In recent years Penang has earned worldwide fame for being Malaysia’s hub of art and culture, but those who have lived on the island way before its recognition as a UNESCO Heritage Site know it has an enduring reputation for excellent food. Especially its Chinese food.
Penang is historically a Chinese-majority state, including Peranakan Chinese, so it’s little wonder that some of its best cuisine has Chinese origins. From freshly steamed buns to fragrant beef broth, kung pao aubergine to stuffed taro baskets, Penang boasts some of the most exquisite Chinese dishes in the world, rivalling even China itself. Here are the 10 restaurants that do it best.
When it comes to boats, the taller the better, and Huo Tan Wang’s reaches all the way to the ceiling (or close to it). Choose from three different kinds of broth (clear soup, tom yum, or sour and spicy), which will arrive with chimneys tall enough to rival, well, you. Fillings include enoki mushrooms, eel fish balls and dry-fried bean curd. Your own cooking never tasted so good.
It’s been said that “steep prices don’t attract crowds,” but at Maple Palace this simply doesn’t hold true – the food is that good. This fine dining restaurant takes chilled jellyfish, slow-cooked abalone and snow lotus seeds, and turns them into dazzling aromatic centrepieces for your dining table. If you want to take the Lazy Susans at Maple Palace for a spin, come early or make a reservation before arriving.
In Penang it’s all about the food – and Chin’s has some of the best on the island – but it’s the ambience here that will really impress you. Gaze upon golden chandeliers, chairs painstakingly decorated with oriental motifs and a commanding view of the pier (the restaurants ‘floats’ above the sea). This is your chance to experience what it’s like to be royalty and taste it too – their citrus winter gourd and braised premium abalone come highly recommended.
Tucked in a hillside corner of Tanjung Bungah, the cuisine here is clean, no-frills and will instantly make you think of home. With dishes like plum sauce chicken, claypot beancurd and fried okra with bean paste, this restaurant is mum’s home-cooking on a sensible budget. Feeling adventurous? Give the braised pork knuckle a try and see if you won’t be raving about it!
The menu at Tek Sen Restaurant is extensive, and often so is the queue (come early if you don’t want to take a number). Its reputation harks all the way back to the ’80s, ever since the restaurant began serving its delightful caramelised pork belly and deep-fried belachan chicken (pieces of chicken deep-fried with spicy shrimp paste). In fact, the food here is so good the restaurant will probably outlive most of us in the end.
Travelers often overlook the mainland when visiting Penang, but if you brave the less-trodden road you’ll find that the lush, agriculture-rich Butterworth has also been serving up the state’s best food. Restoran Teow Chew Meng serves teochew (an ethnic group originating from eastern Guangdong) classics like claypot pork belly, frog porridge and – their signature dish – the shark’s fin mee sua tow (noodle soup).
The rich, spicy flavours of Peranakan Chinese food add a distinctly tropical edge to the oeuvre of Chinese food available in Penang, and nowhere does it better than Baba Phang. This new, low-profile restaurant is making headlines for its crispy pai tee (a pastry cup filled with sliced vegetables and prawns), curry perut ikan (literally, curry fish belly) and marinated baby onions. For the uninitiated, Culture Trip recommends starting with the sour-spicy Assam prawns and sambal petai (petai beans cooked with shrimp paste).
If you’re tired of street dim sum and are willing to pay for more delicate tastes, Zhong Hua Restaurant is the place to hit. From salted crispy egg tarts and savoury crystal prawn dumplings, to deep-fried beancurd skin and century egg porridge, this place will not disappoint. Be sure not to confuse it with Zhonghua Gourmet at the Cititel; this one is located inside the Midlands Park on Jalan Burma.
This restaurant sits in the rather unassuming, residential Chai Leng Park, but don’t let its shy location fool you. Inside, it is spacious, fragrance-filled and often crowded. Dim sum runs the full gamut of steamed, braised, broiled, cold-serve and deep-fried, including a fresh squid dish topped with peanut dust and sweet sauce. Recommended à la carte dishes include the crispy stuffed yam basket and fish head fried hor fun (thick flat noodles).
‘Market’ is its name, but dim sum is its game. Early breakfasters will find their taste buds rewarded with steamy shrimp dumplings, pan-fried turnip cake and stuffed noodle rolls (yum!). This restaurant also serves à la carte lunch and dinner dishes, and you can pick out your seafood du jour by browsing the live fish tanks. Just don’t get too sad for the fish.