Saigon Seductions

Would you believe a sandwich brought us to Saigon?

Well, I may be overstating it a little, but consider this: when the question of our second destination in Asia arose, two words kept reverberating around my brain: banh mi. These two little words were stuck on endless replay in my psyche, filling my head with whispers of crusty bread and pickled carrots until I could think of nothing else. I’d already been fighting a losing battle with banh mi-infatuation for some years, particularly the banh mi thit nuong (with grilled pork) at the Seattle Deli which we ate at least twice a week (often more) during the year we lived there, but the prospect of tasting them at the source seemed to inspire in me a whole new kind of obsession. The only problem was convincing Manuel, who seemed to have his heart set on Hong Kong or Tokyo or someplace with tall skyscrapers and, more importantly, impeccable hygiene.

I couldn’t really blame him; our last experience with street food in Asia (on Bali, ten years ago) ended with both of us contracting amoebic dysentery.

But I wasn’t about to let a fear of microbes prevent me from my one opportunity to eat my weight in banh mis. So I started a campaign of stealth warfare, inundating his email inbox with pictures of luscious-looking Vietnamese sandwiches around the web, interspersed with testimonials from random travelers about how they ate out of garbage heaps in Vietnam and didn’t get even so much as indigestion.

The coup de grace, though, was a plate of the real thing. I trekked all over town to find the fluffiest buns, the freshest cilantro and the hottest chilies, and put together sandwiches that would make even Seattle Deli proud. As he bit in, the pungent, caramelized pork giving way to the cool crunch of cucumber, his eyes glazed over and he chewed as if in a trance. Finally he cleared his throat and asked, “what else are we going to eat in Vietnam?”

Pho Bo Chin Nac and Pho Ga, aka Beef Brisket and Chicken Pho
@ Pho Hoa

And so it was decided: we’d go to Saigon, or as it’s been known since the end of the war, Ho Chi Minh City. I was so excited, not just about a potential all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of banh mis, but for everything else I would discover. The thing is, I knew embarrassingly little about Vietnamese food – even less than what I knew about most other Asian cuisines, which isn’t a lot. I’d had pho a couple of times, of course, and the big rice-flour pancake called banh xeo. And if I thought really hard I could dredge up a vague memory of eating minced shrimp paste on sugarcane skewers in a Vietnamese restaurant in New Orleans. The rest, though, was a big, fat mystery. All I knew was that by the time we returned I wanted to be able to nod in recognition at at least a quarter of the strange words on the cheat-sheet of Vietnamese dishes I’d compiled, and if I came home being able to rattle off the requirements for a good pho, debate the relative merits of bun thit nuong vs bun nem nuong, and spot the difference between perilla and rice paddy herb at twenty paces, so much the better.

Banh Xeos on the fire (left); Ca Phe Sua Da, aka iced coffee (right)

Well, I probably don’t need to tell you that the few days we had there weren’t enough to even scratch the lacquer that covers the surface of a cuisine as intricate and complex as Vietnam’s. I didn’t come away from Vietnam feeling like I’d cracked any code or joined any experts’ club. I didn’t gain more than a superficial understanding of regional variations or what kinds of culinary lines separate the north, center and south. I didn’t manage to taste the vast majority of dishes on my list and of the ones I did, I certainly didn’t taste them enough times to come to any conclusions about definitive versions and preferred preparations.

Banh Uot, aka summer rolls (left); some of the greens on offer at a wet market (right)

What I did do, however, was fell utterly, completely in love. With big bowls of cool rice noodles cradling sweet and salty grilled meats, fresh and pickled vegetables and handfuls of herbs. With hot, crisp fritters and pancakes, folded into lettuce leaves and dipped into sweet-sour-pungent nuoc cham. With fresh, tender summer rolls and crunchy fried spring rolls. With inky coffee mixed with gobs of sweetened condensed milk and poured over ice. With custardy, bready, sweet-tart banana cake. With creamy avocado, mango and soursop milkshakes. With a mountain of lettuces and fresh herbs – more kinds than I knew existed – never out of arm’s reach on any table. And even with the city: its wide boulevards and never-ceasing flood of traffic, its millions of people constantly on the move, its swanky shopping centers next door to ramshackle huts, its people cooking anywhere and everywhere, its little child-sized plastic stools that everyone perches on to consume their street-side snacks, the smoke and dust and noise and energy that pick you up and pull you along for the ride like a beach ball caught in the tide.

