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Penang: Explore an island fit for a Masterchef

The island of Penang, with its vibrant capital, George Town, is the ideal place to experience the simplicity and flavour of Malaysian food

Penang: Explore an island fit for a Masterchef
Kway teow noodles, Penang street market. Image: Getty

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I’ve always been fascinated by Asia, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s borne out of growing up in Australia at a time when the food on offer really didn’t match the heat of the climate. So when I first ate chilli and noodles and rice, my palate was opened to a world of wonder.

After travelling to various parts of the world, I still find Asian food the most intriguing. I’ve always believed that to understand a country’s food one needs to understand the people and their culture — and one of my more recent discoveries has been the food and culture of Malaysia.

Many years ago, I was dropped into Penang while filming, and found this bustling, colourful island immediately fascinating — but sadly, I only had a day to explore. Recently, however, I spent a number of weeks filming my own TV series all over Malaysia, and my childhood love of blue skies and the sea ultimately drew me back to the island of Penang.

Of the country’s three dominant cultures — Malay, Chinese and Indian  — it’s the Chinese influence that’s strongest in Penang — evident in both its architecture and, of course, its food.

The capital, George Town, is home to some of the world’s best-kept culinary secrets and is definitely one of Malaysia’s food capitals. While wandering its streets and markets, I was introduced to a wonderful woman of advanced years, who was manning a cart with a wood-fired stove. On it, she cooked a Malaysian treat called char koay kak — little cubes of cooked compressed rice and turnip cake, fried in pork fat with pork lard and spring onions and kicap manis (an aromatic sweet soy sauce).

This was served with an optional egg and lovingly scooped into a cornet of newspaper lined with banana leaf for extra flavour. Such a simple dish, yet so delicious and expertly cooked, it’s undoubtedly one of the best bits of street food I’ve ever been fortunate enough to eat.

Food finds like this are common in George Town, especially in the markets. Try Jalan Penang (Penang Road) and the Chowrasta Bazaar or the famous Macallum Street Night Market on a Monday. And if you’re looking for the best streets stalls, simply head towards the crowded ones — the right place to be is wherever the locals are shopping and eating.

In the mornings, hawkers cluster near the corner of Carnavon and Campbell Streets, in front of the Campbell Street Market. Look for the elderly gentleman selling prawn mee (spicy fried noodles) — and hopefully you’ll find my lady with the char koay kak! At night, head to Kimberley Street to the stall with char kway teow (rice noodles with bean sprouts, chicken and soy sauce).

Downtown’s best kopi peng (Malaysian-style iced coffee) is served at the Toon Leong Coffee Shop (closed Sundays) at the corner of Jalan Transfer and Jalan Argyll.

If you want a cooking lesson, then go see Nazlina, who taught me to make pineapple curry. Her cooking school, Nazlina Spice Station, sits opposite the Campbell Street Market, a former Victorian wet market, which is open most days.

But if you feel like a sit down with some coffee and cake, then head to China House — a wonderful old building that’s now a coffee shop, restaurant and garden space serving great food and wine alongside more cakes than you can shake a stick at. Opened in 2011 by a fellow Aussie, Narelle and her team will be happy to let you in on some of the local secret food hangouts should you fancy advice on the area.

I still miss the streets and markets of Penang and George Town but I’m adamant I’ll be back soon.

For me, the best thing about it is once you’ve wandered the streets and feasted your eyes, ears and appetite you can retire to the beach and look up at that blue sky and out to sea. 

Melbourne-born John Torode moved to the UK in 1991 and quickly established himself as a chef at some of London’s top restaurants. He opened Smiths of Smithfields in 2000 and became a presenter of BBC’s Masterchef in 2005. His most recent show, Malaysian Adventure, aired on The Good Food channel in early 2016.

Published in the Malaysia 2016 guide, distributed with the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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