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No visit to the northwest Malaysian island of Penang is complete without sampling the culinary delights of its hawker food stalls. These outdoor fast food restaurants are located on Gurney Drive, in Georgetown, just a short drive away from the major beach resorts.

Man dishes out soup at Gurney Drive hawker stall.
Man dishes out soup at Gurney Drive hawker stall.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Don't expect to find five-star restaurants. Most eateries consist of arborite tables and wooden chairs clustered together under the stars. The kitchens are simply tables and counters laden with woks, barbecues and propane burners. Others are strictly takeout food carts.

The atmosphere, nevertheless, is enticing. Music pours from some restaurants, while others reverberate with the clatter of dishes and the chatter of happy patrons. Most customers are Malaysian families and friends out for a cheap and delicious night on the town.

Penang's hawker stalls are usually open from dusk to midnight, with 9 to 11 pm the most popular hours for dining and people-watching.

Chinese food

The Malay, Chinese and Indian fare reflect the multiracial makeup of Penang's population. If you try just one Malaysian dish, make it satay, tender pieces of chicken, beef or lamb, skewered on sticks and gently barbecued over a charcoal fire. Slices of cucumber and onion, and a delicious peanut sauce, accompany the tiny shishkebabs.

People cook food on sticks at Chinese steamboat stand.
People cook food on sticks at Chinese steamboat stand.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

You don't have to like spicy foods to enjoy dining here. Look for satay celup, (also called Chinese steamboat or Malay fondue). The stalls feature a container of boiling broth, surrounded by plates of prawns, fish balls, quail eggs, vegetables, chicken and other meats skewered onto sticks. You simply select what you want to eat and dip the sticks into the broth long enough to cook the food. Eat them as is or top them with sauces, if you want a spicy flavor. The sticks are color-coded according to price.

Don't be intimidated by the cuttlefish, tentacles dangling, from the tops of the stands, or the sotong bakar, dried cuttlefish, pressed into long, thin strips resembling lasagna. (The latter tastes remarkably like shrimp crackers.)

Cuttlefish hang on hawker stand.
Cuttlefish hang on hawker stand.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Asam laksa, a specialty of Penang, contains noodles cooked in a soup with fish, turmeric, lemongrass and tamarind juice. Another popular dish in Penang is rojak, a salad of sweet potato, cucumber, pineapple and fried bean curd topped with a dressing that includes prawn paste and nuts.

Indian food

If you want Indian food, try murtabak, a pocket of thin bread filled with an omelet of eggs, spicy minced lamb and onions. Rice-lovers should select nasi kandar, rice topped with prawn, crab, fish, chicken or vegetable curry.

You can order one dish at a time from the stalls, munching as you stroll along, deciding on your next course. If you prefer to sit, simply select the dishes you want from each stall and indicate the general direction of your table, if it's not within sight of the cook.

Amazingly, the cook's assistants always find you, even when it's crowded. You pay the assistants for the dishes when they're served. It's easy to feast like a king for prices that are wallet-friendly.

For beverages, you can accompany your meal with soft drinks, tea and beer. Try the wonderful local fruit juices made from watermelon, starfruit, guava, papaya and coconut.

Ice cream

Hawker stand vendor cooks meal in a wok.
Hawker stand vendor cooks meal in a wok.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Luscious mangos, pineapples, mangosteens and rambutans, in season, are flavorful desserts. Alternatively, indulge in the Malay version of ice cream. Cendol consists of green bean pasta topped with a mound of shaved ice, sweetened with palm sugar syrup and coconut cream.

Air Batu Campur (ask for ABC), is also a mound of shaved ice sweetened with palm sugar syrup, but in this case, enveloping jelly cubes, sweet corn and red beans. Both taste much better than they sound. Either one makes a refreshing end to a filling meal, especially considering Malaysia's hot climate.

After dinner, take a stroll along Gurney Drive to view the ongoing action at the streetside stalls. It's Malaysian dinner theater at its best.


Tourism Malaysia

Malaysia Airlines

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Information about Malaysia Travel

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