Banh Beo @ Gia Hoi 2

And of course we ate as many banh mis as we could get our hands on, usually as a between-meal snack (or between-snacks snack). We ate them everywhere we found them: street carts, deli counters, even pricey Western-style sandwich shops that in an attempt to emphasize their hygiene standards used as many disposable plastic items as they could in the construction of each sandwich. But – and this is a big but – despite our wide net, we couldn’t find a single banh mi that truly knocked our socks off. There were bad ones, mediocre ones and a couple of pretty good ones, but none, none I mean none, came close to the symphony of flavors, textures and temperatures of our Seattle Deli favorite. Stale, chewy bread seemed to be a theme, and many of them were missing cilantro and chilies, two of the ingredients that give this sandwich its Vietnamese soul. Over-filling was another problem we encountered, with the resulting sandwich being heavy and soggy. Rarely was there enough cucumber, and the meat – even my beloved thit nuong – rarely packed much of a flavor punch. Of the ones we sampled, only one was worth returning for: the banh mi thit nguoi from a young guy that sets up shop on Le Kong Kieu (aka Antique Street) in the afternoons. His well-executed sandwiches boasted light, fresh rolls, a smear of salty-sweet liver pate, a few slices of ham and sausage, cucumber, carrot-daikon pickle, cilantro and a generous dollop of mayonnaise. Apart from that, though, we had to wonder: are some items in the Vietnamese repertoire just made better abroad, or had we mistakenly developed a preference for something completely inauthentic?

Drive-by papaya sale

Squid (left); Rambutans (right)

But in the end it didn’t really matter, since there was so much other good food. In fact, there were numerous things that are threatening to replace banh mis as my obsession du jour. The coffee, for one thing; what is it that makes it taste so good? I drank five or six a day, and would have fit in more if I wasn’t so busy trying all the equally-delicious fruit juices and shakes. Then there was anything fried and wrapped with herbs and lettuce, in particular those little shrimp-topped, rice-flour and coconut-milk pancakes called banh khot which are light years ahead of banh xeo (which, try as I might, I still find rather unspectacular). And bun dishes, I finally saw the light with these! Instead of a mass of cold, unseasoned rice noodles with a few toppings (which is how I’d always been served them before), I now know their beauty lies in balance: between the cold noodles and hot grilled meat, between the salty peanuts and sweet pickles, between the pungent sauce and refreshing herbs. It’s the soul of Southeast Asian cuisine – hot, sour, salty, sweet – in one glorious bowl.

Kalamansi limes

Mangosteens, my new favorite fruit

And the best part of all? Not only did we not get sick – unless you count our chronically overstuffed bellies – but Manuel’s last words as our plane lifted off the runway in Saigon were, “next time we have to spend a lot longer here.”

Amen to that. Though next time maybe we should skip the banh mis.

