The Food of Penang, Malaysia: From "Hawker Centers" to the World's Least Expensive Michelin Star Restaurant
We tasted it all! But what I liked best surprised me.
For the audio version of this article, read by the author, go here.
Brent and I recently spent a month in Penang, Malaysia, where we tried the famous Penang curry, that sweet and tangy red curry made with coconut milk and peanuts. Penang curry is most famous in Thai cooking, but it obviously originated in Penang, Malaysia, right?
Well, maybe it originated in Malaysia — no one really knows. But a competing theory holds that this style of curry originated in an area that was once Thailand but is now Laos. In the ancient Khmer language, “penang,” or “panang,” meant “cross.” In cooking, it may have referred to crossing a chicken’s legs so it could be set upright on the grill.
At some point, chefs began basting these “penang” chickens with a marinade made of curry, peanuts, and coconut milk.
But if this is an article about the food in Penang, why am I mentioning a cooking style that (probably) has nothing do with Malaysia?
It’s partly to clear up a popular misconception, but also because Penang curry happens to be a great example of how the historical origins of Malaysian cuisine — and food throughout the entire Southeast Asia region — is often shrouded in mystery. It’s also an example of how all these different cultures informed and influenced each other over the centuries.
When it comes to the food of Malaysia, Brent is already on record as saying he wasn’t a big fan of “Malaysian cooking” — and I wasn’t either. We both found it too heavy and oily.
But Malaysia is also different from neighboring countries like, say, Thailand, China, or India. Malaysia is much more racially and culturally diverse, which means it’s much easier to find food from these and other countries.
And Malaysia is also home to an interesting cuisine known as nonya, which is a specific mixture of Malay, Chinese, and Indian ingredients and cooking styles.
The “food capital” of Malaysia is Penang, which is a little island off the coast of the state of Penang, connected to the mainland by two modern bridges. The island’s urban and historical center is known as George Town.
Indeed, culinary and travel legend Anthony Bourdain visited six different Penang restaurants for his show No Reservations.
In exploring the area’s famous food culture, Brent and I ate at:
“Hawker centers,” which are casual, open-air food courts popular in Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
Shopping mall food courts — but, hold on, don’t judge us until I explain exactly what that means!
Sit-down restaurants, including Auntie Gaik Lean's Old School Eatery, one of the first two Malaysian restaurants to ever earn a prestigious Michelin star. Word has it that Auntie Gaik Lean’s is currently the most affordable Michelin star restaurant in the world.
Read on for more about Penang’s incredible food scene — and also my review of Auntie Gaik Lean’s.
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