A Little Background
Lying off the northwestern coast of Peninsular Malaysia, the state of the Penang comprises Penang island with an area of 285 sq km and a narrow strip of land approximately 760 sq km on the mainland known as Seberang Perai. Aptly called the Pearl of the Orient, Penang is one of the prime destinations in West Malaysia. State capital Georgetown is a bustling town known for its fascinating collection of fine old buildings. Much of Penang’s charm lies in its fabulous beaches as well as rich cultural potpourri.
1786, Englishman Francis Light landed on the island at what is known as the Esplanade today. He later managed to persuade the Sultan of Kedah to cede the island to the British East India Company. The island was renamed Prince of Wales Island and the major town on the island was name Georgetown after King George III. In 1800, the Sultan of Kedah further ceded a strip of land on the mainland across the channel which Light named Province Wellesley, after the then Governor of India.Penang later became part of the Straits Settlement, along with Malacca and Singapore, and flourished to become a major trading port. It remained under the British colonial rule until 1957 when it became part of the independent Federation of Malaya.
Origin of Penang Cuisine
Penang island is a paradise for food lovers, who come from all over Malaysia and Singapore to sample the island’s unique cuisine. Penang’s cuisine reflects the Chinese, Nyonya, Malay and Indian ethnic mix of Malaysia, but is strongly influenced by the cuisine of Thailand to the north. Penang is especially famous for the “hawker food” sold and eaten by the street, in which noodles and fresh seafood feature strongly.
What to order at Penang?
(Here are some recommendations by seasoned visitors)
“Don’t miss the appetizer at Penang – roti canai: a crispy, thin flatbread you can dip in a hot yellow curry with chicken and potatoes. The curry tastes Thai, and the bread has a South Indian name, but the effect is unique and delightful.”
– Kazutaka Yamamoto (Lawrenceville, GA)
Penang satay being one of the Malaysian classic, is terrific! Five spears of chicken or beef in a mustardy marinade (likely flavored with galangal), lemon grass, with sweet peanut sauce. Also try the Penang popia, a quartet of unfried spring rolls filled with vegetables, and brilliantly painted with stripes of chili paste and sweet-bean paste.
– Ananda Krishna (Athens, GA)
Ayam pandan, a platter of pleasantly fried cubes of chicken meat, each tied with a pandanus leaf.
– Jim Morris (Cummings, GA)
Indian rojak is an exotic serving of vege-salad and slices of fruits in a flavorful spicy brown shrimp paste sauce. Since most Buford Hwy patrons have been eating red-hot Thai salads for several years, I see no reason for the restraint here.
– Bobby Tan (Atlanta, GA)
My favourite were Mango Salad and Golden Fried Eggplant. Both were made with an exciting dark brown sauce full of lemongrass and garlic, a decent dose of pepper and dried shrimp bits.
– Betty Lin (Palatine, IL)
A dish people keep coming back for is the “Sarang Burong ” actually a ring of fried mashed taro root offered with several toppings. The fun of the dish is the taro, a root with a naturally sweet, nutty flavor, and a surprising purple color when cooked.
– Kate Elliot (Decatur, GA)
Try the rendang, a kind of dry curry most typically applied to beef. Long, slow cooking tenderizes the chunks of meat, which absorb all the sauce. The flavor has some beefy sweetness, contrasted with the dry, astringent flavor of ginger. House Jumbo shrimp is based on some of the biggest prawns I’ve ever seen, deep-fried with or without shells per your order. Penang seafood rice noodle is made with fine soft rice vermicelli and bits of squid, shrimp, corn, and bay scallops, topped with a nicely exotic sauce featuring the citronella aroma of lemongrass. –Steve Lin (Decatur, GA)
Our choices on two visits were bowls of warm, sweet soup. Bubur cha cha is a rich and filling coconut soup with cubes of yam and taro; pilut hitam, also very typical of Penang cuisine, looks like black-bean soup, but is actually made from a black-husked sweet rice. Hot dessert soup seems odd for a tropical country like Malaysia, but if you deduct the soupy part, it’s not so different from the hot bread pudding or fried pie they like in the American South.
– Maria Cordell (Sandy Springs, GA)