More greens…

What to eat:

If you’re going to Saigon of course you have to try the standards: pho in its many forms, bun noodle dishes such as bun thit nuong (with grilled pork) and bun nem nuong (with pork patties), banh xeo (crispy rice flour pancake with shrimp and pork), banh uot (fresh summer rolls) and cha gio (fried spring rolls), sinh to bo (sweet avocado shake) and of course caphe sua da (sweet-milky iced coffee). Also try bo la lot (seasoned beef grilled in betel leaves), banh chuoi (banana cake), banh beo (small discs of rice flour cakes topped with shredded shrimp & scallions), banh khot (those smaller, round-bottomed cousins to banh xeo), ca kho to (caramelized catfish cooked in a claypot), thit kho (pork belly and hardboiled eggs braised in coconut water), goi du du (green papaya salad, sometimes topped with dried beef, shrimp or pork), and cha ca (fried snakehead fish with dill and turmeric). And that’s not even mentioning the banh mis: banh mi thit nguoi (deli meats), banh mi thit nuong (grilled pork), banh mi xiu mai (braised meatballs), banh mi ga nuong (grilled chicken), banh mi trung (scrambled egg), banh mi bi (shredded pork skin), banh mi ca moi (sardine)…

Banh Mi cart on Le Kong Kieu

Banh Mis packaged and ready to go @ Nhu Lan

Where to eat:

Cha Ca La Vong, 3 Ho Xuan Huong Street, District 3
The original Hanoi branch of this venerable restaurant made it into Patricia Schultz’s book “1000 Places To See Before You Die”. According to Graham of Noodlepie, however, the Saigon location is not only classier, it does the signature dish of cha ca – snakehead fish fried with fresh dill fronds and turmeric, and served with bun noodles, greenery, peanuts, and pungent nam tom fermented shrimp sauce – even better than the original. Can’t say if that’s true, but we thought it was dynamite.

Hoa Tuc, 74/7 Hai Ba Trung, District 1
This was the most upscale meal we treated ourselves to in Saigon, and it didn’t disappoint. Creative and traditional Vietnamese food is served in this chic, expat-dominated restaurant housed in an old villa. The fried calamari with sweet-smoky tamarind sauce was to die for. The restaurant also hosts daily cooking classes and market tours.

Pho Hoa, 260C Duong Pasteur, District 3
Many people consider this sprawling, 3-story restaurant the best bet for pho in Saigon. It’s nearly always packed full of locals (and businessmen at lunchtime) who come for the steaming bowls of beef (raw, brisket or tripe) or chicken pho. The broth is deeply meaty, and the wide array of condiments and foliage mean you can tweak a bowl just to your liking.

Com Nieu, 6C Tu Xuong, District 3
This is supposedly Anthony Bourdain’s favorite restaurant in Saigon. For the food, I’d agree – we had absolutely amazing ca kho to (caramelized catfish) and thit ko (pork belly and eggs braised in coconut water). The restaurant’s gimmick, however – a loud spectacle that involves waiters smashing clay pots of the namesake com nieu rice and theatrically tossing it across the room to each other to shake off all the ceramic shards – I could have done without.

Quan An Ngon, 160 Duong Pasteur, District 1
The original idea behind this restaurant was to collect some of the best street-food vendors in Saigon and assemble them in one place, creating a kind of one-stop shop for visitors to allow them to experience a wide variety of local delights. Although the place has taken a bashing in recent years for inflated prices and falling quality, we liked it. It’s a convenient, stress-free way to try a lot of different foods, and what we had there was very good – in particular their banh tom ho tay (sweet potato and shrimp fritters) and goi kho bo (green papaya with shredded dried beef) – albeit a little pricier than you’d find it elsewhere. While I would never advise anyone to eat here exclusively (as some apparently do), I think it’s definitely worth a stop.

Banh Xeo 46A, 46A Dinh Cong Trang, District 1
This popular spot occupying most of a small alleyway supposedly makes some of the best banh xeo pancakes in town. To my taste they were pretty good, very crisp and loaded with shrimp (still in the shell – a bit weird if you’re not accustomed to this), but unfortunately a bit bland. The cha gio (pork and crab spring rolls) and bo la lot (grilled beef in betel leaves) are also well worth finding space for.

Gia Hoi 2, 2 Nguyen Huy Tu Street, District 1
Cathy of Gastronomy recommended this place for an authentic taste of central-Vietnamese Hue food, and it was a great find. Though they don’t have an English menu, everything they make is displayed in photos on the wall. Excellent banh beo and hen xao (sauteed baby clams with toasted rice crackers).

