With a multitude of food options at all hours of the day, eating is like a national sport in Malaysia. Kate Ford eats her way around two cities whose hearts are at the dining table

To start the day in Penang with toast may sound like a gastronomic sin. After all, this is Malaysia: the land of laksa; the home to oodles of noodles; a place where you can have a nasi lemak starter, a beef curry main, wash it down with nutmeg juice and follow it all up with dim sum for good measure. And you probably wouldn't need to walk more than 100 steps between plates.

So yes, toast perhaps seems like a strange first meal on a food tour of Georgetown but this is not your everyday peanut butter job. Instead, the bread is spread with coconut jam, a popular condiment in Southeast Asia. Made with coconut milk, sugar, pandan leaves and egg, it is sweet with a custardy richness.

Georgetown is the capital of Penang, a small island on Malaysia's northwest coast. A Unesco World Heritage Site, Georgetown is a place of contrasts and variety. Look to the left and there's a mosque. To the right, you'll see a church. Ahead of you is a burst of street art, and chances are you've recently passed a Hindu temple.

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Famous street art mural Boy on a Bike by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. Photo / 123RF
Famous street art mural Boy on a Bike by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. Photo / 123RF

This religious influence juxtaposed with modern and poignant street art exemplifies Georgetown's dutiful yet nonconformist spirit. The starkly differing beliefs swirl together and create a harmonious vibe and a vibrant menu.

So you will find this coconut jam toast in the same premises as nasi kandar rice and curry and you can follow one breakfast with another completely different dish without leaving your seat. Which is what I did.

These multiple breakfasts are at Cafe Melo, the first stop on this foodie trail with Mark Ng from Simply Enak, one of the most interesting and knowledgeable guides I've had.

We ate our way through scrumptious loh bak (pork deep fried in a bean curd sheet), nasi lemak (coconut rice ball with a hard-boiled egg, fried anchovies and vegetables), paper dosa (a thin, crispy type of pancake), prawn noodle soup and char kway teow (probably the most famous hawker noodle dish in Malaysia). Between feasts we walked off our creeping fullness as Mark provided fascinating commentary on the history Georgetown.

When the sun goes down, the streets come alive with night markets dotted around Penang.

We visited during Ramadan so explored the temporary night markets on Queen St (the array of India Muslim cuisine from these markets have permanent homes on Queen St for the rest of the year. Go to Restoran Tajuddin Hussain for a delicious and filling rice biryani).

There are hawker stalls all over Penang and we also visited Chulia Night Markets. Apparently, these have started to dwindle and have turned more touristy but I still enjoyed a tasty char kway teow dish for a non-tourist price.

A visit to Penang normally coincides with a stopover in Kuala Lumpur. There are more upmarket food options in the Big Smoke, such as Dining in the Dark, where you enjoy a four-course dinner immersed in darkness. But really, the heart of Malaysian food is on the street.

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We stayed near Chinatown and ventured to the night markets a few times for plates of barbecued pork on rice, no-frills spicy noodle bowls and fresh coconut milk, each as delicious as they were affordable. We followed dinner with a wander through the rambling markets where you can get anything from knock-off designer sunglasses and bags to roasted chestnuts and tattoos.

Nasi Lemak in Penang. Photo / Kate Ford
Nasi Lemak in Penang. Photo / Kate Ford

Another lively street-food option is at Jalan Alor, a strip of restaurants that spill out on to the street each night. The offerings are vast with Thai, Chinese, Indian and halal food all competing for hungry eyes.

The best way to navigate these hawker stalls and restaurants, in my humble opinion, is to have a little at a lot of places. Share some noodles, nibble on some chicken wings, grab some dim sum and end the night with a sweet taste of coconut icecream. The durian and frog kebabs are up to you.

From the streets to the glossy capitalist malls, the locations you can fill your belly at are another contrast in Malaysia.

The malls are a main attraction here and the food courts are vastly different to the fast-food offerings we usually have in our malls. In Kuala Lumpur the locals recommend the food courts as a place to get a really decent meal.

A few times we ate at Lot 10 Hutong, a basement food court at Lot 10 Shopping Centre.

Here some of the country's most famous hawker stalls are under one roof and you can get anything from banana leaf rice and Korean barbecue to fresh seafood and pork noodle dishes.

Whether you like your Hokkien Mee with a side of H&M, or you enjoy a five-course dinner with each dish showcasing a different culture, in Malaysia you'll never go hungry.

IF YOU GO
Getting there: Malaysia Airlines flies direct from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur.

Further information: See malaysia.travel