”means “uncle” in Tamil). And it’s rumored that one of these South Indian food sellers on Chulia Street “pulled” Penang’s first, and now famous, teh tarik (literally, “stretched tea,” a milk tea with bubbles).

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A large portion of the later wave of Hainanese migrants from China worked as cooks and domestic servants to the British. These migrants brought their own culinary heritage and blended it with the Brits’ to create truly unique fusion-fare, such as the Hainanese chicken puff, a sort of samosa featuring Hainanese spices and British puff pastry.

Ingredients available in the rural kampungs, or villages, of Penang’s Malay population also played a prominent role in the island’s eventual culinary blend. And the abundance of regional paddy fields lined with coconut palms in Penang provided communities with the two main ingredients for one of the most beloved fares, nasi lemak (rice boiled with rich coconut milk, garnished with peanuts or dried anchovies, and topped with sambal, a condiment made from ground chilis, shrimp paste and lime).

Over time, this diverse mixture of migrants, traditions and ingredients has harmoniously melded into the beloved and unique dishes currently available on the streets of Penang. Mamaks now sell mee goreng and mee rebus (fried noodles and boiled noodles, respectively) made with distinctively Hokkien or Chinese ingredients such as tofu and bean sprouts. And the rich sauce that covers mee rebus is made intricate with the Malay flavor of assam (tamarind), the Hokkien flavor of dried shrimp and the traditional Indian ingredient of boiled potatoes.

This centuries-long merging of tastes is not only a deliciously tangible representation of Penang’s proud and varied heritage, but an intimate part of the Penang identity—one that tells a history as varied and complex as the sambal that sits atop their favorite rice dish.