Nhu Lan , 50 Ham Nghi, District 1
This deli-cum-restaurant is a great place to come for a cheap meal (their English menu is over 50 items long) or takeaway for a picnic. The banh mi thit nuong station (with their amusing doner-kebab setup – see photo at top) does a brisk business with two guys making sandwiches nonstop for a neverending line of customers. None of the sandwiches here blew me away, and they were a little pricier than those bought on the street, but this is a convenient and hygenic (they proudly display their health certificates on the wall) place to get a fix.

Banh Mi Cart on Le Kong Kieu, D1 (aka Antique Street)
Our favorite sandwich in Saigon: sliced deli meats, spiced liver pate, mayo, carrot-daikon pickle, cilantro and chiles in a big, crusty roll for 10,000VND. We had good luck finding him in late afternoon, around 4-5pm.

Fanny, 29-31 Duong Ton That Thiep, District 1
The French-style ice creams at this swanky cafe make a nice break from noodles and rice. Dense, creamy and delicious, their tropical fruit flavors are the best.

Pho, not just enjoyed by tourists!

Food Safety

This is a topic of stress and confusion for many people planning a trip, so I’ll give my take on it here. The standard advice for developing countries, including Vietnam, is to avoid any fresh vegetables or room-temperature food, fruit you didn’t peel yourself, ice cubes in drinks, and dairy products. If you did this in Vietnam, you’d have almost nothing left to eat. In particular you’d miss the variety of fresh herbs and the wonderfully healthy custom of wrapping morsels of food in greens. I may not be the best person to give advice seeing as I usually value the experience of local food above my short-term health (and I have paid the price on numerous occasions), but I stick by my methods. If you’re up-to-date on your travel vaccinations there is little you could contract through eating that can’t be cured with a round of antibiotics, so I say dig in and don’t worry. And though I can’t speak for the rest of Vietnam, hygiene standards seemed to be quite high in Saigon – like I said above, we ate and drank everything in sight and didn’t suffer from anything more serious than distended stomachs.

Banh Xeo @ Banh Xeo 46A

Books on Vietnamese food:

Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table by Mai Pham
A superb introduction to the wonders of Vietnamese cuisine. Mai expertly balances comprehensiveness, authenticity and user-friendliness in this great collection of recipes.

Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen
Part personal memoir and part eye-poppingly gorgeous collection of recipes, Andrea covers all the basics, from history and customs, to technique and presentation.

Secrets of the Red Lantern by Pauline and Luke Nguyen
A gorgeous, gorgeous book full of bittersweet stories of family turbulence and incredible recipes by the owners of the Red Lantern restaurant in Sydney.

Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid
A classic – and one of the most beautiful books on my shelf. Although it covers more than just Vietnam, it explains how Vietnamese cuisine fits in with others in SE Asia, and draws out the parallels between them.

How many family members can fit on a single scooter?

Blogs on Saigon and/or Vietnamese food:

Viet World Kitchen
Cookbook author Andrea Nguyen’s blog is a treasure-trove of Vietnamese info, recipes and travel tips.

White on Rice Couple
Diane and Todd certainly need no introduction from me, but in case you’re not familiar with their gorgeous blog head on over to find, among other tempting things, a collection of drool-worthy Vietnamese recipes.

Cathy spent much of this blog’s life living in Saigon, and has fantastic tips for dining in the city (even the UK’s Rick Stein hired her as a local expert during the filming of his Far Eastern Odyssey). Don’t miss her Saigon top 10.

Wandering Chopsticks
If, like me, you’re looking to delve more deeply into Vietnamese cooking, Wandering Chopsticks has just about the most comprehensive collection of recipes on the net. Her list of 100 Vietnamese foods to try is a great starting point for newbies to the cuisine.

