Penang island is renowned for its hawker food scene, which offers a diverse mix of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cuisines. The island’s street food vendors are mostly concentrated in hawker centers, food courts, and roadside stalls, making itaccessible and affordable for locals and tourists alike. The stretch along Gurney Drive is pretty “gentrified” at this point imo, so if you’re looking for something more authentic where the locals go to dine, head to George Town’s Lebuh Carnavorn, aka Food Street.
The old Food Street used to be located along Chulia Street, but moved here in 2021. You’ll still find the same vendors though, some of whom have been operating for generations.
Lebuh Carnavorn itself is steeped in history. Founded in the early 19th century, it once hosted a slew of book shops and coffin makers, which eventually made way for kopitiams, restaurants, and cafes. Today, the streets bustle with activity each evening, as small stalls are set up on the sides of the road alongside tables and chairs for diners to enjoy their food, al fresco style.
The stalls offer plenty of options to choose from, including famous Penang specialties such as char koay kak (stir-fried rice cakes), oyster omelette, Hokkien mee (or what we call in KL, har mee), rojak, char kuey teow (stir-fried flat noodles; Penang version usually uses duck egg), and kuey teow th’ng (soup noodles). As Penang has a large Hokkien population, many of these dishes are Hokkien in origin. You’ll also find common Malaysian favourites like lok lok (assorted items on skewers), wantan mee, curry mee, and more.
We couldn’t find a seat outdoors, so we ventured into the kopitiam at the corner called Xi Nan Cafe. From what I observed, some of the vendors will go into the shop and ask if you’d like to order their dishes. We ended up ordering noodles and a couple of side dishes for sharing from different vendors.
Do note that in Penang, if you’re dining in a kopitiam, it’s common practice to order drinks or get hit by a ‘surcharge’ (ranging from 50cents to RM2). This actually became a hot topic recently after a restaurant got blasted for shaming an elderly man who did not pay this surcharge (he had ordered food only, no drinks).
While restaurant operators argue that they need this surcharge to discourage people from hanging out for ‘free’ at the premises and leaving dirty plates for them to clean (to put this into perspective, Malaysian kopitiams typically run the drinks station and rent out the kiosks to vendors), others have lambasted them for this practice, stating that customers should not be penalized for only wanting food and not drinks. Penang is the only state in Malaysia to do this by the way. What do you think of the ethics of it?
I ordered a plate of oh-chien (oyster omelette), which came in a generous portion. The egg was fluffy and had a nice chewiness to it, courtesy of the starch mix; the oysters were plump, fresh, and juicy, and the tangy chilli sauce elevated the entire dish.
N ordered a bowl of Hokkien Mee, essentially bihun and yellow noodles swimming in a red and orange broth made from boiling shrimp heads, creating a sweet and savoury concoction full of umami goodness. The noodles are garnished with boiled egg, small dried shrimp, loads of fried shallots, and a dollop of chilli for extra kick. Hard to find fault with anything as the noodles were al dente and flavours were perfect – N ended up slurping up the entire bowl of soup.
**In Kuala Lumpur, we call this Har Meen (prawn noodles), as Hokkien Mee refers to thick yellow noodles stir-fried in soy sauce, dark sauce, lard, and slices of meat and vegetables.
For sides, we got boiled octopus, garnished with fried garlic and served with a sweet chilli sauce. This simple preparation allowed the natural sweetness of the seafood to shine through.
Last but not least we got fried chicken wings, marinated in belacan (fermented shrimp paste) mix, coated in batter, then deep fried to golden perfection. The pungent flavour of belacan permeated the meat, and the outside was crispy and crunchy while being moist and juicy on the inside.
Everything we ordered tasted fantastic, which is a rare occasion. Usually when we dine out there’s always one or two dishes that miss the mark. If you’re in George Town for a weekend trip or holiday, remember to set aside some time in the evening to check out this place! Prices are not super cheap, but still relatively affordable considering it’s quite a touristy area.
BONUS: George Town after dark
We wandered around the streets to walk off the calories and to see the sights in George Town after dark. The place almost turns into a ‘museum’ of sorts at night: buildings are bathed in a soft, yellow light that gives them an ethereal, haunting beauty, and the usually bustling store fronts and temples are devoid of human activity at this hour, allowing you to take your time and admire minute details in their architecture.
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