Dining Out: Penang Style

The Malaysian island of Penang has had a colorful history. Settled by the Arabs and the British and later populated by large numbers of Chinese and Indians, all have left their mark. You can see their influences in the diversity of the local food-courts, a popular pick for hungry locals and tourists alike.

Within days of our arrival in Penang, my wife and I found a marvelous food-court just a five-minute walk from our apartment. Finding a table, my first thought was usually a refreshing cold drink. You’ll find fruit juices of all kinds, beers, and soft drinks, all on offer for just a few dollars. You can buy these from the drink stand, but often you’ll be spotted arriving and as you sit down you’ll find someone at your table ready to take your order.

Once settled, the real work starts when you have to decide what you want to eat. You might choose to scan the food-stalls from your seat and, once decided, visit them to place your order, or a leisurely stroll around the outskirts of the court to get up close and inhale the exotic aromas and see the food being prepared may be more your thing.

Once ordered, your food will be cooked and delivered to your table. This is usually when you pay, although in some of the bigger places you’ll be asked to pay when you order.

So will it be a tasty Thai curry? Spicy Indian? Vietnamese pho? How about some Chinese food? A delicious kung pao chicken or prawn omelet perhaps…or even just a plate piled high with stir-fried vegetables and sauce?

One of our personal favorites was clay-pot chicken—chicken and rice sealed in a clay-pot to keep in the flavor, cooked over a flame and finished with egg and fresh herbs, all for just a couple of dollars.

A dish I ordered frequently from a Japanese food-stall was katsu chicken, but I also loved the fresh Indian roti and tasty dahl—enough for a snack—for just over a dollar. The great thing is that when food is this inexpensive—we’re talking just a few dollars for each dish—you can try things you might not ordinarily order, and if you don’t like it, it’s no big deal. On the other hand, that dish might turn out to be your new favorite.

If you want Western food, that’s available too, but be prepared to find it isn’t quite the same as the local diner back home, and that it’s a bit pricier too.
Of course, you’ll also find food courts in the modern, large shopping centers here, and they offer similar choices, but in a more sophisticated, if less charming, setting. Many of the large multi-national fast-food chains—or Malaysian versions of them—can be found there too.

For those occasions where we wanted to dine out in style, we found some very good stand-alone restaurants in the shopping centers, and they offered great value too. But, for my money, it’s in the smaller, more local food courts that Penang comes into its own.

You’ll find food courts dotted all around Penang, it’s a good idea to try as many of those closest to where you are living as you can, even if it’s just for a drink, and to do the same when you’re out shopping. Food courts tailor their hours to demand—some may be open just for lunch, whereas others will be pitched at the dinner trade. You’ll develop your favorites, and if you’re anything like us, will go back again and again to the same place for them—but you’ll certainly never be short on tasty options.

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