Ravenous Couple
Another site with great recipes and beautiful photos from Hong and Kim, a Vietnamese-American couple sustaining a long-distance relationship with their love of food.

Eating Asia
Robyn and Dave also used to live in Saigon, and return regularly to root out the latest must-try morsels.

UK journalist Graham Holliday was based in Saigon for many years and blogged about good eats in all corners of the city. It’s been a few years since he lived there, but his archives still contain some great info.

Had a great meal in Saigon? Have a favorite dish no one should miss when they go? Please share!

Eating Penang

Here’s the scenario: you, an enthusiastic but embarassingly inexperienced fan of all things Asian and edible are going to Southeast Asia for just under a month. You of course want to eat, learn and experience as many of the great eastern continent’s culinary wonders as possible. Thanks to the multitude of budget airlines in the region getting between places is cheap and easy; the only thing you have to decide is where to go. From past experience you know that although it’s tempting to want to do (and eat) everything, you have nowhere near enough time to do so, particularly since you’ll have to tend to some work-related obligations as well. In fact, to be reasonable and to give yourself enough time to experiencing things properly you should probably limit yourself to three destinations. They must, however, be three of the best food destinations in Asia. The kind of places people go just for the food.

But how on earth will you choose? It’s kind of like going to Paris and restricting yourself to three restaurants, or San Crispino in Rome and tasting only three flavors of gelato. There are enough tempting options to send even the most resolute of decision-makers into meltdown, particularly when you know that the ones you pass up will haunt you for the rest of your life.

Luckily, for me one of the decisions was easy: Penang, Malaysia.

Look up any information on this small island off the west coast of Malaysia and you’ll be inundated with references to its food: “the food-obsessed island”, “home to the best food on the planet”, “a food paradise”, “nivana for food-lovers”… Occasionally you’ll run across something else being lauded – the capital Georgetown’s UNESCO world-heritage architecture, the many incense-drenched temples and colonial churches, the bustling markets, the bucolic rainforested interior and palm-fringed northern beaches, but these always come across as afterthoughts, almost as if they’re mentioned because they have to be while everyone knows that local cuisine is the real attraction. Food is, apparently, what this island’s all about, and I’ve been hearing its praises sung for about as long as I’ve been eating. Coming here was, for me, a no-brainer.

But what makes Penang food so special? Well, as a former British colony and centuries-old trade and cultural hub, Penang offers an utterly unique cuisine, one fused from the flavors of its melting pot of ethnicities: Malay, Indian, Chinese and Nyonya, a.k.a. Straits Chinese. Add to that the abundance of ingredients that flourish in this tropical location, a food-savvy population whose discerning palates have been weaned on the bold flavors of their myriad cuisines, and the kind of weather that, well, maybe doesn’t stimulate the heartiest of appetites but makes hanging around the table one of the more attractive options on offer. What really seals the deal, though, is the accessibility of the food: unlike other countries where the best examples of national cooking are confined to restaurants or home kitchens, here they’re available on every nearly every street corner and in every back alley on the island, and for the kind of money most of us lose behind the sofa cushions without even noticing.

It does sound like a food paradise, doesn’t it?

After being there, I can say that Penang deserves all the hype it gets, and more. This is one food-crazy island, and the food there is beyond belief. We quickly fell into a routine of eating at least two of every meal: two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners. We’d stop in at one place for a bowl of this and a plate of that, and then head out into the heat for a digestive walk before settling down someplace new for another round. I think the only thing that kept us from eating even more than that was the weather. Unfortunately we found we simply had to retire to our (air-conditioned) hotel room at regular intervals just to keep from collapsing of heat exhaustion.

