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Painting Penang: Capturing the Diverse Food Scene in Watercolour

Fiery fishy laksas, tantalising tandoori chicken, refreshing ice balls, smokey oyster omelettes: there is no doubt that Penang’s diverse food scene is one of the finest in Southeast Asia. And it’s not just us who think it either.

In 2014 Lonely Planet listed the Malaysian island as number 1 culinary hotspot in the world and local dish asam laksa was rated 7th tastiest on the planet by CNN. As well as serving up some of the world’s tastiest food, Penang is also famous for its street art. Something which, if you follow our travels, you’ll know we love too.

Dive, or wade through the 95% humidity, down any one of the bustling streets in George Town – the island’s largest city – and you’re likely to find a striking art mural. Lithuanian born Ernest Zacharevic is perhaps the most well-known street artist in Penang, and his 3D creations are visited by armies of selfie-seeking visitors every day.

In our recent trip, the quite frankly sumptuous array of cuisines from the Malay, Indian, and Chinese communities inspired us. Not just our bellies, but our brains too. It inspired us to showcase the ever-evolving and monumentally diverse food scene in a way true to Penangites. That way is through the medium of art and, in particular, watercolour paintings.

Joo Hooi Café

Chendul: green jelly noodles, shaved ice, coconut milk, red kidney beans, and sugar

Located off the Jalan Penang, Joo Hooi is a one-stop-shop for hawker food and, incidentally, was our first experience of the verdant island’s street food. Penang favourites such as lor bak, asam laksa, and curry mee (dishes range from £1 to £3) can all be found here.

The main queue-magnet on Jalan Penang, however, is the ‘famous’ chendul stand, which sits just outside of the café. The refreshing dessert may look unappealing with its luminous green noodles, red kidney beans, shaved ice, gloopy coconut milk, and palm sugar. But give it a try and you will be rewarded with a pleasantly refreshing drink. The perfect remedy to Malaysia’s stifling heat.

  • Where? Find this foodie hotspot at 475 Jalan Penang.
  • When? Open between 11am and 5pm, Fri-Wed.

New Lane Food Hawker Centre

A street vendor frantically frying his chaw kway teow over charcoal

“What’s the best food hawker centre in George Town?” A question frequently asked by tourists, frequently answered by locals with “New Lane”. At 4pm every day, Lorung Banu closes down to vehicles and vendors who flock in to fry up a frenzy of local dishes.

Our favourite was the char kway teow (flat rice noodles with prawns, chilli, beansprouts) which, unlike most vendors in George Town, is cooked over charcoal and included a duck egg. If you don’t mind rubbing shoulders with locals and sitting on plastic chairs, this is the one for you.

  • Where? Find this buzzing hawker centre on Lorong Baru.
  • When? Open between 4pm and 11pm daily.

Hameediyah Restaurant

A mechanical pulley system in Penang’s oldest restaurant

If time is a test of quality, then Hameediyah restaurant deserves the highest accolade of them all. Opening its doors back in 1907, this Indian Muslim institution – famed for its nasi kandar, biriyani, and murtakbak (dishes around £2 to £4) – has neither diminished in popularity nor flavour.

If you make it up to the second floor, past the cacophony of spices and meats, you’ll be pleasantly cooled by an airy dining area. From there you will be able to sit comfortably and watch your food being transported up to you via mechanical pulley.

  • Where? Find this Indian Muslim restaurant at 164 Lebuh Campbell.
  • When? Open between 10:30am and 10:00pm daily.

China House

An assortment of divine cakes at China House

How to describe China House? In short, it’s a bar, a gallery, a boutique, a café, a bakery, a fine-dining restaurant, and a live music venue all rolled into one. Whatever your fancy, be it scrumptious bento boxes or hand-crafted artisanal wares, you’ll be likely to find it at this fine establishment.

And don’t get us started on the cakes (from £1.50 to £3 per slab). Every month over 7,000 of them are sold to drooling customers and, at any given time, 30 varieties are on offer. Quite simply, this is the epicentre of coffee, cakes, and artwork in Penang.

  • Where? Find two entrances at 153 Beach Street and 183 Lebuh Victoria.
  • When? Open between 9am and 1am daily.

Red Garden Food Hawker Centre

Fresh fish is served daily at Red Garden’s food hawker centre

Located slap bang in the centre of George Town, Red Garden’s convenient positioning makes it the go-to hawker centre to try all of Penang’s famous delicacies. Wander into the self-proclaimed ‘food paradise’ and it’s likely you’ll be overwhelmed with the lip-smacking grub on display.

Satay chicken on skewers, roast duck with rice, and mee goreng were our favourites (from £1 to £4 per dish). If you’re after something a little more familiar, however, there are western dishes available such as pizza, pasta, and shawarma.

  • Where? Find this ever so popular hawker centre on 20 Lebuh Leith.
  • When? Open from 5pm until 2am daily.

Mugshot

Coffee lovers, rejoice. This eclectic café serves up the best barista coffee – try out their flat whites to see what we mean – on the island. And, if you’re feeling peckish, there’s bagels (£1 to £2 per bagel) filled with Nutella and bananas, bacon and egg, and cream cheese and salmon.

Don’t like coffee or bagels? Fear not, Mugshot also offers freshly made yoghurts and juices, plus the café sits next to Rainbow Bakery if you’re craving a croissant. Grab a stool outside and you’ll be in a prime position to people-watch or chin-wag with fellow caffeine junkies.

  • Where? Find Mugshot at 302 Chulia Street, George Town.
  • When? Open 8am to 12am daily.

Kapitan Restaurant

Situated in the heart of Little India, Kapitan is famous for its clay-pot biriyani (£0.75 to £2.50 per dish) and succulent tandoori chicken (sets cost £1.50 to £2.50). Both of which are best washed down with a piping glass of spicy masala chai.

There’s also a selection of different curries – veg and meat – to choose from if rice and chicken aren’t your fancy, as well as a roti canai and Indian pizza. Service can be a little, urm, ‘brusque’ but you’re not there for that, are you?

  • Where? Find this institution on 93 Lebuh Chulia.
  • When? Open 24 hours every day (though menu is limited at some times).

Comments (4):

  1. Emily

    February 1, 2018 at 1:57 am

    Ah, this brings back so many happy food memories! I still dream about the cake cabinet at China House. The pulley at Hameediyah looks so cool! Gorgeous illustrations!

    Reply
    • pocopilgrims

      February 1, 2018 at 2:08 pm

      It did for us too; writing and illustrating it. Oh my God, that cake cabinet is insane isn’t it? We wanted everything. Glad you liked the drawings, anyway, and thank you very much for your lovely words.

      Reply
  2. Anja Ben

    February 13, 2018 at 4:32 pm

    Such an interesting combination of informative foodie article and lovely illustrations! I never heard that Malaysia has such a vibrant street art scene! I googled that artist, Ernest Zacharevic, and loved his work. It looks like it reflects life on the streets, so lively and cheerful. I would love to visit some day.

    Reply
    • pocopilgrims

      February 13, 2018 at 7:08 pm

      Thank you for your very kind words, that really means a lot to us. The artist, Ernest Zacharevic, is amazing. We were really lucky and got to visit his art gallery in the west of Penang, too. You should totally visit; you’d really love it there!

      Reply

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