But there was one thing I didn’t like about Penang. No, it wasn’t the weather (although I’m tempted to invest in a thermo-cooled space suit for my next visit), and it wasn’t the shabby, ragged urban landscape (though I have to wonder, shouldn’t they be investing a little more in the upkeep of these world-heritage buildings?), it was this: there was too much good food and too little time. Every time I tucked into a plate or bowl of something, no matter how good it was, there was a nagging little voice in the back of my head asking me if I wasn’t squandering precious time and stomach space on this when there were so many other worthy contenders out there. In a place like this it’s easy to get caught up in a frenzied quest to try every must-try bite in the city, to push yourself (and your long-suffering loved ones who would really rather be lying by the pool instead of watching your last remnants of sanity slowly drip away in the heat) to seek out every morsel worth ingesting in the entire city when you know full well it would take a lifetime to properly experience it all. But such is the curse of Penang – it plays funny games with your judgment.

Although no visit will ever be long enough to taste it all, it’s almost impossible to spend a few days in Penang and not eat great food. You may not be able to try the best of the best of everything, but let’s face it: even sub-par is pretty good around here. To increase your chances of finding gastronomic bliss, there are of course several strategies you can take. In general anything with a crowd around it is probably worth visiting, though a popular hawker stall often means long waits. There are also several places where some of the best bites seems to congregate: Penang Road, New Lane, Macalister Road, Lorong Selamat. Another strategy is to just hop in a taxi and ask him to take you to his favorite place to eat. Whatever you do and wherever you go, though, I’d advise you to not miss the following foods, my personal hit-list (including a few suggestions for where to find particularly good versions) from an all-too-short stay in Penang.

1. Hokkien Mee

This was my absolute favorite Penang hawker dish. A deeply rich and savory soup chock-full of prawns, pork ribs, wheat and beanthread noodles and water spinach, and crowned with a hard-boiled egg, a mountain of fried shallots and a spoonful of fiery sambal, it was at once rich and light, hot and cooling, slurpable and chewy. An interesting thing is that around Malaysia and Singapore you’ll find the same name for many different noodle dishes (‘Hokkien’ refers to a southern dialect of Chinese and ‘Mee’ means noodles in Malay), but the Penang version is really in a class by itself. I can’t even think about it without salivating. 

Where to find: The best I had were at Sim Kan San Coffeeshop at the junction of Macalister and Rangoon Roads (mornings) and at Lo Eng Hoo Coffeeshop on Lorong Selamat (afternoons)

2. Char Kway Teow

This Chinese-inspired fried rice-noodle dish is probably the most iconic street food of Penang. It’s slippery, chewy, oily, crunchy, salty, and, when done right, imbued with an incredible charred flavor from the pan (the elusive ‘wok hei’). Apart from noodles you’ll find prawns, blood cockles (small wine-colored clams), slices of Chinese sausage, chives, beansprouts, egg and of course fiery sambal. Lard is apparently the frying fat of choice, except for a few vendors who have switched to vegetable oil – a sacrilege, according to purists. In any case, of all the hawkers I felt most sorry for the Char Kway Teow fryers, since not only do they spend their days on their feet engaged in physical activity in Penang’s blisteringly-hot climate, but they’re hovering over a blisteringly-hot wok, being constantly showered with sprinkles of blisteringly-hot oil. This guy, however, didn’t seem too bothered, maybe due to his ingenious fashion-cum-safety accessory. Wok goggles, I need some too!

Where to find: Sim Kan San Coffeeshop at the junction of Macalister and Rangoon Roads (mornings), Lo Eng Hoo and Heng Huat coffeeshops on Lorong Selamat, and Kafe Khoon Hiang on Jalan Dato Keramat (mornings)

3. Cendol

When my mother-in-law saw this picture in my last post, she said the green bean soup looked delicious. I had to break the news to her that it wasn’t green bean soup, but a very famous local dessert! Funnily enough, though, there were beans in it, though they weren’t green but red. The green things are pandan-flavored pea-flour noodles, the soupy stuff is lightly-salted coconut milk and underneath it all is shaved ice, lashings of gula melaka (dark palm sugar) syrup and those sweetened red beans. Apart from the beans which I had a hard time getting my head around (cultural bias, I guess – I’ve never been one for beany sweets) it was incredibly delicious and refreshing. Leave out the beans and cendol might fight it out with Hokkien Mee for number one.

Where to find:
Teowchew Famous Cendol, the original stall at 475 Jalan Penang, or their new cafe location on the ground floor of the Prangin Mall (much more comfortable, in my opinion)

4. Nasi Lemak

This typical Malay dish is the perfect one-plate meal: a combination of rice cooked in coconut milk and flavored with pandan, a crunchy and succulent piece of fried chicken, hard-boiled egg, cucumber slices, fried peanuts, dried anchovies and sweet-spicy sambal sauce. Locals often eat this for breakfast – look for hawkers selling little leaf-wrapped bundles in the morning hours.

Where to find: everywhere on the streets in the morning, Gurney Drive hawker center (night)

Gurney Drive Hawker Center at night; yes it may be a teeny bit more expensive than other hawker joints, and you will see a few more foreign faces here, but nowhere else will you find such a vast selection of what makes this island famous.

5. Rojak/Passembur

No one ever said hawker food was supposed to be healthy, but if you’re looking for something that approximates a salad this is your best bet. Rojak is the healthier of the two, a shredded mixture of crunchy fruits and vegetables topped with a thick sweet-sour-shrimpy sauce and ground peanuts. Passembur (pictured above) is the Muslim-Indian take on this that replaces most of the vegetables and fruits with fried items. Typically at a passembur stall you’re handed a plate and a pair of tongs and invited to select your own salad makings, which include deep-fried fish cakes, fritters, sausages, prawns, potatoes and tofu. Everything is then hacked up for you and topped with a few token vegetable shreds and a crown of that sweet sauce. You can also ask for them to keep it separate so you can combine the elements to taste.

Where to find: Gurney Drive hawker center (night)

6. Ais Kacang and Ais Tingkap

Ais Kacang is something you either love or hate. Or both simultaneously, like me. I thought Cendol was pushing it in the bean department, but Ais Kacang is in another league entirely. You see that perfectly-innocuous mound of pink topped by a scoop of ice cream? Well, underneath that lies not only more beans, but canned corn, palm seeds, and jiggly black cubes of something called grass jelly. On top of that oddly salad-esque mixture goes shaved ice, a vividly-hued bubblegum-tasting syrup, some evaporated milk, and if you’re lucky, a scoop of ice cream. It was one of the bizarrest sweet things I’ve ever eaten and for that I loved it, but I don’t think I could make a habit of this one.

Ais Tingkap, on the other hand, is perfect for when you need some non-bean-containing refreshment. A concoction unique to Penang, this tasty if lurid drink consists of coconut water, rose syrup, chewy basil seeds and shavings of young coconut. Ais Tingkap also goes by the name ‘window sherbet’, a reference to the manner in which it was originally sold.

Where to find: Ais Kacang – Loh Eng Hoo Coffee Shop on Lorong Selamat, Kek Seng Coffeeshop on Penang Road, and lots of other places.  Ais Tingkap – Lebuh Tamil, just off Penang Road.

Padang Brown Hawker Center, with barely a seat free at 3pm on a sweltering afternoon.

7. Popiah

Think of these as the local take on fresh spring rolls. Soft, thin pancakes enclose a filling of blanched and fresh vegetables, fried tofu, chili sauce and seafood; the best version we tried was this one filled with lump crabmeat at the Padang Brown hawker center. Be sure to order the ‘deluxe’, or more expensive option, to get real crab instead of imitation.

Where to find: Padang Brown Hawker Center (afternoons)

8. Nasi Kandar

Rather than a single dish, this is a meal: a big plate of rice served with an assortment of Malay-Indian curries – everything from Korma to Rendang. Mix and match vegetables and meats to get an assortment of sweet, spicy, sour and creamy flavors. Order a roti canai (the local take on flaky Indian parathas) to mop up the last splatters of sauce.

Where to find:
Nasi Kandar Line Clear (the most famous in Penang) and Nasi Kandar Yasmeen (where you’ll likely end up if Line Clear is closed), next to each other on Penang Road.

9. Assam Laksa

When you think of laksa, you probably think of seafood and noodles swimming in a rich coconut milk-laced broth. Not in Penang. Here, ordering a bowl of laksa will get you a bracingly sour and fishy bowl of noodles topped with fresh cucumber, onions, lettuce, pineapple and chilies. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but quite delicious once you get past the initial mouth-pucker.

Where to find: Kek Seng Coffeeshop on Penang Road (afternoons), Padang Brown Hawker Center (afternoons)

10. Nyonya food

While in Penang, don’t miss the opportunity to try Nyonya cuisine. Also called Peranakan or ‘Straits Chinese’, this is the hybrid cuisine that developed when early Chinese migrants to the Malay peninsula married local women. Born out of an attempt by these women to reconcile their husbands’ tastes with their own, the cuisine took on a life of its own and continued to evolve as it was passed down from one generation to the next, mother to daughter. Interestingly, there are two ‘branches’ of Nyonya cuisine; the southern style features richer, sweeter dishes and is found in places like Malacca and Singapore, while Penang is the epicenter of the northern one and has been more influenced by Thailand’s hot and sour flavors just across the border. Some Nyonya favorites are available in hawker form, but to experience the food properly you should visit a local restaurant. Some must-try dishes there include Udang Goreng Assam (king prawns fried with tamarind sauce), Loh Bak (pork in fried beancurd skin), Kuih Pie Tee (pictured above; ruffled pastry cases filled with yam beans, shrimp and chili sauce), Otak-Otak (fragrant parcels of fish mousse steamed in banana leaves), and Perut Ikan (a curry-like dish of various vegetables, aromatic herbs, and fermented fish stomach).

Where to find:
Hot Wok at 124 Jalan Burma, Mama’s Nyonya Cuisine at 31 Lorong Abu Siti

Of course there was plenty more than that, and among the many runners-up I have to also mention Curry Mee (the local take on coconut laksa), Mee Goreng (spicy fried noodles), Oh Chien (a chewy, oily oyster omelette-pancake thingy), Chee Cheong Fun (fresh rice noodles with a pungent-sweet sauce), Nyonya Kuih (various kinds of sweet cakes) and the endless variety of fresh fruit juices (in particular sweet-tart nutmeg juice), the mud-thick local kopi (coffee) and teh tarik (‘pulled’ tea – frothy, milky and sweet)…

And finally, here are some resources to help you plan a trip (or just fantasize about one).


I honestly couldn’t have done without Lonely Planet’s World Food: Malaysia and Singapore. This has an in-depth description of everything edible you’ll find in this part of the world, as well as tips on hawker and general dining etiquette, local customs, festivals and even a few recipes. And did you know it was written (and photographed) by the dynamic duo that is Mr. and Mrs. Chubby Hubby? They know their stuff, let me tell you.

As for cookbooks, my go-to resource is James Oseland’s Cradle of Flavor. His focus is a bit more on Indonesia, but he has plenty of Malaysian favorites in here too.


Whether you’re going to Malaysia or not, you should be familiar with Bee Yin Low’s Rasa Malaysia, the gold standard for Malaysian food blogs. Bee’s collection of gorgeous, mouthwatering Malaysian recipes is enough to inspire a trip in itself. What’s more, Bee comes from Penang and has great info and recipes on many island hawker favorites. Her guide to Penang hawker food is an indispensable reference if you’re planning a trip. She’s also recently started a new site called Nyonya Food, exploring the singular flavors of her family’s Nyonya heritage.

Also check out Robyn and Dave’s Penang section on Eating Asia; they come here regularly and have lots of great recommendations.

Any tips of your own for Penang? Please share them in the comments!